Bernhard Herzberg 1909-2007

Cape Times (South Africa), May 31, 2007 | Go to article overview

Bernhard Herzberg 1909-2007


BYLINE: Paul Trewhela

An extraordinary Capetonian, Bernhard Herzberg, died this month in London while putting the final touches to his second MA degree - on the subject of apartheid - a month before his 98th birthday. He became the world's oldest graduate at the age 90 when he completed a BA degree in German literature at London University in 1990, followed by his first MA (in refugee studies) in 1995.

Herzberg vividly recalled the vibrant anti-racist cultural and political life in Cape Town from 70 years ago.

Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1909 to a proud, stern family of wealthy German Jews - his father won the Iron Cross during World War 1 - and after a rebellious youth as a socialist active in combat against the rising tide of Nazism in Germany, he arrived in Cape Town as a refugee in November 1933.

His father, who had cast him out of the family house in anger at his warnings about what Adolf Hitler would do to the Jews, survived incarceration in Buchenwald concentration camp, but was able to leave Germany with Herzberg's mother before the final catastrophe. Many years later, after the war, Bernhard was able to bring them both to Cape Town from North America.

A tough, irascible, strong-minded man, Herzberg was a lifelong anti-racist and a committed anti-Stalinist socialist. He was active for five decades in anti-apartheid circles in Cape Town, before emigrating to London in 1985, followed later by his family.

His ingrained combativity continued to the end, and until only a few weeks before his death he campaigned every Saturday on the pavement at Muswell Hill Broadway in north London against the war in Iraq.

"As long as I'm not senile, why give up?" he asked, truculent to the end, as he stopped passers-by.

In 1939, in Cape Town, he married a fellow German Jewish refugee, Anne Fischer - later a celebrated portrait photographer in Cape Town - after the outbreak of World War 2, but they divorced shortly afterwards when she objected to his joining the South African army, in opposition to his previously pacifist convictions. Having spent the early years of the war in coastal artillery in the Docks Battery in Table Bay harbour, he was transferred to field artillery in 1944 and saw service in Egypt and Italy.

Shortly before being sent "up North" to join the Sixth South African Armoured Division, he met and married his lifelong partner, Lily Abrams, then working in Cape Town for the National Union of Distributive Workers (NUDW), and later well known in Cape Town for her work in puppet theatre and her writing about art.

Warm and vivacious, Lily Herzberg died in London last year.

After the war, Bernhard became an active trade unionist himself in Cape Town in the NUDW, and also organised jewellery and precious metal workers.

"Non-whites were not accepted as apprentices," he told another Capetonian, his friend Yousuf ("Joe") Rassool, who taught at Trafalgar High School and Esselen Park High School in the 50s and 60s, in an interview published in London in 2000.

"All the journeymen were white, but yet they were in one union. So the non-whites learnt the trade by looking over the white man's shoulder.

"Then the government passed a new Industrial Conciliation Act, and we had to split the union into a 'coloured' and a white union. Both unions elected me as their honorary secretary. We met in Union House in Victoria Street. My desk was across the threshold and one side was for the 'coloured' union and the other side was for the white union. I was in the middle.

"I would sometimes say to the 'coloured' representatives: 'There is a motion passed by the white branch asking for this or that wage increase or improved condition. …

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