Nothing new under the sun wrote King Solomon or whoever was the author of the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiasteces). I was reminded of this when, browsing around in a second hand bookshop, I found a book in the Judaica section called 'Dvinsk: Its Rise and Decline.' I knew nothing about the author, other than the few biographical facts given on the dust jacket. His name was Yudel Flior and he was born in Dvinsk in 1886. He died in Johannesburg in 1960. It emerges from the book itself that he left Dvinsk in 1928. What he did in South Africa for 32 years is not mentioned. Someone else called Maurice Flior holds the copyright, and the book is dedicated to a Mendel Flior killed in action in Italy in 1944. Presumably this Mendel was the son of either Maurice or Yudel. I later discovered, in an article on the 1930's Johannesburg Jewish Workers Club, that Jack Flior, a furniture maker and club member, was one of the few South Africans to fight in Spain as part of the International Brigade. Presumably they were all related.
The publication date of 'Dvinsk: Its Rise and Decline' is absent, but because the price appears in both Rands and shillings, it was probably brought out in 1961, when South Africa declared herself a republic and went over from the British monetary system to one of Rands and cents. I had been doing research into the early history of the South African Communist Party, or Communist Party of South Africa as it was then known, and hoped the book might shed some light on the subject. It didn't, but as I read from page to page I became more and more fascinated by its little vignettes of Jewish life in Dvinsk.
This small town, in what is today Latvia, was home to around 90 000 people at the turn of the century. Roughly half of these were Jewish, and like Jewish communities everywhere they had nothing more in common - and nothing less - than that. There were religious Jews, and Jewish factory owners who paid their Jewish workers miserable wages and conspired with the Tsarist authorities to have bund officials arrested and deported. There were the workers, and the lumpen proletariat, pickpockets, thieves, and pimps with names like Shainke mit der goldener yodayim, Zuske One-eye andYisrolke Savinsky.
What really fascinated me were the verbal sketches of character and place, the descriptions of people caught up in conflicts of their own or others making. They were fascinating because they were all instantly recognisable, because nothing has changed except for the names of the actors and the scenery in the background. The script remains the same. Take the following brief passage where Yudel describes an incident from his Bundist youth:
"Yeremov took us into a courtyard, where fourteen youths and four girls were lined up. He moved up and down the line slapping faces and cursing as he did so. His underlings assisted with their rifle buts. My share of what was going on was a bloody nose, a swollen face, and bruised sides.We were eager to be taken to a police station so as to escape his sadism ...then began the whole formality of taking our names, addresses, and other details about us. They charged us with organising a demonstration, challenging state authority, and wounding a number of policeman. We refused to sign the statements they had placed in front of us. At one in the morning they transferred us to the political police."
If we were to substitute the name Theunis Swanepoel ( a South African police chief interrogator, tortured ANC and SACP activists over two decades, and at time of writing had not yet been brought to trial) for the bullying sadist Yeremov, and young black trade unionists or high schoolers for the Jewish bundist youth, then the above description could be South Africa in 1968, 1978, or 1988, instead of Dvinsk in 1908. Yeremov, by the way, was later shot in the head by one Mendel Deutsch, but did not die. For me, the parallels were not just with parts of South African history we have all directly or indirectly experienced: In the second half of the eighties, when South Africa was experiencing its worst years of repression, (and let's hope that statement will still be true by the time the next elections roll around) I was a soldier in the Israel Defence Force. Sometimes we brought prisoners from the Gaza Strip to a prison camp in Israel known as Ansar Three. (The earlier Ansars had been camps built to house PLO prisoners taken during the Lebanese war). Whatever the ethical merits and demerits of detaining vast numbers of people, (and this question certainly troubled me), there was a troubling recognition which niggled even if one approached the whole thing from an amoral, survivalist point of view: we were actually building Palestinian nationalism by the very actions designed to curb it. The prisoners came from different parts of Gaza Gaza city, Chan Yunis, Rafiach, Gibalia, Shati. They had often never met before, but in the time they spent in Ansar courtesy of the of the IDF and State of Israel friendships were formed, friendships based on a common struggle, friendships as firm as those formed between Irgun or Haganah men in British jails a half century before. Not for nothing do Palestinians refer to Israeli jails and detention camps as 'universities', for a great deal of learning and shaping takes place in these institutions. The politically unaware come into contact with hardened political activists, Hamas
fundamentalists have the chance to spread their version of Islam under perfect conditions (there are no rival distractions), and a common enemy and a common lot forms a new 'we' that never existed before.
Which brings us back to Dvinsk and the following description: 'The leaders had correctly assessed the position when they said thatprison was the finest school for producing revolutionaries. While we were [held] in the basement we organisedlectures and study groups, ranging from political economy to scientific subjects. We discussed and debated withmuch zest. Everything proved of the greatest interest, with so much time on our hands.
