Two Daughters of the Free State and their Poetry: Olga Kirsch and Jennifer Friedman

Brian Josselowitz has worked in the newspaper industry, as a journalist, sub-editor and editor for some fifty years, including for the Weekend World, Business Times, Sunday Times and Caxton. After moving to Cape Town, he launched a community newspaper for the northern suburbs at the behest of The Argus Company (now Independent Media), and at the time of his retirement from the Independent after nineteen years was news editor of fifteen community newspaper titles. He continues to contribute to Independent titles around the country.

Dr Egonne Roth, a lecturer at Bar Ilan University and biographer of Olga Kirsch1, was surprised to learn that Jennifer Friedman, author of the childhood memoir Queen of the Free State and its follow-up The Messiah’s Dream Machine2 also writes Afrikaans poetry. She had thought that Kirsch (who had strong ties to Jewish Affairs)3 was the only South African Jewish woman who did so. There are other similarities too: Kirsch and Friedman both grew up learning and speaking Afrikaans in the then Orange Free State, Kirsch in Koppies and Friedman in the Philippolis area, now Xariep, where her grandparents owned farms and her father was the first Jewish pharmacist in the area. Friedman lived in Cape Town for five years and, as Kirsch did, in Israel while her husband Alan Hendler was setting up a factory for the family business. She now lives in Australia but often makes visits back home.

Friedman, much against her will and despite her mother’s promise not to send her, went to boarding school in Cape Town, attending the Good Hope Seminary High School for Girls in Sea Point. “In retrospect, I guess it was because she and my father had decided to sell up and leave the Free State, a decision they certainly didn't share with me,” she says. In The Messiah's Dream Machine she refers to her Alma Mater as the Good Hope Cemetery. According to her, it was predominantly Jewish. Kirsch, by contrast, from the age of 13 attended Eunice High in Bloemfontein, where there were a number of Jewish children, because she wanted to study Latin. This, soon after her father Sam died following complications from a hernia operation in Johannesburg.

Jennifer Friedman working on 'The Messiah’s Dream Machine’ while staying at the Van der Post Writer’s Retreat, Philippolis (Free State)

Jennifer Friedman working on 'The Messiah’s Dream Machine’ while staying at the Van der Post Writer’s Retreat, Philippolis (Free State)

Of her parents, Friedman says, “My mother was undemonstrative, but my father could on occasion appear warm, hearty and affectionate. He was an artist; an exceptionally good sculptor. He sculpted a very fine head of my grandfather, his father-in-law”.

Friedman says she has written poetry in Afrikaans all of her life: “It’s the way I’ve always expressed my thoughts and ideas; invariably, habitually, as a poem. I’ve no idea how many I've written”. She has had about two dozen poems published in mainly academic journals such as Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Wetenskap en Kuns (as did Kirsch), Standpunte, Buurman, and the popular Afrikaans magazine, Rooi Rose, among others. “My poetry is about the farms, the Free State, different countries I’ve found myself in, longing, love, my children, politics – whatever thought comes into my head. I don’t choose the subjects for my poetry – they choose me”.

Kirsch too wrote about the people she loved and the experiences she had. She also had a fraught relationship with her mother Eva, who died in 1981. In one of her poems about Eva, she indicates that her philosophy about how to bring up children was in keeping with the community in which they lived. It was not a community that pampered children. They believed children should learn that only through hard work and diligence could success be achieved.

Although Sam had a car and employed a driver the children had to walk to and from school - quite a walk. Often they would stop at the store for something to eat and drink. Eva believed that they were a cut above the rest. As far as she was concerned the children had everything they could dream of: “There was no reason to complain. However, these emotional and behavioural restrictions resulted in polite but shallow family relationships. Contentious issues could never be discussed and therefore went unresolved”.

Friedman has not as yet published an anthology of Afrikaans poetry. ”But the thought recently occurred to me – I’ve added a few Afrikaans poems in the third book I’m writing” she says. There is a difference between writing poetry and prose: “For me, writing poetry is spontaneous – the images just appear, whereas when I write stories, I have to sit down and really think about content and structure. I had no idea writing prose was such hard work”.

Continues Friedman, “I grew up in the Free State speaking Afrikaans. It was the language of the Free State, and it seemed a natural choice when I started writing about the Free State. It was never a conscious decision to write poetry. I saw the world in the form of a poem and that's how the words fell upon the paper.

