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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.   


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.