Stuart Buxbaum holds an honours degree in Sociology from Wits University (1970) and an honours in Judaica from UNISA (1984). After working in the social research unit of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in the early 1970s, he farmed for many years in Mpumalanga.
This is the third and final part of my paper looking at the establishment, running and final closure of Herber House, a hostel for Jewish schoolchildren in Johannesburg established under the auspices of the SA Board of Jewish Education (SABJE) in 1943.
At this point, we will interrupt here the narrative of how the SAJBE lay leadership and staff of Herber House grappled with the short and longer-term challenges of running the hostel to dwell a little on what everyday life was like for those youngsters (including myself) living at the institution.
By the late 1950s, HH was drifting into a benign dystopia. Only the regularity of the school day provided structure to the pervasive laissez-faire spirit, as did the remarkable group cohesiveness of the boarders. From the group we drew our strength, a closeness that persists via shared memories almost sixty years later. How was this culture expressed? Thus: having already davened shacharit and breakfasted hurriedly by 7am, we would clamber aboard the buses that would ferry us to school, still isolated from the day scholars. In the song’s refrain, “You could meet us at the back of the bus”, is where we sat bunched together, expressing our otherness by often singing Afrikaans liedjies in unison. This is probably where the future Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn received his early chazanuth training! Once at the high school, we were not required to attend prayers. Instead we sprawled into a classroom together, chatting and gossiping and completing homework. Break-time would see us reassembling on a bench outside the tuck-shop. The rare purchase of a 15-cent hotdog meant the brave customer would have but a small portion of the delicacy, the rest being diminished in its passage down the line on the bench. The rule of ‘opps’ (sharing) was mandatory, to be ignored at the buyer’s peril. We were a band of brothers.
This feral culture had been long in its making. It was the alternate reaction to the state of affairs so often agonizingly mulled over by the committee in their lofty considerations. After the excitement of those early years during the establishment of the hostel, the committee was often preoccupied with the inhospitable physical nature of the property. It was in extent about four acres, rocky and somewhat forbidding. It kept the boarders cut off from the urban environment, accentuating their separateness. Time and again, the committee would bemoan the lack of extensive playing fields, but for the boarders it was a minor inconvenience. There was enough space for endless games of cricket or soccer and daily games of that hostel staple, the game of king stingers.
Then there was the sandy red landfill, always rumored to be the site of the oft discussed future swimming pool. The outcrop and steep descent formed by the landfill afforded much entertainment. Around the years 1957-8 there was a young lad of quiet charm and much energy about 11 years old, Johnny G. from Middelburg. He led a band of loyal youngsters, a gang whose main activity was building hideouts, so-called ‘forts’ on the koppie and on the slopes of the landfill. Corrugated iron, scrap planks and bricks were all greatly valued for these hideouts. The boys spent the weekends foraging for material, building and hiding. Some forts were quite elaborate, with peepholes designed as an early warning system. Then down the red, steep sandy hill, boys of the gang and others would slide the dizzying descent on cardboard boxes endlessly of a Saturday, clambering up the hill, down to slide again. Bennie L., a daredevil and brave lad, was particularly comfortable doing the slide. He reveled in the danger. It was told of him that he once sat in a tyre, rolled down the hill and ended up in Doornfontein!
One fine summer’s Sunday morning, it was thought a splendid idea to rise early and engage in a robust game of king stingers. The brisk morning’s shouting and calling awakened one of the masters from his beauty sleep. Quite expressionlessly, he herded us back into the annex where we were rewarded with some swift canings on our backsides. After a short enforced and painful break in the proceedings, we continued where we had left off. Those who had been ‘on’ were still ‘on’, and those ‘off’, still ‘off’. The master meanwhile had nodded off, presumably exhausted by the effort of raising and lowering the stick so many times.
Of all the sins that that could violate the boarders’ credo, ‘squealing’ was the gravest and would lead to severe retribution. You kept your mouth shut, took the blame yourself rather than pointing out the real offender, and met inquisitions with a stony silence. The penalty for squealing was “being sent to Coventry”. You were excommunicated, the equivalent of the rabbinical cherem. In such a verbal, tightly-knit congregation, being shunned for a number of days by one’s peers was both dismal and desperate.
From this gang-like behavior and tight group culture, resistance to rules and staff regulations could lead to minor revolts. David A. recounts how a football was confiscated by the sudden and overenthusiastic enforcement of Sabbath observance.[i] The boys would have none of it and marched around the ‘drive’, a circular road allowing access to the castle. They banged make-shift drums and shouted slogans. Revolutionaries in the making! The ball was returned.
Heilbrunn isolates a further feature of this feral culture: “Conversations often turned to past Herber House heroes who knew how to be tough and take it up to the staff. Chutzpah (rawfing) was a trait greatly to be admired.”[ii] Rawfing is a manufactured term that referred to the cheekiness with which boarders responded to the supervisors. It was a response filled with insolence. Sometimes it was mitigated by humour but some bravery was required to carry it through. It was not appreciated by the staff but enhanced the rawfer’s status amongst his or her peers.
The converse of rawfing was shlupping. This was an attempt to curry favour with/ingratiate oneself with authority. It would take the form of an unrequested voluntary passing on of information about the boarders’ misbehaviors. Often this behavior was motivated by a genuine need for intimacy, comfort or a sign of acceptance by the staff. By the boarders, shlupping was ranked on the same lowly scale as squealing.
