Every year, Jews around the world tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in roughly the same way. And every year, familiar props help bring that story to life.
This Passover, two local Jews — a businessman and an eminent rabbi — are hoping to introduce to the seder a rarely told story about Jews who fought for freedom, bringing to the table a new object that could sit comfortably alongside the bitter herbs, matzah and charoset.
The new visual aid is three sheets of commemorative stamps, which tell the story of the many South African Jews who worked to bring an end to apartheid. The stamps, issued recently by three small West African countries, honor 12 brave Jewish activists, thanks to the efforts of Grant Gochin, a South African-born, Los Angeles-based money manager, who also serves as the Honorary Consul of Togo.
From the earliest days of the ruthless regime that denied South Africans the basic rights of citizenship, Jews were disproportionately found on the front lines of the internal resistance movement. The “Legendary Heroes of Africa” stamps were jointly released on March 1 by the postal authorities of The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Each country authorized a single sheet of four unique stamps, of which fewer than 100,000 copies were printed. Each stamp includes one individual’s name and picture, along with a Star of David and two Hebrew letters, bet and hay, the traditional inscription included on printed matter that serves as a nod to the divine assistance that helps projects come to fruition.
Gochin, who was himself involved in the anti-apartheid movement, worked for a full year to realize his idea, and when he showed the stamps to Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, the rabbi saw a story that could complement the traditional narrative of the Israelite slaves being freed from bondage in Egypt.
“Here you have contemporary heroes who really did effect an exodus,” Feinstein said, “who really did bring light out of darkness, and life out of death.”
The individuals on the “Heroes” stamps are not household names. Feinstein said he knew of Ruth First, a prominent South African journalist whose anti-apartheid activism landed her in jail, then in exile and ultimately led to her being killed by a letter bomb in 1982. He had also met Helen Suzman, who for years was the lone voice speaking out against apartheid in South Africa’s parliament; she was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize and is “the best-known out of all of them,” Gochin said. “There was no way not to issue a stamp for her.”
At a time when Israel is regularly accused of being an apartheid state, Gochin wants to remind people of the true origins of the word.
“There is zero comparison between apartheid and what happens in Israel,” Gochin said. “It is an absolutely outrageous falsehood that is demeaning to the victims of apartheid and to anybody that stood against apartheid, to compare the rights that everybody enjoys in Israel to the way people were victimized in South Africa.”
That intention may explain why a few prominent Jewish South African anti-apartheid activists are absent from the “Heroes” series. Two politicians, Ronnie Kasrils and the late Joe Slovo — both as well known as anti-Zionists as for their anti-apartheid activism — are not among the 12 featured on the stamps.
Other than First (who was married to Slovo) and Suzman, the 10 others on the stamps have received far less acclaim. “All of these people were just so ordinary and so unpretentious, down to earth and not looking for accolades,” Gochin said. “Their legacy is being forgotten, and we can’t allow that.”
Their stories all can be found on the Web site legendaryheroesofafrica.com — along with those of Gochin’s aunt and uncle, Esther and Hymie Barsel.
Gochin’s cousin, Sunny Lubner, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla., remembers her parents not just as leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, but as strong supporters of equality across the board. “They decided early on that they did not want to live in a society that frowned on blacks, Jews, communists, gays — everything,” Lubner said. “They were really ahead of their time in all of those issues.”
Like most South African Jews, the Barsels were both of Lithuanian descent, or Litvaks. Esther was born in Lithuania; Hymie was the son of two immigrants from that region.
“These were people coming to South Africa having experienced intense hatred against them,” Gochin said of South Africa’s Litvak Jews, many of whom arrived in the years that followed the 1915 expulsion of Jews from Lithuania. “And they got to South Africa,” Gochin said, “and they saw hatred against black people.”
Some Jews were reluctant to speak out, fearing they might make themselves unwelcome in their new haven. “At the same time,” Gochin said, “there was this other side that said, ‘How can you possibly stand by and see being done to other people what was done to us?’ You have to stand up.”
Jews made up just 2 percent of the white population of apartheid-era South Africa, but they constituted at least half of the country’s white anti-apartheid activists, Gochin said.
Signing up for the fight against apartheid was an easy way to make life in South Africa very difficult. “We always knew that our house was under surveillance,” Lubner said. “We always knew that our phone was tapped.”
Lubner was 8 years old in 1956 when her father was accused of treason, along with 155 other eminent anti-apartheid activists. “South Africa was such a police state at that point that people were afraid of being associated with us,” Lubner said. “Very few of our relatives would have anything to do with us.”
Hymie Barsel was held for three years before the apartheid-era government dropped the treason charges. While in jail, he was brutally tortured. “They were very clever,” Lubner said of her father’s captors. “They would inflict damage on the spleen, which apparently is very difficult to detect.”
Esther Barsel, who was not tried in 1956, went to prison for her part in the anti-apartheid struggle in 1964. She spent four years in jail, followed by five years of house arrest. She had to get police permission to attend her daughter’s wedding in 1968. Lubner got married in a Johannesburg synagogue 10 minutes from her childhood home. “She [Esther Barsel] had to be home by 10 o’clock that night,” Lubner recalled.
Hymie Barsel died in 1987 without seeing the fruits of his activism. Esther Barsel, however, lived to see the end of the apartheid system, which began to be dismantled in 1990. South Africa has since honored her memory in various ways — the cell where she was incarcerated has been turned into a memorial installation, and when she died in 2008, Nelson Mandela publicly mourned her passing.