Subscribe to our Newsletter


click to dowload our latest edition

The hidden, humbling history of the Litvaks

Published

on

Lifestyle

Kęstutis Pikūnas put together a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Passport – The Litvaks’ about the Jews of Lithuania. Being Lithuanian and having grown up there, he knew nothing about Litvaks beforehand. The SA Jewish Report asked him about his experience.

How did this project come about, and do you have a Litvak background?

When I first started writing these Passports, my goal was to present Lithuania in an annual English publication for a foreign audience.

Being Lithuanian and having lived abroad for many years, I wanted to tell the story of Lithuania through its people from the best possible angle. This ambition came from bitter personal experience and the fact that many people identified me as a foreigner who came from a culturally and economically poor country. It triggered a sense of inferiority and frustration, leading me to try to prove everyone wrong.

Little did I know that as I interviewed luminaries, I learnt humbling life lessons. I realised how little I knew about the history of my homeland and how selective and superficial my approach was. This was the beginning of my journey.

I don’t have a Litvak background and when I started the project, I didn’t plan to dedicate one whole publication to the Litvaks. This was because I knew very little (or close to nothing) about Litvak culture, heritage, and history.

I was born at the time when Lithuania was still under the Soviet regime, so we didn’t learn about it at school, nor did my parents talk about it at home.

When I was compiling the second volume, I met Professor Irena Veisaitė, who was among the few Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Meeting her was an eye-opener.

Hearing her extraordinary story of survival and courage, I was left with countless unsettling questions. How come I had only learnt about this now? Why was my perception so superficial for so many years? Where does this disinterest and denial come from?

This initial conversation led to a dear friendship and further discoveries. After interviewing her for the second volume, which also features an interview with South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro) and Litvak businessman Eli Broad, it was clear to me that the third volume would be dedicated to the Litvaks.

What did you expect to learn from the project?

I had way more questions than answers. As I learnt more, I felt a deep sense of shame about the massacres and local collaborators.

To this day, I find it hard to comprehend how, in this modern day and age, we still choose to turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable truth, trying to forget rather than talk openly about it.

It always puzzled me. We all know that Jews lived in Lithuania for hundreds of years. They created, built, and loved together. There are plenty of signs all across Lithuania of that. But I understand that realisation comes gradually. This is what this experience has taught me.

What were you trying to achieve and why?

I wanted to induce empathy and honest dialogue. I believe storytelling is a powerful tool, and it can work miracles if it captures the reader’s attention on a personal level.

I’m happy that I had an opportunity to record and perpetuate what I consider an inseparable part of Lithuanian history.

A friend of mine (I had no idea he was Jewish), whom I interviewed, said, “History is made up of facts, but treating these facts selectively, choosing what feels acceptable and familiar but ignoring anything that may be unpleasant, is foolish. This road leads to nowhere, and often results in hostility.”

I believe that knowing history through its dry facts and figures is one thing, but being able to understand the events and reasons why and how it all happened is another.

Another important detail which is important to mention is that I didn’t have to do this book, I chose to do it. It was never my intention to invent something new, quite the opposite. I wanted to feel it, discover it, and “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. And I don’t regret a single minute of it.

What were the stories/anecdotes that stood out for you and why?

It would be hard to pick out one story that stood out the most while compiling this publication as they all are personal and delicate. Probably the reaction of my peers surprised me most as I was keen to learn what my family and friends knew about Lithuanian Jews and the history of Lithuanian Jewry. To this day, there are so many ridiculous superstitions, myths, and twisted narratives about the Jews. I simply don’t get it. As for anecdotes, there aren’t that many, and they are far from funny.

What were the most emotionally tough parts to deal with?

Quite a few. Being at murder sites and talking to Holocaust survivors about their experiences moved me immensely. It would be impossible to describe that feeling in words as it’s utterly incomprehensible how this could have happened. Just standing there next to a pit, or simply looking into a person’s eyes who witnessed the atrocities without saying a word, these silent moments speak volumes to me.

Was there anything uplifting and inspiring in the process?

The courage of those who stayed true to human values. Those who resisted, and risked their own lives to save their neighbours or even a stranger. Their stories and testimonies will stay with me for the rest of my life. Of course, becoming friends with those who contributed and those whom I interviewed for this publication is another rewarding experience.

What were your impressions of the South African Litvaks you spoke to?

I only had the chance to interview Robbie Brozin, who later introduced me to Justice Albie Sachs. Each of their stories are unique and valuable. I have to admit that even in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought that I would ever have the chance not only to interview them, but make friends with them. This is very important. I keep in touch with them and our friendship is dear to me.

