Community fights fire on all fronts
Jews across the Mother City watched in horror as an unseasonably hot Sunday, 18 April 2021, turned into an apocalypse. What started as a small fire on the slopes of Table Mountain quickly became a raging inferno lasting three days.
The flames engulfed the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant, a University of Cape Town (UCT) library, and other university buildings and heritage sites, before moving towards the City Bowl. As fire, smoke, ash, and wind wreaked havoc, many members of the community bore the brunt of the destruction.
Chabad on Campus Rabbi Nissen Goldman put duty first as the fire threatened his home, workplace, and a precious Torah scroll housed in the Isaac & Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT.
“I live about 600m from upper campus. We were out for the morning when someone sent a photo of the fire right outside Chabad House [Goldman’s home]. Our neighbour’s roof caught on fire, and other houses nearby burnt to the ground.” Miraculously, his home remained intact.
Goldman managed to procure an emergency vehicle to take him to the Kaplan Centre. “Thank G-d I had a key to the centre as well its beit midrash. We went through three blockades to get there. We had no clue if it was safe, we just went. It’s miraculous how the Kaplan Centre was untouched, as it’s on top of campus. It was full of smoke, but we managed to get the Torah out. It was really exhilarating – you had a feeling like you’re just ‘plugged in’, and you know you’re not running on your own power. You know you’re on a much bigger mission.”
Goldman also helped evacuated Jewish students find places to stay. Bram Freedman is from Vereeniging and lives at Kopano Residence. “At the first note of the severity of the fire, our warden acted quickly and made the call to evacuate,” he says. “We had about 10 minutes to pack essentials. I took my tefillin. People started contacting me, saying I could stay with them for as long as I needed. I decided to stay with my Muslim friend, even though I had received offers from about 30 Jewish families. This is because this particular friend was adamant in helping me out. He picked me up and welcomed me into his home. The whole family is so friendly and accommodating.”
Daniel Cohen, originally from Durban, is in his first year at UCT studying mechanical engineering. “At times like these, I feel very blessed to have such an amazing community,” he says. “Yesterday [Sunday], the smoke started spreading and they told me to grab anything valuable. Being in a rush, I grabbed only my laptop. From what I’ve gathered, my res hasn’t been damaged too badly, although there were videos of fire outside it. UCT is being very strict about letting people onto campus, so we haven’t been able to fetch our stuff.” Both students are grateful to Goldman and the community for their support.
On the other side of campus, the JW Jagger Library caught fire – home to a number of prominent archival collections. “The destruction is immeasurable,” says devastated library manager Michal Singer. “We adopted a policy of compassion in tackling research requests during lockdown. Today [Sunday], we saw that kindness directed back at us. While there were fire doors preventing the spread of the fire, the impact of the water damage isn’t to be underestimated. We will be undertaking emergency conservation efforts.”
Consultant Shelagh Gastrow, who drove fundraising for the modernisation of UCT libraries in the 1990s, says, “During our history, we as Jews have lived with the image of books burning. And although this wasn’t intentional, I think the horror is deeply ingrained – that burnt books are irretrievable. It’s a good time to realise what treasures we have in this country.”
Kaplan Centre director Adam Mendelsohn says, “It was surreal watching the fire grow”, as he lives a few kilometres from campus. “Archival collections are irreplaceable. This is our heritage that has been so carefully preserved for many years.” He says most of the Kaplan Centre archive is at the centre and is therefore safe, but “some Jewish-related material was stored at the Jagger Library, and we are uncertain of its condition”.
Analyst Nadine Shenker, who lives in University Estate not far from where the fire began, describes her experience. “On Monday, we woke up with tight chests – the fire was metres away. I kept running to see if it had jumped the highway, in between hosing down the roof and the trees in our garden. My neighbours were packing their cars. At that moment, I realised that the only thing that was really important was life. The air quality was worse and visibility was bad. We got a voice note to evacuate, and the sirens started blasting. We hurried to my dad’s flat in Sea Point. We came back to an untouched home and a fire truck stationed at the top of the road. The embers on the mountain looked like a Christmas tree. I felt relief and gratitude.”
As the fire spread to the City Bowl, residents picked up and ran. Vet Reena Cotton, whose home backs onto the mountain, says, “When it was apparent the fire was coming our way, we packed the cats, birds, and dogs in the car to get them to a safe place. They were all extremely traumatised. We phoned our children to ask if there was anything they wanted us to take, and packed those items, as well as a change of clothing and a few precious things.
“When you know the fire is coming, you can’t relax. I went out every hour to watch first the smoke, then the flames grow and get closer,” she says. “At 04:00, we were told to evacuate, so we went to where our dogs were and walked them on the Sea Point promenade at 05:00. We spent another sleepless night at friends.” Their home was saved but “the damage to the vegetation and wildlife is devastating. The community spirit and generosity of strangers is magnificent.”
Architect Roxanne Kaye says, “Living right on the mountain means we have had to evacuate before, but this was by far the worst. On Monday morning at 04:00, our doorbell rang with panicked instructions to leave. We grabbed passports and documents, but before we could pack more, we were told we had to go. When we got to my sister, we could see the fire skimming the back of our road.” Their house and other homes were saved, “but it was a close call”.
Charly’s Bakery owner Jacqui Biess co-ordinated volunteer efforts in Vredehoek. “It was absolute insanity. Residents described flames behind their houses as metres high. We had to get fire engines to different places, and phone people to evacuate. This morning [Tuesday] I woke up, heard the helicopters, and just burst into tears, because I knew it was going to be okay.”
Four United Herzlia Schools (UHS) campuses sit in the shadow of the mountain. “As the fire was getting closer, the roads alongside Herzlia Highlands Primary were evacuated,” says UHS education Director Geoff Cohen. “At 06:20 on Monday morning, we made the call to keep the UHS City Bowl campuses closed. There was a huge amount of smoke. In addition, the traffic from getting 1 000 pupils to school would have got in the way of the firefighters. We asked the district commander his advice yesterday afternoon [Monday], and he said the fire was still unpredictable, so we kept the schools closed again on Tuesday.” Amidst all this, “We decided to evacuate the schools’ Torah scrolls. It was an easy decision – they’re a symbol of who we are.”
Photographer and videographer Chad Nathan captured the scene across the city. “I’m fascinated with fire fighters – I see them as real life superheroes,” he says. “It was literally just me on the [closed] highway. At one point, it was very intense – I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see – that’s when I thought I had better get out of there. It was really sad seeing people evacuate their homes. And I saw some people refusing to leave.”
Says Shenker, “I will forever be grateful to the fire-fighting heroes. Let’s hope we can rise from these ashes stronger, more mindful, and more protective of our planet.”