A little distraction

My parents took me to Paris, London, Brussels and Rome in January 1971.  I’m not sure if this was a reward for completing high school or an attempt to curtail the amount of time I would otherwise have spent working on my tan and trawling for dates on the beach below.

Beaches in the Peninsula_Clifton Beach No.4 looks similar to the Spanish coastline

Clifton Beach, Cape Town (www.babelaas.net)

The London leg opened up an opportunity to connect with an English line of the family: Dinah Silverstone (nee Saltman), her husband Mark, their children and grandchildren.  Dinah was my grandfather’s first cousin and the closest in generation that I would ever get to Harris.  She was in her seventies by the time I met her and all  I can remember is how small she seemed.  If this was an indicator that Harris may also have been short of stature, then it didn’t occur to me at the time.

I should have paid more attention to Dinah.   But my interest lay with someone much closer in age to me: her granddaughter, Esme.

Esme – or Tabetha, as she preferred to call herself – was everything that I wanted to be.  Slim, pretty and clad in the latest fashion: a flower print dress pinned at the waist, its hem rising just above knee-high leather lace up boots.  Boots that I could only dream of wearing as the thickness of my calves prohibited their progress beyond the realm of my ankles.  Tabetha – with a cigarette perched between her elegant fingers, smoke coiling upwards – was so cool that whatever shred of self-esteem I might have had evaporated altogether upon meeting her.  And to make matters worse, she was such a nice person!

Compared with this picture of perfection, I felt like a lump of lard from the colonies, my thighs jammed into too tight trousers, a baggy sweater hanging off my broad swimmer’s shoulders, mismatched colours screaming at each other.  An example of how not to appear in any company let alone that of newly acquainted relatives.  What must they have thought, I wondered?  And why had my mother – who had worked for many years in the rag trade – not made any attempt to make me look like a mensch in front of these people?

In the wake of this encounter, my parents took me to the Kings Road and bought me a trendy black leather coat with fur trim at the hem and cuffs.  If this was designed to lift my spirits, then they had succeeded.


My father, I and the black coat on the Grand Platz, Bruges

I still have the coat even if I have little opportunity to wear it in a city where night-time winter temperatures rarely dip below 6C.

Several years later, I approached Dinah’s other daughter, Hermoine Berton, the keeper of that family’s archives.  She was unable to shed any light on my grandfather.  I regretted that my brief encounter with her mother – by then deceased – had been an opportunity lost, but the time hadn’t been right for me to ask questions.

At this point, I shall return to the proposition that Winston Churchill stayed at Saltman’s Hotel in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, in 1899.

I have since consulted the most reliable source of information available: Churchill himself (see Young Winston’s Wars, The original despatches of Winston S Churchill, war correspondent 1897-1900, ed Frederick Woods, 1972).

Churchill’s despatches make no mention of his having spent any time in Johannesburg in 1899.

For most of his time covering the Anglo-Boer War, Churchill was in the company of the British army led by General Sir Redvers Buller.  On their march to Pretoria in early June 1900, the British troops halted in Johannesburg for a couple of days to rest and reprovision.  At this time, it is possible that Churchill may have sought out quarters separate to those of the troops.  But his despatches do not specifically disclose his living arrangements and the possibility that he may have stayed at Saltman’s Hotel remains just that: a possibility.

Joining a few dots

My little internet gem brought together and made sense of a number of things.

I knew that my great grandfather had brothers and sisters because I’d found records of them in the British Censuses of 1881 and 1891.  There were at least six siblings: Israel (my great grandfather), Mira Liba, Harris, Pearl, Samuel and Joseph.

It puzzled me that my own grandfather should have borne the same name as a living relative: his uncle Harris.  In Ashkenazy Europe, the custom was to name a new born after a family member who had recently died, often a grandparent.  In my own case, I was named after my paternal grandmother who died seven years prior to my birth.    As explained by my parents, the rationale behind this is that by naming a child after a dead relative, the child is likely to take on the characteristics or soul of that person.   From what little I know of my grandmother, it appeared that her talents lay in the arts – music, needlework, etc.  She was a good home maker, but had no head for business, something which I like to think I do have.  Irrespective of whether I’ve inherited any of her characteristics, for most of my early childhood I privately cursed her for having exited this world in such an untimely fashion because I would have far preferred to have been called Peter. (For the first half dozen years of my life, I had desperately wanted to be a boy.)

The riddle of uncle Harris was solved by Avrom who noted that, around 1884, this Harris had anglicised his name from the original Hossel.  As this was eight years after my grandfather’s birth, any blame for naming a child after a living relative was easily absolved.

The Saltman siblings and their descendants divided equally between England and South Africa.  In South Africa, there was, of course, my own line.  There was also the line of my father’s second cousin, Harry Bloch, son of Mira Liba and a shortish man whom we fondly referred to as “South Easter” for his booming voice.  The South Easter – also known as the Cape Doctor – is the strong dry wind that blows over the Cape Peninsula in spring and summer.  Anyone who grew up in Cape Town and experienced this wind would remember it with a fair degree of irritation.