Still, the feral culture seems to have been spared the worst excesses of ‘proper’ boarding schools. Certainly in the latter decade, there was no prefect-ship, nor its malign partner, that of being skivvies [iii] to senior boarders and prefects. There was largely an absence of the viciousness of initiation and the worst aspects of bullying.
Food was a contentious matter. Suppers were generally regulated with a balanced serving; breakfasts were rushed affairs, and lunches were sandwiches, once a week with polony. Joy indeed! In the early years, a dietician had drawn up an extensive, varied and nutritious menu.[iv] The meals were often not to the boarders liking, especially breakfasts. Gilbert Banda, a legend at the hostel for his many years of service and lilting Malawian accent, was the bell-ringer and meals provider in the dining room. At 6 a.m. every weekday, he would clangalang his way up South Street and into the annex. “What’s for breakfast, Gilly?” the boys would call. “Flying eggs, bluddy butta and mabella polish” would come Gilbert’s reply. That about summed up the morning meal.
Occasionally, a boycott would be called by dissatisfied boarders. I recall that there was once unhappiness with a particular serving of beef and vegetables at the evening meal. A boycott was called. It was my favorite dish of the week. It dripped with thick, greasy fat. The plates were set in front of us. Longingly, I looked at the roast slice, going hungry during those meals until it was removed from the menu. The kitchen supervisor had gotten the message.
The jargon at the hostel was usually direct, but some nuances did creep in. The all-seeing eyes of the housemaster and housemistress gained them the appellation of Mr Oog and Mrs Oog. Sometimes the diminutive was used as shorthand code, as in Oogie or the plural, Oogies. Invariably this would be preceded by ‘chips’. So in times of danger or the threat of imminent discovery, the call would be ‘chips!’ More definitively, it would describe the threat as “chips, the Oog!” The girls had a gentler nomenclature. “Mrs Oog” became “Mrs Poz.”
Reciprocating the compliments, Mr Saltzman would in anger refer to the boarders as menuvels. This in its exact Yiddish translation was grossly insulting. Literally, it means an evil doer, a contemptable being, a vile, base and ignoble person.[v] But the boarders, not being Yiddishists, did not take umbrage and bore the insult with much amusement. Every ex-boarder, whatever their age, would react to this appellation with a nostalgic smile.
The contestation would reach its apogee on Saturday evenings in shul, during the service at the termination of the Sabbath. Tension was heightened. Many and varied had been the transgressions of the boarders all week long. These had been seen and noted. The reproach would invariably find its way into the housemaster’s sermon between minchah and maariv. We would be reproached as a group of miscreants, called to order as offending individuals, labelled as menuvels. But there was a higher sanction: the sedrah of the week had warned about such willfulness. We were menuvels who had transgressed the Holy Law. Silently we boys sat, a nudge-nudge here, a glance there, and a wink at each other. The girls had been spared this invective. They had done their shul time for the weekend, and indeed the week.
But in this contest of wills, it would be the boarders who had the final say. The dénouement came at the conclusion of the evening service. The new week would be ushered in with song. A blessed week! A good week! Shavua tov! Shavua tov! Little could those who generations ago had ushered in the week with this hopeful message imagine it being corrupted by a bunch of lads singing “Shovel it off, shovel it off” with appropriate spade work, completing the arc with a swing over the shoulder! The housemaster’s reproaches had missed their target.
And then these same boys would burst out of the shul on those starry skied nights, hoping
that that night’s film in the high ceilinged hall of the castle would not be the umpteenth showing of “Chocolate Soldier” with Nelson Eddy, but some real war-time soldiers’ tale. The girls may have wished otherwise.
But not for all would be the Saturday night entertainment! In the tit for tat between boarders and supervisors, there was one sanction still the preserve of the latter: No bioscope for you upstairs in the hall tonight! Here again is Heilbrunn’s description: “Those punished (from seeing the film) would…gather in the dining room…with occasional supervision…the staff member usually didn’t stay long and those downstairs would create their own ‘entertainment’, dancing on the tables…There were periodic raids of the kitchen and pantry…our resourcefulness was highly developed. So it was a debatable which group, the ‘punished’ kids below or the ‘privileged’ kids above, were having a better time”.[vi]
Ah, after all these happenings, how different the start of the Sabbath had been! Scrubbed clean and neatly dressed, the boys and girls had sat in shul on Friday evening with so much decorum. The entire service had been chanted, quite melodiously, I always recall. Then to the dining room, the tables all bedecked in white tablecloths. At each table, two candlesticks with candles burning bright sat about six boarders, boys and girls separately. The meal was preceded by everyone singing Shalom Aleichem. A special Sabbath meal of soup, roast chicken, potatoes and vegetables and ‘sweets’. Then Zmirot all loudly sung as was grace after meals.
But at some point in the meal, the call would start and rapidly become a chorus: “We want Paddy! (Brenda P.) We want Cookie (Tziona P.), We want Adele (Coini)". Eventually the housemaster would relent and ask the girls to sing. They had beautiful voices. Down the years, I hear them still…..