How did you deal with the South African aspect of the book?

The story of South African Jews is unique. Not many people know that more than 90% of the Jews in South Africa came from Lithuania. Right before the pandemic, I was planning to go to South Africa together with the photographer and spend some time there documenting. As strong and insightful as Albie and Robbie’s interviews are, I believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that in the near future it will be possible to travel again and continue what has been started.

What was the reason for putting Sachs on the cover?

Our first conversation lasted for maybe more than three hours and prior to that, we simply agreed to talk, without a set list of questions or any further commitments. I’m happy that Sachs kindly agreed to our talk being transcribed, edited, and published. He embodies everything that this publication is about. I could go on and on about the reasons why Albie is on the cover, but I believe that G-d is in the details. And I have to say that Steve Gordon, a dear friend of Albie, took fantastic photographs.

On completion of this book, what have you learnt about the Litvaks?

An awful lot! I quote Meryl Frank, a Litvak from the United States, whom I also interviewed: “The worst thing a person can do to another is to ignore them, to fail to see them, and erase them from history. I have seen a change in Lithuania over the 15 years I’ve been visiting the city of Vilnius [Vilna]. I believe that with the passage of time and the recognition of history, there is a possibility for building bridges.” I honestly believe that there is no better time than now to reach out for each other’s hand. The truth has the power to liberate.

What would you want those who read your book to learn or understand?

This is probably the hardest questions of all, because while compiling this book, I was often asked questions like: “Why is this important?”; “Why should I care about the past?”; “Why do you care?” and so on and so forth. I think there’s no right answer to this question. I truly hope that the reader will take away a sense of empathy and compassion.

Why do you believe this is an important book, and who is it important for?

The book is relevant to everyone, and it’s especially important for us ethnic Lithuanians, Lithuanian Jews, and Litvaks. It’s a genuine invitation to review and, hopefully, renew the relationship.

Continue Reading
2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Carole smollan

    Jun 17, 2021 at 2:34 pm

    Where can one order this book in UK PLEASE

  2. RAMI REZNIK

    Jun 18, 2021 at 12:44 pm

    Very impressive interview.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lifestyle

Mangoes and the Queen Mum: new book documents Jews of Kampala

Published

on

Janice Masur is keeping alive the memory of one of many Jewish communities that disappeared in the past century – the Jews of Uganda.

The history of Eastern European Jewry in Kampala had all but died out when Masur recently brought out a book believed to be the only one devoted to the Jewish community in the capital city of Uganda.

Titled Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, the well-researched book begins with a historical overview of Jews in Africa, and goes on to tell Masur’s story of living in a little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala from 1949 to 1961.

Although this tiny and remote community had no rabbi or synagogue, its 23 families formed a cohesive group that celebrated all Jewish festivals together and upheld their Jewish identity. Sadly, while Kampala Jewry made every effort to survive, the community eventually withered under the hot African sun, leaving few traces of its existence.

However, Masur’s desire to bear witness to the place where she spent her childhood has resulted in its history being preserved in this compelling memoir, supported by interviews, photographs, and in-depth research.

The idea for the book originated in a modern East African history class she attended at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She began writing in 2005, travelling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians who had arrived in Kampala earlier in their lives.

Masur herself was born in Eritrea, where her parents chose to move from Palestine in 1942, presumably for better job and financial opportunities. They settled in Uganda in 1949 after Masur’s father, Helmut, was hired to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork Company.

“I am a second-generation Jewish woman and have only one cousin who joined us in Kampala with his family,” Masur told the SA Jewish Report from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “We visited South Africa in 1961 when travelling by car from Uganda to Durban – and stayed in a Jewish hotel – to board a cargo ship which deposited us in New Zealand [where she attended university].”

Today, she is strongly rooted in her Jewish community in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband.

“I visited South Africa again in 2001, meeting a childhood friend in Cape Town,” Masur said. “I visited Namibia in 2010 – not really South Africa.”

In one of the anecdotes as a nine-year-old in Kampala, Masur writes in her book that “a rabbi was imported from South Africa for Yom Kippur” in 1953. He stayed with her family, and held the service in their house. Her parents told her to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would be unaware of her not fasting.

“Many years later, I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law wasn’t fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered,” she writes.

Masur shares another experience in her book, the significance of which she discovered only later in life. While living in a single-level house that had an avocado tree and a badminton court, she often saw her family’s “houseboy”, Odera, dancing and singing around the house.