“Afrikaans poetry was part of our school curriculum. I was educated in Afrikaans, at an Afrikaans school. But I don't think I was ever influenced by any other poet. I just wrote as I perceived the world around me. It was a form of writing that appealed to me, and seemed to perfectly contain and express how and what I wanted to say. Poems mostly just present themselves to me and I mess around with them until I’m satisfied with their form and content – especially their rhythm and the shape of their images. When I need to write anything down, I'll write on any piece of paper I can find, words and ideas, phrases and images. That said, I also don't go anywhere without a notebook and a pen, but often also while I'm cooking or flying a plane.

“Olga Kirsch was a Free Stater too, born in Koppies. She was a contemporary of my mother’s, and amongst the many hundreds of books in our house were my mother’s copies of her anthologies, Die Soeklig and Mure van die Hart. It’s many years since I read her poetry, but I do remember that I found her writing clear, and easy to understand. I think we both felt the same way about Afrikaans as a language, and our attachment to South Africa”.

Concerning Queen of the Free State, Friedman explains that she hadn’t intend writing a memoir: “Having previously written poetry exclusively in Afrikaans, many years after being transplanted to Australia, I thought I’d try my hand at writing short stories, sketches in English, about growing up as a Jewish child in a predominantly Afrikaans environment. Growing up in the Free State provided me with a different sort of childhood, and a wealth of fascinating personalities and events. I loved writing the stories, but once I’d completed Queen of the Free State – against my will, it has to be said – I was persuaded to have them published in the form of a memoir.

“People identified with Queen as well as its follow-up, The Messiah's Dream Machine. They responded very warmly to both, and I received only positive comments," she says. Queen of the Free State didn't identify the locale where Friedman grew up. However, it was the Philippolis area (“I didn’t feel that the precise location was that important in either book, but once the area had been identified during an interview, the cat was out of the bag”).

On her visit during the launch of The Messiah's Dream Machine, Friedman observes, “The village has hardly changed – the same lovely Victorian houses, the dusty back roads. Even the trees lining Voortrekker Street, the main road running through the town, are still there. The cemetery where I spent so many happy hours pretending has become an absolute disaster – disgracefully overgrown, with gaping graves and sheep and goats roaming free. My cousins maintain the Jewish section where so many of our family members are buried, and that’s as neat and tidy as it ever was. The veld and the koppies are immutable – of course they’re affected to a certain extent by drought or good rains, but in my mind’s eye, they remain as they’ve always been – the most beautiful jewel in the crown”.

Friedman’s cousins still own farms in the area: Benjamin, now married is there. His brother Wilfred and his partner live on one of the adjoining farms, and his sister Rochelle and her husband live on another.

Olga Kirsch’s father Sam came to South Africa from Plunge, Lithuania, at the age of 23. Friedman’s father also came from Lithuania, but as a small boy. However, her mother was a second generation South African and at one stage edited a newspaper in Standerton. Her paternal grandparents were Benjamin and Leah Fletcher. Her maternal grandfather, a farmer, was born in Lithuania and her grandmother was born in South Africa of English parentage. Their names were Moritz and Leah Jacobson.

Farming full time didn’t appeal to Olga's father, so he started life as a peddler and headed north where few travellers went. He had a shop in Groenvlei but lived in Koppies. A few years later, then aged 32, he opened a store there with a bookkeeper, Gordon, and it was accordingly called Kirsch and Gordon. A Jewish trader, Silver, told Sam about a beautiful young woman named Eva Nathenson, aged 19, in Volksrust. And so the match was made.

Unlike Olga, Friedman received absolutely no religious instruction at home: "We went to shul only on the High and Holy Days – Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We often used to spend them with my grandparents or with my uncle and aunt on the farm – occasions of great solemnity, broken by my uncle’s fox terrier howling under the table in competition with my grandfather, a well-known baritone, and his brother, my great-uncle John, both trying to outdo one another in the chazonnes stakes. The synagogue was opened for Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and sometimes for the lesser holidays too. But my parents only took us to shul for the most important ones, though I remember being given a huge slab of Cadbury’s chocolate to eat by all by myself. On Wednesdays the back section of the synagogue was opened for our cheder class, which was held in what I remember as a very cold classroom,” Friedman said, and added that her grandfather employed a shochet and a Hebrew teacher when she, her siblings and cousins were young.

The Kirsch children’s education was not limited to secular activities. For Sam, who grew up in an Orthodox milieu and attended a Yeshiva, it was important that they have religious instruction. Attached to the Koppies synagogue was a cheder. Olga learnt basic Hebrew and lessons were taught by Rev Gertner. Sam also employed the father of a Jewish dentist, Oscar Koren, who had trained in Talmud and Midrash to prepare Henry, his older son, for his Barmitzvah, which he celebrated in the Koppies shul in August 1935.

