Darling is in the Malmesbury district of the Western Cape, 75km north-west of Cape Town. The town was named after Sir Charles Henry Darling, (Lt. Gov. of the Cape from 1851 to 1854). It is well known for its beautiful spring wild flowers and more recently, that other perennial Cape flower – Pieter Dirk Uys and his alter ego Evita Bezuidenhout.
The town is much like what I know small-town South Africa by – wide streets, a butcher shop, a liquor store, a Pep store, a huge NG Kerk (Dutch Reform Church) and a sense of complete timelessness about it. The town is probably much the same today as it was fifty years ago. Darling feels like South Africa to me. I could picture what life here was like 40/50/60/70 years ago. There’s a sense of ease about the place. I drive slowly through its quiet streets. Two ducks peer at me imperiously as they wander along the pavement.
Jews had settled in Darling by 1910, the first congregation being formed in 1924. No synagogue (or cemetery) was ever built here, and services were held in the home of the local Rabbi who brought a torah with him from Lithuania. On some festivals, the church hall or the town hall was used for services. Rabbi Gordon would travel to neighbouring towns of Hopefield, Vredenburg and Saldanha every week to teach Hebrew classes and perform shechita (ritual slaughter). The congregation came to an end when he died in 1955. The children then went to Malmesbury to attend Hebrew classes. Around 1964-65, the congregation was incorporated into the Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation. The torah was given to the Marais Road Synagogue in Sea Point, Cape Town, where it is still in use.
The old town hall is now the town museum. The beautiful old building is well kept and has a wall devoted to the Jewish community. Items have been donated by former members of the community, mainly photographs, some with stories attached. Two donations – a map of Lithuania and a photograph of a village near Vrena (Leliunai) – give some clues as to the origins of these residents. The Jewish community shares the wall the business community, but I guess that’s OK because many Jews were in business.
The Jews in Darling were involved in the usual occupations – shopkeepers, dealers and traders, farmers and hoteliers. Some dealt in livestock, wool, hides and animal feed, or owned salt-pans. There was a tailor, a doctor, a manufacturer of jelly products, and for a short while there was a Jewish schoolteacher in the town.
There’s (a photo of) Mr. Becker standing in front of the renovated Royal Hotel, holding a photo of the original Victorian structure, an old tailor shop, family photographs, menus from the hotels. I’m looking at a black & white family photo, from when taking a photograph was special and pretty serious occasion. The family is formally dressed and arranged (men standing, women seated). I’m captivated by the beautiful girl sitting with her hands on her lap – what was she thinking, what kind of girl was she, what kind of girl would she have been today?
In the type of story echoed through many of these communities, Reuben Becker arrived in Darling in 1925, unable to read and write and speaking only Yiddish and Lithuanian. He came to own the Royal (later the Nemesia Hotel) and Commercial Hotels, assisted by his wife Mary and sons Hyman and Allan. Both hotels were subsequently owned by Hyman Becker, who was also a town councillor for eight years until 1980.
Many immigrants arrived in South Africa with nothing. They worked hard to give their children a better life than they had. Abraham Stoch owned a general dealer shop. His daughter became an assistant professor in the Psychiatry Dept. at the New York Medical College. Shraga Boruchowitz (later Brock) had a general dealer business in Darling. His son (Samuel) became a doctor and practiced in Darling for many years. This tale is true of many immigrant cultures around the world.
When the Becker family left in 1980, there were no Jews left in Darling.
Lunch at Evita’s.
I have lunch at Evita se Perron. It’s kind of an apartheid amusement park. The establishment was created by Pieter Dirk Uys in honour of his own creation – Evita Bezuidenhout. It’s really a monument to a number of things – kitsch, the colourful history of our nation and to the man himself. The place is packed with apartheid era memorabilia, such as HF Verwoerd lamps and Europeans Only signs, volk paintings depicting historic moments in Afrikaner history and the like, and a plethora of Evita Bezuidenhout paintings. In fact Evita appears on everything from paintings on the walls, the menus, even those little things with your table number on them. I’m sure you can purchase Evita T-shirts, videos and trinkets in the shop.
I made the mistake of walking into the kitchen, where I saw what looked like an excellent, authentic curry. “I’ll have one of those,” I tell the waitress. Turns out it was really authentic – that was her lunch, and it was not on the menu. I settled for a toasted sandwich.
In 2004, the story emerged about Pieter Dirk Uys’s mother (Helga Bassel). Born Jewish – the daughter of a cantor in a Viennese synagogue – she had hidden this fact from her family her entire life. She was a concert pianist in Germany in the 1930s, and though she converted to Christianity in 1933, under Nazi regulations, she was classified as “fully Jewish,” and was thus subject to the same persecutions and exclusions as all Jews. Her non-Jewish fiancé – Franz Michels, a professor of geology and a composer – was pressured by Nazi authorities to break off the engagement. In 1935 she was expelled from the Reich Music Chamber, an important professional body, and instead was named as a member of the Reich Association of Non-Aryan Christians.
Helga fled Nazi Germany, with Franz helping her to leave and take her piano with her. She settled in South Africa in 1936 and lived and raised her children (Pieter and Tessa) as Afrikaans Christians. Tessa recalled, “I once said to my mother, ‘I wish I had just a little Jewish blood in my veins like two Jewish girls I know.’ My mother said: ‘You don’t need Jewish blood. You have Afrikaner blood.’ I think she said that to protect me after what she had been through in Germany.” The issue of her mother’s faith was not discussed at home.
Tessa moved to London in 1967 to study at the Royal Academy of Music but returned frequently to South Africa, practicing on her mother’s piano, but she never delved into her mother’s old papers and documents.
It was only very recently that Tessa decided to finally go through her papers that she discovered her mother’s hidden truth. She decided the piano should return to Berlin, where it will be housed at the Jewish Museum.
Helga and Franz on the Bluthner piano at their Berlin home in the 1930s.