Contextualising the history and zeitgeist of a generation

South African born Jack Hoffmann has written what’s generally referred to as a ‘coming-of-age’ story.

It’s a meticulously written novel, respectful of its characters, readers and history, its tone serious, and its pace unhurried.

The protagonist is Zak Ginsberg, whom we first encounter as a young boy, growing up in the South Africa of the 50s and 60s. When he tries to help the son of the domestic servant who cared for him and whom he loved as a little boy, Zak is arrested and brutally tortured by the security branch. So, the person on whose ‘psychological and moral growth’ we are focusing is Zak. But Hoffmann has cast a large net.

First, we come to understand Zak through his family; a Lithuanian (Litvak) father who has come to South Africa to look for employment, and his larger Litvak family who do not escape the Holocaust that sweeps across the Old Country. Second, Zak’s journey through life is mirrored by the journey of the son of Zak’s childhood nanny, Mpande Gumedi. He has joined the ANC underground, trained in the USSR, and returned to SA to plant bombs.

The book contextualises, traces and lays out the history and zeitgeist of a generation — the children of immigrant Lithuanian Jews, born in SA in the 1940s, 50s and even 60s. It does the same for a black generation also born in those years. And this contextualisation, at least in the case of Zak, also encompasses the Holocaust in Lithuania, while SA’s political history is interwoven throughout the narrative.

Besides the book’s meticulous texture — the reader feels its characters’ experiences and the grain of their lives, He Does Not Die a Death of Shame is extraordinarily compassionate, because it succeeds at entering and showing everyone’s lives without being judgmental.

The book is available online at Amazon as well as at local book sellers and the SA Jewish Museum Shop.

By Jeremy Gordin

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