After Sam died, Eva took over the running of the business and proved to be very capable. While the care and upbringing of her children was a central value in her life, she was not an emotional mother given to showing affection in the obvious ways. As with Friedman, Kirsch too had a fraught relationship with her mother. As an adult she nevertheless reached a new understanding of her, a new empathy for the suffering she had experienced as a child. This is reflected in a 1981 poem.

According to an aunt, Eva’s father, Baruch Nathenson, was friendly with Paul Kruger, the then president of the ZAR. If he had asked Kruger for help, he would have given it, according to the aunt. But he wasn’t a man to take advantage of his good relations with people in high places so he and his family struggled financially. They lived in Gravelotte, a small mining settlement, then in Vryland and lastly in Groenvlei, where they had a small shop. As there was no shul they davvened at home on Shabbat. On Yom Tov the family trekked to Volksrust where there was a shul and stayed with their friends, the Kunys.

Friedman’s Great-Uncle John, her grandfather’s youngest brother, was one of John Vorster’s guards at Koffiefontein where Vorster, a General in the Ossewa Brandwag, was interned for his Nazi sympathies. Uncle John didn’t speak to her about those experiences. However, years later there was an uproar in the town when it was disclosed that Vorster, then South Africa’s prime minister, was coming to visit because his only daughter was marrying a wealthy farmer from the district. Vorster knew Uncle John was “a Yid - they all did, you know”. In the event Vorster singled him out in the crowd and thundered, “My jene, John, is dit jy?” Uncle John, so the story goes, stood on tiptoe, looked the president in the eyes, and said, “Nee, Meneer-die-President, aikona. Ek ken Meneer van g'n kant af nie.”

Friedman said she had good friends at primary school. “I wasn't aware of not fitting in. Some of my classmates bullied me, or tried to, and one or two teachers too. But after my dramatic introduction to ‘Yoshke Pandras’, as my grandfather referred to him, I made friends who remained friends for all the years I went to the school in the Free State. My parents were the ones who really made me feel different. They isolated me at school and prevented me from fitting in more so that the children, who would have been perfectly happy, I think, to have included me in their Children's Circle, Sunday School and the Voortrekkers. I wasn't allowed to attend religious instruction if it concerned the New Testament. The teacher was instructed to send me out of the classroom, but I had nowhere to go. Of course, I couldn't attend any of the church functions my friends were so involved in. The antisemitism I experienced often came directly from teachers and other adults, and those children who made my life difficult at school only knew about antisemitism from their parents”.

The Kirsch family too, experienced antisemitism. Olga's good friend, Arnold Shapiro and her brother Bernard "Boggie" recall that there had been antisemitism in the little village. Jewish shops had pro-Nazi symbols painted on their windows. Olga's sister, Janette, recalled that a swastika had been painted on Sam's shop window. Boggie and Arnold said that as youngsters they had often been beaten up by local boys because they were Jewish.

One of Friedman's biggest disappointments was when South Africa was about to become a Republic. “I had been chosen to represent the school at a gymnastics display for the Republic Day Festival celebrations in Bloemfontein, and was beside myself with pride and excitement. My parents initially refused to allow me to take part. When they eventually relented, I suddenly developed an acute appendicitis on the way home from a gymnastics practice and had to have an emergency appendectomy. I was devastated”.

Friedman said her parents wanted her to speak Afrikaans like an Afrikaner, to do well at school and make friends. However, “they didn't want me to become an Afrikaner, and being the only non-Afrikaans Jewish child in the school, life, through no fault of my own, was often difficult”. She continues, “Growing up where and how I did made me who I am today. I could say that I might have wished for parents who loved me unconditionally; for a father who praised and encouraged me, instead of beating and emotionally abusing me. For a mother who was warm and understanding. But if wishes were horses... My life such as it was, gave me the ability to survive. So what would I change? Nothing. I am who I am”.

Friedman is a licensed pilot: “I obtained my Australian Private Pilot’s Licence a few years after my husband died. It was the worst day of my life when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was difficult , getting a licence, a lot of hard work, determination and dedication. I wanted to fly for the first time I went up in a glider which ended in a crash landing. I was hooked on flying forever. I knew that being up in the air was the place where I belonged, and where I felt safe. I feel safe and happy; it’s where I can breathe. I fly mostly wherever the sun’s shining, and within a day’s reach. I can fly North or South up and down the coast, or out West across the Great Dividing Ranges to small country towns for lunch. A friend and I have been doing this for almost twenty years – the local cabbies don’t even ask for a destination – they know where we want to go”.