There were two innocent Talmudical students among those who had been arrested. The police accused them of being underhand revolutionaries. But they were as innocent as a new born babe. They separated themselves from the rest ofus, and spent all their time in a corner of the basement ...swayed to and fro as they offered up prayers without end. Now and again one recited to the other a page of Gemara from memory. One day we were taken aback when Noah, the smaller of the two, entered into the discussion as to the origin of certain Hebrew words. And from that time onwards a friendlier relationship existed between us. They participated more regularly in the discussions we held.When I left the basement they were still there. Tsar Nicholas had not only provided me with thirty days free board and lodging, but I was actually paid seven kopkes for each day of my incarceration!"
It would be interesting to know what became of those two yeshivah bocherim, if they emerged from jail unchanged, or perhaps were more aware of class and national identities and issues. The book does not say. It does, however, tell us that the Jews of Dvinsk, like Jewry everywhere, responded to the meeting with modernity in different ways. Some clung to the old customs, some became Zionists or Bundists, some assimilated and became social democrats, affluent factory-owners, or bourgeoisie professionals. Their options was not all that different from those we face now, but perhaps their decisions had to be made more consciously than ours. Unlike many Jews of today, whose Jewish identity is so vestigial it hardly needs to be deconstructed to collapse with a crash, they did need to negate a tangible Jewishness in order to become something else. Those Jews, and even the most atheistic and class conscious of them, knew what time of the Hebrew year it was, knew their gefilte fish from their tzimmes:
"On top of all my misfortunes (Yudel was unemployed at this point in his story), our house abutted on the Beth Hamedrash. A fence separated us. Every morning the "Shamos" stood at the head of my bed, shaking me into wakefulness. "Come Yudel," he nagged, 'We're short of a tenth for a I minyan'. Its a yahrzeit." At the beginning I yielded to him. But he never knew when to call it a day. His presence in the morning so irritated me that I chased him. But what was the use ? The yahrzeit himself would come and plead with me. And can one turn his back on a mourner, who is pleading for the departed one to be elevated to Paradise ? However much I resented it, I, the atheist, was the one who helped quite a number into Paradise."
Today some Jewish communities are shrinking, encouraged by apathy and by accepting host societies which make it difficult to recall why its worth being different. Others are in potential or actual physical danger from Islamic fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism in the CSR republics, or simply unstable political and economic climates, as has been the case in South Africa. Those who can leave places like Yemen, Syria, the Ukraine or Azerbaijan try to go to countries which will allow them to prosper materially. Many go to Israel because they can't get in elsewhere. So what's new ? Yudel Flior:
"By 1927, Lettish nationalism tended towards chauvinism ...the cry was 'Latvia for the Letts !" A clandestine anti-Semitism was prevalent in Dvinsk. Jews were forced out of the economy. It was difficult to make ends meet, and they began to look for a way out. Immigration was the only hope. The Jews with foresight had left early on for America, which closed its doors in 1927. Quite a number sailed for Argentina and Brazil. Many of the youth settled in Palestine. The Jewish population of Dvinsk was dwindling fast. At the end of 1928 I left my beloved hometown of Dvinsk. Together with eighty three other Jews I sailed for South Africa. That was the last I saw of Dvinsk."
As stated previously, I knew nothing of the author and his descendants. But intrigued by Yudel's descriptions, I looked in the phone book to see if there were any Fliot's still listed in Johannesburg. There were, two of them, and a Maurice Flior Fertilizer company. I dialled a few of these Fliors, and the first to answer was Roy, the grandson of Yudel. He explained that Yudel had had three sons: Maurice, Jack and Mendel, who was killed in action in the Second World War (remember the book's dedication.) Roy explained that the book on Dvinsk was a translated excerpt from several volumes of Yudels memoirs in Yiddish. Apparently the literary bent had passed on to Maurice, who, besides establishing a lucrative fertiliser business, had also had found time to publish two novels. One, called `Herald of the East Wind' dealt with the Sino-Russian conflict. The other, "Sarah', chronicled the movement of Johannesburg Jews from proletarian immigrants to settled affluence. The third brother, Jack, who had gone off to fight for the International Brigade way back in 1937, was the only one still alive. Jack had been on a Russian gun
boat during the war, a secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa, and had had to flee this country several times.
Roy, Maurice's son, hinted that the relationship between the two brothers had been stormy, but now Jack was back for good, to end an adventurous and troubled life working in the fertiliser company of his recently deceased brother.
Here ends the story. I did not ask of the existence or whereabouts of the rest of the Flior clan. I might have
persued the matter, and been told that one of Yudel Flior's descendants, a second or third generation South
African, was shot in a car hijacking whilst waiting at a red robot in Edenvale Or was alive and well and happy to talk about grandfather Yudel and the strange ways of providence. Or had set sail - as Yudel did sixty years before - for securer shores than the country of his/her birth. But I left it alone. Ignorance is bliss, and leaves one free to speculate, to invent missing details and marvellous parallels. Besides I don't need things as trivial as facts to convince me that history is a repetitive affair, which cannot be reduced to the suffering or triumphs of the past. No, it keeps on spilling over uncontainably and reincarnating in the present. The author of Kohelet knew it long ago: " That which was been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done. " (written in 1993 or so)