Fire at our doorstep

Herzlia Highlands Primary against a fiery backdrop

On 18 April, a wind-free and unseasonally hot Sunday morning, a fire started on the open land between Phillip Kgosana Drive and Rhodes Memorial.

“When the fire started at hospital bend, it spread exceptionally quickly even before the wind came up. From the rate it was spreading, everyone knew it would turn into a big fire. There was also a lot of fuel. It hadn’t rained in at least three weeks, so you can imagine how dry all that bush was.” — Jacques Weber, JWI NEWS

“I received a phone call from my friend and colleague, Tanya Barben, virtually in tears. UCT was going up in flames. The Jagger Library that suffered the worst damage contained UCT’s Special Collections, including the huge archival collection of her parents, banned and exiled political activists Professor Jack and Ray Simons. One of the flagship collections, it contained the history of the ANC and much more. It also contained the Rare Books collection that Tanya had built up over 22 years. I had worked at UCT Libraries and the Kaplan Centre for 31 years as the Jewish Studies Librarian. The Jewish Studies collection was part of the African Studies Division now known as Special Collections, so I was intimately involved with the library.

I was particularly concerned about the Morris Alexander collection that contains records of the Cape Jewish Philanthropic Society established in 1859, as well as two items that I sent over to Special Collections two years ago. These were the remnants of two of the earliest surviving South African Yiddish newspapers, Der Kriegstaphet — The War Dispatch, published daily for three months in 1899 during the Anglo-Boer War, containing Reuters news of the war in Yiddish; as well as Der Yiddisher Advokat (1904-1914), a weekly newspaper published by Yiddishist David Goldblatt. We’ve now heard that the manuscripts and archives housed in the basement of the Jagger building are intact, which is a great relief.

Thanks to a firewall, the fire did not spread into the Main Library containing books from the Jewish Studies Library formerly housed in the Kaplan Centre.” — Veronica Belling

“I am heart-broken at the burning of part of the Jagger Library and of the flames engulfing the most beautiful building at our Alma mater.

UCT has been part of my life since I arrived in SA 40 years ago. I brought up my three ‘babies’ there, when I had no baby sitter I took them to ‘work’ and while I lectured, I sent them to the library to ‘fetch books for me’ in order to keep them busy.

My students’ theses are all housed there and the fate of these important documents is not known yet. Years of research and toil, of dreams of ‘advancing human knowledge’ gone up in smoke.” — Azila (Tzili) Talit Reisenberger

“The Kaplan Centre’s archival store falls under the purview of Special Collections, and we work closely with the Kaplan Centre to maintain those collections. The Archives Office was also housed on the upper level of Jagger Library — where the administrative records of the manuscripts and archives collections were kept. Our administrative records were lost, including those related to the Kaplan Centre. We do have databases but the original agreements were lost.” — Michal Singer, Principal Archivist for Special Collections Dept, housed in the Jagger Library

“I was really worried. We had no idea what state the building was in. Thank God it was spared. Once we were given permission to access the campus, we [didn’t hesitate].”

While there are other valuable artefacts in the building, his primary focus was to secure the Torah.

“There have been cases where people have risked their lives to save the scrolls from burning synagogues.” “[Going into the building] was exhilarating; it was the feeling of fulfilling a higher purpose. I just knew I had to get in there.” — Rabbi Nissen Goldman co-director of Chabad on Campus (Credit: News24, Nicole McCain)

“Our CSO volunteers were very busy monitoring the situation, some on the ground at the schools and installations in Vredehoek, etc. Others were in the office calling community members who live near the fire-line to check if they had evacuated and if not, if they needed assistance. They also assisted in removing the Torah from the Kaplan Centre.” — CSO

“When news broke of the fire, we started sharing updates to Facebook. Our first communication was about directing offers of donations to the relevant fire stations (Sea Point and the one on Roeland Street). This effort helped divert traffic from the Newlands base where operations were continuing.

Several individuals asked after and offered to help students who were evacuated from UCT. Our second communication was a call to action so we could coordinate these offers.

We also helped CSO, Rabbi Nissen Goldman and Kaplan Centre coordinate the extraction of the Torah from the Kaplan Centre.” — Cape SAJBD

“Herzlia closed four campus buildings for two days to limit the number of people in the area. Affected schools and central administration switched to online learning and working. Our sifrei Torah were relocated as a precautionary measure, and strategic senior staff and security staff remained onsite.” — United Herzlia Schools

“News of thousands of students needing to evacuate made us realise we needed to step in and help. Food, clothes, toiletries were top of the list with so many people doing their part… but what about sanitary products?

We took to social media, and the response was overwhelming. We were able to distribute over 100 pads and tampons directly to women in the various hotels which UCT had organised. We also donated a large number of sanitary products to Gift of the Givers. As a result of an expanding relationship with SHAWCO Women’s Health, we were provided with reusable sanitary pads which we donated as well.” — Mama Flo (a group of the Union of Jewish Women)

“I visited Table Mountain area. You cannot fault our firefighting teams — the City of Cape Town, Table Mountain National Parks or volunteer wildfire services. They’re exceptionally good at what they do and work together, and you can see it. We’re lucky we’re living in a city with a very good fire service. We have approximately 70-75 fire fighting vehicles. There were close to 270 fire fighters, over 50 vehicles, excluding police service, law enforcement, metro police, disaster risk management. Lots of videos of evacuations were being made by disaster risk management walking around telling people to leave. It was a very coordinated response.” — Jacques Weber

• Published in the print edition of the May 2021 issue. Download the May 2021 issue PDF here.

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