Bernhard Herzberg: An obituary

An article by Paul Trewhela first published on, May 31 2007

An extraordinary Capetonian, Bernhard Herzberg, died this month in London , while putting the final touches to his second MA degree - on the subject of apartheid - a month before his 98th birthday. He became the world's oldest graduate at age 90 when he completed a BA degree in German literature at London University in 2000, followed by his first MA (in refugee studies) in 2005, Bernhard Herzberg vividly recalled the vibrant anti-racist cultural and political life in Cape Town from seventy years ago. Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1909 to a proud, stern family of wealthy German Jews - his father won the Iron Cross during the First World War - and after a rebellious youth as a socialist active in combat against the rising tide of Nazism in Germany, he arrived in Cape Town as a refugee in November 1933. His father, who had cast him out of the family house in anger at his warnings about what Hitler would do to the Jews, survived incarceration in Buchenwald concentration camp, but was able to leave Germany with Herzberg's mother before the final catastrophe.

Many years later, after the war, Bernhard was able to bring them both to Cape Town from North America. A tough, irascible, strong-minded man, Herzberg was a lifelong anti-racist and a committed anti-Stalinist socialist. He was active for five decades in anti-apartheid circles in Cape Town, before emigrating to London in 1985, followed later by his family. His ingrained combativity continued to the end, and until only a few weeks before his death he campaigned every Saturday on the pavement at Muswell Hill Broadway in north London against the war in Iraq . ‘As long as I'm not senile, why give up?' he asked, truculent to the end, as he stopped passers-by.

Served in S.A.Army

In 1939 in Cape Town he married a fellow German Jewish refugee, Anne Fischer - later a celebrated portrait photographer in Cape Town - after the outbreak of the Second World War, but they divorced shortly afterwards when she objected to his joining the South African army, in opposition to his previously pacifist convictions. Having spent the early years of the war in coastal artillery in the Docks Battery in Table Bay harbour, he was transferred to Field Artillery in 1944 and saw service in Egypt and Italy. Shortly before being sent ‘up North' to join the Sixth South African Armoured Division he met and married his lifelong partner, Lily Abrams, then working in Cape Town for the National Union of Distributive Workers, and later well known in Cape Town for her work in puppet theatre and her writing about art. Warm and vivacious, Lily Herzberg died in London last year

After the war, Bernhard became an active trade unionist himself in Cape Town in the NUDW, and also organised jewellery and precious metal workers. ‘Non-whites were not accepted as apprentices,' he told another Capetonian, his friend Yousuf S.(‘Joe') Rassool, who taught at Trafalgar High School and Esselen Park High School in the Fifties and Sixties, in an interview published in London in 2000. ‘All the journeymen were white, but yet they were in one union. So the non-whites learned the trade by looking over the white man's shoulder.

‘Then the Government passed a new Industrial Conciliation Act, and we had to split the union into a ‘coloured' and a white union. Both unions elected me as their Honorary Secretary. We met in Union House in Victoria Street. My desk was across the threshold and one side was for the ‘coloured' union and the other side was for the white union. I was in the middle.

‘I would sometimes say to the ‘coloured' representatives, "There is a motion passed by the white branch asking for this or that wage increase or improved condition. Do you agree?" Or vice versa. It was perfectly legal. The secretary of a ‘coloured' union could be a white person. This crazy position was the way to comply with the law.'


In his autobiography, Otherness: The Story of a Very Long Life, published privately in London in 1998 - a book crammed with interest - Herzberg gives a wonderful evocation of the cultural and political milieu he found in Cape Town after arriving in 1933. It is a book to read alongside those by two other South African exile friends of Herzberg living in London, Baruch Hirson's The Cape Town Intellectuals: Ruth Schechter and Her Circle, 1907-1934 (Merlin Press, London. 2001) and Yousuf (‘Joe') Rassool's District Six - Lest We Forget: Recapturing subjugated cultural histories of Cape Town (1897-1956) (University of Western Cape Book Series. 2000).

Herzberg describes being introduced by a German woman friend, Eva, to the ‘Gool circle,' which is also discussed by their relative Joe Rassool in his family memoir. Eva ‘had met Dr Abdul Hamid Gool during one of those famous Thursday night symphony concerts at the Cape Town City Hall,' he writes. ‘In the concert hall, non-whites were compelled to occupy segregated seats. The only Non-European who used to frequent these concerts was Dr Gool, whose love of music made him disregard the obvious indignity of having to sit all by himself.

‘Eva moved ostentatiously over into this Non-White section - she had had enough of Berlin seats being reserved for Non-Aryans. She began to talk to the lonely Dr Gool, sitting there in isolation, and was invited to visit the doctor's house in Searle Street , Woodstock , the following Saturday. She took me along on this first call...We were both received with open arms, not only by the doctor but by all that diverse company. Every Saturday Dr Gool and his wife Cissy held open house. It was the only dwelling in this racially divided city where folks from all walks of life, and any kind of origin, met, in defiance of ingrained custom.

Veritable League of Nations

‘Assembled there was a veritable League of Nations. We met a university professor of German Language, Dr Frederick Bodmer, a Swiss national and an ardent Trotskyite. Next to him sat Sam Kahn, a leading Stalinist Communist. Painters were there too: Gregoire Boonzaaier, the son of a Die Burger cartoonist, (inventor of the Hoggenheimer image, an anti-semitic concept denoted by a bloated Jewish visage); and Frieda Locke, a painter of note, reputedly mistress of the good doctor. Cissy presided over this gathering with her husband. She was sitting next to her father, Dr Abdurahman, the leader of the Cape Malay community and the only Non-White member of the Cape Provincial Council. Cissy was busy berating him, calling him an Uncle Tom for his lack of radical opposition to the prevailing political and social system in Cape Town . I spotted an African intellectual, Isaac Tabata, a prominent member of the Trotskyite Spartacist Club [and leader of the Non-European Unity Movement], in earnest conversation with Dr Eddie Roux, a botanist and organiser of Black trade unions...This first ‘Gools' meeting in 1934, in my first year in South Africa, immediately politicised me still further and influenced my political development greatly.'

Bernhard and Lily Herzberg's daughter, Wendy Lopatin, has returned from London to live in Cape Town with her family. Their son, Paul, who lives in London, is the author of an acclaimed play, The Dead Wait, derived partly from his own experience as a conscripted soldier in the SADF on the Angolan border. The play, focused on a captured black freedom fighter being carried back to the border, was described by the New York Times as ‘strikingly autopsy on apartheid.'

Bernhard Herzberg, activist, trade unionist and businessman: born Hanover, Germany, 21 June 1909; died London, United Kingdom, 16 May 2007.

This article was originally published on May 31 2007

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