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From Solly to Albie – a life of activism and inspiration

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Many youngsters in the early 1940s dreamt of flying a Spitfire and shooting down lots of Messerschmitts. It was the time of World War II. One such kid received a postcard from his father on his sixth birthday. It read, “Congratulations on your sixth birthday. May you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”

This kid was Albie Sachs, and the message was from his dad, Solly. The story is told in Mensches in the Trenches, a new book written by South African journalist and author, Jonathan Ancer.

Though Sachs would go on to be an anti-apartheid activist and a Constitutional Court judge, it’s his late father who is featured as one of the mensches in the book. Sachs spoke to the author about his dad at Exclusive Books in Rosebank on 11 April.

Sachs’ father was one of the most successful trade unionists in South Africa, and was involved in the Communist Youth League.

The book documents the Jewish foot soldiers in the anti-apartheid struggle. It’s the vision of Mohale Selebi, who saw the importance of such a book many years ago.

“From a very early age, I was involved in the youth movements, in the underground in civic activities, and so on,” said Selebi, the nephew of the late Jackie Selebi, the former National Commissioner of the South African Police Service. “During that time, I got to meet many comrades – white, black, and Indian. It dawned on me as I was getting involved in the struggle that many of the white comrades who I met were Jewish. That is something that has stuck with me for many years. Hence, the idea about the book.”

A few years ago, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) heeded Selebi’s nagging and embarked on a ground-breaking project to document the stories of some unsung Jewish heroes, commissioning Ancer.

Ancer started working on it soon after the arrival of coronavirus. “I started to find these stories and speak to these people – Norman and Leon Levy, for example,” said Ancer. “I suddenly became inspired by their courage. That’s what I hope the book will achieve. It could inspire people to be courageous, to stand up against injustice, and to become mensches.”

The late advocate Denis Kuny is one of the mensches featured in the book. “He really typifies what a mensch is,” said Ancer. “When I phoned to make contact with him and I explained what the purpose of the book was, he didn’t feel he that fitted the profile of a mensch. That just typifies his contribution. He was modest. He never sought the limelight. But there he was in the trenches for 60 years.

“Sadly, Dennis died just a few months ago. A couple of people died before the book was published after I had interviewed them – such as Norman Levy and Percy Tucker. I think that goes to show the importance of documenting our stories.”

Professor Karen Milner, the chairperson of the SAJBD, described the book as “most wonderful”. “I read it on the plane, and I was sort of wiping tears from my eyes. It will lift your spirit, it will make you cry, and it’s a true memorial to some of the unsung heroes of our community who did what was right at a time when it was difficult to do things that were right.”

One of the stories in the book that stood out for Milner was about the King David school bus.

A young activist called Michael Schneider, a member of the African Resistance Movement, was asked by the African National Congress (ANC) to take a bunch of nurses to Tanzania.

“It was the ANC’s present to Tanzania, which was just celebrating its independence,” said Ancer. “So, he decided he would take the King David school bus. He checked it out on a Friday, and he took these nurses across the border. Then he returned the bus on Monday morning without anybody having noticed the role that a King David school bus played in the downfall of apartheid.”

For Ancer, writing the book gave him an opportunity to speak to his father about Sachs’s dad. “My father told me that his father, Chaim, loved and adored Solly and looked up to him. When your [Sachs’] father was banned, and then unbanned himself, and led a march to the Johannesburg City Hall, my father was there. My grandfather took him. It was a very special chapter to write.”

Sachs described the chapter as “a lovely one”.

His parents separated when he and his late brother, Johnny, were very young.

“I would have been about three or four-years-old living in Clifton, Cape Town, and I’m told, ‘Your father is visiting Cape Town’,” recounted Sachs. “So, he wasn’t daddy. He was ‘father’. It was only when he was in exile and I went to London and stayed with him that I would call him ‘daddy’.”

Sachs described his dad as passionate and fiery. “He described himself as ugly,” said Sachs. “Helen Joseph, in one of her autobiographical works, said, ‘Solly was the ugliest man I’ve ever known.’ That confirmed the fact that they had an affair. You could only say that about somebody you were very close to.”

In the end, Joseph said she couldn’t measure up to Solly. She said she wasn’t epic enough, and she was fighting against a lover she couldn’t compete with, a lover Solly had never met.

“Her name was Olive Schreiner. He was passionate about Schreiner, the great writer,” said Sachs. “Somehow, Schreiner was the woman who spoke in a passionate language, tone, and spirit and defied what’s expected of women. That made her very attractive to my dad.”

Sachs said the traits he took from his father were his humour, passion, idealism, and ability to turn things around. “He’s very proud of me, and I’m very proud of him,” said Sachs.

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