The Tortured Life of Chaim Bagan

“A lonely grave / In a cemetery. / Who remembers you Chaim Bagan?” (Leon Levinsky, lines 1-3)

There are always going to be names that everyone recognizes, individuals responsible for extraordinary inventions, social justice activists who’ve procured change, or had sacrificed their lives for a cause, or casualties of unjust acts. Their names we know, their extraordinary stories we’ve seen on television or read about in newspapers or books. But Chaim Bagan was an ordinary man, and when he died all traces of him had vanished together with his last breath. There are no photos of Bagan as though he too believed that his life was unremarkable.

Often, when reminiscing about his youth in South Africa my father would mention Bagan; he blended into a familiar story line of immigrant in a new land, and I got a hint of how he may have groomed himself and dressed from black and white photos of other family members and friends. However, when I read my father’s poem about Bagan, there seemed to be another narrative that I had overlooked—it resonated with me, and I began a quest to find out more about him. My father remembered the visage of an old man, or what he perceived to be old, and the events that had turned Bagan’s new life in South Africa into a tortured existence. The thing is, there are so many more Bagans and their voices echo in my head when I think of the outcome of racist policies, laws, and attitudes towards Jews throughout history.

“You escaped from pogroms / to a new land / full of hope” (4-6)

Bagan’s decision to immigrate to a new country wasn’t unique, he followed a well-established trail that was crossed by other Jews who pursued freedom and more opportunities. He left Poland in 1928, and planned to send for his family once he had established himself in South Africa. When he left he knew this would become a permanent separation from his birthplace. At the time, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population; the Statute of Kalisz was the genesis of their 1000-year long history in the land. It bestowed them with privileges and protection after fleeing persecution in Western and Central Europe.

By the fourteenth century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania joined Poland, together they made up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian Empire during the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, the Jews had burgeoned into a vibrant spiritual and cultural society despite antisemitic laws that had limited their freedoms throughout the centuries, and tragedies such as the Cossack massacre of Jews in eastern Poland, also known as the Chmielnicki Pogroms between 1648 and 1649 where more than 100,000 Jews were brutally murdered, and their communities destroyed. The same old prejudices threatened their existence and poisoned the atmosphere even after enlightenment and Jewish integration into Polish society. Geography also determined the freedoms afforded to Jews during the end of the eighteenth century after a series of diplomatic moves partitioned Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Most Jews lived under the Russian Pale of Settlement. During the end of the nineteenth century they were expected to acculturate into Polish culture and abandon their beliefs—a shift that perpetuated internal conflicts among members of the Jewish community, and the need to preserve their identity gave rise to Zionism, Bundism, modernized Orthodoxy, and revolutionary socialism.  Under the Russian Pale, Jews endured copious restrictions, poverty, starvation, and disease. After WWI, more pogroms targeted Jews and thousands of lives were lost; the new Jewish politics, a lifeline of sorts, crumbled under the weight of old ideologies. Jews were also blamed for the inequities of capitalism, and Polish nationalism reignited more violence directed towards their Jewish population. But that was not all, geopolitical unrest created new borders that seemed to shift in the blink of an eye. Lithuania became an independent republic in 1918 but its capital, Vilnius, was re-occupied by the Soviets then captured by Poland. One day you were governed by Polish authorities, the next day by Lithuanians, or the Soviets.

Bagan had endured enough uncertainties; it was time to leave this dystopian existence for a place that offered social and economic advancement. Lithuanian Jews migrated towards South Africa during the end of the nineteenth century, and made up the majority of Jews there (also known as Litvak Jews), and Polish Jews were close behind.

“Wife and daughter / waited for a visa. / It never came.” (7-9)

Prior to WWI, 3.5 million Eastern European Jews had already left the region. Less than 2 percent of immigrants settled in Palestine, but those who still pined after their historical homeland chose to temporarily settle in North Africa, until ongoing religious-social conflicts in the region would end. A large number of Jews headed towards the shores of North America and Canada, some chose Argentina, and France, and the Asian part of the Russian Empire. You could find Jews immigrating to every corner of the world. The majority of Polish Jews who preferred a permanent solution to their wanderings ended up in South Africa. When stories of their new experiences reached home, those who were still teetering with the idea of leaving Poland were intoxicated by the Jews’ renaissance in South Africa, their new Promised Land.