The formal Friday evening ended with singing, dancing and hand clapping outside the castle, at the apex of the drive: Boys and girls all in a circle, singing repetitive tunes such as “coming round the mountain”. Boys chose girls, girls chose boys and “tiekie draaied” [vii] for a few brief moments. The genteel words of the songs would gradually morph into more risqué, ribald rhymes, often referring to the behavior and dress of staff members. Then a rush to the dormitories, and sometimes a wild, unrestrained feather-lying pillow fight. The girls’ evening ended quietly.
My sister Beatrice found the hostel stifling and confining. The narrow factory-purpose lockers, the regimentation, the rules were constricting. She had lived for the first two years of high school at Ulpan Harary,[viii] a small family run hostel in the suburb of Observatory where she had felt more comfortable and at ease. She would, after two years at Herber House, board with private families until she matriculated. She would then enroll at the Hebrew Teachers Seminary and qualify as a Hebrew teacher.
Leaving home: parents and children
This was the hardest part and it was not just a four-times-a-year physical separation, but a spatial and psychological one as well. It was both occasional and continuous. It cleaved one’s idea of self into two pieces. You were both a small town shop-keeper’s son and a hostel dweller. You were a mid-sized town hotelier’s daughter and a blossoming young lady in a crowded dormitory with no bedside table, mirror or bedside lamp. Which were you?
And then, for those waving goodbye, it was equally fraught. Believing that it was for the good of the child, the parents justified their loneliness. Sometimes on an isolated farm, relieved that the child was not witness to the ravages of a periodic drought, yet wishing that they were home to lessen the burden of the silent uncompromising sun. There is considerable explanatory literature on this ever present and never satisfactorily answered question: “But was it good for the children? But was it good for the parents?” In the recently re-published Afrikaans book of memoirs, Koshuis (NB uitgewers, 2019) Afrikaans writers recall university hostel and boarding school life. The stories serve as articulation. In one very telling account Frikkie Dippenaar, relates how his parents, living as they did in Bloemfontein, thought it valuable for their young son and daughter to be sent to boarding school in Trompsburg (!).Thus, the family journeys to Trompsburg at the commencement of term. Amid tears and clinging, the children are settled into their new abode. The lad makes new friends; the girl weeps. A few hours later, their father re-appears. He has come to take them home, he says, as the kids hurriedly cram their carefully packed clothes into the vehicle. As they drive away, the father haltingly explains that after leaving the children their mother began to weep softly ([Sy het] “begin verlang” [she began to pine/yearn for] Mother thought it best to fetch the children and take them back home. “So het my koshuisloopbaan tot ‘n einde gekom” (thus did my boarding school career come to an end, Grundlingh, op. cit., p126).
In the early 1970s, a speaker on a soapbox in Hyde Park, London, exaggeratedly proclaimed that the family was an “emotional hothouse.” Certainly the family can be an arena of contestation. Boarders, by their physical absence, were often not in the house during those gritty moments of family disagreements. But the homecoming during school breaks was mostly celebratory and joyous. The child was a welcome guest, a special visitor. Favorite dishes were the order of the day. The atmosphere was purposely cordial and considered. During term, however, the parents were inured from the crises of the day-to-day lives of their children, or of the adolescent hesitantly finding his way into early adulthood. And as my mother would say when it was that dreaded back-to-hostel time again: “Oiy! Vider cheder mit groip mit bulves” (of which a literal translation would read "Oh! Again schoolroom, groats and potatoes!", a resigned reference to the dreariness and repetitiveness of everyday life).Or as Michel K, from Leslie has said: “It wasn’t just the night before going back that made me shudder; it started a week before!”
Tribulata continua…. (The troubles continue)
At this point, we return to our embattled HH staff and SAJBE lay leaders and their Sisyphean labours…
On 3 June 1958 Dr Sidelsky, together with Messrs Leibgott and Miller, reported that they had again investigated conditions at Herber House. “At the outset he wished to state that the various rumors circulating about Herber House had no foundation whatsoever.” But yet: “The committee had come to the conclusion that the physical aspects of Herber House militated against the smooth running of this institution.” What were these “physical aspects”?
The cardinal feature of the hostel was that it was spread over three buildings, none of them by any means state of the art. The “Main” building (the old castle) housed 28 boarders (12 girls of all ages and 16 boys up to age nine). The Annex housed 30 boys, aged 10-14, and the House 12 boys aged 14-17. There were at this time a total of 70 boarders, 27% down from its peak of 95. This is a telling decline. These constant “troubles” were front and centre at committee meetings for almost a decade, and despite attempts to paper over the shortcomings and keep them out of the Jewish media, the brand was indeed tarnished. It was a reason for some rural and smaller town parents choosing to send their offspring to other boarding schools, such as Jeppe, King Edward VII, and Barnato Park’s Joel House for girls. There was also a private Jewish hostel, Harrarys; Yeshiva College also catered for out-of-town pupils at its hostel.
Returning to the report of Sidelsky et al, more “troubles” were reported. There was trouble with the plumbing which was in a shocking state. There was trouble with the recreational facilities, which were most inadequate (“some sort of a football ground”). There was trouble with the staff compliment: more were needed, but there was a lack of accommodation.
