Wild Things to Do - Yiska's Story
Wild Things to Do - Yiska's Story Continues
Copyright © 2009 Jon Seligman. All Rights Reserved.
In June 1942 I married Herman Schmaman. My bridesmaids were my nieces, Ora, Tamar, Naomi, and Cheryl, and my four little pole holders were Joel, Danny, Goody and David Seligman. To this day Goody and David consider me a mother, I often used to ice cakes for their birthdays.
Once married I left for Cape Town and in 1943 Josie was born. This was and remains the single most important day of my life. It was also very important to me when I recognised he had artistic talent, which reminds me of my aunt Sophie. Sophie Bat Hillel, a sister of Zilla, made a living selling paintings in Leipzig. She never married, and terminated many pregnancies, she was a free spirit. Life for children of mixed German-Jewish blood would have been too difficult, she spent some time in Israel, attended art school, and the director said she was the best student they have ever had and will have. Some of her paintings are with a woman in Manhattan and some with us but many lost. She was of medium height, slender, a very pleasant face. Joel has the original of her self portrait and Ora has a copy. She was sent to the concentration camps.
David was born around the same time as Josie and the two of them became the best of friends. Yiska and Herman lived in Claremont but soon moved to Durban. Herman was very creative but he was not lucky in business. At one time he and Arthur discussed starting up a business selling cloth in Cape Town but Arthur backed. Some of the things Herman tried were manufacturing jewelry and lingerie but these were not successes. The young family found themselves moving from one hotel and furnished flat to another. In the space of two years they must have moved thirty times. Landlords didn't want to let flats to people with young children. One day the man from the neighboring factory who made lampshades and who was doing a thriving trade came in to Herman's factory for him to do some riveting. Herman who was very artistic said why I can design and make better lampshades than these and opened his own lamp factory. It eventually became a leading manufacturer.
But still things were not easy and through many years of great stress Dena supported me. It was not easy to find a flat if you had a child. With Zilla's generous assistance after one of her visits to escape the cold in Johannesburg, they were able to put down a deposit for a one bedroomed flat of their own. Yiska started to teach Hebrew from Temple Israel. In the beginning the rabbi pursued her to teach but Yiska felt she had enough on her plate and avoided him. Even after she accepted she was going to withdraw but then she read the article they had written about her in the local Jewish newspaper. It was written how delighted the community was to find someone of Yiska's standing to teach our Jewish children Hebrew and that she was the daughter of the great AZ. After reading this she agreed to continue and began a teaching career that went on for 33 years with the Temple and continued with private pupils until she was 95.
The Temple was my first love and I devoted all my energy there. The first 10 years of my marriage were reasonably happy but as I became more involved in Temple work Herman became more and more jealous. He was jealous even of my mother and one time sent her home to Johannesburg after she came down for a visit. It was my earnings that kept us going and they met with our needs.
In 1970 Yiska, Dena and Shoshana went to visit the family in Brazil which is where Eliyahu had ended up. They were welcomed most heartily and visited Eliyahu's grave on the 10th anniversary after his passing. They visited many sights and Dena was always on the lookout for gifts for her grandchildren. A lift door within a tower that overlooked Brasilia which had been built in the desert opened and a crowd emerged. Some were holding cameras and others were taking notes. A man in a white uniform who must have been a captain or a general raised his voice and waved his arms explaining important views. Dena went up to him and asked him, "where did you buy these badges?" pointing a finger at his medals.
The man was indignant. He replied, "Madam, these are not badges and you cannot buy them, you earn them for bravery." Shoshanna and I did not know where to hide. A few weeks later we returned to Johannesburg. I remember the amber and brown wooden bowls Dena returned with and which stood on her low tables in Blue Haze. Yiska has the identical ones.
Now we reach a sad part.
Ima had been ill for a number of years. One afternoon she went to visit Shoshana and fell into a coma and passed away. How ambitious I was when my mother passed away. I carried the manuscript of the opera called Jefta across the world looking up old friends of my father but it came to naught. He left his works to me in his will.
