Just before immigrating to Australia I interviewed members of my family giving them the opportunity to represent themselves as they remembered their past. I recorded the stories writing as fast as I could, choosing not to interpret the facts to any great extent. I have taken the liberty of letting the text jump around in the way that memory surfaces, instead of pursuing a sequential ordering of facts.
One of the reasons for writing the family story, a mixture of biographical and anecdotal history, is for my daughters in an anticipated gesture of recording what may be important for them to know sometime in their future.
At age three, Claudia grappled with existential concepts and asked questions such as “why did you choose me?” and “where was I when I wasn’t born”. I hope that this story helps her understand where she came from before she was born.
The things that my family have endured and celebrated in their lives fascinate me. The story may grow as anecdotes are remembered and family secrets come to light. I am aware that a sanitized version of history has been presented. For that one can thank something that is rife in the family, namely, Jewish Guilt.
The story begins with Grandpa Ralph because he is the oldest living member of the family, 87 years of age at the time of the interview.
His mother was Yudas Shapiro, born in Bierz in Lithuania. His father was James Laser (Chemichlezar in Yiddish) Beinart, later to become Flaxman. He served four years in Siberia in the Tzar’s army, coming home on leave just as the Russian-Japanese war broke out in 1904. Fearing that he would be killed in the war, his father obtained a false passport in the name of Flaxman, and he escaped across the German border. From there, he got onto a ship and worked his passage to Cape Town, South Africa. His mother gave him a bag of gobelkas for the journey – dried white cheese with seeds – which he ate with bread and tea.
Grandpa Ralph’s father left behind his wife and three children, grandpa’s sisters Matilda, Annie and Ettie. Each time he visited his wife in Lithuania he left her a “gift” – another child. Sarah (born around 1907), Morrie (born 1909), Ralph (Raphael), my grandfather, born in 1913. Bounie was the 7th child. The last four children were born in South Africa.
Grandpa’s father arrived in Cape Town South Africa with two friends. He spoke Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian but no English. Their combined wealth was 10 pounds. They rented a room for 10 shillings a month and slept on the cement floor, living on soup made from cabbage and meat. They kept kosher even under these conditions.
He then moved to Johannesburg and started a man’s outfitting shop.
Grandpa’s mother came from a family of dairy farmers. She kept chickens and had a cow that she would milk to make cheeses. She also used to make her own soap from kosher meat. Roey recalls rows and rows of chicken schmaltz (fat) on the kitchen shelf.
Grandpa’s father died from a stroke that he had while at a barbershop in Braamfontein. His mother died from high blood pressure. She was advised by the doctors not to eat red meat or salt. Grandpa remembers her response in Yiddish “what do the doctors know”.
Ralph grew up in Braamfontein. He left school at Standard 8. His first job was in a store and he was paid 10 pounds for three months work. He then went to work for his brother-in-law in Randfontein when he was 19. He took over the shop calling it Ralph’s Outfitters, running it for 22 years. His brother also opened a man’s outfitting shop – on the same street a few blocks away. It was around 1934 and there was a world-wide depression at the time.
Grandpa Ralph is the last survivor of his family. He saw buried his parents, five sisters and brother. His sibling suffered from sugar diabetes, but the worst off was his brother who in his last years had a gangrenous limb amputated, dying just before he was to have the other leg removed.
Roey and Ralph
Granny and Grandpa were married twice in 1937, on the 20th and again on the 31st of October. Grandpa’s uncle was a Rov (Rabbi) at the Braamfontein Shul but was not a marriage officer. Not realizing that they were legally married, after the court marriage she went home to her parents, and he went home to his.
They had three children – Doreen (my mother), Stella and Jimmy. They have 10 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
In 1956 Grandpa sold the shop and bought the Golden West Hotel in Westonaria. He paid 10,000 pounds goodwill for the fixtures and fittings, billiard tables and beds. They learnt about running a hotel through trial and error, and lived in one of its 14 rooms.
