The Kretzmer from Kroonstad who made Les Misérables sing
Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote the lyrics for the English version of Les Misérables, died in London on 14 October, nine days after his 95th birthday.
Known to family and friends as “Herbie”, he was born in Kroonstad, south of Johannesburg in 1925. He was one of four sons of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants who ran a grocery shop and later a prosperous furniture store. “Herbie always said he was just a little ‘okey’ from Kroonstad, and he didn’t know why people imagined he was something more than that,” says his niece, Linda Rosenberg.
”Almost all of Herbie’s patrilineal cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were murdered on 8 August 1941 [in the Holocaust],” wrote Michael Kretzmer, whose late father was the songwriter’s first cousin. Describing the “unimaginable sadism, torture, and rape on the part of the 80 Lithuanian murderers, 50 of them townsfolk and neighbours from his home town Birzai,” who murdered so many of their relatives, he says: “Herbie Kretzmer was the perfect response to that enduring wickedness.
“Because, in spite of all this terror and pain, the extraordinary Kretzmers of Kroonstad chose life and thrived. There were four brothers: one became a respected dentist; another a successful businessman; another [Elliot Kretzmer] became the mayor of Johannesburg; and Herbie wasn’t only a songwriter but also a critic, author, and journalist of great renown. It humbles me how these shattered families, strewn around the unwelcoming African veld with nothing but determination and courage, turned their lives around within one generation.”
According to Associated Press, “Though his [Kretzmer’s] childhood under the vast expanse of South African sky was ‘blissful’, he wanted by the age of 11 to become a ‘newspaper man’ so he could get closer to his heroes on screen.”
From Johannesburg, he moved to Paris in 1953, playing the piano at night in a bar in return for a meal. A year later, he moved to London, and fulfilled his dream of having an award-winning journalistic career that included stints at the Daily Express and Daily Mail.
His interviews read like the ’who’s who’ of 20th-century entertainment, including Muhammad Ali, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, David Niven, and Frank Sinatra. Some interviewees, like Peter Sellers and Terence Stamp, became close friends.
Music was his other passion. He wrote weekly songs in the 1960s for That Was The Week That Was, the BBC’s ground-breaking satirical show that proved the launchpad for the careers of luminaries. Some of these singles became hits, like She, which he wrote with French singer Charles Aznavour.
“He was almost a last minute choice to do the lyrics of Les Misérables,” says theatre veteran Percy Tucker, the founder of Computicket. The previous lyricist had spent a year and a half writing the songs before it was concluded by producer Cameron Mackintosh that his lyrics, though brilliant, were “unsingable” in a popular show. He called Kretzmer in a panic.
“My dad, Elliot Kretzmer, was with him when Herbie was asked to write the new English lyrics. Herbie said that if he could write four lines that they loved, he would take the job. They loved them. Those lines were the beginning of the Les Misérables song Master of the House,” says Rosenberg.
In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, Kretzmer recalled, “I was so keen to work on a big musical that I’d have accepted if it had been Three Blind Mice. I begged extended leave, holed up in my house, and barely emerged for five months.”
Kretzmer always emphasised that he didn’t simply translate the show from the French version. “The word ‘translation’ makes me shiver. Words can resonate in one culture but not another, so I read the novel and then told the story in my own way.” He went on to expand the show by an extra hour.
Delving into how some of the songs came about, he recalled, “When we realised that Marius needed to express survivor’s guilt over the death of his friends, I came up with the song Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”. Meanwhile, Castle on a Cloud had the line “There is a prince on the road” in the French version, “but it seemed to me a young orphan would be dreaming of a mother figure rather than a lover,” so Kretzmer altered the words to reflect this.
But the song sung by Valjean to Marius at the barricades stumped him. The music he was given was “ridiculously at odds” with what was happening on stage, until co-director John Caird suggested that it sounded like a prayer. “The minute he said that, every door seemed to fly open. I stood for the rest of that night in my study and by 05:00, Bring Him Home was written – 17 days before the show opened.”
While it was criticised by early reviewers, the crowds loved it. “I have never been able to explain what happened,” Kretzmer later said. “The overnight success of Les Misérableshas become a myth now, but it literally was overnight.” Up until the coronavirus crisis, it was the longest-running West End musical. He was able to retire at the age of 61, and according to his obituary in The New York Times, he earned about $20 million (R330 million) from royalties.
Tucker was there on the night of the 25th anniversary celebration of the show, in which Kretzmer was honoured. “All the casts from all the productions all over the world joined in, and the audience stood and cried for nearly 15 minutes. Twenty-five thousand people were there, and it was difficult to say anything but hello – everybody who was anybody in theatre was trying to greet him. He received massive applause when he came forward to take his bow. It was one of the most emotional nights I have ever spent in the theatre.”
