From the Cape: The life of Miriam Samson | German-Jewish cultural heritage in South Africa | DW | 29.11.2012
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South Africa

From the Cape: The life of Miriam Samson

On the steamboat to a new world: For 13-year-old Miriam, 1937 was an adventure. But after fleeing Germany, racism was also rife in South Africa, a country ravaged by apartheid.

"October 9, 1936. I am sitting here on the steamboat Stuttgart and finally find the peace and time to gather my thoughts and think about whether I was right to cut off all my ties and turn over my future and that of my family to an unknown destiny. How will everything turn out?"

Is it the effort that it takes to decipher the Old German lettering on the yellowed letter paper, or is it the emotions that are audible in Miriam Kleineibst's voice as she makes out the letter written by her father to his family members who stayed in Bochum, written aboard the steamboat Stuttgart on its way to Africa?

Miriam Kleineibst, who was then 13 years old, is standing in her living room on the sixth floor of the Good Hope Park rest home. In the kitchen, the coffee is bubbling and there are biscuits, too. Good Hope Park - how fitting for many long conversations with a Jewish émigré who, as a teenager, had to build a whole new life on the other side of the world.

From here up high, the view stretches out across the Atlantic as it crashes on the cliffs at Green Point. Green Point and the sister suburb of Sea Point constitute the Jewish Quarter of Cape Town. This is where you'll find kosher butchers and bakers, Jewish schools, and synagogues established by Jewish émigrés from Lithuania, Russia and Germany.

In good weather, Robben Island is visible on the horizon. It is the notorious prison island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for more than 20 years. South Africa's anti-apartheid icon is a good reference point for our meeting with Miriam Samson, who took the name of her second husband Günther Kleineibst. He is also a Jew of German origin and moved to the Cape from Berlin at the age of 21.

We are interested in the question of how somebody who had fled the racist, inhumane system of Nazi dictatorship dealt with being confronted with another inhumane system - apartheid.

Miriam Kleineibst leads us in to an all-white bedroom, past the menorah, the seven-stemmed holy lamp and a mark of special service in the Jewish community. The view from the window encompasses the world-famous Table Mountain and the grandiose, sweeping curves of the Cape Town Stadium built for the Soccer World Cup in 2010.

Miriam Kleineibst at the harbor where she first arrived in Cape Town

At the harbor where she first arrived in Cape Town

The conversation quickly turns to soccer and the Samson family's home team in Bochum. Her parents ran a shoemaking business in Bochum while a housemaid took care of Miriam and her older brother Klaus.

The Bochum community was liberal; nevertheless, Jewish traditions were adhered to in the home. According to Jewish tradition, the kitchen had two separate work areas. Kosher food was cooked there. On Fridays and Saturdays, the Samson's went as a family to synagogue. "And when the first flowers came in spring, then my father picked my mother a bunch. They had a happy marriage, and my childhood was just as happy," recalls the spritely 89-year-old with sparkling eyes.

Summer vacations on the East Frisian island of Spiekeroog, visits to her grandparents, swimming excursions and sledding were all part of her childhood.

Cape of last hope

With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, this idyllic childhood was suddenly cut short. From September that same year, Miriam and her girlfriends were only permitted to walk the streets in groups of three. Teenage members of the Hitler Youth pursued them, once even setting a German shepherd on them. Miriam thrashed her ice-skating boots at them. "I have definitely inherited my mother's temperament," she recalls.

Then the beloved trips to the cinema were stopped. Her father was forced to give up his workshop. For a few weeks in 1934, her parents sent her to stay with a Jewish family in Holland to create a distraction for the 11-year-old.

The Samson family on board the ship, on their way to South Africa

The Samson family on board the Stuttgart, on their way to South Africa

At the same time, ever more neighboring countries were closing their borders to German Jews. Even Australia, Canada and North and South America said their quotas were exhausted.

But while in Nazi Germany the implications of Aryan ideology continued to broaden, the German-Jewish émigrés were considered "good immigrants" by politicians in South Africa - 2,500 entered the country in 1936 alone.

Gray shirts

But then the wind on the Cape changed. The "gray shirts" - the South African equivalent of Hitler's "brown shirts" - started to voice their concerns about "foreign infiltration" and a quota on immigration was quickly set in place.

