David Saks
David Saks

Meditations in a cemetery — how little we seem to matter in the end

Wolf Ehrlich and I eyeball each other all day. The corridor wall outside our offices is lined with the portraits of former presidents of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), and Ehrlich’s is directly opposite where I sit. He was quite a big deal in his day. Apart from heading up the SAJBD, he was a senator in the Union Parliament and twice mayor of Bloemfontein. 

Last year, I was in Bloemfontein as part of a delegation following up an incident of grave desecration in the old Jewish cemetery. Some local yahoos had gotten their Friday night kicks toppling about 80 tombstones, breaking many of them in the process, and for good measure daubed the adjoining Ohel with offensive graffiti. 

Inspecting the cemetery gave me an opportunity to look for the graves of some of the Boerejode — Jews who had fought for the Free State in the Anglo-Boer War. It is rather revealing that even after being religiously observant for a quarter of a century, my wistful hankerings incline less towards sitting at the feet of the great rabbis than of being a bearded, bandoliered Boerejood potting befuddled Rooineks — preferably from the Liverpool regiment — in the rolling green hills of northern Natal. This is despite knowing that had I actually found myself in the Boer forces, I would just as likely have ended up with galloping diarrhoea and been ignominiously bayoneted while trying to relieve myself by a mob of gleeful Scousers — forebears of today’s football hooligans or even, G-d forbid, John Lennon. 

I found a few oudstryders’ graves, including that of Aaron Pincus. He had fought under the legendary General De Wet and his tombstone was one of those damaged. Another’s was that of Otto Baumann, captured at Paardeberg. His brother, Alfred, was buried beside him and directly behind lay their sister, the legendary matriarch of old Bloemfontein, Sophie Leviseur, and her husband, Moritz. A large bush had grown up in the centre of the graves, sheltering all four within a canopy of leaves and branches and uniting them in a way that was quite moving even for a sour-hearted old cynic like me. 

While crouching down to read the inscriptions, I noticed right beside me a particularly dilapidated grave. The stone had fallen over long before, and was covered in dirt and pine needles. I brushed some of the debris away to see if anything was legible and made out the name “Ze’ev” — literally “Wolf”. Interested, I continued brushing and scraping to read the whole, and sure enough, it marked the resting place of Wolf Ehrlich. So we had “met” at last.

Distinguished communal leader, parliamentarian, first citizen of the province’s capital — that was what Wolf Ehrlich made of himself during his lifetime. How very little it all seemed to matter now. His bones a few feet beneath his long unvisited, derelict grave were indistinguishable from those around him, people who in most cases had enjoyed far less worldly success than he had. It was quite a sobering reminder, all in all, of how transient and unimportant we are. If even so distinguished a citizen as this ended up being so forgotten and neglected, how much more are the great majority of us destined for oblivion.   

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  • Working class hero
  • Lennon and Laing – kindred spirits
    • Lennon

      That’s a very fascinating and relevant question.

      Just recently I started watching a series of historical lectures covering various societies, including the Sumerians, Greeks, Romans and Han.

      During the first lecture, the historian cautions against the exclusion of vast sections of society from, well… society. What he meant by this is that when we think of civilisation, it’s generally those parts of recorded civilisation: the city-states; the kingdoms or the mighty empires and that the vast majority of the populace in and surrounding these entities – specifically rural / agrarian communities – are almost always neglected mention.

      Even though these people (which encompasses around 80-to-90% of all humans living during recorded history) didn’t experience as much, if anything, of the major episodes and events the changed the altered the course of history. Where has that left these unknown characters of the human story? In the same state as Alexander, Temujin, Martin Luther and the others: worm food.

    • Neuren Pietersen

      In the garrulous words of Tom Waits “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground”

    • Rachel Hudson

      The question gives one pause. .. to make life meaningful and relevant while one is alive because as you say, death is oblivious to success and life is transient . The process of getting older ensures a re-visioning of what is meaningful at various times in our life and affords us an opportunity to change our tack/mind and the dis -illusionment can help us focus on what is important when we confront the reality of having less years ahead to live than those already lived.

    • Daniel Berti

      You might be interested to read the pulitzer-prize-winning book “The Denial Of Death” by Ernest Becker.

    • Pieter Wesselink

      How amazing to find this, Wolf Ehrlich was my great grandfather and I grew up on stories of the family in Bloemfontein. I am the proud owner of his magnificant yellow wood desk that he bought from the estate of Albert Krause who was a Judge in Bloemfontein at the turn of the last century.

      I should come and see his portrait at some point

      Kind Regards

      Pieter Wesselink