At the age of 87, Kretzmer was nominated for Best Original Song at the 85th Academy Awards and the 70th Golden Globe Awards for the song Suddenly from the 2012 film version ofLes Misérables. He was elected a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 for services to music.
But with all the accolades, he never forgot his South African past. He was extremely generous: “We had wonderful times with him whenever we went to the United Kingdom. We were treated to all the major West End performances,” says Molly Kretzmer, who married his late brother, Basil.
“Herbie loved the Afrikaans language. Whenever we chatted on the phone, he spoke only in Afrikaans. He came to visit us a few times, and just couldn’t get enough of our beautiful blue skies. He said nowhere in the world are the skies as blue as in Africa. He loved our country, even though he left so many moons ago. He never missed a Boks game!”
For Michael Kretzmer, the family’s greatest triumph was their continuing ability to love and show love, and to care for mankind” after the horror of the Holocaust. He sees this in Kretzmer’s lyrics, giving people a voice and hope in the face of oppression. “Did you know that protestors in Hong Kong and Belarus sang Herbie’s songs from Les Misérables as a rallying cry? I’m sure many of his songs will live forever, and I cannot think of a greater honour.”
Mogoeng comes out swinging against apology ruling
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng came out swinging in his appeal against Judge Phineas Mojapelo’s judgment ordering him to apologise for comments made about Israel.
Mogoeng criticised Mojapelo at every turn, describing his reasoning as “flawed and disturbingly superficial”. He said “the learned judge failed to deal with the constitutional right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief, thought, and opinion”.
In his 38-page appeal submitted to the Judicial Service Commission on 2 April 2021, Mogoeng reiterated why he had the right to express his support for both Israel and the Palestinians during a webinar hosted by the Jerusalem Post last year.
His appeal was in response to the Judicial Conduct Committee’s ruling on 4 March 2021 that he had 10 days to apologise for comments he made about Israel in the webinar. At the time, he said South Africa had a role to play in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he supported both peoples, and as a Christian, he had an obligation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Africa4Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa (BDS SA) coalition, and the Women’s Cultural Group laid complaints against Mogoeng, saying he had flouted rules regarding judicial ethics. The matter was adjudicated by Mojapelo.
One of Mogoeng’s most pertinent points was that “several precautions need to be sounded to avoid the trap that His Lordship Mr Justice Mojapelo unreflectingly allowed himself to fall into”. According to the chief justice, this includes the fact that “it’s necessary to distinguish between official government policy and the policies of lobby groups and non-government organisations. And it’s necessary for decision-maker[s] to tell the difference between politics and policy, which his lordship failed to do.”
He also insisted that the judge’s “insinuation that I was possibly involved in some conspiracy with the Israeli government and ‘timed’ the webinar in such a way to undermine international law or United Nations conventions/resolutions … is a material misdirection”.
Mogoeng said there was no difference between what he said and the South African government’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “After a thorough search, I vouch for the fact that there is no official policy of the South African government that contradicts any part of what I actually said. Even the two agreements signed by President Mandela and President Mbeki with Israel don’t contradict anything I have said. I was therefore found guilty of five complaints or counts of misconduct that turn on a non-existent official policy of the South African government towards Israel.”
He emphasised that “the supremacy of the constitution and the entitlement of all citizens, including judges and magistrates, to enjoy fundamental rights cannot be wished away. Where these rights are limited by legislation or the code, a proper explanation is called for. Judges have the constitutional right to freedom of expression, association, and religion, belief, thought, and opinion. As is the case with other citizens, these rights may be limited. But the limitations must, broadly speaking, be reasonable and justifiable. They cannot be arbitrary or whimsical.”
He went on to describe how other judges had waded into political waters, including Mojapelo himself. He also described how “my brother Dennis Davis hosted speakers, including politicians, on his then Judge for Yourself eNCA television programme about the Israeli-Palestinian political situation and a range of political controversies to which leaders of political parties were invited and participated. He was exercising his constitutional right to free expression although different views might be expressed about being a regular anchor or host of a TV programme.”
Mogoeng described how other judges had involved themselves in political controversies in Fiji, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, “And my dear brother Cameron J [Justice Edwin Cameron] essentially said what I said on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the real difference being, unlike me, he didn’t rely on the Bible.” Yet, none of these men were hauled over the coals for their comments or actions.
A senior member of the legal profession, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The grounds of appeal make some sharp points against a senior retired and respected judge. It’s most unfortunate for judges to have such a public and divisive difference – both judges firing heavy ammunition at each other as to how the other has misconstrued the law. It doesn’t do much for confidence in the law and judiciary by the public generally.” He pointed out, however, that the chief justice “makes some powerful points, which need to be taken seriously”.
Tony Leon shrugs off attack from anti-Israel lobby
It has been a busy time for Tony Leon, the erstwhile leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), but one he takes in his stride.