The Samsons had to move quickly. On October 8, 1936, the Stuttgart was the last ship to leave Bremen. On board were 570 German Jews, including Moritz Samson. Initially, the rest of the family remained in Bochum. Miriam was tasked with organizing their passage to South Africa aboard a steamship from Italy. In the meantime, her mother learned pattern-cutting and sewing so she could earn money as soon as they arrived in South Africa.

In January 1937, Miriam, her brother Klaus and their mother boarded the Duilio from Genoa to Africa. For the 13-year-old, the escape from Nazi Germany was an adventure. "I had never been aboard a big ship before, for me everything was really exciting," she says today.

Her mother did everything she could under the circumstances to feign some semblance of normality. But her grandmother said, "We'll never see each other again," when they departed.

Upon their arrival in South Africa, the young Miriam was oblivious to the majestic Table Mountain and the black dock workers. "The only thing that mattered to me was that I could see my father again," she remembers.

The refugees had to endure an entire day aboard the ship in the middle of the South African summer until the Jewish community paid a 100-pound deposit for each new arrival. "My father bought us an ice cream and got a worker to bring it to us on deck."

Early years

Miriam Kleineibst in front of her first house

Miriam Kleineibst in front of her first house

Now, 75 years later, we're accompanying Miriam to the apartment in which the Samsons spent their first months in Cape Town. It is an emotional moment for everyone.

"Yes, here it was," Miriam says. "There above was my brother's bedroom." She pauses. "But the palms have gone." Of course, the palms. Her father's ice cream on the pier and the sight of strong, unfamiliar palm leaves - these were the 13-year-old Miriam's first impressions of Africa.

Miriam was quick to adjust. The neighbors' children visited her the day after she arrived. Her parents immediately snapped into "South Africa mode": Only English was spoken in the home in order to make the integration process smoother. That after 75 years Miriam Kleineibst still speaks perfect German without any trace of an accent is more than astounding.

The first months were difficult as her father failed to find work and her mother held the family above water. The Jewish community helped where they could - 6,000 Jews from Germany alone had arrived on the Cape.

After just two years, Miriam left school to take a job as a milliner. Meanwhile, South Africa entered the war on the side of Allies. Miriam's brother and her future husband enlisted in the army to fight against Hitler's Germany.

Then came the fateful year 1948. The National Party won the election and countless laws were introduced dictating the separation of black, white and so-called "colored" South Africans. Discrimination now had a legal underpinning: the "Grand Apartheid."

Rabbi Newman

Rabbi Newman grew up in Berlin

For Miriam, it was déjà-vu. Suddenly park benches were marked with similar signs to those in Bochum back in 1935. But instead of "Jews," the signs now denied the right of "non-whites" to sit on them.

Heads in the sand

How did German Jews react, who had just managed to escape persecution themselves? "They buried their heads in the sand," a rabbi who we met later would tell us. "We were busy looking after ourselves," Miriam says. "It was a difficult time. The children were young, my husband was very ill for a long time."

In the insular world of white Cape Town suburbs, there are few traces of the grotesque poverty found in the townships of the metropolis. The family was naturally despondent about the forced resettlement of mixed-race people to the now notorious District Six quarter. For decades, whites and blacks, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully there side-by-side. Overnight, mixed-race, blacks and people of Indian descent were herded into enclaves as bulldozers demolished their homes.

The only black person Miriam knew was the highly-regarded family servant, Aaron, their driver and errand runner. In the 1980s, as the Apartheid system stood on the brink of collapse, the family helped to distribute food rations to 1,000 needy schoolchildren in deprived township schools.

At this point, Ronnie, the eldest of Miriam's two sons, must be introduced. The retired manager of a large South African retail chain helped to organize our meetings with Miriam from across the distance in Germany. During the one-week stay, he never leaves his mother's side. Ronnie, a car fanatic who describes himself as a "South African-Jew of German descent," is an amiable character.

It is only when the German reporters hack all too persistently at the question of the role of German Jews in the Apartheid that his voice becomes a little sterner, his brow slightly furrowed. "The first generation of German Jews saw a government here that wasn't exactly like the one they had just left behind, but which had a similar attitude, a very aggressive police force, for example. That would have intimidated many of them."

