No doubt coincidental, the three books highlighted in the Jewish community of Cape Town during July all reflect issues relating to identity.
The Orphans — in French, Les Orphelins — is a novel. It relates the story of two children who were born in Germany but were adopted by a South African family in 1948. As they became adults, the two children learned more about their adoptive parents, and ultimately rebelled against them.
The author is Belgian-born Bessora, who began her writing career in 1999. This novel, written in 2021, was discussed by the author during her visit to Cape Town.
Dr Michael Cardo’s Harry Oppenheimer — Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty reflects extensive research into the history of the Oppenheimer family, with a focus on Harry Oppenheimer, one of the most successful business personalities in South Africa.
Cardo had access to both the Oppenheimer family papers and other material, as well as to family members, friends and staff, allowing him to go beyond historical archival material and to include personal relationships among the members of this hugely influential family. Despite having converted to Christianity, Oppenheimer’s Jewish origins created an ambiguity for himself and for some of his family members, including a granddaughter, who converted to Judaism in recent years.
A fascinating tale of discovering her family’s past, Egonne Roth’s Searching for Papa’s Secrets in Hitler’s Berlin, makes for a captivating read. Growing up in various parts of the Western Cape, Roth was immersed in Afrikaner life and the NG Church, and had a strong sense of German culture through her father who had settled in South Africa from Germany.
On his death in 1994, she was handed a file of her father’s papers, and the documents in the file led to close on 30 years of research that took her to various parts of the world. Essentially, what she discovered is that her paternal grandfather was fully Jewish, and that her father and aunt were half-Jewish, information her father never shared with her.
Her book was initially meant for herself, to help her understand various issues about herself. While working on it, she realised that it could be valuable for her children, too, so that they could understand more about their grandfather and his sometimes difficult behaviour. The realisation that the story had a much wider audience came to her once she started reading 2nd generation Holocaust literature, which is how it became a published work.
The discovery of her origins has been a completely life-changing experience, and today Roth lives in Israel and has converted to Judaism.
Some of these books are available for purchase at the South African Jewish Museum Shop and for lending from the Jacob Gitlin Library.
• Published in the August 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.
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