There was some attempt at talking back this mortifying condemnation. Mr Froman, who had made almost a life’s calling of the hostel, “stressed that most of the rumors about the supervision and conditions … were greatly exaggerated and uncalled for” (3/6/1958). Furthermore, “the members were greatly impressed by the wonderful insight into the Jewish religion and way of life which the boarders received.” This much was largely true. The mode of inculcation was mainly repetition, repetition, and then repetition. The food too, Mr Froman said, was good.
Dr Sidelsky, perturbed though he was, came back with a forceful rejoinder: “Herber House would be a sore point among the institutions of the board until new adequate buildings were erected and the new Herber House was attached to the King David School with suitable sporting and recreational activities and facilities for homework, study…” He felt it would be advisable for the Board to go to the country on a campaign to raise funds specifically for the building of a suitable hostel.
The reaction to this report was generally a positive one. But almost predictably, it was suggested (in this case by Mr Goss) that two other members be co-opted onto an investigative sub-committee and that a full report be submitted in due course.
The ‘Cane’ Mutiny
It is mentioned in passing in the 3 June 1958 minutes that a Mr Mike Bondezio had joined the staff as a supervisor. This was a sensitive appointment, as it went against Mr Saltzman’s earlier rigid standpoint against the employment of non-Jewish supervisory personnel. It speaks of two contradictory needs on the committee members’ agendas: the need for supervisory staff who could be role models, be sympathetic and be of a positive outlook, and on the other hand, ham- strung by the oft-repeated conviction that there was no one suitable in the country who could fulfill the role. Oh, and they had to be Jewish to boot, as insisted by Saltzman. And then, oh deary me, the committee in their wisdom fell between the cracks and failed on all counts….
As if to emphasize the mutiny from previous dogma, a second non-Jewish housemaster was added to the staff. He was Mr Henry Erlank. Bondesio taught woodwork at King David High School, and Erlank taught Science and Afrikaans.
Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn, who hailed from the small dorp of Sannieshof in the then Western Transvaal, attended HH in 1959-1963. Here is his description of these two men’s approach to law and order at the hostel:
Rabbi Saltzman relied heavily on two (non-Jewish) masters to maintain discipline and retain control, and he certainly needed them. The masters were greatly skilled in wielding the cane and lorded it over us, as the Haggadah puts it, “with rigour”. Although any time was a good time to mete out discipline, their great moment was at inspection around 6:00pm before Mincha and Maariv near the entrance of the Shul. One minute late got you one cut, two minutes, two cuts and so on. Then if your shoes were dirty, it was one extra cut and if your hair was not neat as well or you were…guilty of some other infringement, it was again an extra lash with the cane. Next day on …the bus to school we would compare our ‘war wounds’ and rank ourselves…[ix]
Sing Ye the Praises……
The year 1959 starts on an optimistic, upbeat note. It is January 27. Sixty-five children have been enrolled. Among the new arrivals are the above mentioned Philip Heilbrunn, his cousin from the same dorp, Julian K. and Samuel C. from Standerton. Aged 9-10 years, they speak good Afrikaans. Harry J. came from Vanderbijlpark, as did Allan C. Michael K from Leslie and Desmond L. from Bethal, at 10 and 9 years of age, were already hostel veterans. The numbers however, were well off their peak.
Mr Saltzman is praised for the hostel being in spotless condition. The praise singing continues: “The children,” said Mr Froman, “were brought up in a truly Jewish atmosphere.” Everything was being done for the physical and spiritual welfare of the boarders. The highlight of Herber House was its religious life; the synagogue services had aroused the greatest admiration of leading educators. He himself had tried to create in the hostel a home atmosphere which the boarders took with them when they left and established homes of their own. Froman had been at the helm of the hostel committee for fifteen years now, since its inception. He took criticism and praise personally.
Interestingly, Froman referred to a recent meeting of HH old boys and girls which he had attended. There, tributes had been paid to the hostel for the part it played in their lives of Orthodoxy, of Judaism.
Mr Goss lent some perspective, saying that the hostel had suffered from too much praise and too much abuse. From a hygienic point of view, the premises were not suitable. But, he said, attending synagogue services at Herber House made one feel as if one were in a yeshiva in Eastern Europe” (27/1/1959).
I can feel a change is a comin’…..
On 3 March 1959, Mr Froman reported that boarders were not getting the maximum input from Mr Saltzman, who had been in poor health. He wished to pay tribute to Saltzman (although acknowledging that he had over the years had many differences with him), but felt that the time had come for a “younger assistant” to take over “his onerous duties”. And again, like the proverbial dog unable to let go of the bone, Froman raised the question of inadequate premises. He felt that as a new hostel could not then be built, the present premises should be modernized and the ground not required be put up for sale. Neither of these suggestions was really viable
But pressure was building, and funds being collected for the UCF were a litmus test. Reports filtering in showed that some families in the rural areas were threatening not withhold their contributions unless a modern hostel was established for country children. Goss reported that Kimberley and Bloemfontein had been agitating for a hostel in their own towns and did not want a new hostel in Johannesburg to be established. He was unsure as to whether building a new hostel would lead to more pupils attending. As reported, King David School was completely full. “How then,” asked Mr Mervis, “would the school cope with an extra say, 150 children that might attend a new hostel?” He suggested that the new hostel be housed at the envisaged new North-Western Jewish Day School, and so grow gradually with that school.
