Apr 07, 2022
Hazel Frankel, Holocaust and Home: The Poetry of David Fram from Lithuania to South Africa. (Legenda, 2021). 230 pp. $110.00, hardcover.
My mother started learning Yiddish late in life. I felt as if she was reaching out to her dead parents, trying to connect with them. Both her mother and her father were immigrants to South Africa from Lithuania, one from the town of Shadova, the other from Pokroy. My grandfather, Abe, who came from a long line of yeshiva bochers, attended the famed Telz yeshiva. Intellectually curious, he read War and Peace in the original Russian. Later, at the Claremont shul in Cape Town, he gave many of the Saturday afternoon shiurim, written in Yiddish but delivered in English.
His wife, Anne, for who I am named, was nine years his junior. They owned a dress shop in Cape Town and, before the war, Abe went on business trips to Europe to buy the latest fashions, often with specific customers’ needs in mind. Both Abe and Anne died in their fifties, several years before I was born. I know them only from photographs. Their sepia-toned wedding photo hung in our breakfast room, where we ate all our meals. Abe was short, wore glasses, and gazed solemnly at the camera. Anne seemed softer, gentler, and had a twenties-style headdress that looked like a shower cap. There were odd flecks of white on the image that I always imagined was confetti but must have been blemishes on the photographic paper or the camera lens.
Although they were gone, they were always with us. Reading Hazel Frankel’s Holocaust and Home: The Poetry of David Fram from Lithuania to South Africa, I felt as if my ancestors were reaching out to tell me about the places they’d left, what they saw and felt in their new country, and the horror that befell the relatives who stayed behind in their native land. Frankel’s insightful and sensitive study of Fram’s life and his work is not only an important work of scholarship, shedding light on one of the furthest corners of the Yiddish-speaking world; it also feels quite personal to me, both as the granddaughter of immigrants from Lithuania to South Africa and as an immigrant myself. In “Ikh Benk,” Fram writes “I wearily long for a piece of black, swollen earth, / For autumn rains on the fields and mud on endless roads…” (114). As Frankel points out, “Despite the welcoming and intoxicating climate, the immigrant cannot come to terms with the extreme differences between the soft, flat landscape, pale skies, and gleaming snow of his homeland, and the hot plains of Africa.” I’ve done the reverse journey, leaving the Southern Hemisphere for the North, leaving warmth for cold, but have felt the same loneliness buried deep, the same longing for the country of my birth. In my case, the longing is for the sun-drenched vistas of my childhood, those “sunny distances of everlasting summer” that make Fram “feel the loneliness doubly.”
Frankel vividly brings to life Fram’s love of Yiddish: the way he revels in the particularity of its rhythms as well as his awareness both of traditional Yiddish poetry and of modernists who were searching for ways to reinvent the form. She makes it clear that he was “neither observant nor Zionist in inclination” but was immersed in the richness of the language itself, and its shapeshifting, melodic qualities. Yiddish is a language of entanglement, of absorption of other cultures and traditions, and Fram deploys it to great effect to gaze out at his new environment, and to look back at the world he left behind.
He was born in Krekenave in 1903 and arrived in South Africa in 1927, after spending time in Paris with three of his four sisters and briefly attending agricultural school in Toulouse. By then, there was already a well-established Lithuanian Jewish community at the southern tip of Africa. My maternal grandparents as well as most of their extended families had come earlier, in 1909 and 1910. Like many immigrants, they strove to assimilate and spoke English at home, using Yiddish when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying.
I imagine that my mother must have associated it with the language of secrets and intimacy, of certain truths that she was not privy to. She found joy in its expressiveness and its warmth, and truly savored her Yiddish lessons.
Not only did Fram’s social and artistic circle include a group of Yiddish immigrant writers, he was also a founding member of the Unicorn, a society of writers and artists from within the Jewish community as well as outside it. Unlike Fram, all were South African-born; some came from English-speaking backgrounds and others, like the poet, Uys Krige, spoke and wrote in Afrikaans. Irma Stern, one of the Jewish members of the group and a painter who became known for her expressionistic, vibrantly colored paintings, captured Fram’s likeness in a vivid portrait. In it, he wears a shirt and tie, his dark hair is slicked back, and he holds a curved pipe to his lips. His expression is worldly, sardonic. There is something of the aesthete about him.
As eclectic as his group of associates was, so was his career peripatetic. He was a traveling salesman, first selling household goods, then pharmaceuticals, and eventually Persian carpets and diamonds. During his lifetime, he traveled to London, Paris, Basel, Antwerp, and New York. He also farmed and later owned a pickling and canning factory in the Transvaal. Throughout, he wrote poems and published them in Yiddish journals and magazines.