Then there was Joseph, the youngest and possibly most colourful sibling, who was rumoured to have made a fortune in gold and diamond mining (not necessarily all of it legally) and whose hotel in Fordsburg, a suburb of Johannesburg, proudly boasted the name “Saltman’s Hotel”.   Apparently this would have been little more than a pub with a room or two that would not have rated a mention on Trip Advisor. Yet it is alleged that Winston Churchill stayed at Saltman’s Hotel in 1899.

Churchill was in South Africa covering the Anglo-Boer War for the London Morning Post at this time.  Between the time that he arrived in South Africa on 1 November 1899 and the time that he was captured on 15 November 1899, it would seem that he was either in the Cape Province or in Natal.  Following his capture, Churchill spent time in prison in Pretoria, managed to escape after a short period and made his way to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique.  He returned to the British lines in Natal at the end of December of that year.  [Source: Kinsey, HW ‘Churchill and Ladysmith’ Military History Journal vol. 7, no. 3, June 1987]

I am skeptical that Churchill’s travels would have taken him via Saltman’s Hotel in Fordsburg, deep in enemy territory of the then South African Republic.  But something is compelling me to delve further…if only to confirm that this event never happened.

The Internet throws up a gem

Like someone panning for gold, I can spend hours sifting through great quantities of mud in the hope of a shiny particle or two, better still – a small nugget.  It’s a clock-ticking pursuit – the internet is my biggest time thief – but when something shiny appears, it makes all that trawling through the mud seem worthwhile.

I regard myself as an introvert, but I’m not ashamed to say that I periodically put my name into Google.  My top hits are mostly related to my erstwhile rankings in ocean racing and pool events.  There’s not much else there to distract a reader, that’s if you could even call my swimming prowess an item of interest to anyone other than myself.

The genealogical gem I was hoping for revealed itself about 10 years ago.

It is an essay written by an unknown relative, Avrom Saltman, and titled “To be buried in Grimsby” (April, 1998).  It is chock full of information about my family line, some of it supplied by my late father.  Information not only about who they were, but where and how they would have lived.

Avrom’s essay confirmed much of what I already knew.  I knew that my great grandparents, Israel and Sarah, had married in Sheffield in 1875 and had produced a son less than a year later.  That they had not originated in Britain.  I knew that my paternal great great-grandfather, Zelig Saltman, was a “traveller” and that he, too, had not been born in Britain.  I knew that my maternal great great-grandfather, Marcus Marks, was a shopkeeper in Sheffield, and had been born in Russia as had his daughter, my great grandmother.

The essay revealed a birthplace for Zelig: the town of Kruky in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled places like Lithuania and others in the Pale of Settlement for a better – and more egalitarian – life in countries such as the US and South Africa.  And while I am not abreast of the full extent of the suffering they endured at the hands of their Russian oppressors, I do recall that my maternal grandmother – the only grandparent I was lucky enough to know – was, at the age of 15, illiterate due to education laws at the time which precluded up to 90% of Jewish children from gaining a place in schools.

Zelig was widowed, probably about 1872, his wife (Esther or Esther Rivka) having died in Lithuania.  Shortly afterwards, Zelig, who never remarried, came to England, presumably with his son Israel.

Zelig settled in Grimsby and was a hawker in glass or travelling glazier, a fairly common Jewish trade at the time.  The ancient town of Grimsby, England’s largest fishing port, had recently undergone dock improvements which not only greatly increased the number of vessels using the harbour and the amount of fish being handled, but spawned a range of ancillary industries which provided economic opportunities for capable middlemen.  Litvack glaziers, such as my ancestors, were no more than hawkers who sold glass across the surrounding countryside, returning home for the Sabbath.  Theirs was not an easy life.  The Jewish glaziers had to face a certain amount of discrimination or anti-semitism, even if trivial compared with what they had experienced in the Russian Empire.  According to the Jewish Chronicle of October 20, 1875, a glazier with his own premises did not require a licence to trade, but Jewish glaziers were being fined for hawking glass without a licence (cited at page 29).

Zelig died in April 1900 at the age of 79 or 80 and appears to have left no estate.  He outlived his eldest child Israel, my great grandfather, by almost 24 years.  His tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Grimsby reveals an unexpected bonus: the name of his own father, Judah Arie Saltman i.e. my great-great great-grandfather.

I knew that Israel had called himself a commercial traveller and it is possible that he also dealt in glass.  Unbeknownst to me, my father had also supplied the following information to Avrom about Israel (refer page 9): “Seven months after his son, Harris, was born Israel died of a bowel inflammation at Everton (near Liverpool) while on his travels.  Sarah later married a man called Edelman.  They went to Edinburgh and had at least four sons.”

I now knew the cause of my great grandfather’s death.

Unfortunately, if my father had discussed a time frame within which my great grandmother had remarried and relocated to Edinburgh, it is not recorded in Avrom’s essay.