According to Goss, Jewish parents were “not hostel minded”. His comment is interesting, mainly as it is partly derogatory, partly misleading and largely incorrect. It is also rather vague. In the triangle of interested parties to the hostel project, being the staff, the committee and the parents, the parents had no particular voice. There does not seem to have been any attempt or even suggestion to create a parents’ hostel association. So a cohesive, coherent voice of one angle of the triangle, that of the concerned parents, remained silent.
There is a different aspect to Goss’s suggestion. Sending a child to a boarding school has its genesis in numerous motivations. Naturally, the need for education is paramount. Similarly, a prevalent stimulus had been the belief that children need to be subjected to discipline, which boarding school could instill. For boys particularly, a motivation has been that they imbibe the supposedly important attributes of “manliness”. This is presumably achieved by growing up in a less empathetic environment than in a (mostly) caring home. There is too, the motivation of encouraging the child to be better able to learn the skills of coexistence, the forging of possible influential friendships that would have a lasting benefit.
It is suggested that Jewish parents in the rural areas of South Africa were not, indeed “hostel minded” in the sense described above. Their motivation was for their children to have a Jewish education, for the boys to learn for their Bar Mitzvahs and for them to be in a Jewish environment rather than being a small minority in non-Jewish schools where often the medium of instruction in the high schools was Afrikaans.
“Enough!” say the parents
Heilbrunn writes, “I well recall several meetings over the years where parents passionately voiced their criticisms of the dilapidated facilities at South Street and demanded, without success, that their needs be addressed.”[x] A concerted effort to influence the opinions of the committee and to express the parents’ frustration at the situation at the hostel, and its malfunctioning staff complement, reached a peak at a meeting called in the winter of 1959.
Martin Klugman, a pharmacist from Henneman in the (then) Orange Free State, was in the vanguard of this campaign. He requested that all concerned parents meet at the hostel, in an open session to discuss their reservations. A considerable number of parents attended. The Zionist Record reported on the meeting: “References were made to the “bad atmosphere and shocking living conditions”. (Klugman)...criticised the Board of Deputies and the UCF for having ignored an invitation to be represented at the meeting”.[xi] It further recorded that “Mr Solly Yellin, chairman of the SA Board of Jewish Education, speaking amidst interruptions from the floor, said that the board had long realized that Herber House was unsuitable as a hostel for children.” The meeting had been preceded by a scathing letter by Klugman, entitled “The Shocking State of Herber House” in the Zionist Record of 8 May, 1959. It included the memorable, oft-repeated line: “The dining room down in the basement is a veritable black hole of Calcutta.” It drew a sympathetic reply from a reader (11 June), who concluded with the wish that the sorry state of affairs having been brought to the community’s notice, perhaps some steps would be taken to improve the hostel”. However, the movement soon lost steam. Parents were spread across the Transvaal and the Free State, and arranging meetings proved difficult, even for a man of Mr Klugman’s undoubted energy.
In parallel with these developments, Froman assured the council that the children’s welfare was well looked after. Changes in both staff and the physical environment would take place in the near future he said (9/6/1959). An important announcement was made at this meeting, which would, briefly, allow the boarders to experience an entirely different, happier and more constructive managerial approach. Abner Weiss, “a man of ability”, had been appointed as acting housemaster.
Abner Weiss, who was about 21 years old at this time, was familiar to many of the boarders, having assisted as a football coach at the primary school. A protégé of Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz), he would go on to a stellar career as a rabbi, scholar, communal leader, and professor in both South Africa and the United States. From the outset, he brought charisma, enthusiasm, respect and the energy of a youth leader. The boarders were drawn to and connected with him. I remember an evening in which he led us in song at the edge of the small playing field, teaching us the songs of the youth movements’ joyous repertoire. Heilbrunn describes his, alas too short, tenure: “He was responsible for certain innovations. He encouraged the wearing of tzitzit (ritual fringes) and introduced the Singer Siddur with its translation as a replacement for the Shilo large print educational siddurim (prayer books) we had been using up to then.” He continues “…..perhaps because of jealousy or on an ideological basis, upon Rabbi Zaltsman’s (sic) return, he treated the new siddur with scorn and hastily set about reasserting his authority. I do recall that (his) reactionary response was not well received by the boarders.”[xii]
That there was appreciation for Abner Weiss’s approach and persona was expressed in a letter to the Zionist Record (11 June 1959) by two of the older girl boarders and referring to a Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony at the hostel: “After the candle lighting, a story was told by Mr Weiss. It made a deep impression on the 70 young listeners.”
“Close the hostel!” say the committee.
However, reality intruded. A meeting was held on 28 July 1959 at which a broad- ranging report on the finances of the Board of Education was discussed. The campaigns for the UCF, Zionist Federation and Board of Education were analyzed in terms of their overlapping with each other, and of the possibility of sharing resources. It was in this report that the somewhat astounding recommendation was made that Herber House be closed at the end of the year! (my emphasis) At the same time it was recommended that the money set aside by the UCF for hostels be allocated to the Board for the erection of a modern hostel in Linksfield.
Naturally, Mr Froman opposed this view, believing that the hostel should remain open until a new one was built. Familiar with the platteland,[xiii] the hostel resonated with him in particular. The number of boarders had fallen to forty-four, and the present facilities were adequate to provide for this reduced number, he argued: “The main thing was that they lived in a Jewish home and were brought up as Jews.” Astoundingly Louis Sachs in particular, supported by Mr Kretzmer, stressed that “it was not the function of the Board to provide a home for country children, and that the commission was quite definite on this point.” How ironic then, that when the new hostel would eventually be completed in 1966, it would be named Sachs House!