“This land of gold / and diamonds / and sun / and empty spaces / closed its gates / to immigrants / from Eastern Europe.” (10-16)

Jewish organizations were well equipped with information that helped foster their confidence to pick up and leave; South Africa offered them cultural and racial diversity, and rich deposits of gold and diamonds that sparked excitement because of work opportunities and prosperity. Ironically, they relocated to a racially divided country where they were absorbed into a dominant, caste-like society for whites only, while Afrikaners exercised intolerance and institutionalized racism towards its black population.

After Bagan had settled into his new life in Bloemfontein, he was ready for his family to join him. However, the introduction of the Quota Act of 1930 posed a new hurdle by slowing down Jewish immigration to South Africa.

“Clouds of war / hovered over Europe. / A madman in Berlin / screamed and ranted, / and made it clear, / in no uncertain terms, / his plan for the Jewish People.” (17-23)

The devastating impact of the Third Reich’s rise to power facilitated unprecedented hardships on all of Europe’s Jews, and Bagan’s plans for reuniting his family had shattered. South Africa closed its borders to Jews from every corner of the world. The 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses followed by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 instantly striped German Jews of all their rights and reduced them to subject status. With Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy in place, and the occupation of Austria and annexation of Czechoslovakia, more pogroms rained on Jews. On November 9, 1938, Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were smashed and engulfed by flames. Hitler wanted all Jews out but no one wanted to invite them in. At the outbreak of WWII on September 1, 1939, there were 1.5 million Jews under German rule.

I can imagine the deluge of thoughts bombarding Bagan: Why did he wait so long? Why didn’t his family join him from the start? I see him lying awake at night with puffy eyes, an unfocused gaze, and shallow breath supplemented with intermittent cries.

“You pleaded with Nehemiah / that he marry your daughter, / and save the family. / But Nehemiah loved another.” (24-27)

My grandfather Nehemiah Levinsky also emigrated from Poland in the 1920s; his academic path cut short when he was drafted into the Polish army. With the aid of his mother, he escaped and made his way to South Africa where he joined a number of relatives who arrived a few years earlier. He opened a general store in Bloemfontein, and Bagan rented a room in the back. The Jewish immigrants were preoccupied with planting roots in their new host country—coping with a new environment, new language, and finding a source of income. They were less bothered by race relations even though one would think that after escaping similar prejudice, Jews were more likely to protest social inequities.

Along with conformity there were Jews who acted on their liberal political attitudes and took action against the exploitation of blacks. It’s tricky; those Jews who fought the establishment used Jewish ethics and morality as their guide, but in South Africa even Jews who supported liberal politics, believing that their liberties would be best protected under such leadership, did not push too hard to include non-Europeans. Not to the point where they would stand to lose their own white privilege. They were navigating dangerous waters; the Quota Act added an extra layer of fear to the general nationalist fervor that had taken over the country.

Antisemitism casts a long shadow, and there was plenty to remind them of their old lives. Non-Jewish European immigrants imported their distinctive hatred to this distant land as well. A “Hoggenheimer” was a hook-nosed Jewish capitalist and “smous”—a racial epithet that meant a devious Jewish trader. South African extremism proliferated with radical right movements that drew from fascist and Nazi ideology. Greyshirts were one such organization, only to be followed by offshoots whose grasp at power relied on the notion that Jews were organized internationally in a world conspiracy that aimed for global domination. Same old story and nothing original, but these organizations succeeded to rally a cry and gain a following.

Nehemiah’s socialist beliefs were at odds with South Africa’s racist policies; this was not the life he had envisioned.  After reading some of my grandfather’s short stories about South Africa, I believe that the Jewish question had plagued him from the minute he arrived in the country. All he saw was a bleak future—the reason he sought to leave. He tried Palestine, then London where he went back to school to study radio engineering, and during his training he applied for a visa to relocate to Birobidzhan but his application was denied. In London he met Gertrude, a young communist from the East End; they fell in love and moved back to South Africa, away from a looming war and an uncertain future for Jews.

“Then no more letters / from war-torn Poland.” (28-29)

Bagan had a slim chance of getting his daughter into the country if she were engaged to Nehemiah. I would like to believe that my grandfather could not imagine the fate that awaited the rest of the Jews of Europe when he refused to set his own plans aside, albeit temporarily, in order to help his relative save his family. He married Gertrude and they immediately settled into married life.

“You still had hope. / Alas, to no avail. / Your family perished / In the gas chambers / Of Auschwitz.”(30-34)

The Nazis used Lublin as a Jewish settlement area, so Bagan had not given up the fight. There was a chance that things would work themselves out in the end. In 1939 Adolf Eichman deported Jews from Austrian and Czech lands to Poland; some thought that it was the final outcome of anti-Jewish policy until Reinhard Heydrich concentrated Polish Jews in certain towns before transporting them elsewhere. In the process they were stripped of all of their belongings and forced out of their homes to live in cramped slums. Then came walls, and ghettos were a part of the remodeled Polish landscape.

