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Nat and Nelson, friends in law

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ADINA BREGMAN

Dad, when we were youngsters, enthralled us with stories of a fighter for the freedom of his people. Mandela was locked away in a far-off-prison and promised Nat that on his release one day, he would become the first black prime minister with my father in his cabinet.

In those apartheid days, Madiba was a mystery, and only on attending the University of Witwatersrand in the late-1980s did the realisation dawn as to the significance of Nat’s jailed friend.

On visiting our New York family In 1975, Nat arranged a private audience with the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Crown Heights. The visit would affirm his newfound commitment to Judaism, countless hours studying and attending shiurs, learning Hebrew, and reading Torah.

The former communist was intent on learning more about yiddishkeit. Nat, mom, brothers, and sister all met the Rebbe, and each received a dollar to give to charity with the instruction for my dad “never to retire”. Nat practised law for 59 years, working until the day he passed away.

A few years later, my father, asked to do so by the Rebbe, led an initiative as a representative of the Chabad community, when he wrote to Mandela on 25 October 1994, by then president of South Africa.

The Lubavitch Foundation throughout the world has, for many years, presented a menorah, the symbol of freedom from oppression, to the leaders of a number of countries and enclosed “please find” photographs and comments depicting the presentation of the menorah to various heads of state.

Chabad made the gift of a menorah to Presidents Bush and Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as well as the governor-general of Australia. Chabad offered Madiba the same: the gift of a menorah In 1994.

This was the opportunity to rekindle their friendship after a 40-year hiatus. As youngsters, they spent time together as articled law clerks at the same law firm. Nat, a young man of 19, and Mandela, slightly older, sat at adjacent desks studying and practising law.

Their friendship grew during the war years. They would discuss the war looking at maps and recording the planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. Mandela honoured my father, calling him his first white friend.

He recalled sharing a sandwich with Nat, and dad’s efforts to sway him to join the Communist Party. Nat explained to his attentive friend that communism was where everything was fair and equal like half the sandwich he offered him. Madiba was sceptical, as he was quite religious at the time, and was wary of the atheism of the communist movement.

Soon after his release, Madiba called my dad three times to ask him for a reunion dinner for their old law firm. Nat arranged the dinner across the road from the Carlton Hotel in a private dining room after locating Laz Sidelsky and Anita Goodman.

I was fortunate to have the honour of accompanying my father to the reunion. It delighted dad that Mandela, on entering the room, cried out, “Natie!” and gave him a huge hug. The dinner was an incredible experience, with all the waiters paying homage to Mandela sitting at the head of the table.

He retained fond memories of his colleagues, and his experience of sharing meals and idealism with Nat. Calling Sidelsky “boss”, and joking with his friends, the three-hour meal passed as if it were minutes.

Then, as quickly as he had arrived, he was off to another meeting, and a flight to Holland the next day. Nat paved the way for Madiba’s enduring affection for the Jewish community, and the belief in a South Africa for all its people.

  • Adina Bregman is a respected architect and the daughter of Nat Bregman who was Mandela’s “first white friend”, having met as young legal clerks at Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman.

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