Leon has faced a barrage of criticism from numerous quarters for his recent pro-Israel comments, and for saying in a News24 interview that former DA leader Mmusi Maimane was “an experiment that went wrong”.
The two aren’t related but coincide with the release of his fifth book, Future Tense: Reflections on My Troubled Land.
The outspoken and bold politician-turned-diplomat-turned-communications specialist caused waves among the anti-Israel lobby with his recent controversial views on South Africa’s foreign policy – or lack thereof – and its anti-Israel fixation.
In an opinion piece in the Sunday Times on 28 March titled: “Israel a handy alibi for SA’s poor foreign policy”, Leon berates the government’s numerous dubious foreign policy decisions, notably its silence on serious global issues compared to its vocal condemnation and criticism of the state of Israel.
This “fervour” of anti-Israel sentiment, he said, was “infectious” noting the “swift condemnation” by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng for his pro-Israel comments in a webinar held in June last year.
Leon said the speed it took for the Judicial Conduct Committee (of the JSC) to find Mogoeng guilty of contravening articles of the code of judicial conduct and ordering him to apologise was “breathtaking”, pointing out how other judges’ cases have taken years. He accused the JSC of being “hypocritical, lax, and dilatory in its core tasks”.
Leon lauded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vaccination programme, which has resulted in 70% of the country being vaccinated, leading the world in this regard.
In his piece he said, “To the extent that South Africa has a foreign policy at all, beyond a series of outdated impulses and struggle-retro gestures, Israel is the one place where President Cyril Ramaphosa, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, and Pretoria’s paladins can shine their human-rights credentials.”
He cited examples of some of the government’s regretful decisions, including “Silence on the slaughter in Syria; assent to concentration camps for China’s Uighurs; no entry here for His Highness the Dalai Lama; no censure for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea; and heralding stolen elections across the continent from Congo to Uganda,” and added that “at least Israel and its violations of the rights of Palestinians provides a handy alibi and a lonely exception to our generous support everywhere else in the world for ‘tyrannical leaders hated by their own populations’”.
Leon’s comments have elicited a seething-mad reaction from the anti-Israel chamber, which responded a week later in a burst of opinion pieces and letters in the Sunday paper.
One opined that Leon’s criticism of the country’s foreign policy and judiciary was “an attempt to defend Israel and its supporters in South Africa”. The writer said Leon used the “well-worn pro-Israeli tactic of ‘whataboutery’, deflecting attention from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Another accused him of resorting to a “misleading narrative of virtue and victimhood”.
Leon this week shrugged off the attacks, telling the SA Jewish Report, “My view on the selectivity and myopia of current South African foreign policy is well founded and impeccably documented, as is the success of Israel vaccine rollout, whatever Netanyahu’s motives for it might have been. I hardly expected my view to go unchallenged, and I have no problem at all with the voluble and inevitable expression of a contrary view as contained in Sunday Times last week”.
Leon is executive chair of Resolve Communications, an advocacy company for reputational management and strategic communication. He is married to an Israeli woman, Michal.
The attacks on Leon come as no surprise to political commentator Daniel Silke, who said the African National Congress (ANC) and members of the anti-Israel lobby weren’t ready to take a giant leap into a more balanced environment regarding Israel.
“Israel is a useful rallying cry for the ruling party, which continues to beat Israel instead of having to confront tough foreign policy and global issues. This is a comfortable foreign policy angle for the ANC to employ, and plays into the old anger of Israel co-operating with the apartheid regime.”
Silke said it showed how the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement) had largely influenced and infiltrated the higher echelons of foreign policy in South Africa.
“South Africa is increasingly out of touch with the changing dynamics vis a vis Israel’s relationship with not only Gulf states but also a number of African countries. South Africa is becoming an outlier in terms of its blanket condemnation of Israel. She is isolated on the continent as far as Israel is concerned, and she will have to live with the consequences.”
He said the anti-Israel lobby faced “a crisis of credibility” by continuing to propagate a particular message that was no longer the consensus in the Middle East.
“The broader macro issues of how to deal with the Abraham Accords has made life difficult for an organisation like BDS. It’s undermined by the broader diplomatic events taking place. These developments are making it difficult for the anti-Israel lobby to continue to lambast Israel when any number of Arab nations have decided to take a more co-operative stance with Jerusalem. In future, it will either have to take a more radical line which will totally exclude it from the changes, or [engage in] a more pragmatic, constructive engagement with Israel.”
Meanwhile One South Africa Movement leader Maimane hit back at Leon for telling News24 at the weekend that he was “an experiment that went wrong”, calling the statement dehumanising.
In an interview with Newzroom Afrika, Leon said the statement was made in an interview with News24 about his book, where he said “Mmusi was an experiment that went wrong as he had never committed to the party’s ideals before he joined it.”
