by Egon Roth
One of the first things one discovers as a first time biographer is that information is to be found in odd places, through odd circumstances, unexpectedly and certainly not in chronological order. Having met Olga Kirsch’s younger sister I was sure I would find all the information there was to find about their childhood and family heritage but this was not so. Janette shared everything she could remember with me but there were certainly gaps and she knew of their father’s background. In one of her best known poems, Olga wrote to her father:
A thousand thousand questions I would put to you if we could tranquilly sit beside each other now. You would tell me about your childhood days
a single image of which I do not possess.
What did your house look like, your street, who were your companions, what did you play, what did you love and what did you hate
who shared the secrets of your heart?
And was yours a happy family
and was your father or your mother strict
and did you spend a long time at school and were you smart? Didn’t you sometimes in the midst of an uproar
feel filled with sorrow, for no reason?
And once again how and what and where and who?
Originally published in Afrikaans in Neentien Gedigte, 1972, this translation was done by Prof Carrol Lasker in the United States and appeared in Metamorphoses in its fall edition, 2003. If Olga had so many questions and Janette felt she did not know much more, how would I find more information? I quickly discovered what serious detective work was demanded of me. Olga’s younger brother was still alive and lived in New York and he agreed to do an interview with me. I realized that people are able to side step issues when asked about them in telephone calls and so I knew we would have to go to New York. Boggie said, “Come!” and we booked and paid our seats (with insurance money that was unexpectedly paid out). But sadly, before we could get there he had a stroke and died. I was devastated but his widow agreed to see us.
We arrived in New York in a snow storm unlike any I had ever experienced. Jo Kirsch received us so graciously and with little waste of time, told us that before his fatal stroke Boggie had collected a whole lot of stuff for us to look at. There were photographs and then she handed us a book in Yiddish. Yehudit started to read from it aloud: it was a memoir written in 1948 by Olga’s aunt, her father’s sister. In it she tells the story of the Kirsch family from Plungė (in Yiddish, Plungyan) in Western Lithuania, which was at the time a part of the Russian Empire. She records their life in the little village where about half the population was Jewish, and where she and her five brothers were born and grew up and everything that happened to them: the big fire of 1896 that destroyed half the village including their own home; the Polish feudal lord, Oginsky, whose house was set in a beautiful park with rare trees and seven interconnected ponds fed by the Babrungas River, a tributary of the Minija River, but where there were special police to prevent Jews from enjoying the gardens the non-Jewish villagers had free access; about the pogroms and the Jews trying to leave to go to America and Southern Africa.
Suddenly, I had a source of invaluable information, which led me to further investigate how Jews moved from Lithuania to South Africa and why. I met Dr Saul Issroff, formerly from South and now a Litvak researcher in London. He introduced me to the extensive shipping lists that record how many immigrated via London to South Africa and to the history of the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter in London East End, where many stayed over waiting for the departure of the ship to the land of promise. I discovered how difficult it was for many Jews, who were too poor to afford cabins, either on the journey from Libau, on the Lithuanian coast to the British ports of Hull or London or on the journey from there south. I learnt how they travelled in steerage under the most terrible conditions some succumbing to disease and hunger.
For the first time, I had some idea of how desperate those early immigrants who came from Europe to Southern Africa in search of a better life on the gold and diamond fields must have been. How brave and courageous. How astounding their women were, having to cope with conditions they could never even have imagined. And none of this Olga seemed to know because no-one in the family had bothered to translate and read the old aunt’s memoir. Aunt Rachel had been a remarkable woman who had broken away from the village in Lithuania, gone to study in Vilna where she became involved in leftist politics. She travelled to Russia and Germany; visited her relatives in South Africa in1934 and by the time the Second World War broke out was already living in New York, where she was still involved in leftist politics. Suddenly it became clear to me that Olga Kirsch’s story was similar to that of many Jews in South Africa and in writing her biography I was drawing a portrait that reflected that of South African Jewry. My project took on greater meaning, at least for me if for no-one else.