“My mother spent a lot of time screaming at the houseboy in frustration at his supposed inability to follow instructions, which I later learned was a passive tactic of rebellion against British rule,” she writes.

From 1957 to 1960, she attended the government (semi-private) Highlands School in Eldoret, Kenya, and noticed that post-war antisemitism was endemic. “Unkind girls in Eldoret would sometimes bully me by telling me that I was a misfit because my nationality was Jewish, not British, although I was naturalised British and my religion was Jewish!” she writes.

On several occasions, Masur stood with her mother in the driveway outside the gates of Government House in Entebbe with a crowd of other people to watch the arrival or departure of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother.

In preparation for the visit of the latter in 1959, all the shops on the main street were scrubbed and painted, the road islands were dolled up, and flags and bunting feverishly bought. To meet the dress requirements, Masur’s mother and aunty had to borrow gloves and hats from friends. Soon, the duo laughed to see their picture shown on the front page of the Uganda Argus newspaper with the Queen Mum.

Masur hasn’t returned to Uganda since leaving Kampala for New Zealand as she thinks that “perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance”.

That said, her formative years in the country have left a lasting imprint. “To this day, I love mangoes, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups,” Masur recently told the Canadian website Jewish Independent.

Today, Uganda has about 2 000 observant Jews known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. Having converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule in 1921, the Abayudaya is a now-thriving, self-sufficient black Jewish community in Mbale, boasting synagogues, Jewish schools, a mikvah, and a cemetery.

However, there isn’t even a cemetery to mark the existence of Masur’s family and 22 others who managed to create an Eastern European Jewish community in Kampala. Masur hopes that her book will document and honour what she describes as “an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy”.

Continue Reading

Lifestyle

Bake bosses: fondant queens take the cake

Published

on

Some are adorned with the delicate lace, glistening pearls, and relief cameos of a baroque boudoir; others uphold a gallery of watercolour Peter Rabbits in petite. In one, the entire history of Cape Jewish life is rendered in mini-marvels, while in another, an edible garden of Namaqualand succulents and aloes blooms.

Indeed, there’s no telling what portal you have opened when lifting the lid of another of Vivienne Basckin’s boxes of cupcake compositions. Yet the real wonderland lives inside the imagination extraordinaire of this Cape Town-based cupcake artist.

“I enjoy the challenge of taking it out the box – if someone says, ‘Could you…?’ There’s no limit to what one can do when you explore and play.”

Entirely self-taught, Basckin says that while she used to enjoy making cakes for her children and even came up with a koi fish one for her husband “using the salmon mould everyone uses for Pesach”, she discovered her cupcake artistry in 2015 when she was invited to a friend’s 60th birthday and felt stuck for a gift idea, “So I made 60 cupcakes and from then, the whole thing started. It’s a hobby gone mad.”

Although she has always loved the flamboyance of the baroque and rococo periods, she had never found an artistic medium for this fascination – until, surprising, she found fondant. “When I started to work with it, I realised that this little piece of fondant afforded me every single opportunity to do colour and form. I wanted to do something that’s a bit more edgy.”

Through trial, error, and zany experimentation, Basckin is now renowned not just for this striking antique style – but a wide range of designs.

Beyond the kitchen, Zimbabwean-born Basckin has globe-trotted with her husband and now-grown-up children. Her son was born while they were in Amsterdam, and her daughter in Hong Kong. She worked for more than 40 years as a teacher and lecturer in institutions as diverse as Harold Cressy High School and Herzlia, the University of Amsterdam, and the Professional Communications Unit of the University of Cape Town’s engineering faculty. Today, she also works as a guide at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.

When it comes to non-edible art, she is also an accomplished painter. Twenty of her watercolour renderings of Western Cape synagogues are displayed at the South African Jewish Museum. Now, Basckin has even translated her talent onto the cupcake as canvasses, painting with edible watercolours onto dainty slates of fondant. She has also become a sculptor of note – albeit on a Lilliputian scale – of figurines of any fancy.

Basckin’s cupcakes are made in sets. Each individual mini-cake is a unique design, making up an overall artistic arrangement within a specific colour palette and artistic theme. “I can’t go to bed at night until I have actually got the composition right.”

Most recently, she has been creating baked biographies for birthdays in which she designs a set of cupcakes, each one depicting an individual aspect of the person’s life and likes. For example, one customer had their dog’s portrait painted on one, and their beloved Bentley immortalised on another. A rich maroon theatre curtain is folded over the top of another with golden drama masks, while a tiny bowl and chopsticks adorned another to show off a love of Chinese food.

