Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

A White African Experience of Identity, Survival and Holocaust Memory

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

A White African Experience of Identity, Survival and Holocaust Memory

Article excerpt


While Jewish identity can be expressed in Jewish languages, this is only possible for authors who speak and write these languages. This option may no longer exist for those who are assimilated or who have been hidden, and writing in another's language can even contribute to obscuring the significance of Jewish identity in a text. In conjunction with the themes of white African memoir and a critique of the excesses of the despotic Zimbabwean government, Peter Godwin's memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun also reveals the Jewish identity of his family. His father was Kazimierz Goldfarb, a Polish Jew sent to school in England before the Second World War. Following the Holocaust he concealed his past, reinventing himself as George Godwin, a British immigrant to southern Africa, and he successfully maintained his British-Rhodesian persona until his late 70s.

George had concealed his Jewish identity to ensure his children would be spared the slightest risk of ever sharing the tragic fate of his sister and mother in Poland, but the decision to acknowledge his past was motivated by the desire to explain their family origin, and also to have his son Peter search for information on the deaths of George's family in Nazi-occupied Poland. Peter becomes his father's researcher and amanuensis, and finally his legatee, as he imperceptibly realises the story is not just his father's but that of his own new identity.

While the discovery of Jewish heritage was a surprise to Peter Godwin who previously thought of himself as a white African expatriate, there was a strong southern African Jewish community that his father could well have chosen to become part of, and this community has developed and maintained its own particular cultural identity (Shain 2011). Jews played an important part in southern African economic and cultural life, and individual members of the southern African Jewish community have on occasion adopted high profile political roles. (1)

While now statistically insignificant, even in 1969 at the apogee of white Rhodesia (2) the Jewish population was never large in comparison with the far more significant South African Jewish community-Rhodesian Jews numbered only 5,194 in a population of 5 million, and constituted only 2.28% of the white population of 228,296 Europeans (Godwin and Hancock 1995:19). Peter Godwin had never thought of himself as being Jewish, and his previous books had not reflected any interest in the small Jewish minority of Rhodesia or Zimbabwe.

The author Peter Godwin is a New York-based journalist who described his own experiences of growing up in white-ruled Rhodesia in his first volume of autobiography Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, and this provides the background for When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. Godwin was raised in semirural Rhodesia by his politically liberal engineer father and doctor mother, and the opening chapters of this first memoir provide an engaging account of a happy childhood in an interesting locale. His mother's work with African patients and his father's occupation gave him a relatively high degree of exposure to black African life, although this did of course come from the perspective of their membership of the small group of privileged Europeans who were outnumbered by other population groups at a ratio of 21 to 1 (Godwin and Hancock 1995:16).

Under Prime Minister Ian Smith Rhodesia had unilaterally declared independence from Great Britain in 1965, and until 1980 European (3) dominated governments controlled a relatively prosperous country where the nation's resources were unequally distributed according to ethnicity. European males were conscripted to fight a growing African nationalist insurgency, and although Godwin's parents were politically opposed to Ian Smith's regime, they believed their son should contribute to society by meeting his conscription obligations and serving in the security forces, just as they had in Britain during the Second World War. …

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