Here and There

By Jillian Edelstein

This acclaimed photographer discovers a lost branch of her family, drawing her into stories of displacement that we all hold in common.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

George Sacks, Communism and Russia

Among the family relatives that has an impact on my life was my grandmother’s brother, George Sacks – an intellectual and a communist – and his wife Betty. George had left for England during the apartheid era. Communism was particularly despised by the South African authorities. They referred to it’s ideology as the ‘Rooi Gevaar’ – literally that translates as the ‘Red Threat’. The level of paranoid surrounding Communism held no bounds. It was safer, George felt, to leave the country than to suffer the persecutions of the vitriolic state. I visited him in London when I was fourteen years old – it was my first trip abroad. Later I found the book that he wrote, 'The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Jew-Baiting’  published by the publisher and humanitarian Victor Gollancz, in 1935, a portent of things to come.  My mother’s sister Aunt Doreen, also a Communist, (which seemed an irony to me) moved to Israel in 1951 or 1952, at the same time as my father’s brothers left for Canada and the United States. 

So many members of my family seemed to have left the country to live elsewhere during the time I was growing up it seemed inevitable that eventually I would go too.

I remember their visits when they came back home and their stories about their adventures ‘overseas’, as we referred to countries abroad. Their arrivals always seemed like a breath of fresh air. I was curious and restless. I felt the urge to travel.
But in all of this there was no a mention of Minna. There was never any reference made to the fact that we had relatives on the other side of the world. To me, Russia in the 1960s meant Yuri Gagarin. I could see the Russian astronaut with dark hair and a cheery face as he waved goodbye to his comrades in an outsize helmet ready to head for the stars. His appearance reminded me of the cartoon character, Captain Haddock in the Tintin journals. Actually I wasn't sure if Captain Haddock had gone to the bottom of the ocean to find ‘Red Rackham’s  Treasure’ in his protective headgear complete with tubed breathing apparatus, or to the surface of the moon to find spacemen. (Ironically Hergé, the author of Tintin, was accused posthumously of creating racial stereotypes. The South African censorship jury clearly did not think so and Tintin  sailed through the piles of other censored books.)

Russia also meant the  Bolshoi Ballet and the dancer Rudolf Nureyev. In fact I think he attended the Kirov Ballet as opposed to the Bolshoi but the Kirov had less of an international reputation. My mother was reading a book about his life story and she recounted a story which has over the years refused to budge from my imagination – picture a snow covered Siberian escarpment, Nureyev alongside his blanket bedecked peasant mother who had to light a fire to stave off  a pack of  growling wolves that had surrounded them and were ready to attack. She kept the fire going all night long thereby staving off potential disaster. Apparently Nureyev’s mother took him to see the ballet  ‘Song of the Cranes’ – he vowed to become a dancer from that moment. As Nureyev was taken to the ballet as a young boy, so was I as a young girl. I attended ballet classes from an early age. In a performance of Sleeping Beauty at a suburban Cape hospital, I hit the local headlines made up and in a tutu surrounded by grateful, smiling and doting bed-ridden patients. When the Prince stooped down awaken me with a kiss, I was mortified and duly put an end to my potentially glittering ballet career, in spite of winning a prize for the girl with the best arch in the toe point exercise.

Russia was a large continent far North. It meant snow, cold and the Cold War. I was eight years old in 1966 when the family had met in Upington. Minna had been dead for eight years. I never heard anyone so much as mention her name. At that point a family snap in the Ukraine would have consisted of Minna’s two daughters, Sofy and Irmgaard, Irmgaard’s husband George and their first child Robert. 

Were I to conjure up an image of their side of the family it would have looked like some lopped off branch. A branch that had split off  in an unforgiving storm or a hurricane from a larger healthier tree – one that was fighting for survival deprived of the oxygen, water and nutrition that the primal source usually provided.

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