Dec 10, 2013
In the War Against Apartheid
Posted on Jul 11, 2013
By Alan Wieder
One day after school I went home with Ruth. Got there about three o’clock and emerged at six o’clock with my head reeling,
having had a three-hour lecture from Tilly on the history of socialism, the Russian Revolution, the origins of religion …. without me saying a word! And I remember wandering home and telling my mother, who nearly had a fit.14
Ruth First’s friendship with Myrtle Berman blossomed in earnest after Ruth took her home to meet Tilly. Myrtle’s mother was fearful of her being associated with the Firsts, but she did not limit the girl’s companionship. Descriptions of Tilly and Julius First by some of Ruth’s friends, as well as Ronald First, help to paint a picture of the family dynamics. Berman was clearly impressed by Tilly First but added, “Tilly was really hard to get to know. I can’t remember Tilly ever sharing with me anything about her own life, not a thing.”15 Rica Hodgson, who was also one of Ruth’s friends, explained that Julius “exuded warmth which Tilly didn’t.”16 Finally, Harold Wolpe, who was a neighbor of the Firsts and became Joe Slovo’s best friend at university, remembered Tilly as “abrasive, very impatient. As a kid if Ruth made a child-like statement it didn’t get a very good reception.”17
As a fourteen-year-old, Ruth joined the Junior Left Book Club with Myrtle Berman. They would discuss books, sing, and pull slips of paper out of a hat with topics to research and report back on at the next meeting. One can envision Ruth and Myrtle riding their bikes to Dr. Max Joffe’s office where the weekly meetings were held. Ruth read and discussed politics in South Africa and the Soviet Union with her parents. In the First home, social lives revolved around politics. When they picnicked or vacationed, it was with people like the Buntings, whose son Brian Bunting later became one of the leaders of the SACP. Brian Bunting also spoke about Tilly First, and noted similarities between her and Ruth. “Yes, she’s got good intellect, a very good brain. Very formidable person. A very nice person, but also difficult, very critical; sometimes rasping. When you’ve seen Tilly, you’ll appreciate something about Ruth too, because Ruth’s inherited a lot of that.”18 As something of a counterpoint, Dan O’Meara recalled Wolfie Kodesh telling him, “Ruth is a puppy dog compared with her mother.”19
Ruth graduated from Jeppe Girls High School in 1941. Rica Hodgson recollects that she was brilliant and powerful, but at the same time vulnerable. Myrtle Berman recalled her being “sharp-tongued but also shy.”20 Describing Ruth First as vulnerable is interesting because adult friends like Ronald Segal, Barney Simon, and Wolfie Kodesh used the same descriptor. During her last year in high school, 1941, she was honored as the Literary Prefect at the School. A plaque with her name is still on display in the school library. Her award-winning essay, “On Poetry,” was published in The Magazine of Jeppe High School for Girls: “Poetry became one of the ways in which the most intense emotions of the most sensitive men were put on record. The true poet makes his subject universal and immortal by stirring in his reader the same emotions that inspired him to expression.”21
After graduating from high school, with average grades in spite of her brilliance, Ruth enrolled in the University of the Witwatersrand. However, before beginning she gave her own commencement address, not at her high school graduation, but rather on the steps of Johannesburg City Hall where her parents had taken her to political meetings from the time of her childhood. Her brother described listening to her speech: “What made a great impression on me was the first time I ever heard her speak, on the steps of the city hall in Johannesburg. And she was young, she was a brilliant orator.”22 Vulnerable, maybe; political, definitely; at this point she was clearly the daughter of Tilly and Julius First. According to her close adult friend, Ros de Lanerolle, when Ruth told the story thirty-some years after the event, her memories were not of an extraordinary accomplishment, but rather of her mother’s criticism.
While Ruth was living in a middle-class home with her brother, parents, and domestic help, Joe was moving through different rooming houses, first with his father but then on his own. At the time, Joe’s father was in and out of jail as a result of mounting unpaid debts. At the first boarding house, Mrs. Leiserowitz’s, Joe had his initial experience with communism when he met Max Joffe, a medical doctor and a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Joe Slovo’s memories are of Joffe “shocking the boarders when he talked of votes for blacks and his opposition to the ‘imperialist’ war.”23 Joe later attended Junior Left Book Club meetings at Joffe’s medical office. Joe moved from Mrs. Leiserowitz’s house to the well-known boarding house operated by Mrs. Sher, which is portrayed in Milton Shain’s book, Memories, Realities and Dreams: Aspects of the South African Jewish Experience. Joe shared a room with his father and received spending money from an aunt from the Sachs side of the family. He would venture to her house every Friday afternoon and pay homage, thus receiving a half-crown for school bus fare and maybe movies, food, and gum. In Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography, he compares his aunt to the Bette Davis role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Soon after Joe and his father moved to Mrs. Sher’s, Wolfus announced that Joe could have the room to himself because he was going to move in with a woman called Sophie Silberman. Joe had minimal involvement with his father after Wolfus remarried, and never seemed to know Sophie or his half sister from the marriage, Rachel.
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