Albie Sachs on the handshake that shook him
Justice Albie Sachs felt a real sense of liberation after encountering the man who orchestrated the car bombing in which he lost an arm and the sight in one eye.
Sachs told the Temple Israel Passover Freedom online event last week that his “heart [was] beating very, very fast” when apartheid soldier Henry van der Westhuizen asked to see him for the first time.
At the time, in 1996, Sachs was serving as a judge at the Constitutional Court, and the man called at reception, Sachs told the audience of the Hillbrow-based shul’s talk.
“I open the security gate, and there is this man, tall and thin like me, although younger. He is looking at me, and I’m looking at him. In his eyes, I can see [reflecting] this is the man I tried to kill and, in my eyes, you can see [reflecting] this is the man who tried to kill me. We didn’t know each other; we hadn’t fought [personally]. He was just on that side, I was on this side, and he tried to kill me.”
The men spoke extensively during a meeting in his chambers, with Van der Westhuizen boasting about his own educational success and then rise in the ranks of the army “as if he wanted a pat on the back for that”.
At the end of the meeting, Sachs told Van der Westhuizen, “Henry, normally, when I say goodbye to somebody. I shake that person’s hand, but I can’t shake your hand. Go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and tell them what you know. Maybe we’ll meet one day.”
Although Van der Westhuizen jauntily strode in, he “shuffled” out.
Sachs said he forgot about the incident until sometime later when he was attending a party in Johannesburg. He heard someone calling his name, and it was Van der Westhuizen. Again, he asked to speak to Sachs.
“We went into a corner so I could hear him over the music, and he said, ‘I spoke to the TRC and I told them everything I know’. I put out my hand, and I shook his. I almost fainted. He went away beaming.
“I heard afterwards that he suddenly left the party and he went home and cried for two weeks. I don’t know if it’s true. I want to leave it as a possibility.
“For me it was more important that this former killer … can now cry because of what he did. It was liberating.
“I wanted him to enter into the new South Africa and accept [new] norms and standards. The door would be open for him now to tell the truth and become a more dignified human being, and he walked through that door.”
Sachs went on to speak about the plight of refugees, speaking of his own experience in exile in England. He described how he was first “a psychological wreck” when he went there after being tortured in prison, and then after the car bombing, he was there as a “physical wreck”.
From the British nurses who cared for him, literally picking the shrapnel out his chest, he learnt that refugees need more help than just safety and survival. “The nurses, washing my body, that laying on of hands, gave me a sense of connection with England I never had before. It was a kind of organised love.”
Sachs said this is what we as South Africans need to offer those seeking solace in fleeing their homes.
He told the audience that he had been reflecting recently on his Jewish identity and what it meant to be “a good Jew”.
Two events made him contemplate the topic.
First, he always remembered how the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris had spoken at former anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo’s funeral. “At the funeral, he said Joe was a good Jew. Now that surprised me: the head of the Orthodox rabbinate is calling Joe a good Jew. It was on ethical grounds.”
The second incident was when he was visiting England at a time when there was a legal challenge to a Jewish school that had excluded the child of a converted woman. The court was asked to establish if this was in contravention of race-discrimination laws.
Then chief justice of England, Nick Phillips, asserted that he suddenly found himself in the position of having to “decide who is a Jew”.
Sachs remembers a member of the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies being called as a witness, and asserting that there were three criteria to being Jewish: to have a mezuzah; to contribute to Jewish charities; and to go to shul for at least the high holy days.
“Joe didn’t do these things – and I’ll be exactly the same. So I don’t know.”
Sachs said what was very pronounced for him was a “horror of antisemitism”.
He recalled visiting Bulgaria on holiday in 1968, and coming across two synagogues which had been hoarded by Nazis with looted memorabilia from other synagogues all over Europe as part of Hitler’s plans to build a monument to an extinct race.
“I went back to the apartment, and wept,” he said.
Others questioned why he was overwrought, saying, everyone found it horrific. “I wept and said it was a decimation of my family, my aunties and uncles whom I had never known. It’s something, in that sense, visceral for me, and very profound.”
He said his connection was in terms of Jewish experience, rather than doctrine. “It might be something to do with our grandparents living in the shtetls. The only book they would have had would be the Torah; the only school would be the cheder. [It showed] that ideas mattered.
“For those of us who were activists, ideas mattered, not just compassion, but ideas and a kind of rationality connected with justice. If that’s part of the Jewish experience, then I’m imbued with that aspect.
“I’m a proud Jew and I’m proudly secular. I don’t know what the connection is. It’s between opposites.”
He has always been certain about one thing: “My auntie Rosie’s taiglach that she made every Rosh Hashanah in a big round tin. She made the best taiglach in Cape Town!”
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