On the first night of their arrival there was a fight in the foyer of the hotel. Two gataysim (Grandpa loves using Yiddish words) were punching each other and one went right through the glass door. If you have the patience to listen, he will recount hundreds of bar-fight stories.
In 1967 they retired. They sold the business to Whitbreads Brewery but kept the property. Religiously, every month he went in to the bank to pay off the bond. Every time, the tellers were instructed to direct him to the manager’s office, and he would lament about the outstanding debt. One time, in a reversal of the usual practice, Ralph instructed the tellers to call the manager. He presented a cheque for the balance of the bond and said to him: “I have had to kiss your hand for years, now you can kiss my backside”.
Granny remembers how fate intervened in the decision to buy the hotel in the first place. She had gone to the “bioscope” (she still uses an old-fashioned vocabulary). That day, there was an announcement that there were prizes under some of the chairs. Granny looked underneath her seat and found a record called che sera sera. What will be will be. For her, this was a sign to start a new venture.
Her father Jack Rosen (Zacharia in Hebrew but known as Jimmy) was born in Rakisik in Russia. He was 15 years old when he came out to South Africa, leaving behind his parents that he was never to see again. The boat trip took six weeks. His three brothers immigrated to Boston.
Jimmy was one of the first clothing manufacturers in South Africa. He also manufactured gramophones (wind-up record players) that he called Rosophones. During school holidays Roey worked in his factory for 10 shillings a week.
Jimmy was an astute player of the stock market. Before buying coal shares he would go down the mines to investigate. He bought Breweries shares strategically. During the early apartheid years, Blacks were not allowed to buy liquor from stores as the Whites were, but drank at illicit shebeens. As soon as the law changed and bottle stores were open to all, he rushed off and bought shares, realizing that increased liquor sales meant greater revenue for the breweries.
Granny’s mother Dora Sandground was born in London.
Jimmy and Dora married around 1910/1911 in Johannesburg. When Roey was five years old her mother died. Granny remembers how she was told about her mother’s death: she was in hospital and there was a big storm. Her mother was said to have gasped, and then the angels came and took her. To this day she has no other explanation as to why her mother died, although one may suspect that she died in the influenza epidemic of 1919.
Granny Roey’s birth name is Rosalie May, after the month she was born in. She grew up in Bez Valley. They had a White nanny. She was brought up to adhere to the rules that “children are seen but not heard”. She remembers that the first meal she ever shared with her father at the same table was when she was nine years old. She describes her upbringing as Victorian. As a child she remembers going to the park where there were “Whites Only” signs on the benches and on the swings in the playground.
In 1919, Dora’s parents and sister Minnie were about to set sail for South Africa when Minnie received word that Dora had died. For the duration of the six-week journey she kept this secret.
Three years later Jimmy married his wife’s sister. Minnie was the youngest of nine children. She gave birth to Dobbie when Granny was 10 and Esme when Granny was 15.
In 1949 Granny’s father visited America and was reunited with his brothers for the first time in 45 years.
Granny Roey mourned the premature passing of two siblings: Stanley, called Stompie (Afrikaans for Shorty because of his height), died in a car accident when he was 22 and Dobbie died at age 42 of cancer.
My father Ronnie
His mother was born in Memel in Russia. Her name was Rachel Joan Michaelson. Aunty Lynne, my father’s sister, recalls the story of how her mother escaped from Russia hidden under straw in a cart that was bedecked with flowers, to make it look like a gypsy wedding procession.
His father, Walter Katzen, was born in Lithuania in a village close to Memel. Walter’s father was a Rabbi. Walter was one of nine children. They all came out to South Africa except the youngest two daughters who went to Israel.
According to the Leverite tradition, when Rachel’s mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, her father married her sister.
