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Poetry in a backstory: the tale of Issy Lieberman



“If you can keep your head when all about you

       Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

       But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

       Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies;

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

       And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…”

This excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 poem If represents a long and consequential history in the Lieberman family. While many know of and have appreciated Kipling’s ode to a stoic life, it holds particular resonance for us. The backstory follows.

Abraham Lieberman was, by all accounts, a troubled man. The father of five children and one on the way, he was, as with many other Jews in Russia in the 1890s, confronted with some of life’s big quandaries – the survival of his family, for one. The Jewish communities of the Baltic and their neighbouring states had been suffering from a slate of pogroms, with thousands being killed, and it was clear that the Liebermans’ shtetl was eventually going to be engulfed in the violence. Like others in the same situation, responsibility rested on Abraham to find safe harbour for the family.

Abraham’s wife, Rachel, pregnant at the time, told him, “If you’re going, take Israel with you. He’s the naughtiest.”

Israel, or Issy to the family, was their middle child. He had just turned seven. A freckled, ginger lad, Issy was brazen, energetic, and mischievous. The parents agreed that it would be more useful for Issy to travel with his father than to stay home. And so, the large, red-bearded Abraham and small, pale Issy with his shock of ginger hair embarked on their long journey south. By road, rail, and sea, they arrived in Cape Town in 1898.

The Cape Colony was under British rule, and on the brink of war with the Boers. Neither father nor son spoke a word of English. After disembarking, Abraham told Issy to wait with their luggage by the harbour office while he went to find some lodging. “Don’t move from this place until I return,” were his instructions to the boy.

Issy waited. Hours went by. Eventually, night fell. Still, the child waited. His father didn’t return. The following morning, now aching with hunger, Issy continued to wait. Abraham had clearly disappeared. The boy had no choice but to leave and try to find his father.

After ordering Issy to stay put, Abraham had left the port in search of somewhere to stay. This was not meant to take much time. It wasn’t long, however, before he was noticed by a British patrol. Already on high alert – the Boer rebels had come within 80km of Cape Town – they quickly assumed that this large redbeard was from the enemy camp. They arrested Abraham on the spot, transporting him to a nearby concentration camp. He resisted, tried to explain, but to the overwrought British soldiers there was no way they could tell whether this panicked foreigner was pleading in Afrikaans or Yiddish.

For three days, the British held Abraham in the camp, until it became clear to them that he was not, after all, a Boer, nor was he a rebel. “Redbeard” over here was Russian, and they had no quarrel with his people. So they released him. Abraham hastily returned to the port to find Issy, but the child was gone.

The father searched Cape Town for his young son for three months. The city was teeming with the multitudes – soldiers, traders, foreigners, and families. The boy had vanished. Eventually, Abraham concluded that there was no way that the little child could have survived – a helpless, juvenile non-English speaking immigrant. He wrote home to Rachel in Russia, explaining to his wife that Issy had been eaten by wolves, and was dead.

In the meantime, Issy, after failing to find his father, was now entirely guided by his stomach and the need to eat. He started searching for food. For days, he survived on scraps that he found in bins on the street. One day, he came upon a large, discarded barrel, tipped it on its side, and lay down some material he had found on the street. It became his night shelter. In the days and weeks ahead, Issy got smarter about his surroundings, and he started pilfering bottles of fresh milk delivered at sunrise to the front steps of the wealthy colonial homes. He even found a puppy which he took in, and it became his companion.

Eventually, a group of coloured street urchins noticed this very white-skinned ginger kid who was clearly running solo, but doing so on their turf. They approached him, and promptly inducted him into their ranks. Issy had found comrades, community, and the chance to learn some English. They introduced him to their neighbourhood on the other side of town.

Over time, Issy was noticed by a coloured family, who realised that something must have gone terribly wrong for this pale Russian child to have found himself alone on the streets of Cape Town, clearly far from his people. Themselves mired in poverty, they decided to take him in and make sure he survived. He lived with them for several years.

What followed was an orphaned childhood, with Issy surviving on a combination of his own wits, the kindness of strangers, and his desire to survive. Unlike his father, however, his mother, Rachel, had never given up on finding Issy. When she arrived with the rest of the children in South Africa some years later, she launched a searched for Issy. After a miraculous and providential series of events, Issy reunited with his family at the age of 18, in 1909, 11 years after he got lost.

Issy ended up having eight children, my late father, Julius, being the youngest son. Stories abound about Issy’s astonishing young life, including the few indelible impressions that he made on his children – Kipling’s poem If being one of them. If anything was Issy’s north star, it was Kipling’s treatise on how to navigate life, approaching travails and triumphs “just the same”.

My uncle, Robert, one of my father’s elder brothers, was the Lieberman family patriarch for the last five decades. At 93, on 30 August, Issy’s last surviving son passed away at his home in Johannesburg. Robert was a successful and generous man, a guiding light for the family, making sure that all members of our large clan were taken care of. In researching Issy’s story, and in order to spend time with my uncle when I could, over the past few years, Robert and I were in fairly consistent contact. On one recent occasion we had a long and deeply insightful conversation, where he shared a memory from his childhood. It offered the most profound perspective on my zeide, Issy’s, character, and something he hoped his progeny would live by. Issy had framed and hung a large, coloured print of the poem in the house, and told his kids that should any of them be able to recite the poem by heart – clearly with the intention that they absorb the wisdom therein – that that child would receive two and sixpence, a fair sum at the time! Robert could still deliver the poem from memory, which he did for me there and then.

An era has ended in the Lieberman family with the passing of our beloved uncle Robert, who is survived by his wife, Fanny, and sons Eric and Alan. In his memory, may the perpetual wisdom of Kipling’s poem abide and roll through to the next generations.

  • Guy Lieberman is a cultural activist, writer, filmmaker and, very recently, a podcaster. He lives in Zichron Yaakov, Israel. His podcast The Hadeda can be found on Spotify.

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