Ronnie makes no secret of the fact that South Africa was a "paradise" for a young white man in the 1950s. At the same time, people tried to help on a personal level: "My family tried to make a difference in their everyday lives. We tried to treat those people who we dealt with on a daily basis as people, while the government attempted to rob them of their sense of self-respect."

Emotionally drained

Miriam Kleineibst n the garden at the Holocaust Center in Cape Town

In the garden at the Holocaust Center in Cape Town

A new location, the same theme. We have arranged to meet Rabbi Richard Newmann in Temple Israel. Newmann, who grew up in Berlin and later to moved to Great Britain together with his family, has presided over the Jewish community in Cape Town for the past five years. Before that he worked in Israel, the US, and then again in Germany.

Like all rabbis in South Africa, the bearded Newmann has the difficult task of brining Orthodox conservatives and moderates together under one roof. Around 250 actively religious Jews gather together on the weekend in the magnificent house of prayer for the Sabbath.

How has he experienced the role of Jew of German descent? "Ach you know," he says, switching from broken German to British-accented English. "The impression of the Holocaust and the World War on German Jews who immigrated to South Africa was so violent, that they were emotionally drained and because of that they didn't participate in political activity against apartheid."

The rabbi points to his own father who fled Germany as an example. "Afterwards he was emotionally kaputt," says Newmann, deliberately using the originally Hebraic word, later assimilated into the German language. "When the refugees came to South Africa, their life was hard enough - they didn't have the time or the strength to afford themselves the luxury of political opposition."

Modern Jewish identity

We're now in Riebeek-Kasteel, one hour's drive north of Cape Town. Miriam's second son lives here in the middle of the vineyards that produce South Africa's fine wines. For years, the manager from South Africa's diamond giant De Beers lived with his family in a dusty mining town in the North. (Eds.: De Beers has been run by the Oppenheimer dynasty of German-Jewish descent since 1927.) Now he has built himself a comfortable house in this small provincial nest, famous for its olive groves and artists' colony.

What about the Jewish lineage in the Kleineibst family? After all, Michael is married to a protestant, Afrikaans-speaking South African. Will their children carry on the heritage of their grandparents? "Being Jewish is a part of them, but not a pronounced part," Michael says.

"They're leaning in the direction of Christianity. My son for example is an avowed Christian, but nevertheless celebrates the big Jewish holidays with us twice a year. The decision of how they want to live their Jewish heritage is completely up to them."

Miriam Kleineibst with her second husband, Günther

Miriam Kleineibst with her second husband, Günther

Friday March 11, 2012. It is the day of our departure from Cape Town. Miriam's husband, Günther, now 94, is sick and his wife is worried. The reporter brings medicine from the pharmacy together with a cake from the patisserie in Sea Point. It's not kosher. We drink a last coffee at the living-room table.

Will the children and grandchildren continue the family's Jewish heritage? "It's not about an ostentatious Jewishness," Miriam says. "We celebrate Passover and the New Year and the usual holidays as a family, that is very important to me. And the most important thing to me is when people do something good."

Richard Freedman perhaps summed it up best. The director of the Holocaust Center in Cape Town visited Miriam, Günther and Ronnie during the week on the protruding piece of land which is also home to the Great Synagogue of Cape Town.

A few years ago, the exhibition "Seeking Refuge: German-Jewish Immigration on the Cape in the 1930s" was shown here, a part of which was dedicated to Miriam and her family.

"The German Jews tried to stay below the radar, like so many other immigrant groups," Freedman explains. "I think it is unfair to ask Holocaust survivors, 'If you went through all that suffering yourself, how could allow what happened here?' If you ask these people, then they will tell you, 'Yes, the apartheid unsettled them, but at the same time they were busy putting their lives back together, building families, arriving, finding work, healing wounds. And of few of them did become activists - that was actually surprising. But it couldn't have been expected of them."

The coffee has been drunk in the apartment in Good Hope Park. "It was never easy, but it was always good," says Miriam Kleineibst, nee Samson, looking back.

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