Fading but not forgotten

2012-11-05 00:00

PAUL Weinberg doesn’t look the type to be airbrushed from history. We’re at Cape Town airport: I’m on my way in to the city, and he’s stopped off en route to the Richmond Bookfair, seven hours inland. On the table between us lies a copy of his latest book, Dear Edward. It’s about journeys, into family history, into South Africa, into self, and into collective existence. It is also a story of survival, in life and in memory.

Conceived in the idiom of postcards, as a connection between family across time and space, and framed as a road trip, Dear Edward is an imagined correspondence between Weinberg, a celebrated photographer and chronicler of South Africa, and his eponymous great-grandfather of the title, in snapshots and narrative. Through it, he means to ensure that the legacy of far-off family members, their decisions, their very lives, do not fall prey to forgetting. “I am only too aware of how my family and their descendents were airbrushed from history,” he writes. That history informs his current concern about “myself, about other Caucasians, people otherwise known as ‘white’”. “There’s an assumption that we have no history, that we haven’t undergone our own journey. Yes, we washed up here by a quirk of fate, but there is a limited understanding of that history,’’ he says. That Weinberg is Jewish, albeit non-practising, informs his concern with obliteration. The Holocaust broods in the background.

Great-grandfather Edward was expelled from Moscow in the 1880s by an edict from the Tsar that forbade Jews who earned below a certain income level from living in the city. Via Brussels, he ended up in Philippolis in 1893. This is genocide country, where the Griqua, together with the Boers and the English settlers, exterminated the Bushmen.

Airbrush, erase, disappear — these words punctuate Weinberg’s account. Disappearance hangs heavily on every page. He notices in the museums of the small towns he passes through that indigenous people and their artifacts are absent, ignored and displaced by history’s victors. Where are their voices? In Kuruman, for example, the tourist version of the town’s history erases, even today, consciously or unconsciously, the story of frontier chief Luka Jantjie, who was shot and decapitated in what was to be a large-scale purge of indigenous chiefs and their followers.

The first photograph of Weinberg’s road trip through his family history is of a vanished name board on a farm signpost on the road to Philippolis. Who were they? Did they leave any mark at all? Could a chronicler have rescued them? The second photograph is of a graveyard: in the foreground are three cowpats, against a backdrop of headstones. Others are of scenes from the towns where the Weinbergs established hotels — Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Vryburg. In some cases, the hotels no longer stand, and the captions record simply “The site where the Royal Hotel once stood”, or “Where the Grand Hotel once stood”.

The final frame of the book is of Edward Weinberg’s gravestone in Pioneers’ Cemetery in Kimberley. Smashed. Finding it should have been cause for celebration, “but it really did get to me to see it desecrated”, says Weinberg. “What gives someone the right to shit on my heritage?”

But heritage is a complex business. When they arrived in South Africa, the Weinbergs got by as smouse, before moving on to bigger things and buying hotels in various towns in the Free State. Desperate to be accepted, to “move up”, these Boerejode sided with the Boers in the South African War. “Why wouldn’t they?” asks Weinberg. “The Boers were the first to offer us citizenship of any kind.”

The irony is hard to miss. The Weinberg name in Natal in the second half of the 20th century was synonymous with liberalism, and with opposition to the policies of the very descendents of the Boers to whom they had once pledged allegiance (although Dear Edward stops short of this chapter in the family’s history). Weinberg himself made his name by documenting the lives of those made wretched by apartheid: the dispossessed, the defiant, the dead.

Weinberg embraces his entire history. His temperament steers him towards the underdog, but he recognises that Jewish history in South Africa is one that moves between “assimilation and radical change, between survival and changing the world”. “It’s all me.’’

“History dances with the present,” he says. “Nothing happens in isolation.” When he thinks more carefully about Edward’s grave, for example, he realises that the small plot of Jewish graves where he found it still exists in any form because of the care of five Jewish families in the town. “But the rest of the cemetery is completely desecrated, so when we talk about our ancestors we must realise that that is an entire heritage that is being shat on.” When he hears that a girl had been raped nearby, he thinks of how terrible the stories of others are. And he thinks equally of the words of his great-aunt Bertha, who in her memoirs wrote of this new land of opportunity as “a land where milk and honey flowed, and even the pigeons flew about ready roasted with a fork and knife in their backs, just waiting to be eaten”.

Weinberg says he is aware of “how fortunate I am to have benefited from my family’s whimsical journey”, and even though there were moments of sad reflection on his road trip, “especially when family hotels no longer existed”, he was “pleased to find these sites and engage with them”. Part of that engagement was an existential one: “What does it mean to be here?”, a question all South Africans wrestle with. But the question has a twist: “Why is it that now, in a free South Africa, the Jewish diaspora is growing, and more and more are leaving? It’s a hard question, as it is of whites generally,’’ he says.

Dear Edward, in part, is an answer to this question. “Writing the book is about staying,” says Weinberg. It’s about not allowing oneself to be airbrushed away.

• Dear Edward is published by Jacana.

Great-grandfather Edward was expelled from Moscow in the 1880s by an edict from the Tsar that forbade Jews who earned below a certain income level from living in the city. Via Brussels, he ended up in Philippolis in 1893.

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