Brandfort Jewish community booklet launch and reunion – 30 APRIL 2013
Brandfort, a tiny dorp in the Free State, is literally in the middle of nowhere and would probably have gone unnoticed on the map of South Africa had Winnie Madikizela Mandela not been banished there during the apartheid era.
The towns now-depleted Jewish community of Brandfort, once a vibrant one but, up till now, there was hardly any record of its existence. Former resident, Faisia Shaskolsky (nee Cheerin), of Milnerton, Cape Town, changed all that with the compilation of a booklet recording the history of the Jews in the town and bringing to life the memories of the personalities who lived there.
On April 30 Faisia, her husband Dr Ivor Shaskolsky, “Travelling Rabbi” Moshe Silberhaft, who co-ordinated the publication of the booklet, previous residents and those with ties to the town braved the potholes on the roads for a reunion in Brandfort and the launch of the booklet in the library of the former township - metres from Madikezela Mandela’s home in exile.
Guests of honour were Councillor Gladys Mafa (representing the Mayor, Steve Koalane), librarian Reuben Mayo, who worked alongside Shaskolsky to organise the event, schoolchildren from Matshediso High School and current residents of all denominations as, despite segregation in the former South Africa, Jews (the Boerejode), Afrikaners and the Sotho people had uniquely close relationships.
Winnie Madikizela Mandela said in a message read out by Rabbi Silberhaft: “I was extremely grateful for the kindness shown to me by the Jewish community. Had it not been for them, I would not have survived the brutality of apartheid. They understood what it was to be persecuted and have played a great role in helping me and Zindzi, my daughter, cross the racial barriers under very difficult circumstances.” She added that she welcomed the memoir – “I have many memories of Brandfort, some of them harsh, others sad, all too often times of hardship, suffering and loneliness. Exile is never easy – something the Jewish people know only too well from their own 2000 years of diaspora existence – and I believe it is important to keep a proper record of it.”
Shaskolsky was prompted to undertake the project after a return visit to Brandfort, following an absence of many years.
“I was disappointed to find hardly a noticeable trace that a Jewish community had lived, flourished and fully participated in life in our village.
“I came away with a definite drive to put Jewish life, as it was then, on the map, as those were important and formative years that needed to be placed firmly in the roots of our lives.”
Mafa told the schoolchildren, “books are knowledge”, encouraging them to make use of the library.
The programme included reminiscences by former Brandfort residents and the blowing of a shofar by Afrikaans resident Dalena Visser, who bought copies of the Tanach for her Jewish friends. She told the gathering how much she loved Israel and had visited there 13 times.
Rabbi Silberhaft said the Country Communities Department of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies commended Shaskolsy on “her foresight and dedicated efforts in conceiving this project and bringing it to fruition”.
The Jewish members of the gathering then proceeded to Brandfort’s Jewish cemetery, where Rabbi Silberhaft led them in Kaddish as there were enough men present to make up a minyan..