Dec 9, 2013
In the War Against Apartheid
Posted on Jul 11, 2013
By Alan Wieder
Wolfus Slovo, Joe’s father, was by varied accounts a fisherman and a woodcutter in Obelei. His mother was a homemaker. Wolfus left Lithuania in 1928; Joe was two years old and would not see his father again until he was ten. When he was a toddler his mother, Chaya, sang him the lullaby, “Rosinkes und Mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds), a tune that wished for more riches for shtetl children. Wolfus Slovo immigrated to Argentina with plans to bring his family when he became settled. Although there is no evidence of his motive for choosing Argentina, it is not imprudent to assume that he had made some type of contact with the Jewish Colonization Society (JCS), an organization founded in 1891 by Baron de Hirsch with the mission of raising the material and moral status of Russian Jews. JCS had offices throughout Russia and worked to facilitate Jewish emigration. One of their programs was agricultural colonization in Argentina. Wolfus Slovo sailed from England to Buenos Aires, but it is unclear whether he ever became a part of any of the three agricultural colonies supported by the JCS. He opted to leave Argentina. In his memoir, Joe wondered how different things might have been if Wolfus had been successful in South America.
In 1936, with help from her family, the Sachs, Chaya Slovo prepared to immigrate to South Africa with Joe and her daughter Sonia. Joe Slovo met his father as a ten-year-old Yiddish-speaking boy. Although Wolfus had lived in South Africa for many years, he maintained Yiddish as his primary language. The family flat was located in Doornfontein, the site of the Jewish Government School. The family’s first house had a tin roof, typical for the area, but it was soon demolished to enable the building of the Apollo Cinema and Crystal Bakery, where both Joe’s father and his sister Sonia later worked. Shortly after his arrival, Joe was enrolled in the Jewish Government School, and like all immigrant children, his head was shaved to prevent lice. Although many of the other children were also Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe, they quickly took to calling him the “Bald Bolshie.” Business prospered and the family moved to a better house in Bellevue with Joe completing his primary education at Observatory Junior School and Yeoville School for Boys.
The family house in Bellevue was a row house situated on the tram line just across the street from the family’s fruit stand, a business that was successful due to Chaya’s extensive work regimen from five in the morning to eight at night. Joe remembers being a part of a gang of kids that he referred to as his smoking “club.” He supplied them cigarettes from his parents’ fruit stand until they were caught smoking at school and his father became vigilant about his behavior. Joe writes of his first crush and also of him and Sonia burying their dog, Spotty, who was killed by a car as it ran to greet Joe. He also reflects on the death of his mother, after only two years in Johannesburg. This, undoubtedly, was the event that changed the lives of the Slovo family. Joe’s reflections on his mother’s death are both ethnographic and psychological:
I was not told of her death. I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night to find the mirror covered with a white sheet. The walk around the coffin, the hysterical wailing of women and, above all, the yellow, yellow face haunted me for years. But the shaft of horror and shock, which struck me on our return from the funeral still evokes a shudder within me. As we entered the dining room, staring at me from the mantelpiece was a large doll (a present for my sister Reina) completely wrapped in bright yellow cellophane paper. It was particularly horrifying since my mother had died in childbirth and I expected to see the stillborn child in the coffin.12
Joe Slovo admits that he did not have a rich recollection of his mother, but he does recall her warmth, her hard work, and her being pregnant. He also remembers his older sister, in defiance of Jewish law, privately reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in respect for their mother. Chaya’s death totally disrupted the family. Joe, who attended daily services at the synagogue prior to his Bar Mitzvah, began to question the existence of God. Because his mother was the force supporting the success of the fruit shop, it collapsed after her death. Wolfus returned to a life of transient work, which prompted him to send Reina to an orphanage, while Sonia went to work and live at the Crystal Bakery. Joe moved with his father to various rooming houses in Doornfontein, where, unbeknownst to him at the time, one of his neighbors was the future ANC leader Walter Sisulu.
As Joe was forced to leave school and watch his family life disintegrate, Ruth was proceeding with her traditional schooling. What was not traditional in Ruth’s life was her family’s commitment and involvement in socialist politics. Ruth lived a comfortable middle-class life and attended three secondary schools: Barnato Park, Jeppe Girls High, and an Afrikaner school. She loved clothes and was interested in boys. She was also immersed in radical politics through her parents, mostly from her mother’s influence. Tilly and Julius First introduced Ruth and Ronald to the world of politics as children through weekly left-wing meetings on the steps of the Johannesburg City Hall, where the topics included Western imperialism and South African racism. As Tilly recalled: “When we used to go to the Town Hall steps (to hear Communist speakers) we took the children with us. We made them conscious. We wanted them to have an understanding of what was going on.”13
Ruth definitely accepted her parents’ political education. She met Myrtle Berman at Barnato Park and they became close friends. In the early 1960s, Berman and her husband, Monty, along with John Lang, Jerry Mbuli, and Baruch Hirson, founded the National Committee for Liberation, an organization that became the African Resistance Movement, with a manifesto that argued for armed resistance against the apartheid regime. When Myrtle was interviewed, she spoke about her first history class with Ruth at Barnato Park, and recalled that she and Ruth were the only ones who knew anything about the Soviet Union. Myrtle began asking Ruth questions, but since Ruth did not have answers, she invited Myrtle home to meet her mother.
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