Entering the fray was Rabbi Rabinowitz, supported by Mr Peck. Imagine the authoritative, booming voice of the Chief Rabbi, when he offered the contrary view, oft stated though it might have been! “The hostel,” he said, “was an important institution which provided a Jewish upbringing for country children even though some of them did not attend the King David School. Had the hostel not existed, the majority of its boarders would have been educated in convents,” he said dramatically.
Imperturbably, the clock ticked down, unruffled by all the background noise. Six and a half years to go……..
The Kuper Commission 1960-1
At its 1960 conference, the SABJE appointed a commission to consider ways and means of setting its financial position on a sounder footing.[xiv] It was chaired by the Honorable Mr Justice S.M. Kuper. From 19 December 1960, it would hold 23 investigative meetings.[xv] Its report “recommended that Herber House be closed as the building was no longer suitable and it was being run at a serious deficit. A large efficiently run hostel was not only educationally desirable but would affect considerable savings. The commission noted that “the provision of Hebrew education for children throughout the country is more urgent and a greater priority” than youth and student work.[xvi] Kuper reported on the parlous state of finances of Herber House. Thus for example, the grant required for the running of the hostel was £698, for the month of October.[xvii]
Ring in the changes: Part one
As if to amplify the findings and concerns of the Kuper Commission, the number of boarders had begun a downward slide. In particular, the number of girls older than fifteen had declined considerably. The hostel’s restrictions were especially limiting to young ladies, and boarding in private homes became a more suitable option. While numbers dwindled, mirroring a decline in the number of Jews in the rural areas, there was nevertheless still much vibrancy in the smaller communities, and even development in some instances: the Leslie and Districts Hebrew Congregation, situated midway between Springs and Bethal, consecrated their communal hall and synagogue only in 1963. The pool from which a hostel could draw boarders was still of considerable size. It should have been enough to sustain the numbers. By comparison, the new hostel, which finally opened in 1966, would at its height comprise 130 to150 children.[xviii]
Rationalization was needed and in 1961-2,[xix] the amalgamation of the various “campuses” at Herber House came about. Boarders were moved into the central old castle, that dank and dreary place once called “Ellis’s folly”.[xx] The result was large dormitories with a very mixed age grouping.[xxi] Certainly this reduced running costs. The annex in particular was shoddy and required maintenance and staffing.
Messrs Bondezio and Erlank both rode off into the sunset, taking their canes with them. Despite their threatening and authoritarian mien, they were not taken too seriously by the boys, and had very little direction over the girls. During this time, Rabbi Saltzman also left, as did his capable but non-empathetic wife. A succession of short-term replacements followed. Around 1962 Con Pakter, former headmaster of the Jewish Government School, became housemaster, but did not live on the premises. Absence made the boarders’ hearts grow fonder! Pakter brought with him a most unsuitable assistant, also from the Jewish Government School. Haughty and distant of demeanor, his extensive use of pungent cosmetics gave his presence away, so surprise was not a weapon in his armory! He was generally loathed, but the boarders trod warily around him. Heilbrunn describes this period succinctly: “[Pakter] tried to organize and set it up on a more systematic and rational basis. This was a singular failure as he didn’t take proper account of the ‘feral’ culture which pervaded the place”.[xxii]
Ring in the changes: Part two
Pakter’s departure brought to an end those dismal days of his stewardship at Herber House. The constant refrain by the committee over the years was the absence of any really able persons to take charge. The many complaints, the head butting, the disagreements and the pure frustration with the housemaster and Mrs Dubin over the years of their respective offices had had the committee trapped. They were stuck with the staff, and believed there were no able replacements available anywhere. They should have looked harder.
After Pakter, there followed a succession of assistant supervisors: Mr Nel, Mr Land, Mrs Borowitz. Miss Milly Goldstein had for many years supervised the young children in addition to her housekeeping duties, and Mrs Lotzoff had supervised the kitchen. But then, along came Paul Kowarsky, around mid-1962. Heilbrunn describes his arrival: “When Con Pakter left, Paul Kowarsky, a young man of 19 was given the task of running Herber House. In spite of his tender years, Paul possessed the maturity, authority, wisdom and cool personality to make a go of it.”[xxiii] Heilbrunn recounts that Kowarsky, a kippa-wearing Bnei-Akivnik had been to a Yeshivah in Israel and was possessed of a superb voice, particularly for chazzanut. He would grace the bimahs of many a synagogue in South Africa, and later in Canada. Adding to his “charming charismatic personality”[xxiii] and his contemporary outlook, his appeal was heightened by the fact that he had matriculated at King David High School. Most of the high school boarders had seen the striking photograph of the First Fifteen Rugby Team of that year, the lads all clad in their blazers, their rugby jersey collars all raised to their very throats. Paul sat in the front row, next to the legendary Meneer Jorrie Jordaan, the school’s Afrikaans teacher and rugby coach. Paul could instantly relate to the boarders who attended the very day school he himself had left but a few years earlier.
