Mensches in the Trenches- Impressions

By Jeffrey Lederer

On the evening of Tuesday, 24th May, 2022, a small gathering of ex- South Africans congregated in the Shivtei shul in Ra’anana for the launching of a book entitled: “Mensches in the Trenches” by Jonathan Ancer. The book had been promoted by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) due to the initiative of Wendy Kahn, National Director, SAJBD.

She herself had been driven to the task under the influence of a former Freedom Fighter, Mohale Trevor Selebi.

The book describes the unsung heroes of the South African Jewish population, who in their own personal ways, fought for equal human rights and votes for all during the Apartheid Era but were mostly unknown to the public.

The meeting was chaired by Telfed CEO Doron Kline, who welcomed all.

Thereafter, the microphone was handed over to Professor Karen Milner, Chairperson of the SAJBD, who had flown in for the occasion.

She started by interviewing (by Zoom) Nicholas (Nick) Goldreich, one of Arthur Goldreich’s sons, who resides in England.

Arthur Goldreich was an architect and artist, who fought in the Palmach in Israel’s War of Independence but returned to South Africa to further his studies and took an active part in the resistance movement that fought against the Apartheid Laws.  He bought a farm in Rivonia outside Johannesburg, where the members of the ANC and their sympathizers met secretly to collaborate their fight. In 1963, the police raided the farm and some 19 members were put in jail including Goldreich. While awaiting trial, he and another prisoner managed to escape and fled the country. Goldreich settled in Israel and was a leading figure in the field of Architecture in the country and become head of the Bezalel School for Design.

Professor Milner asked Nicholas to describe what it was like growing up in the house of two freedom fighters, his parents, Arthur and Hazel.

Nicholas spoke about David, the pseudonym of Nelson Mandela, a regular visitor to the farm, together with other members of the Resistance Movement both black and white. The Whites were predominantly from a Jewish background.

Mandela was very fond of the Goldreich boys – Nicholas and Paul – and used to stroll in the farm grounds with the boys.  He told them tales regarding the vegetation in the area and facts about the snakes which were abundant on the farm.

The boys had no inkling of the underground activities. They remembered that the visitors used to shoot at targets with live weapons but regarded these events in the same vein as riding horses on the farm. They led relatively normal lives, going to school in the morning like all the other kids in the neighbourhood. Paul, at one stage, hid under the table in the dining room and listened to the talking but never understood the significance of what was said.

Paul then intervened. He also lives in England and gave his version of life on the farm, emphasizing the walks with Mandela and his vast knowledge of the flora and fauna.

When the audience were invited to ask questions, one of the participants, Dr. Stan Rabin (Rabinowitz) mentioned that there were members of his wife’s family who had played an active role in the Resistance Movement, but were unknown.

His wife’s brother, Gideon Cohen (who worked closely with Steve Biko) was put under House Arrest for 4 years and left the country on an exit visa in 1978 to settle in Israel. Here he became a prominent lawyer.

Stan’s wife’s uncle, Dr. Melville Edelstein, a Sociologist who was the deputy chief welfare officer for the local administration, had worked with the oppressed people in Soweto. He helped them to get a better education, helped them to improve their living conditions and got the Johannesburg Municipality to bring lighting to the dark streets of the Township.

Unfortunately, he was stoned to death by an angry mob, while trying to save some of his staff, during the uprising in Soweto in 1976, being the first white South African to be killed in the riots.

Wendy Kahn told those present that the Board had initiated a Barmitzvah Celebration for the grandson of Melville Edelstein in 2019 at the very spot in Soweto where Melville had met his end. She said it had been a very moving experience.

Here we have 2 South African Jews, from the same family, who both played a role in the struggle for racial equality, one of whom subsequently paid the ultimate price for his efforts.

Prof Milner then called on Rabbi David Benjamin, who was in the audience, to talk about his father, Rabbi Myer (Sonny) Benjamin, who was an outspoken critic of the Government during the Apartheid Era. There is a chapter devoted to Rabbi Benjamin in the book. He was born in England and served in the British Army during World War II.  After the war, he travelled to South Africa, where he was influenced by David Sherman, the Reform Rabbi in Cape Town. He, himself became a Reform Rabbi and served the community in East London.

Here he forged a strong bond with the Christian Minister, The Reverend Bob Robertson, who was a staunch opponent of racial discrimination. Together, he and the Reverend Robertson would hold multiracial prayer meetings.

As a boy, David Benjamin, was very impressed when the local Police force came to drink coffee together with his father, in their home. He boasted to his classmates that the police carried “real” guns in their holsters. He didn’t realise that the police came to interrogate his father about his activities.

Rabbi Benjamin played a major role in the struggle for human rights whilst in East London and carried on this work when he moved to the Reform community in Wynberg, Cape.

The microphone was then handed to Zev Krengel, President of the SAJBD, who summarised the Love-Hate relationship between the South African Government and their Israeli counterparts, over the years. At the time when both Israel and South Africa were ostracised from the International Community, the two countries became very close and Israel sold weapons to the South African Defence Force.

This, understandably, angered the Freedom Fighters, some of whom who had trained in guerilla warfare together members of the PLO in countries like Cuba and East Germany.

So, when apartheid came to an end, the new South African Government took a rather hostile approach the State of Israel.

This put the South African Jewish community in a big dilemma because of their strong allegiance to Israel.

Then another member of the audience, introduced himself. He was Rabbi Selwyn Franklin who served the Sea Point Hebrew Congregation and was an outspoken critic of the government which put him at odds with the shul committee who felt uncomfortable. When his contract came to end, it was not renewed. He also features in the book.

The evening was very moving, an eye-opener for all those present and a thought-provoking experience. There still remain many unanswered questions: Why didn’t more Jews participate in the protest movement and why did the Board of Deputies not take a clear stand on the policies of segregation?