January 20, 2019

Author documents South African resilience after her own losses

In early 2006, Carole Eglash-Kosoff, an author and businesswoman, lost her mother to complications following a hip surgery. Just three weeks later, Eglash-Kosoff’s husband, Alvin, died after an adverse reaction to treatment for his bladder cancer. And only three days after that, her older brother passed away after a lengthy struggle with emphysema.

“It’s impossible to describe how you work all your life to make your life the way you want it to be, and then suddenly it’s gone,” said Eglash-Kosoff, 80, whose first play, “The Human Spirit,” spotlighting anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, will have its premiere at the Odyssey Theatre on June 7. “You don’t know what you’re supposed to do or who you’re supposed to be. It’s just absolute emptiness. I found things to occupy myself, but there was nothing satisfying about them. And then I heard this crazy commercial on National Public Radio.”

The ad, sponsored by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), was calling for businesspeople and others to further its humanitarian efforts in Africa. Intrigued, Eglash-Kosoff called AJWS’ offices the very next day and quipped, “Would you be interested in an old broad who’s a bad Jew?”

And so it was that, in 2007, Eglash-Kosoff found herself in the impoverished townships of Cape Town, South Africa, where she helped nonprofit organizations develop marketing plans. She also started to meet grass-roots activists who eventually inspired her 2010 book, “The Human Spirit: Apartheid’s Unheralded Heroes,” and, later, the play version, featuring 11 characters who speak in both monologue and dialogue.

Among them is Helen, an upper-middle-class Jewish speech therapist who describes her dismay upon arriving at her first job: running a segregated black children’s ward at Cape Town’s esteemed Groote Schuur Hospital in 1962. The mandate, for even the sickest patients, is minimal treatment and immediate release from the hospital. But after a starving mother is prematurely discharged and her baby dies, the outraged Helen begins illegally smuggling food, clothing and even medical supplies filched from the hospital into the townships. Along the way, she meets the black grass-roots activists Millie and Tutu, and together they form a group, The Mamas, which eventually builds preschools and provides other services for the poor. 

In the play, we also learn about Matthew Goniwe, a political prisoner at the infamous Robben Island prison, where inmates routinely die of lung disease or go blind as a result of their backbreaking work in dusty rock quarries. A construction worker describes being forced to live in a cramped dormitory with only one toilet for 80 people, and a father recounts how his only son, a sixth-grader, was shot and killed by police during a peaceful demonstration at his school.

Even before Eglash-Kosoff’s mother, husband and brother died in the course of one terrible month, the businesswoman was no stranger to tragedy. Her father succumbed to pneumonia when she was just 5, and when her other brother unexpectedly died in his 40s, Eglash-Kosoff helped raise his three sons.

Eglash-Kosoff’s life became decidedly “magical,” she said, after she met her husband through a Jewish Journal singles questionnaire in the mid-1980s; over the next two decades, the couple traveled to more than 60 countries, among other activities, “because we never wanted to say, ‘We shoulda,’ ” she said.

It was seven months after his death that the grieving widow arrived in Cape Town and began visiting townships such as Langa. Eglash-Kosoff was shocked by the ramshackle houses made of corrugated tin, the stench of the open sewers and the streets strewn with detritus. “There were a quarter of a million children in Cape Town whose parents had died of AIDS,” she added; Eglash-Kosoff even learned of two orphans found wandering the streets as their parents’ corpses rotted for days in their home.

Then, toward the end of her three-month-long visit, she chanced to start working with a charity now called Ikamva Labantu (Xhosa for The Future of Our Nation)— formerly The Mamas — and met one of its founders, Helen Lieberman (called Helen Silverman in the play). Eglash-Kosoff was immediately fascinated by Lieberman’s sagas of her humanitarian work during the 1980s, when she was once beaten and arrested — her arm broken and one eye so badly damaged that she suffered permanent blurred vision. 

Lieberman also described how her fellow synagogue congregants refused to help with her charitable endeavors, even spurning her for what they perceived as calling dangerous attention to the Jewish community (secret police agents used to take down the license plate numbers of her Jewish friends).  

Lieberman went on to introduce Eglash-Kosoff to her colleague, Tutu, an African woman who had been raped several times while hitchhiking to Cape Town from her barren rural home; as well as to Millie, whose musician husband had been knifed to death while trying to break up a bar fight.

Their stories proved so riveting that Eglash-Kosoff returned to Cape Town the following year with a tape recorder in tow, to interview the activists and some 60 others about their experiences. The result was the book and the play version of “The Human Spirit.” “My goal was to tell the story of people who had struggled during apartheid but never got any of the kudos that the Mandelas and others got, yet who were in the trenches, day in and day out, to provide services,” she said.

Eglash-Kosoff — who went on to write three novels spotlighting issues of racial intolerance — said working on “The Human Spirit” helped heal her intense personal grief. “It’s created a whole new life for me,” she said. “When [tragedy] hits, you have two choices: You can either waste your life, or you can try to leave things a little bit better. I prefer to do that.”

For tickets and information, visit http://www.plays411.com/human or call 323-960-4412.