In Heilbrunn’s words, Kowarsky “revitalized the duvvening”,[xxiv] teaching the boarders new tunes to the services. On Saturday mornings, the boarders would often accompany him to the Beit Hamedrash Hagadol in Saratoga Avenue, Doornfontein, where he would lead the services. These outings were a great change from the usual Sabbath pattern. On these occasions, with Kowarsky on the bimah, the boys often had a riotous time at the congregation’s brocha. [xxv] The walk back to Herber House was usually cheerful and instructive, with Paul always ready to engage the group on a variety of topics.
Kowarsky left in 1964, and was succeeded by the similarly youthful Hymie Berkowitz for a few months. The hostel was to be closed at year’s end. Those few boarders who had not yet matriculated spent the next school year boarding with private families. Some of these scholars would move into dormitories at the new hostel on the grounds of King David High School.
And the walls came tumbling down
The grand old Eastington Castle, built out of solid stone in the previous century, would meet its fate at the blows of the sledgehammer. The building and its grounds were sold by the SABJE to a consortium of developers for the sum of R82 000.[xxvi] In anticipation of the putative new development, the old castle was torn down, razed to the ground, dismembered and disemboweled. A Johannesburg Heritage building had been flattened. The developers’ plans would gather dust. Nothing was ever erected on the site.
Among the ex-hostel dwellers, explanatory myths abounded for this building project’s failure. The ground was too hard for anything to be built on it, some said. Others preferred a gothic interpretation. The many ghosts that boarders believed inhabited the corners and crevices of the old castle, who had lain dormant all these years, had been roused by the crash and bang of the demolition derby. They would protect their territory from these vile intruders and prevent any other edifice being erected on that hallowed ground. Across the new Harrow Road [xxvii] on a similar koppie, a gigantic circular building – called Ponte - would rear its head and from its great height, cast a leering glance at that vacant, naked erf. The potency of the ghosts was limited to the zone where the koppie met the road, there where during our schooldays we had built our forts, slid down the hill and secretly climbed up at dusk, having sneaked out earlier in the afternoon to play a few games of “sticks” at the Hippodrome Billiards Club in Hillbrow’s Kotze Street.
It is now 55 years since the final closure of Herber House and 75 years since it first opened its doors. The total figure of children who passed through its portals is but an estimate, and in the minutes such numbers have varied from 700 to 1000. We can safely assume the latter figure. So many names, so many towns and villages.
There were certainly different epochs in the time of the hostel’s existence. The hostel experience for boarders separated by even five years would render their experiences quite different from one another. The drive to modernity in post-World War II South Africa affected the socio-economic structure of rural and non-metropolitan Jewry in a positive way.
Chaim Gershater, former editor of the Zionist Record, alluded to this. At the height of the communal criticism levelled at the hostel in 1959, he wrote: “The days are gone when a parent could be satisfied with his child being accommodated in simple and modest cottages or bungalows.” [xxviii] The reference in the minutes that requests permission for children to remain in the hostel over the school holidays is telling. Some simply had no permanent place to call home. A decade and a half later, children came from homes whose material condition had in general improved. Also, the coming-to-be of the day schools had a major impact on the lives of the hostel dwellers and their school and boarding experiences as compared with those of the first generation of lodgers.
In the years soon after its founding, Herber House doubled as hostel and school, offering mandatory Jewish studies after school. For a later generation of boarders the King David schools took care of that. Boarders now lived and learnt in both an encapsulated Jewish hostel and Jewish school environment. The impact of the supervisory staff too was striking. The combination of the Saltzman-Dubin partnership can safely be said to have been a harsh one. Dubin’s generation of hostellers was a distance removed from the Kowarsky generation. Still, the similarities of hostel life across the years resulted in a culture quite familiar to all who dwelt there.
Currently, a loose Herber House association of previous boarders is still maintained. From time to time, a get-together takes place, especially when previous lodgers living elsewhere visit Johannesburg. We remain a group of like-minded men and women, always ready to talk and laugh about our common experiences.
More recently, at the initiative of Elliot Wolf, previous headmaster of the high school and now director of the King David Foundation, a framed commemorative plaque showing scenes of the castle was affixed to a wall in the media centre. A modest “Herber House Fund” has been established at the foundation in recognition of the day school education which especially the later generation of Herber House boarders have been privileged to have received.[xxix]
- I wish to record my sincere thanks to Elliot Wolf for his support in this project and for granting me access to the minutes of the committee responsible for the establishment and running of Herber House.
- I wish to thank both Mrs Naomi Musiker (archivist) and Eric Mathobo (librarian) at the Beyachad Community Centre in Johannesburg. These departments and their readiness to assist researchers are indeed treasures this community should greatly appreciate.
- I have very many fond and enduring memories of the many hostel boarders with whom I shared seven school years. Philip (Rabbi) Heilbrunn, the lad from Sannieshof who would become spiritual head of the St. Kilda Hebrew Congregation in Melbourne, is gratefully acknowledged for his memoir about the hostel, from which I have freely borrowed.
- I appreciate the help of the Heritage Foundation in Johannesburg for providing the figures concerning the history of the sale of the Eastington Castle to the SABJE.
- A special thanks is expressed to my wife Denise for proofreading this article. And to my family for having charitably listened to so many boarding school stories, ad nauseum.
