She was the young bride whose photo stood on a dresser in what was euphemistically referred to as the ‘homework room’. The dress was white and I recall some lace, but if you were to ask me to describe what the woman looked like, the best I could do would be to say that she had dark hair and brown eyes. This was because whenever I looked at that photo my eye went straight to the flowers she was holding below her waist. The triangle-shaped bouquet seemed to sprout directly from the woman’s pelvic region. I didn’t understand how my parents allowed such a rude photo to be on public display.
Rose Kantor was born circa 1876 in the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai – or Shavel in Yiddish. Located on a major road and railway intersection, Shavel was Lithuania’s third-largest town at the turn of the century and well-known for its leather industry. It was also predominantly Jewish with more than half of its population representative of that faith.
Rose left before the persecution began. It started in 1915 when Tsar Nicholas II expelled Shavel’s entire Jewish community as reprisal for Russian losses at the hands of German troops advancing on the Eastern Front; in 1941 it was almost permanently obliterated when 8,000 Jews were killed by the Germans.
In a conversation I had with my mother in 1997, she described Rose as the ‘youngest of 16 children from Lithuania. She came from a rich family who sent her to South Africa to get married.’ I have tempered this anecdote with the knowledge that Mom often reinterpreted the facts and that while the diagnosis of dementia was still to come, it is possible my mother’s memory was already playing tricks when we had this chat. The public record shows that Rose was one of three children, which is likely to be closer to the truth. I recall only ever hearing about two of Rose’ siblings: an older sister Charlotta, who also emigrated to South Africa, and a brother Gabriel whose last known whereabouts was a ship bound for America. My middle name is a nod to his existence.
If there was one thing Harry would have been impressed with on meeting Rose, it was her height: she was close to six feet tall and, in the family photo I have, she towers over him. A combination of genes and good diet, no doubt. I know that she was a competent cook because my mother never tired of telling me about the potato salad recipe Rose gave her, having assumed that boiling the spuds first was understood.
All I know is that they married in Johannesburg. Assuming that Harry met Rose after he emerged from gaol and that theirs wasn’t a shotgun wedding, there is an approximate eighteen-month window during which the marriage could have taken place. If at such time Family Search adds civil registration records for Johannesburg that extend beyond 1900, I may find out the precise details.
Of course, deep in the bowels of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs is a copy of Harry and Rose’ marriage certificate. This has proved as easy to retrieve as it is to remove gold bullion from Fort Knox. Every now and again I have notions of driving to the South African Embassy in Canberra and starting the process anew. Then I remind myself how a researcher in South Africa spent 12 months doing just that and got nowhere. I remember my brother-in-law’s frustrated attempts to procure a vault copy of his birth certificate. I continue to read about the experiences of others who have run into the brick wall that calls itself Home Affairs. And I satisfy myself that Rose and Harry said ‘I do’ in a synagogue somewhere in Johannesburg between 1904 and 1906.
The wedding photo did not survive my parents’ move. I wouldn’t mind having it now.
 Many returned in the 1920s.