Jennifer Friedman at Cameron Corner, where boundaries of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia meet (pitcure: John Freenan).

Jennifer Friedman at Cameron Corner, where boundaries of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia meet (pitcure: John Freenan).

Although she has done a commercial pilot licence course she never wanted to fly the big jets, either: “I've only wanted to fly for myself”.

Friedman lives in a small town on the Central Coast of New South Wales. It's a quiet area. The house looks out over a reserve and a mountain, and in the still of the night, she can hear the sea. Her house is crammed with books and interesting artefacts brought back from her travels: “Paintings, Persian rugs, books. An antique piano. More books. Silver. A very full pantry".

From the study Friedman works in she can see flowers, trees and shrubs, but prefers to work facing away from the window as "there are too many distractions".

Friedman's parents are both deceased. "My children have grown up. Adam lives quite close by, and often drops in. Leah lives in New York – too far to just drop in. I'm not particularly observant, but I do celebrate the High and Holy days. I live in the back of beyond, and there's no synagogue to be found within 100km, so no, I don't attend services”. Friedman is busy with her third book. The working title is, for the moment, And So On, and So Forth, one of her grandfather's favourite expressions. It will include more Afrikaans poetry.

Roth's new book, the unpublished English work by Kirsch has recently been published by Naledi under the title Olga Kirsch: Her English Poetry, March, 2020. Of this Roth says, “It should open up a whole new discussion on her English oeuvre. There will be those critics who will try to prove that many of these poems are nothing more than translations. But I firmly believe this is total nonsense given the size of her English work” [see also Egonne Roth’s article in Jewish Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 3, Chanukah 2018 – Editor]. In her foreword to the book, Antjie Krog describes the poetry as beautiful in its simplicity. In the book, appearing for the first time is the poem ‘Nevertheless’, which paints a tableau of the first years of the State of Israel. Roth, who selected the work was the first person outside the family to see ‘Nevertheless’ in its entirety said she was mesmerised by it: “I found it beautiful and deeply moving.” Other chapters are Poems to Ada (her daughter); Poems to Joe (her husband) and Poems to Life.

Although Roth was reluctant to do so she offered some criticism of two poems Friedman provided and signed Jennifer Fletcher Friedman. The poems are:

(1): In hierdie braakdroe wynland gloei my liefde vir jou robyndiep trek my hart se verlange hemelsmyle ver - wees lief vir my - Jy is die reen en die lewe bo die wingerd.

(2): Philippolis - Ek loop spoekvoet deur die strate van my jeug tas lomp na skadugesigte. Die pad vernou krimp na die spits van die kerk einde van die horizon. Krans van koring en wolk. Die saambreel skadus van dennebome val hier verder oor die rande, oor verrimpelde gesigte wat blindstom na my staar. Ons kyk bymekaar verby in hierdie vreemde voorskou van die vervgevorderde nag.

Of the first, Roth says, "The first little poem seems the writing of a very young poet - something in the use the red wine image is too sweet and the pleading voice makes me think of teenage love”. On the second, she comments, “In contrast I find the second poem much stronger, the images are fresher and more unexpected and something of the small town atmosphere is caught beautifully. I instantly see so many rural villages with their church steeples being the highest point drawing the village to itself is lovely”.


[1] Olga Kirsch: A life in Poetry, Naledi, 2018

[2] Published 2017 and 2019 respectively, both by Tafelberg, NB Uitgewers/Publishers.

[3] Working under the then editor Henry Katzew, Kirsch was responsible for finding material from Afrikaans sources that was of interest to the Jewish community. In a tribute to her after her death in 1997, Katzew said the material “was vital, plentiful and disturbing; often church publications pressing the cause of National Christian Education, a smell in Jewish nostrils”. She was, briefly, editor of Jewish Affairs in 1946 but left after a disagreement with the SAJBD. Of Kirsch's time at Jewish Affairs, Egonne Roth writes, “Sadly when I approached them for info, they said they had no record of her working there as the archive only went back to 1950. Luckily Katzew wrote about their time at Jewish Affairs in his unpublished autobiography and also in some of his articles about Kirsch”. It was in early 1946 while working at Jewish Affairs that Kirsch published her sonnet, Die Wandelende Jood in the second edition of Standpunt, to much acclaim from writer Uys Krige.

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