Mensches in the Trenches

Jeremy Gordin reviews Jonathan Ancer's book on Jewish foot soldiers in the anti-apartheid struggle

Mensches in the Trenches: Jewish foot soldiers in the anti-apartheid Struggle by Jonathan Ancer, 2021. (Batya Bricker Book Projects.)

Today, Thursday, is Purim (Happy Purim, everyone!), a Jewish holiday commemorating the stymying of a genocidal plan to eradicate the Jewish people by Haman [i], vizier to Persian king Ahasuerus (probably Xerxes I or Artaxerxes I) during the Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire.

As recounted in the Book of Esther [ii], Haman’s plans were foiled by one Mordecai, and by Esther, Mordecai’s cousin and adopted daughter.

There’s a rather nice Yiddish proverb: “A sakh Homens un eyn Purim” – “So many Hamans but only one Purim”.

Which is perhaps an apposite point at which to introduce Mensches in the Trenches – because it’s about those SA Jews who resolved to fight what they perceived to be “the Haman” of their times, i.e., apartheid. A mensch, by the way, is someone to admire and emulate, not because of his/her status but because s/he is of decent character and can always be counted on to do the right thing. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In a way, Mensches is “volume two” to Cutting Through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists, edited by Immanuel Suttner, and published in 1997. As some readers might recall, this was a rather serious tome containing interviews with, or reminiscences by, the likes of Johnny Clegg, Joe Slovo, the Coleman family, Arthur Chaskalson, and many others.

Though not directly stated, it was also sort of a laying down of a marker – a reminder to the Jewish community but above all to others that many SA Jews had been involved in and made a massive contribution to the “fight against institutionalized racism in South Africa”.

Mensches in the Trenches is, as I’ve said, a sort of volume two. It covers the “contributions” to the Struggle of about 35 people (some chapters or sections deal with more than one person, hence the approximate number) and is ostensibly aimed at including those who might have been forgotten (or left out of a book such as Cutting Through the Mountain)the so-called “foot soldiers”.

Trouble is that many of these foot soldiers were more like generals, or at the very least majors, colonels, and adjutant officers – I’m thinking here, for examples, of treason trialist Norman Levy, Liberal Party co-founder Jock Isacowitz, trade unionist Solly Sachs, and trade unionist and physicist Bernie Fanaroff. Another thing is that some of those featured in Cutting Through the Mountain appear for a reprise performance – Barney Simon, Lionel Abrahams, Arthur Chaskalson, Franz Auerbach, and Irwin Manoim – why, I’m not certain.

Still, there are some great “newcomers” in this book – for examples, advocate Denis Kuny, bookseller Fanny Klenerman [iii], Solly Sachs, journalist Benjamin Pogrund, Rabbi André Ungar, Fanaroff, and Isacowitz.

I’ve really enjoyed this book. The pieces are not too long; one can dip in to one or two at a time and then return to the book on another day. Ancer is a limpid writer with a light touch, and he’s got a wonderful, quiet sense of humour.

Which brings me back to my remark above about Mensches being volume two of Cutting Through the Mountain. This is not quite accurate – for Mensches’ tone and approach are very different.

Consider, for example, the title: Mensches in the Trenches. Strictly speaking, it ought to be Menschen in the Trenches. But then we’d lose the rhyme. Some people, however, might consider the rhyme to be a bit silly.

And what about the “in the trenches” part? Reflecting on the title – probably too much, I admit – had me thinking that of the 35 or so people in this book, there are probably only about two (if that many) who would have known, or would know, one end of a trench from the other.

The title of the chapter on sometime nudist and Trotskyite Fanny Klenerman, who owned a famous Johannesburg bookshop, Vanguard – is “The Well Read (And Well Red) Fanny Klenerman”. The chapter on some of the members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM) – which included, let’s not forget, John Harris, who set off a bomb at Park Station that killed an elderly woman and maimed a girl, and was subsequently convicted and hanged – is titled “Brothers in Arm” [sic]. The chapter on Solly Sachs, secretary general of the Garment Workers' Union of South Africa and father of Justice Albie Sachs, is titled “Sachs Appeal”.

The “reason” for this approach/tone is presumably related to Ancer’s style – which is understated and light, and the opposite, thank heaven, of portentous. But I also think that the passing of 25 years has changed the attitudes and feelings of the foot soldiers (not to mention others, like myself, who didn’t make it to the front line).

There’s something nostalgic about this book (is what I’m trying to say) – it’s like attending a gathering of old SA lefties [iv]. The mensches (those still alive) are able to see things “in perspective”. There’s much laughter and a great deal of reminiscing about the “bad” old days – because the Struggle is over and it was, after all, “successful”. Well, wasn’t it?

Which is a question that I think lurks under the laughter – the proverbial elephant in the room. Because, although the Struggle was undoubtedly “successful,” there is an obvious way in which it wasn’t. Consider, for a moment, what it has resulted in – by which I mean the tripartite alliance that has clearly managed to ruin this country – the alliance whose chief claim to fame is that they can’t get anything right, which is perhaps the only reason we’re not living in an authoritarian dictatorship.

I also wrote above that Cutting Through the Mountain represented a kind of a reminder to the Jewish community but above all to others that many SA Jews had been involved in and made a massive contribution to the “fight against institutionalized racism in South Africa”.

Now, Menschen in the Trenches is also such a marker. It’s a (clearly stated) project of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) in “pursuance of its mission to build bridges of friendship and understanding between Jews and all other peoples of South Africa, while also preserving and educating the wider public about the history of the Jewish community and the part its members have played in the unfolding story of their country”.

But my sense is that many of those among all “the other peoples of South Africa,” and especially among most of their leaders, don’t much care one way or the other.

Oh dear, so many Hamans but only one Purim. But this is Purim – so let me not end as an incorrigible killjoy. Let me say rather: this is a fun book. Enjoy!


[i] No connection, by the way, to the cattleman Hamman, who apparently set up a stockade in the place now called Hammanskraal, in northern Gauteng.


[ii] The Book of Esther, Megillat Esther, usually dated to the 5th century BCE, is a book in the third section (Ketuvim, “Writings”) of the Hebrew Bible.

The book relates the story of a Hebrew woman in Persia, born as Hadassah but known as Esther, who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people. The story forms the core of the Jewish festival of Purim, during which it is read aloud twice: once in the evening and again the following morning.

Purim customs include wearing masks and costumes, public celebrations and parades, and eating a pastry called hamantashen (“Haman's pockets”). Men (presumably women too, these days) are encouraged to drink wine or any other alcoholic beverage.

When Haman’s name is read out loud during the public chanting of the Megillah in the synagogue, which occurs 54 times, the congregation engages in noisemaking to blot out his name.

[iii] Btw, at some point Klenerman needed to raise some money – I’d always thought it was so that she could join the Spanish Revolution of 1936, but reading the piece in this book, I’m no longer sure that she ever did go to Spain – and so Klenerman sold my parents a full set of Everyman’s Library, some of which I still have. They’re, alas, pretty much unreadable – if you’re over 35 – the print is so tiny.

[iv] So much so that someone decided to have Thabo Mbeki write the foreword to Mensches, a move that one can only think of as frighteningly tone-deaf.