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History Repeats Itself


With the current coronavirus world pandemic, many info emails and whatsapp funnies about the situation were flying back and forth daily between family and friends. Among the countless items were a poem and photo my daughter-in-law, Lyana Rotstein, sent me which were particularly poignant. The poetic, and now prophetic, words touched me with an unusual sense of loss and sadness, not only for those who had suffered through the Great Flu Epidemic just over a century ago, but also currently with history repeating itself.

Due to the 1918 epidemic, an estimated 500 million people, one-third of the world's population, were infected with the flu virus, with deaths around 50 million souls amounting to some 3%-4% of people worldwide. Mortality was highest in small children under 5 years of age, those in the 20 to 40 years-old category, and those 65 years old or more.

But the virus was more than a shattering event in history for my family. It was personal, because my paternal grandfather was one of its half million victims who died of the flu in South Africa – one of the five worst-hit countries in the world. About 300,000 South Africans died within six weeks, which represented 6% of the country's entire population.

My paternal grandparents, Sam and Fanny Lipshitz, were living in O'Kiep in the Northern Cape at the time; O'Kiep was a small mining town. I assume that my grandparents moved there for work after their emigration in the early 1900's from Minsk in what is today's Belarus. My dad, Sonny, was just 6 years old when his father succumbed on September 23, 1918. He was and remained an only child, even though my grandmother, Fanny, later remarried Joe Opland, whose surname my dad officially adopted when he turned 21. Hence, our family grew up with the unusual surname of Opland rather than the clearly Jewish one of Lipshitz.

When I was a child, family history was not necessarily a topic discussed between our generations, a fact which I have forever regretted. I always wondered (too late) what their lives were like in the old country, their own families, their immigration and their lifestyles so many years ago. Our ancestors all emigrated from Belarus to South Africa; my mother, her parents and her five siblings arrived in Cape Town via London, having left Slonim - also in today's Belarus - in 1921.

I am sure that my grandmother Fanny could have enlightened me about a grandfather I never knew and what his trade was. I am also sure that my late mom, Annie, could have regaled me with her memories she must have had of Russia, as she was 9 years old when they left. She could have also told me about her parents, David and Sheina Charlaff, who both died before I was born. But there were only tiny snippets of information dropped here and there, and I never thought to enquire, so I have no idea what kind of personalities they were, where they lived, and so much more.

The little I do know about my maternal grandfather David I learnt from an aging cousin of my mom's, whom we discovered in Miami in the 1990s. The reason, so he told us, that David emigrated at that time was due to the fact that, as a printer, he was discovered printing counterfeit and was about to be arrested. Apparently, within hours he upped with his family and took the first boat out, which happened to be headed for South Africa via London. David eventually opened up a successful printing business again in Cape Town under the name SA Litho Ltd, but as far as I know, he never tried printing counterfeit. He must have been a real character!

Sam and Fanny Lipshitz ... he succumbed to the Spanish Flu

Perhaps the above life experiences and regrets have taught me to instill our family's history into my own children and grandchildren as much as possible. In 2008, I took kids and grandkids (11 in all at the time) on a Barmor roots trip to South Africa. We visited many graves, including the Charlaffs' whose gravestones remain in pristine condition after 70+ years. We visited former homes, schools and other meaningful sites, including the Shul my parents and myself were married in. We retraced footsteps where we could, and travelled miles and miles to point out the hotspots. Throughout the trip, in addition to photographs, my memories were videotaped for the present and coming generations.

The one grave we were not able to visit was that of Sam Lipshitz in the O'Kiep cemetery, which has a small Jewish section. I was planning to do so this coming August, together with a tour of the nearby famed Namaqualand daisies that bloom in their colorful multitudes at that time of the year. However, the current coronavirus may put a spike in those plans for this year anyway. Should that occur, I intend to rebook in order to be able to travel next year instead.

As I write these words, we are all still pretty much enjoined to remain at home. Yet plans are afoot to initiate the "Return to…" strategy soon. So I wish us all a safe passage, may we emerge healthy and chomping at the bit to reengage once again, memories intact, and hoping that this particular history will not repeat itself again.

This poem, written in 1869 and reprinted in the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, resonates today

And people stayed at home

And read books

And listened

And they rested

And did exercises

And made art and played

And learned new ways of being

And stopped and listened

More deeply

Someone meditated, someone prayed

Someone met their shadow

And people began to think differently

And people healed

And in the absence of people who

Lived in ignorant ways

Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,

The earth also began to heal

And when the danger ended and

People found themselves

They grieved for the dead

And made new choices

And dreamed of new visions

And created new ways of living

And completely healed the earth

Just as they were healed.

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Friday, 12 July 2024

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