My father: oldest student in the world

Paul Herzberg looks back over the extraordinary life of the late Bernhard Herzberg

My father, Bernhard Herzberg, was always eccentric. Growing up in South Africa in a lower-middle class white suburb, he seemed out of place: suede jacket, black beret, German accent and notoriously left wing. On the few occasions he attended my rugby matches it was excruciating. His interaction with the bowls-playing, apartheid-supporting white parents was invariably combative. But as the years passed, I came to value this otherness more and more; and by the time he died two years ago I had long since learned to cherish it.

His life was dramatic. Born to a wealthy Hanoverian Jewish family, he was a socialist by the age of twelve. One day my grandparents came home to find the cook sitting at the kitchen table with her arms folded and the evening meal unprepared. When questioned, she informed them that young Bernhard (then 12 years old) had instructed her to go on strike because her wages were too low.

This familial conflict was to end tragically in 1933. When my father's twin-sister tried to commit suicide, my grandfather was too ashamed to visit her in hospital. My dad spread the word about what a hypocrite my grandfather was and when he returned one night from the hospital he found that the locks had been changed on the doors and that he had been disinherited. He also tried to warn my grandfather that the Nazis were hell-bent on a world war, but this fell on deaf ears.

My father found sanctuary in South Africa, one of the only countries accepting Jewish refugees at the time. He spent the next fifty-two years there, highly active in the anti-apartheid movement. When he came to join my mother in the UK in 1985 he was already 76 years old. He started a new business and retired at the age of 82.

Still possessing enormous energy, he decided to study. This drive was spurred, in part, by his late father. My father had been forced to leave school at fifteen by my grandfather, who said to him that he would never amount to anything and should choose a simple vocation. Those words had a marked effect on my father and the older he got, the more he quoted them. It reinforced my belief at how important parental input is in the educational process.

From the moment he began to study, he applied himself with the same kind of zeal he always had with anything he undertook. But he did things his own way. Academic guidelines were anathema to him and he would answer questions in the way he chose to and ignore the clearly delineated structural requirements because he quibbled with most of them. No matter how often his friends or I would point out to him that he was putting himself at a severe disadvantage, he persisted.

His first degree was in German literature. He studied for this through the Open University in Britain and it took him a decade but he finally got there. He had stopped speaking German at the age of twenty-three, but he had continued to read books in German. Books! Our house groaned with the things. These were my father's treasures. Every book had his signature in it, the year, and was numbered. It was due to my parents' determination that I should read and the fact that I was privileged to have such an extensive library in our home that the deep limitations of the South African educational system were circumvented.

Next, he turned to refugee studies at the University of East London at the age of 92. He was surrounded by Somalis, Iraqis, Nigerians, and Pakistanis and was never happier than when doing this course. He said he always felt like a refugee and had a special understanding of what it meant to be displaced and homeless.

He inspired his fellow students. During this period of study he also helped start the "Stop The War" coalition in Muswell Hill, north London. Come rain or shine, he could be seen outside Barclays Bank of a Saturday morning collecting signatures. He always stood. Sometimes I would drive by and see him shivering but he refused a chair or extra clothing. People, especially the young, loved talking to him. He was inspiring to them.

Having acquired his M.A. in refugee studies at 95, he began to search for another course. My mother and I attempted to discourage him. He only travelled by public transport. The thought of taking a taxi was appalling to him. I came to understand that this obduracy was what kept him young. He sometimes came back from functions alone, at 11pm at night. It scared the hell out of us but on he went.

He couldn't understand the internet (though he kept complaining that he didn't have e-mail.) He worked on a PC, which constantly gave him problems. This was due to the fact that the finer points of the technology confused him. His saintly friend, Robin, and on occasion, I, would come round to rescue him. He managed to do the most convoluted things on his computer and files with valuable information kept disappearing. Entire essays would have to be rewritten. But on he ploughed.

He started an M.A. in African History and Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2005, with a dissertation on apartheid. He was 96. This entailed daily trips into SOAS. By this time he was frail. During the course he had to undergo a prostatectomy. This did not daunt him. One day I realised what now fired this determination: he had to complete the course before he died.

During these last years he received a lot of publicity. He was awarded "The Oldest Leaner in the UK" award. A lecturer suggested he should approach the Guinness Book of Records, to which my father's retort was: "What purpose would it serve?" Many young people, fired up by my father's determination to keep on studying at such an advanced age, responded to articles about my father on the Internet.

During one lecture my father got into a disagreement with a tutor about an event seventy years earlier. Finally my father blurted out in frustration: "But I was there!"

My mother died in 2006. It hit him hard. They had always had a tempestuous marriage but he seemed to realise how important she'd been to him, such a constant support.

Over this period I tried to help him as much as I could. This meant reading his essays and his dissertation on apartheid. It was difficult because the academic requirements were rigorous. Without interfering with content, once again, Robin and I tried to point out what he needed to do: bibliography, footnotes, cross-referencing. The dissertation kept vanishing from his desktop and he would start all over again (having had a good yell beforehand.)

He was a complete inspiration over this period, indeed, a force of nature. Never giving up. Sitting at his desk from morning to night. BBC Radio got to hear about him and he was invited to be interviewed by John Humphreys. I waited in the anteroom while this took place. I could hear them. It took a while to get him going but Humphreys was brilliant. My father was always dry and provocatively monosyllabic when he was questioned about his achievements, but finally he opened up and it was very moving.

In May 2007, I received a call in the morning at work. My father had died in his sleep. We found the PC still on, the cursor blinking on the last page of his dissertation. I printed it off after the funeral and sent it in to SOAS. Three months later I was notified that he had passed and had been awarded a posthumous Master of Arts in African Politics and History. When he died, he did not know what the result of his dissertation would be.

He received obituaries in all the mainstream newspapers. There has been a huge amount of publicity about him, especially on the net. He has motivated a lot of people to return to study and been a powerful source of inspiration to those leaving school and entering higher education for the first time. He proved my grandfather wrong. My father was certainly no fool. He was the oldest student in the world to have acquired a third degree at the age of ninety-seven.

On 21st July of last year, I was proud to accept that third degree on his behalf. SOAS conferred a special honour upon him. The only other person that year to receive such an honour was the actor Michael Palin.

On 21st June 2009, my father would have been one hundred years old.

©Copyright Paul Herzberg, February 3 2009.

Paul Herzberg is an actor and writer. His play, The Dead Wait, in which he performed at The Royal Exchange in Manchester, is based on his experiences as a conscripted soldier in the Angolan border war, has been nominated for and won various awards, and is shortly to be a film.

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