The actual cupcakes are all classic vanilla with a butter icing underneath the design. “All the excitement is on the top!” she quips. Basckin is able to make kosher orders, partnering to use the premises of a kosher caterer. Although she has investigated the possibility of deliveries to other cities or overseas, the fragility of the creations makes it impossible.

However, her acclaim has travelled so far, a friend in Austria contacted her saying there was a woman there who wanted Basckin’s cupcakes for her son’s wedding.

When Basckin explained that it wasn’t possible to send them over, they paid for Basckin to come to the country for a week to make her masterpieces for the happy occasion.

Ultimately, says Basckin, the best part of the work, is the connection with people and their celebrations. “The loveliest has been going on a journey with a family, from making their engagement cupcakes to their wedding ones, and now for their child’s fifth birthday!”

She says her husband jokes that she loves the “instant gratification – the joy when they gasp, and I just know it hits the spot!”

The Egoli empresses of edibles

Esti Cohen of Esti’s Boutique Baking Studio, Kerry Halfon of Sugar Bear Bakery, Sharit Shapiro of Biscuit by Design, and Natasha Seef-Bear of Ma Baker love bringing a bit of sweetness to Joburgers’ lives all year round.

Although they come from backgrounds as diverse as the fashion design, psychology, marketing, and documentary filmmaking, they all share a love of creative expression and a passion for people.

“I’ve always been artistic. Even when I was two years old, I would draw the Smurf village on the wall,” recalls Cohen, who was born in Israel but lives with her husband and three children in Johannesburg.

For her, baking also started as a hobby, but has evolved into a professional craft whereby she has so many culinary fans, that she gets calls at night for those craving her carrot cake. “Customers become so dedicated to a cake, be it the carrot, lemon meringue, or coffee. They will buy three or four at a time!”

Her highly decorated birthday cakes come in perfected classics like chocolate and vanilla, as well as marble, and indeed, for Cohen, the balance is always between delicious flavour and beautiful appearance. ”First you eat with your eyes, and then it must be a joy to taste,” she says.

Most of her recipes are family secrets that are worked and reworked according to their approval. “A lot of my recipes go way, way back. We will take a recipe and do it over and over until everyone in the family agrees – because they are the ones who will be blunt with you. When we are happy with it, we launch it into the world!”

She has also enjoyed teaching workshops, especially to children, in various creative pursuits, and views her business as “always evolving”. She works in a studio in Sandringham, and is kosher under the Beth Din. During COVID-19, Cohen began making a Shabbat menu, which has been very successful.

She says that even after 15 years, every time she get a compliment, it fills her with happiness. “I love the whole process, from when the client contacts me and is excited about their simcha. This is what G-d blessed me with: they feeling that I can be a part of happy things.”

Halfon of Sugar Bear Bakery also believes there is no better feeling that a satisfied customer. When a little birthday boy or girl “doesn’t want to cut their cake” because they love it so much, she knows she’s managed to bake magic into the mix.

She says the trends for girls are all about Candyland and glitter fantasy figures like unicorns, mermaids, and Frozen characters. Many boys are into gaming at the moment like Roblox and Fortnite. Paw Patrol seems to close the gender gap.

Halfon also enjoys the “entrepreneurial aspect of the work”, and her business has grown to the point that she’s able to oversee much of the running of it, a perfect blending of her previous experience in marketing for a food magazine.

Seef-Bear of Ma Baker started her journey by making her children’s birthday cakes and realising how much she enjoyed it. She started making for friends, then advertised on social media until it became a full-time pursuit, one built around being able to have quality time with her children.

“I sit up at night when the kids go to bed and just create things,” she says about her love of sculpting figurines and challenging herself to try new designs.

Her business, which is kosher but not under the Beth Din, has allowed her to gain in confidence as she has taught herself a variety of skills. Right now, fidget pops in fondant is a popular choice for celebration cakes, as are Disney options.

Yet, like Shapiro of Biscuit by Design, she has had her share of wackier requests. Both have been asked to forge intimate appendages in dough form for racier occasions – the former in cake and the latter in biscuit bites.

But beyond this bit of the bawdy, Shapiro’s repertoire is indeed refined, crafting the most elegant of floral wedding sets, to bright and bold pop-culture compositions.

Like Seef-Bear, Shapiro is self-taught – “You can learn anything on the internet!” – and first discovered her passion for baking making her children’s birthday treats.

As a child, while she “liked being in the kitchen because my mother was always there”, Shapiro says she has never considered herself artistic and therefore was surprised to discover her creative side.

As life comes full-circle, her mother now works with her in the running of things, with Shapiro declaring, “She’s the force behind the business, actually.”