Dena who was the most devoted daughter was very very disturbed as were we all. Ima despite a difficult life of sacrifice had been so so loving and had taught us so much.
When Dena turned 60 I presented her with a melody I composed for her. The words were taken from the Psalms which had been our favorite.
May the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable top Thee my Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Dena herself was not well. From an early age she had started to feel ill but did not consult a doctor. She grew progressively worse in health and Ora in turn was the most attentive and caring daughter. Every afternoon after nursery school she attended to all the needs of both of her parents including their food, medicines and haircuts. Ora was very very very devoted as a child and a mother but it was hard to be both.
One day Dena saw sparks flying before her eyes. The doctor was horrified when took her blood pressure. She had a sense of foreboding that her fate would be like her fathers but unfortunately she too was attacked by a series of strokes.
Dena was told that it would be better for her not to climb stairs and the lovely house in Oxford Road was sold. They bought a two bedroomed flat in Berea. Dena with Shoshana's encouragement became active in the Magen David committee.
Dena took up bridge and just as she was beginning to enjoy life she suffered the first of what were to be a series of debilitating strokes.
In 1981 first Dena and then Arthur slipped into eternity. They lay in separate hospital beds dying not knowing about the other's failing health. The family was instructed not to let each know and they were told that the other was at home. Upon reflection I (JM) wonder if they were taken in by this. How can two people who have been married for over half a century die in the same week? I remember standing in the Blue Haze flat beside Arthur's death bed. Joel and Ora and Ruth and Barak and Judy were in the flat too. Joel then came into the lounge and called us into Arthur's bedroom. Arthur who had been lying down inert and groaning the whole afternoon sat straight up and said, "Oh Jonathan is wearing a nice bright yellow t-shirt." He had something funny to say to all of us. We all left the room smiling. A few minutes later Joel came in and told us he had passed away.
At both funerals Joel, Ora, Danny and David stood around the graves and laid to rest these two mainstays in the Joffe-Idelsohn family life. Let us remember the beautiful.
After Dena's passing Joel, Danny and Ora decided I should come to Johannesburg so that they could care for me. My roots so deep in Durban which along with Temple David had become my spiritual home. I succumbed.
To have brought out love in others is more special than to love oneself.
I tape this a few days after my 84th birthday in nineteen hundred and ninety five. I love you all. Remember your Judaism.
Stay well all those who listen to me. May you have joy in whatever you do and may there be great peace in your heart. Try and remember certain members of the family who cared for you. I Yiska have cared for every one of you. May you attain what you have striven for.
Jonathan who is restless now and may you find your peace within yourself.
Barak who is strong and gentle
Little frustrated Judy who knows what she wants to do.
Ruth who looks at me with the happiest kindest smile.
Having come to the end of this first retelling I (JM) feel both exhausted and relieved. Like the sea voyage Yiska described where the winds tore off the ship's rudder I have felt jerked and torn in so many directions. It took me almost as long as to write them as it took Yiska to make her tapes. Sitting in front of my computer I have cried, laughed, sighed and aha'd, ummed and just stared out the window. I was mostly struck by Yiska's dignity, courage and eloquence. Also her grip on this complex family story, and the way she participated in it simultaneously from the margins and as its very centre. The adventure and drama of her life I have found inspiring. There is much I am proud to keep, much food for change, and many wild things to do.
Where do a family trees roots end and its branches begin? When you're alive you're a branch and when you die you become a root. My head is filled up with this flora even when I'm driving listening to the car radio. The DJ is interviewing an old twanging famous country and western veteran who ranked amongst the best but who never did learn to read a note.
"Dolly Parton once came up to me scowling and said Hank, how come you were born in Texas but you've moved so far from your own roots."
"There are a whole bunch of branches on top of those roots on top of the ground I reckon I haven't even bee-gun to climb yet, is what I told her."
Yiska feels like both a root and a branch and a leaf. The funny thing is the roots never die and they keep growing from the top up towards the light. Trying to keep connected to the present and the future. A family tree is a crazy living thing. One can never keep up with its branching and rooting. Our ancestors are always with us. Every breath you take, every move you make, they be watching you.