I can’t help wondering if my grandfather, Abe, would have read his work but, as Frankel writes, “non-religious Zionists and the orthodox religious communities had no interest in Yiddish” and it “became a casualty of the conflicting ideologies of Hebrew and Zionism.” Abe was both religious and a Zionist. He went to Israel in 1953 to study modern Hebrew, as he believed it was the language of the future for Jews. However, despite this, I like to think that Fram’s poems, had Abe encountered them, would have touched him deeply. Fram, whose love of nature and farming life was gleaned from intimate observation of his own grandfather’s labors, wrote tenderly in the verse monologue ‘Baym zeydn’ of his grandfather’s “loyal feet, which served him for so many years”, and how he “Plodded between the firs through the dishevelled, cold moss, / Until the red sun disappeared behind the peaks of the trees” (60-61). Abe’s childhood memories, reported to me by my oldest cousin, David Katz, were of traveling from Telz to Shkod in the summers to visit his cousins. Abe’s uncle was the head of the Yeshiva there and so his work was not in the fields but in the classroom, but I imagine the same dim light of the Lithuanian forest as my grandfather journeyed along the quiet, countryside roads.
As Jews sought to reinvent themselves in their new African homeland, the utterance of Yiddish sounds and Yiddish words unspooled skeins of meaning and feeling. Yiddish evoked a range of emotions from a sense of belonging and connection, to aversion, disassociation, disdain. Frankel observes, “by using English–the language of empowerment–as their lingua Franca, [the immigrants] hoped to achieve upward mobility. Highly cultured, well-settled German Jews kept themselves apart from Yiddish-speaking Lithuanians; second-generation immigrants separated themselves from the first generation because of their desire to fit in and belong. Many of the new arrivals jettisoned the language of di alte heym as they became part of the dominant culture” (14).
What Frankel celebrates in this work is Fram’s direct and unabashed connection to his beloved mother tongue. Not only does he write in Yiddish of the world he left behind, but he also confronts South Africa’s viciously racist policies. Many writers, including J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, Andre Brink, have mined this terrain writing in English or Afrikaans, but reading poems like “Matumba” and “Matatulu” where, in Yiddish, Fram makes the Black man his subject, is a revelation. In “Matumba,” the familiar and racist trope of a Black man raping a white woman is undercut by Fram’s portrait of Matumba as a man brutalized by the violence of the system that turns him into a “mangy dog” who “collects scraps from the table of the whites.” He describes Matumba’s kraal and his three wives in loving detail, as well as the subsequent longing he’s filled with when he has to leave his home behind to “serve white bosses.” The “rust-coloured roads” he travels on evoke Fram’s own goodbyes to his family. In these poems, the Yiddish is interspersed with local and indigenous words such as lobola, (dowry), assegaai (spear), and kraal’ (enclosure), as well as location (area designated for Black people only) and pass (a document used under apartheid to classify anyone who wasn’t white). In the long poem “Matatulu”, the protagonist has to leave the country for the city to earn enough money to pay the lobola for his prospective bride. The poem revels in the beauty of the natural landscape and in Matatulu’s fierce, independent spirit but ends on a tragic note when Matatulu is shot for being on the street without a pass.
The last chapters of “Holocaust and Home” deal with the horrors of the Second World War. As Frankel writes, “Had Fram returned home, he would have found everyone gone; his mother Shifra Mina, father Yoysef Ber, his sister Esther, together with the rest of his community were murdered by the Nazis’ Lithuanian henchmen in the Panevezys death camp in June 1942” (125).
All of my own ancestors had left Lithuania by the time the war broke out save for one of Abe’s brothers, Chaim Mordechai (Motel) Katz, who was a rabbi and a prominent figure at the Telz yeshiva. In 1940, he and his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Bloch, traveled to the U.S. via an arduous route through Siberia to Japan and finally to Cleveland, hoping to found a yeshiva there. Both men were unable to get their families out of Lithuania. In 1941, Motel’s wife and ten children were murdered after the Nazis took over Telz. It is with their names in mind – Chaya, Aron, Eliezer, Eliya Meier, Ezra, Jacob, Josef Leib, Rochel, Shmuel Avigdor, Yehoshua, Yerucham–that I read the agony in Fram’s later poems, and grasp an inkling of the devastation he and my great-uncle must have felt, along with millions of others like them. Fram blasts the savagery of his Lithuanian neighbors who aided and abetted the Nazis, in “Dos letste kapitl,” a work that grew out of his experiences in the war years. In “Mayn Lite, mayn heymland” (My Lithuania, my homeland), he cries out, “You strangled them, / Now with your bloody fingers, / You choked them–your own children!” (105). The world he remembers in “Ikh Benk” no longer exists. The Jews of the forests and the “endless, muddy ways” are gone. All that’s left is a “lamentation of crows that pick the bones” (195).
I think of my grandparents, and the vanished world of their childhoods. I can still vividly recall their ghostly presence at all our meals, their young selves staring out from their wedding portrait. Were those mysterious white specks tears, then, for all that was lost?