She also offers unique products that allow people to decorate or paint different biscuit designs, with one range offering an edible version of a “colouring-in-page” for children. Kosher under the Beth Din, they have also launched a build your-own-sukkah biscuit kit alongside their existing gingerbread house ones.

And as for her tips for the year ahead, “It’s definitely have a cookie a day!”

Continue Reading

Lifestyle

Kentridge artwork sales throw lifeline to artists

Published

on

“The situation we are in cannot be the end state of the world; there has to be a better condition for everyone, including artists.”

So said world-famous South African artist William Kentridge, whose donation of an artwork titled Oh to Believe in Another World to The Lockdown Collection (TLC) has contributed to the awarding of 60 bursaries this year.

Almost R720 000 was raised through the sale of this blue rebus-text artwork as well as a previous Kentridge poster sold over lockdown called Weigh All Tears. As a result, the TLC exceeded its goals, and enabled 60 students to be awarded a bursary of R12 000 each.

A charitable and art-inspired initiative, the TLC was conceived and developed by Lauren Woolf, the founder of consultancy Mrs Woolf; Kim Berman, the founding director of Artist Proof Studio (APS); and Carl Bates, the founding partner of business leadership initiative Sirdar in 2020 in order to capture South Africa’s historic COVID-19 lockdown and support vulnerable artists. The organisation recently won two accolades at the 2020/2021 BASA (Business and Arts South Africa) Awards.

Mrs Woolf, with arts partner APS, won the SMME (Small, Micro or Medium-sized Enterprise) Award, and Sirdar, with arts partner APS, won the First Time Sponsor Award.

“It was awesome recognition to receive the two BASA awards on behalf of Artist Proof Studio with the TLC partners,” said Berman, a professor in visual art at the University of Johannesburg.

The TLC was launched within 48 hours on the eve of South Africa’s historic first COVID-19 lockdown. Due to the instant fallout of the pandemic, it aimed to raise desperately needed funds for artists and the broader community.

Ahead of TLC’s auction the following month, Mark Auslander, a professor from Central Washington University in the United States, said, “This is the most significant initiative in the art world on planet earth right now.”

The auction raised more than R2 million in just a few hours. It was a “white glove sale”, which means every artwork in the auction sold, including additional artworks by Kentridge sold in an innovative Zoom live bidding format.

Since then, the TLC has raised more than R3.5 million in total, allocated more than 500 grants to vulnerable artists, and just recently awarded 50 bursaries for art students.

Said a beneficiary, “The funding allowed me to buy food and pay for electricity and data. This, in turn, allowed me to continue marketing my work online for possible sales. This wouldn’t have been possible [had] I not had the support from TLC and the fund.”

Speaking about what she will take out of TLC, Woolf said, “That energy that comes with the urgency. The creative energy, the physical and spiritual energy that comes when a lot of people come together for a cause and initiative that they believe in.”

Berman described working with Woolf and Bates as “a dynamite combination of skills and collaboration. The synergy was electric and catalysed hundreds of people all over the world who bought into and invested in the concept.

“We raised R2 million from one auction with the sale of 21 artworks, which was remarkable. The business and marketing networks of the co-founders were quite awesome to witness. They could mobilise the business community to get involved and invest in this visionary idea. My role was to invite the artists to participate, and use the Artist Proof Studio network, an organisation I co-founded 30 years ago, to reach out to the art community. It offered an amazing opportunity to organise a campaign that supported hundreds of vulnerable artists across the country, and many of them are students or alumni of APS. The impact this has had on so many artists during a very hard time was moving.”

The initiative “motivated the artists to carry on working and at the same time gave them a platform to show how the pandemic had affected them and their families”, said Cinthia Sifa Mulanga, an artist who contributed to the collection.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on vulnerable artists, said Berman. “APS has taken a leading role in ensuring that artists are supported over this time. At APS, our key interest is to keep artists making art and remain self-sustaining by keeping them healthy, connected, and having the materials to create. Many of the APS artists received grants and bursaries to sustain their practices and livelihoods. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s the artists in all disciplines who have kept the world hopeful, entertained, and inspired during this global trauma.”

Asked for her advice for aspiring artists, Berman said, “In my book called Finding Voice: A Visual Arts Approach to Engaging Social Change, I write about the use of art as a vehicle for solidarity and collective action that leads to empowerment and agency in addressing the challenges faced in times of trauma. I see the TLC art campaign and the voices of students as a hopeful vision for engaging greater social justice in our institutions and communities.”

Continue Reading

HOLD Real Estate

Trending