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Tracing the steps home of Mandela’s first white friend

  • Bregman11
The late Nat Bregman was so much more than just former president Nelson Mandela’s first white friend – according to Madiba’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 26, 2018

He was a staunch communist, a top lawyer, a stand-up comedian, a sportsman, a Lithuanian immigrant and a family man, according to his daughter Adina Bregman, who spoke about him at an event hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society of South Africa at the HOD on Sunday evening.

Sitting in the office he shared with Mandela at law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman a long time ago, Bregman unwrapped his sandwich and held it out to Mandela, his fellow articled clerk, saying: “Nelson, hold the other side,” according to Adina. He then told Mandela to “break” and, after Mandela had done so, Bregman said: “Eat.” As they both began eating, Bregman said: “Now that’s the philosophy of communism – we share everything that we have.”

Adina retells this story she knew so well growing up; it encapsulates her father’s passion for life and his beliefs.

Born in Lithuania in 1923, Bregman arrived in South Africa at the age of four in 1927 with his mother, sister and brother aboard the Union Line ship, the Gloucester Castle. His father had arrived shortly before them, setting up home in Amersfoort, a small town in Mpumalanga. The life that this young boy would go on to lead would prove to be exceptional and would compel his daughter to return to his place of birth in a journey to retrace his history.

Adina, an accomplished architect, not only described the man her father was, but also recounted how she had ventured to Lithuania last year in an attempt to better understand his roots.

Bregman passed away in 2011 at the age of 88, having involved himself in various endeavours throughout his life. “People knew of Nat the lawyer, the sportsman, the politician, the communist and even the comedian,” says his daughter. “He moved to Johannesburg at the age of 10 when his father died, left school at 15, studied at night to get his matric while working, and went on to become a qualified lawyer who devoted himself to his work for 57 years.”

Adina relates how, despite never being a religious man, her father was afforded the unique opportunity to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose words he took to heart. “When he was in his 40s, my father, along with his four children, went to meet the Rebbe,” she says. “At one point during their conversation he said to him: ‘Nat, you must never retire. Try to work every day of your life.’ My father must have internalised these words, because that’s precisely what he did.”

The undertakings that Bregman devoted himself to were diverse and numerous. A keen sportsman, he was an avid snow-skier and achieved a black-belt in karate “He used to surprise us with karate chops and kicks all the time, saying we should always be ready,” laughs Adina.

Moreover, Bregman had been a renowned comedian in his youth. He was the resident comedy performer at the Plastic Theatre in Northcliff for four years. He even tried his hand at politics, joining the progressive party at about the same time as Helen Suzman.

Sharing a close connection with Madiba, Bregman served his articles alongside him, says Adina. “He also opposed strongly what the government was doing at the time. When completing the ‘race’ section of any official form, he would write ‘human being’ in the space. That’s the type of person he was.”

The Nat she did not know, however, was the four-year-old who had been born in the little Lithuanian village of Grinkishek. Determined to explore her father’s birthplace, Adina travelled last year to Lithuania to explore his history. “Lithuania has a tragic and chequered past,” she says. “Occupied and ruled by the Russian empire, the Nazis and the Soviet Union, it did know times of independence. Still, being caught between two superpowers meant it was always threatened.”

Before her father and his family left the country, the life they enjoyed in Europe seems to have been idyllic and memorable. “Nat’s mother, Chana, was one of four children born to Feitel Sidelsky. She was the product of Feitel’s fourth marriage and came after he had already had more than 10 other children. Of course, this means that I have a lot of relatives to keep track of,” she laughs.

Pointing to a number of photographs she has uncovered, she says: “The places in which they spent their early years are beautiful, and it’s tragic to think of what happened there.”

While her journey brought her much joy, it was marked by a sense of sadness. “The reality of the annihilation that the Jews experienced in the Baltics made a joyful experience a very painful one,” she says. “We experience journeys like this and only then do we realise how lucky we really are that our families left these places and enabled us to be born.

“We can understand so much about our community here in Johannesburg when we see where our relatives came from, and appreciate it more than before.”

This was made particularly apparent when she arrived in Grinkishek. “This village is outlying and very rural,” she explains. “When you see it, you immediately understand why our ancestors settled in places like Ermelo. They wanted to replicate the homes they had known in Europe.

“My husband and I sat together under a tree, contemplating the idyllic scene before us. While I felt I was completing a circle, I also wondered: Am I seeing more of Grinkishek than Nat ever did? When he was in South Africa during the war, did he know what was happening to his community and the town in which he had been born? Did he realise what a nightmare they were experiencing, and did he know how he had been saved from it? Perhaps it’s better that he didn’t, but that I could discover it all instead.”

Adina stresses that the rich culture that the Jewish community in South Africa enjoys is not merely a replication of what once existed in Europe, but is part of the very same story and the continuation of a tradition.

“The history of the Jews of Lithuania is here with us every day,” she says. “From the gefilte fish to the Yiddish language, these things define us and connect us with the rich heritage of our ancestors. This history surrounds us here, and we need to appreciate it every moment we can.”

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