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Jewish Zambian freedom fighter laid to rest in state funeral

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It’s not often that one finds a Jewish freedom-fighting 96-year-old in Zambia, but Simon Zukas was one such man. Born in Lithuania and profoundly influenced by the events of the Holocaust, he played a pivotal role in bringing democracy to Zambia. He passed away on 27 September, and was laid to rest in an official state funeral on Tuesday, 5 October.

“Simon was profoundly influenced not just by the moral-ethical teachings of Judaism, but by the historical experience of the Jewish people with whom he never ceased to identify,” said African Jewish Congress (AJC) spiritual leader Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft in his eulogy. “In large part, his abhorrence of injustice, particularly when based on race, was informed by the tragic fate of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe including his own home-town during the Holocaust.” Silberhaft was flown out by the Zambian government to officiate the funeral.

Describing Zukas as “a devoted patriot, freedom fighter, and heroic pioneer of the nation of Zambia”, Silberhaft said that he was born Shimon Ber Zukas “in a small Lithuanian town in 1925, and had just entered his teens when he arrived in what was then Northern Rhodesia just before the outbreak of World War II. For the rest of his long and productive life, he would devote himself to furthering the well-being of his adopted country.”

He landed up in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia because it didn’t have quotas limiting Jewish settlers, unlike South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe.

Zukas studied civil engineering at the University of Cape Town, and got involved in student politics. He later joined the struggle for Zambian independence, and was eventually deported to the United Kingdom.

“He was declared a ‘danger to peace and good order’, and, after a fruitless appeal to the high court and eight months in jail in Livingstone, he was deported to England, a country he had previously neither visited nor lived in,” wrote Sishuwa Sishuwa in the Lusaka Times. “Though constituting a risk to his own life, his decision to confront those who perpetuated injustice and become an active participant in the struggle for independence was a statement of his commitment to equality.”

But in 1965, following statehood, new Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda invited him to return. By now a qualified engineer running a successful consultancy in England, Zukas said he moved back to offer his professional expertise to major infrastructure projects. A career in politics also followed: his efforts to persuade Kaunda and his United National Independence Party to abandon a one-party state failed and, in 1990, he broke ranks and joined the drive towards multiparty politics, playing a leading role in its subsequent return. He was most recently leader of the Forum for Democracy and Development, an opposition political party. He retired from politics in 2005.

Alongside his political and engineering endeavours, Zukas was committed to his Jewish identity. He was chairperson of the Council for Zambian Jewry, and vice-president of the AJC.

AJC President Ann Harris wrote to Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema on Zukas’s passing, describing how the AJC “represented the interests of all the Jewish communities in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa of which Zambia is a proud leader. Simon Zukas was an active member of our organisation. His pride in his nation of Zambia and the excellence and fortitude with which he served his country in many different public spheres created a glow of honour which reflected on our congress.”

Calling Zukas a “father figure”, she wrote that “he had the strength and loyalty to be at one and the same time the proudest of Zambians and an outspoken example of his Jewish identity. To us, the loss is immeasurable, and we are quite sure that all of Zambia feels the same.” She wished the president and the people of Zambia “long life” on his passing.

Writer Cynthia Hartley described in her blog how she found herself “crying hopelessly at the news of his death. We met through mutual friends in Zambia as well as work, engineering, politics, and art. Mike, my husband, was Jewish, and that was an important initial connection. Neither Mike nor Simon were observant Jews, but both cared deeply about the Jewish community and its continuity.

“There are excellent obituaries of Simon Zukas but not all explain how extraordinary his moral principles were, given the universal background of racism he faced,” she wrote. She advised reading his autobiography, Into Exile and Back.

Alongside Zukas every step of the way was his loving wife, Cynthia (nee Robinson). Together, they had two sons. A painter by profession, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2012, “for promoting visual arts in Zambia and for creating a historical archive of Zambian art”.

In his eulogy, Silberhaft described her as a “true partner” in her husband’s life’s work, and “an outstanding citizen in her own right”. Hartley said that “they were an extraordinary couple in their support for and understanding of each other. It was a relationship I have long envied.”

Silberhaft said, “Regardless of his foreign birth and the fact that he wasn’t just white but a member of a small religious minority, Simon Zukas was a Zambian to the core, and so was he regarded by his fellow citizens, regardless of race of creed.

“As spiritual leader to the AJC, I was privileged to have had many opportunities of meeting and working with him, and can attest to how strongly the teachings of his Jewish heritage underpinned his approach to everything that he did,” he said. “I’m bidding farewell not only to a member of my own far-flung African congregation, but also to a true colleague and friend. May the memory of Shimon Ber Zukas be a blessing, and may the example he set be a source of inspiration for all the generations to come.”

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Elie Fintz

    Oct 7, 2021 at 8:38 pm

    DID SHIMON HAVE A BROTHER
    I WAS VERY FRIENDLY TO A ZUKAS IN SALISBURY RHODESIA

  2. Len Judes

    Oct 11, 2021 at 4:47 am

    Remarkable!

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