APPENDIX: Boarding School Syndrome and Homesickness
“Boarding school syndrome is increasingly recognized as a specific syndrome by psychologists.” [xxx] BSS is a term used for the display of a cluster of emotions seen to have their genesis in the exposure, especially at an early age, to such forms of institutional living. Two major theorists in this field are the British psychologists Dr Joy Schaverien and Nick Duffel, whose writings are based on the counselling work done with members of the British public who had attended boarding schools in England.
Earlier, in the 1960s, John Bowlby had written about attachment theory, and novelists George Orwell and Roald Dahl about the bleak sides of boarding school and its human costs. Schaverien writes that when a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up, she says, involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot “rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system….this causes the child to shut itself off from the need of intimacy…” [xxxi] These symptoms have been found to have had an effect especially on boarders of a tender age. There seems to be a tendency too, to keep silent about emotional stress. A certain degree of stoicism may result. Inter alia too, the boarding school environment in general (but applicable also to the so called “feral culture” at Herber House) found expression in self-reliance, high moral values and endurance. And strong, bonded friendships.
Every boarder would have experienced the feeling generally referred to as “homesickness”. This term, while prevalent, is indeed a simplification of the depth of feeling it invokes. The archetype of homesickness is recorded in the scriptures. Those exiled from the land of Israel and who found themselves at the rivers of Babylon, wept when they remembered their home country.
Oliver Sacks, celebrated author, physician, neurologist and academic, in the first sentence of his book “On the move”, pithily describes the emotions of a child away from home: “When I was at boarding school, sent away during the war as a little boy, I had a sense of imprisonment and powerlessness, and I longed for movement and power…” [xxxii]
Crying and weeping, so well associated with “homesickness “is indicative of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, separation, longing, and depression. All the elements of boarding school life can contribute to this emotion: the strange environment, the absence of parents and caregivers, the harshness and brusqueness of supervisory staff, the distance from home, from all that the word “home” implies. It implies the rhythm of the domesticity in the home, of a bedroom, the comfort of one’s own bed, of loved pets, of a stamp collection and dinky toys, the smells of food cooking in the kitchen, the grand puffy bed pillows. The child who was fobbed off as being “just homesick” was experiencing a much deeper range of emotions, and in all probability it was not seen for all its seriousness. Over time, these feelings would diminish as a result of the greater familiarity with the new environment and deeper friendship patterns. But particularly for the more vulnerable, the very sensitive, for the younger ones, these feelings might have eased but were largely just below the surface. The memory of that trauma is embedded in us all. That alone, I believe made us into more sensitive, more empathetic human beings.
 Dr Abt had “suggested that the children be allowed to play and conduct their games in the hostel grounds on Saturdays although it was not with the strictest compliance of the religious requirements”.
 Heilbrunn, op.cit. page 2
 Skivvys are, according to an online dictionary, servants who do menial tasks. In boarding school parlance, “you were a slave, a skivvy to a prefect…basically waited on him hand and foot”. Idle, E, The Greedy Bastard Diary: A comic tour of America, Hatchette, UK. (date unknown)
 A thorough and balanced menu for the hostel, detailing each meal for each day of the week, was approved by Dr Morris Witkin, MD, F.R.C.P. (Edin), (date unknown). Witkin published an article entitled ‘On the management of obesity’ in the South African Medical Journal, 19/5/1956.
 My thanks to Cedric Ginsberg, teacher of the Yiddish language at the Yiddish Academy in Johannesburg, for his detailed explanation of the term.
 Heibrunn, op. cit. page 8-9
 “A fast dance-movement derived from Cape square-dancing in which couples link hands and spin around…” http5/://dsae.co.za/entry/tickeydraai/e07171
 Mordechai Harary, housemaster of Hararys Hostel (established 1950) together with his wife Yehudit, was born in Lodz, Poland in 1903, and came to South Africa in 1929. He was an agricultural engineer who had been trained in France. South African Jewry, 1976-7, op.cit.p 511.
 Heilbrunn, op.cit. p4
 Zionist Record, 25/6/1959
 Heilbrunn, op. cit. p9
 He was a “member of the Country Communities Committee of SA Jewish Board of Deputies. President of Witbank Zionist Society, 1925-1936” in Feldberg, op.cit. p257.
 Katz, op.cit p.434
 Kuper Commission, op.cit. p6
 Klewansky, G, ‘Home away from home: memories of King David Hostel’, in SA Jewish Report, 13/12/2018.
[19 Heilbrunn, op.cit. p 9
 Sunday Express,19/7/1964
 Heilbrunn, op.cit. p10
 Sunday Express, op. cit.
 Harrow Road, later re-named Joe Slovo Drive.
 Zionist Record, 11 June, 1959
 All of the many preceding pages could succinctly be summarized as follows: “This mansion stood above a rocky gorge and was prominent in the early views of Yeoville Ridge. Years later it became Herber House, a school for Jewish children, after which it fell into disrepair and ended as a pile of rubble - a far cry from its heyday in the early 1900’s”. Walker, op.cit. p15.
 The title of Dr Joy Schaveriens’ study is “Boarding School Syndrome: The psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ child”. ..quoted in “Boarding school syndrome: The symptoms and long-term psychological effects”, by Rosemary Lamaison, https;//www.ibblaw.co.uk/insights/blog boarding-school syndrome p1
 Sacks, Oliver, On the Move: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2015.p 3.