“The Journey Starts”

by Egonne Roth

A few years ago I approached Telfed looking for any possible information about the South African Jewish poet Olga Kirsch, who made aliya in 1948. They kindly placed an advertisement in this magazine asking readers who could help to contact me. A few did and from them I learnt a number of interesting facts and made contact with yet more sources of information. Since then I have completed my research and been awarded a doctorate for my biography on Olga Kirsch. It has been a fun and challenging journey that brought me to this point and I would like to share some of the highlights with you.

“But why did you choose Olga Kirsch?” you might ask. “She’s not a well-known poet, especially amongst us Jews? She wrote in Afrikaans!!”

True. While I had learnt her poetry in school in South Africa, she had certainly not made much of an impression on me as youngster and it would never have occurred to me to write about her. Then, one cold winter’s evening sitting at a dinner table in Stellenbosch laden with food and good red wine, John Kannemeyer,  the Afrikaans literary historian , suggested I write a biography of Olga Kirsch.

Why don’t you do it if she’s so interesting?” I asked

Ah,” John replied, “because I have a far bigger and more important biography to write, but I can’t tell you the details yet – we’re still negotiating,” he said with a smug expression. He filled all our glasses again, raised his and said, “To Olga Kirsch!” We laughed and drank and continued our delicious dinner without a further thought. A few years later, John would published his massive work on the South African Nobel prizing winning author, J.M. Coetzee and by then, I would be well into working on the life of Olga Kirsch. John offered me every help he could, guiding me in the art of researching another person’s life and putting me in contact with anyone and everyone he thought might be able to help. Sadly he died before I completed the journey he had started me on.

“To be successful at this, you need to like the idea of playing detective,” his partner told me and I would soon discover how right she was.

First, John said, I needed to obtain her family’s permission and this was not so easy. There was a short biography of her in Wikepedia and there I discovered her husband’s name was Joe Gillis, a mathematician at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. I googled him and found a tribute to him written by a mathematician at Ben Gurion University. I contacted the author and he was able to trace Kirsch’s daughters and put me in touch with them. In May 2009, they agreed to cooperate with me and allow me to write about their mother. I also met Janette, Olga’s younger sister, who has become a dear friend and helped me a great deal. Shortly after meeting Janette and getting the family’s agreement, Janette handed me slim sheath of papers. It was a long epic-like poem by Olga about the founding of the State of Israel. Later I discovered that part of the manuscript called Nevertheless had been published in Jewish Frontier, New York, in 1966 under the title “Poems for Independence.”  So she had not only written in Afrikaans but also in English. I was excited. That afternoon as Yehudit, my partner, and I drove home from Haifa, I read this long poem aloud in the car. It was so expressive of all I had read about the period after the Second World War and into the first months of the life of the new state.

Olga came to Israel alone. Her sister, Becky, had married a Palestinian in 1947 in Johannesburg where he had gone to study architecture.  Shortly after their wedding they returned to the Yeshuv. Axel Axelrod, Becky’s husband, was determined to take part in whatever was to happen to the Jewish dream on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

After the declaration of the State of Israel by David Ben Gurion in May 1948 and the outbreak of hostilities, Axel became a pilot in the new Israeli air force as did many South Africans who had fought for the British in the war. When Olga arrived in November, she tried to find work in Tel Aviv or join the army. In Tel Aviv she met and heard the stories of the survivors of the Nazis’ war on the Jews; on the streets and in the cafes she saw the young soldiers who were defending their new homeland; she experienced the homesickness of being a stranger in a strange new land and it all found its way into a poem she submitted for publication nearly twenty years later. Here she describes those young soldiers, so like the ones we still see on our streets and in our cafes today:

Because we bred them up for death

Having no choice

Because the mind cannot remember

Tones of the voice

Because the somber photo fades

And how they looked in other moods evades


Because time makes them merely graves,

Stiff groves of stone

And monuments by busy ways

Standing alone.

Therefore we must recall while yet we may

That they were supple, gay and strode the streets

In motley uniform,

Liked a revolver bobbing at the hip

Could sing and dance all night

Grew drooped moustaches and ferocious beards

Wrote songs and journals sad beyond their years

Because they knew themselves bred up for death

Having no choice.

As I read these words and the rest of the poem to Yehudit in the car, I was deeply moved. Until a few hours before I had not known Olga had written in English and then I suddenly wondered, had she written more work in English? Maybe also in Hebrew? What other surprises awaited me? Many, I would discover. I would meet many people with wonderful stories and strange connections. Sadly, not all of these could fit into the biography and so I am delighted to have this vehicle to share some of them with you over the next months.