Two weeks after Doreen and Ronnie became engaged in 1959, Rachel died of an embolism to the lung. Walter remarried a woman named Ida. At first she impressed him with her cooking skills, but the meals she had prepared had actually been bought. It was a terrible marriage and she had an obsessive personality. For example, Walter was not allowed to read the newspapers on the couch. He was made to walk around the carpets and not on them. Finally he went to Durban to get away from her, and there, in a hotel room, had a heart attack and died. My mother heard the news of his death while she was making pickled herring and says that she couldn’t make pickled herring for years afterwards.
My father was adventurous. He was among one of the first to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without additional oxygen. It took him three days to climb up and two to come down. He ate tinned snake for nourishment.
Doreen Flaxman went to primary school in Randfontein and to high school in Krugersdorp. She will never forget the daily commuting to school by walking to the station, taking the train to LuipaardsVlei and then the bus to school. After completing matric she did a diploma at the Johannesburg College in nursery school education.
She selected Ronnie from a photograph that a friend had taken of all the available talent. Later, meeting her “selection” at a party. They started going out when she was in Standard 8 and he in matric, and married in 1959. I was born 10 months later, on my mother’s birthday. Soon after marrying they moved to Westonaria to join Ralph in the hotel business. There, Doreen started a nursery school on the Libanon Gold Mine.
When they moved to Johannesburg years later, Ronnie joined Wyeth Laboratories as a sales representative selling formula milk for babies and Doreen got a job at King David Nursery School and ran the school as the principal. She taught there until three weeks before Deon was born. The night she went into labour, they signed the agreement to buy a uniform manufacturing business.
“Kildare Sales” grew from modest beginnings. They bought a factory to manufacture their own garments and opened outlet shops. Their sons joined the family business.
Doreen is commited to helping others. She worked for Life Line as a counsellor, for 702s Help Line, and then the 702 Crisis Centre. She was rewarded with an overseas trip from the sponsors for more than a decade of voluntary work. She now counsels pre-marital couples as a Jewish community service. She is the pivotal figure in keeping the family together especially with her weekly Shabbat dinner. All the major Jewish holidays are celebrated in her home. She phones her children every day to keep in touch.
Doreen recalls that only after a few years of marriage did she realize that she could disagree with the things her husband said. She had grown up believing that the man of the house deserves automatic respect and obedience. Her father had demanded it and her mother had ensured it.
I was named after my paternal grandmother Rachel Joan. I went to Art School for Standard 9 and 10 inspired by an aunt who suggested that I had talent. After matric, I enrolled at Wits University for a BA Fine Arts Degree. That was the first year of a liberal education when the injustices of the Apartheid system were brought home to me.
Something about wearing a uniform attracted me to joining South African Airways as an air hostess in 1983. I was in Switzerland when the Helderberg crashed into the sea off Mauritius. If I needed cosmetics I would book a flight to Germany; if I needed a handbag, I’d fly to Portugal. I visited museums and art galleries in every country that we flew to, although those years were the height of the international boycott against South Africa, and the countries that we were allowed to land in became fewer and fewer.
In 1989 I left the airline and got a job with the Standard Bank, running their Art Gallery as curator for 10 years. I did a higher diploma in Museum Management at the Afrikaans University in Pretoria as an incentive to get a company car and won a prize for best student of the year.
When I met Roy Sugarman in 1988 he was a psychology student, later going on to obtain his doctorate. The family were delighted because he was Jewish. He was also noticeably intelligent and he became known as the family encyclopaedia because of his wide-ranging areas of knowledge. When we met I thought that we would be married within four weeks, just like Aunty Lynne. This was not to happen until after much hinting and at last a marriage proposal just before my 30th birthday.
Two weeks before the wedding, Roy’s mother died. On the day of the funeral his Aunty Kitty said “you must be so excited”. I assumed that she was referring to the marriage.
We have two daughters. Georgia named after the granny she would never know and Claudia, born on my grandparent’s 59th wedding anniversary. We immigrated to Adelaide Australia in the year 2000.
Telling Family Stories has been abbreviated for the website: The original version includes stories about aunts, uncle, brothers, sister, cousins and my husband and his family.