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.

Monday, 20 November 2017

It came out of left field

Just before leaving for my father’s consecration in Cape Town last month, my 22-year-old son forwarded me an email
he had received via the genealogy site where he had been building a family tree. Someone was looking for anyone connected to my maternal Grandfather, Jack Sovinsky. Someone was looking for me.

Hello Jillian,

We live in Paarl, a beautiful town some 60 km north of Cape Town. It would be great to meet up with you – in fact I am expecting my in-laws tonight (from Namaqualand – Springbok). My father-in-law, Henry Markus, is purportedly Joe Sovinsky’s son out of wedlock, with a woman of mixed race of Steinkopf. According to him, and the little he knows, his mother died with his birth and he was reared by a woman who worked for a Jewish family. I will probe him again – he will be turning 76 (which might not be the case also, as his birth might not have been given up at time of actual birth).

Kind regards,

Neil and Ermelinde Lyners


This is the how and the why I found myself, alongside my brother, hurtling down the N2 highway towards the Franschoek Mountains, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, soon after we had unfurled the black cloth cover on my father’s tombstone. Going through our minds were several questions. I knew little but what I did know was that my maternal grandfather and his brother, Joe Sovinsky, had been estranged for many years. I knew the division had been caused because of money. Isn’t it always thus? Now I began to wonder if there was something else. Something like pure scandal. The idea of a Jewish White man cohabiting or procreating with a woman of colour at that time – the late thirties, early forties – would have been untenable, shocking even. Apartheid was yet to weave its mighty web of prohibitive laws throughout the country but urgently knocking at the door was the one related to multi-racial sexual relations. Had Joe fallen in love, had he taken the servant against her will, or had he had a short-lived, titillating dalliance, I wondered? What did Henry look like, what would he have to say and why did he want contact? And most remarkably, I thought, he would be the first cousin of my mother and her sister, my aunt Doreen, if the story was indeed true. Even though there were four uncles, none of them, bar one – and he only had one daughter – had any children at all. But now suddenly there was Henry. Maybe.

We arrived at the lush-green, secure-gated golf estate of Boschenmeer in time for tea. The estate presents as a mini garden suburb in manicured grounds and landscaped gardens; once we had cleared the gatekeeper checkpoint we followed a gleaming black tarred road which snaked through the complex. The agapanthus grow tall and the blue is so azure that it threatens to bolt off the colour chart with its bold vivacity. The atmosphere is languid and gentle affluence is in evidence as golfers steer their caddies across the golf course against the mountainous film set like backdrop.

Welcomed by Neil Lyners and his wife, Henry’s daughter, we were led into the glisteningly clean modern home and towards the patio (‘stoep’ as it is known in South Africa) outside. Henry and his wife sat  at a table decorated with an English tea service of teapot, flowery pretty pink cups and saucers, clingfilm-wrapped cakes, scones, biscuits and a grape and melon fruit platter, which remained covered throughout the duration of our visit.

Henry extended a firm handshake and exuded a wide and sweet toothless smile. He announced soon after our arrival that he spoke no English. My senior school Afrikaans language tuition kicked into action thirty-odd years on. Even I was impressed as my brain sought out the unfamiliar terrain and scrambled for the correct words. When Henry talked about ‘My lewe van hellende’, I could not have guessed what he meant by ‘My life of hell.’ However that soon emerged. He did not know his mother – he was told she had died in childbirth. His surrogate mother whom he was to call ‘Ouma’ which means ‘grandmother,’ never so much as touched him. She must have squandered the money given to her to look after Henry, leaving him to tend to the sheep in the barren Namaqualand hills. His sustenance was donkey milk and brown bread. She literally took the money and ran. He was left fending for himself as she and her two children frequently travelled elsewhere. When he couldn’t pay for the books which would have afforded him a sixth-form graduation, he walked the 60 kilometres from Steinkopf to Springbok to seek work and his fortune.

In the course of our visit we discussed the possibility of Henry and my mother doing a DNA test. We agreed. Neil commented about his interest being related to money. “Only joking”, he said, as a quick aside.

When I got home, I sent Neil an effusive email thanking him for our meeting, their hospitality and our fruitful discussions. I also sent a photograph of Henry to my aunt Doreen who said he bore no resemblance to the image of Joe Sovinsky, that she held in her memory. My mother suggested that Joe Sovinsky, unlike his brother (my grandfather) was very tall. Henry Markus interestingly at 76 years of age seemed to tower over me.

I got this short response from Neil:

Thanks Jillian. My in-laws also had a nice time with you.

Keep well.

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