Dec 9, 2013
In the War Against Apartheid
Posted on Jul 11, 2013
By Alan Wieder
Although there are no descriptions of Ruth’s parents’ childhood, awareness of the geography and culture of early twentieth century Johannesburg Jews is helpful, as is the early history of the left in South Africa. Jews worked as clerks in small shops adjacent to gold mines where blacks shopped for food and supplies. They also worked as tailors, carpenters, jewelers, cobblers, barbers, butchers, bakers, clerks, grocers, peddlers, drivers, shopkeepers, and gangsters. When they arrived in the city, they moved to low-rent neighborhoods such as Ferreirastown, Fordsburg, Doornfontein, and Yeoville. Tilly’s family initially lived in Fordsburg and according to Ronald First, his birth family inhabited these neighborhoods as well as the more upscale Kensington because of the family’s changing economic status. Like the rest of the population of Johannesburg, class distinctions quickly developed in the Jewish community. As some Jews accrued wealth even before Ruth First and Joe Slovo were born, Johannesburg was sometimes disparagingly referred to as “Jewhannesburg.” At the other end of the continuum, poor Jews were called “Peruvians,” a negative, racist epithet.
The first twenty years of the twentieth century witnessed competing movements among South African Jews. The large Zionist movement that originated in Johannesburg with the Transvaal Zionist Organization quickly affiliated with the South African Zionist Federation. Neither organization appealed to Tilly Leveton or Julius First. By the time they married in 1924, they were each involved in socialist politics. Julius viewed the International Socialist League (ISL) leader and Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) founding member David Ivon Jones as somewhat of a mentor. Jones was one of the key spokesmen of the Party and was committed to non-racial politics. During the 1920 strike by black mine workers, Jones publicly called for whites not to cross strike lines. Tilly noted that her future husband was upset when in 1918 at age twenty he was not initially accepted as a member of the ISL, but shortly after this rejection, both he and Tilly were accepted for membership in the organization. Neither Tilly nor Julius were practicing Jews at the time. This fact is only relevant because the ISL in Johannesburg had various branches, one being the active and vocal Yiddish Speaking Branch (YSB) that existed between 1918 and 1920. Its members were deeply involved in the arguments and debates held at West’s Academy, the Johannesburg socialist venue, when the ISL became one of the organizational leaders in the forming of the CPSA. There is no listing of Julius or Tilly in the records of the YSB: however, Julius First did become the chairman of the CPSA in 1923.
Ruth First was born a year after Tilly and Julius were married, on May 4, 1925. Similar to the story of her parents’ lives during the first quarter of the twentieth century, there is not a great deal of information about Ruth’s childhood. For the first ten years of her life, while her future husband Joe Slovo still lived in Lithuania, Ruth was growing up in Kensington, a relatively wealthy Johannesburg community. Ruth appeared to be strong and vocal even as a child, and the family lived a privileged life as upper-middle-class white South Africans. Ruth began kindergarten when she was four years old. The initial years of Ruth’s education are sketchy, but it is known that just before she moved to the Jewish Government School in Doornfontein in 1936, about the same time Joe came to Johannesburg, her mother traveled to the Soviet Union. Tilly First had been awarded a trip to Yalta because of the family’s contributions to the CPSA. Ronald First remembers the trip as a crucial experience for his mother, ideologically: “For my mother where the dedication became a mission, a vocation, something to pursue awake or sleeping, was her visit to Russia in 1936.”8
Adele Bernstein, one of Ruth’s new classmates at the Jewish Government School, remembered that Ruth was a reader who was articulate in class. Bernstein recalled her being “a skinny girl in a navy gym and white shirt who wore her fuzzy hair short. She was always neat, impeccably dressed and a bit of a class above us.”9 It is ironic that Ruth First went to school in Doornfontein, because the area was one of the immigrant Jewish enclaves in Johannesburg, and very, very Jewish, unlike Ruth’s family. The area was bustling with Jewish signs everywhere: kosher butchers, synagogues, bakeries, and delicatessens lining the streets. Finally, recent immigrant children attended the school.
Joe Slovo was born in the village of Obelei in Lithuania in 1926. Later in life he visited his birth village twice, first in 1981 with his Soviet friend Alexei Makarov, and then again in 1989 with Makarov and Joe’s second wife, Helena Dolny. In the introduction of Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography, Joe speaks of his early years. He describes himself as a “thin, scraggy youth,” and has memories of a green and ochre run-down wood house, yellow and mauve flowers, the river, and “dark winter mornings and winter nights, through the snow with paraffin lamp in hand, trudging to and from the synagogue school.”10 He also recalls Friday baths at the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, sledding, a large house where a more affluent relative lived, and festivals with singing, eating, and drinking. At the conclusion of his 1981 visit, Joe reflected on anti-Semitism and Jewish tribalism in the village and that a hundred-year-old Catholic Church was the most dominant building in Obelei. “I remember the rhyming chant … Jesus Christ lies in the earth dead like a horse. … We the chosen (for persecution?) were taught that we were superior to the goyim, and for boys the greatest taboo was the shiksha—a non-Jewish girl.”11 There is immense irony in the fact that in his ANC and SACP responsibilities Joe Slovo often visited the Soviet Union, the place of his birth. It might be that his reflections on anti-Semitism and Judaism are not far afield from his internal and intellectual struggles with aspects of the Soviet Union during the final decade of his life.
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