“I remember you, / Chaim Bagan, / Part of the background / At Bloemspruit Cash Stores. / goatee beard, / three piece suit, / unfriendly, scowling.” (35-41)

The Aliens Act of 1937 was an extra safeguard against Jewish immigration. No more hope. Bagan must have fallen into a deep depression, for every single place the Nazis invaded had a brutalizing effect on Jews. In Russia news came of mobile killing squads, Einstazgruppen, and more Jewish men and women were murdered after the Germans invaded Russia—around 500,000 Jews had already died on Soviet Territory. Later on they all learned about the Final Solution.

Perhaps you thought / we could have been / your grandchildren / if fate had not been so unkind.” (42-45)

The world had slowly pieced together the aftermath of WWII and Hitler’s detailed plans of Jewish genocide. In South Africa the Nationalist Party, headed by Malan, introduced legislation against its black population that mirrored Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws of racial discrimination and Afrikaans newspapers were viciously antisemitic. I imagine that in the back of their minds South African Jews felt a sense of panic, they remembered that Malan had led the opposition against Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany in 1937.

In Bagan’s mind, Malan had murdered his family. Life was unbearable; he often retreated to the back rooms when things got busy in the shop. But at the front, where it was business as usual, Nehemiah and Gertrude welcomed into their lives a baby girl named Ruth. Theirs was not a life without tragedy though, and Nehemiah mourned the loss of his mother who died on the eve of her departure from Poland, and their little Ruth had also died when she was only two years old. The children born after Ruth, enjoyed a privileged world with manicured gardens and ominous opportunities for whites—a facade of a healthy society while blacks were grossly oppressed from an institutional and religious level and antisemitism echoed in the background, though it never gained the same momentum that it had in Europe.

“You lived in rooms / behind the store, / rarely ventured out / played chess by mail. / Every move / taking months. / But you had time Chaim Bagan.” (46-52)

Bagan shifted between grief-stricken silence to ill-tempered outbursts. A future without his family did not seem worth living. He slowly detached from life; there was no cause worth fighting, and no fight left in a man betrayed by humanity. In the meantime, discriminatory politics of The Dutch Reform Church justified apartheid by pointing to the Old Testament as proof that God had sided with the white man when they defeated the Zulus at the battle of Blood Rivers. After the war, Malan’s South Africa dropped its obsession with the Jewish question, especially when their economy began to recover and Afrikaners had no need to blame Jews for anything else going wrong.

“I wonder if you dreamed / of your wife and daughter / and the green fields of Poland. / Then woke up / tears streaming down your cheeks / to face the reality /  of a lonely life /  in a barren / station siding.” (53-61)

Tea parties and card games made up a pastiche of privileged life for white South Africans, and immigrants who escaped the Holocaust flourished despite the dire inequitable extremes as long as they were afflicted with amnesia that distanced them from their own nightmarish past. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) adopted a neutral stance towards apartheid—anything to avoid possible confrontations with their new countrymen and endanger the Jews’ status. But Jews took up public offices and also engaged in prominent leftist politics, and the SAJBD went head-to-head with anyone who refused to accept discrimination, and warned them of their fear of collective reprisals against the community at large.

The Levinskys led a vibrant life; they had many friends, and belonged to a literary circle that met at my grandparents’ house to listen to Nehemiah read books in one of the seven languages that he commanded. The children were involved in different hobbies and clubs, and in the background sat Bagan, a shadow of a man hiding behind hooded eyelids and a fixed frown. Those who looked hard must have been haunted by his hollow gaze.

“I would like to think / that a nice woman / consoled you. / I don’t know.” (62-65)

My father doesn’t recall Bagan joining them for dinner at home or visiting them during Jewish holidays. His interaction with Bagan was limited to greeting him hello or goodbye because Bagan didn’t bother to learn English, and Leon didn’t speak Yiddish. Many Polish Jews were denationalized, they used English to communicate with their children and when they didn’t want them to understand they slipped into Yiddish, but they had lost all links with Poland.

“I visited you / at the home for the aged. / You offered me a jam tart.” (66-68)

Before moving into a home, Bagan shared a small house with my great-grandfather David. He too belonged to the same generation of men who lived in South Africa as widowers and never remarried. It’s as though they opposed any sort of acculturation because it would mean giving up something of their past. Giving up their past must have felt as though they were betraying their true identities, and possibly their wives. For those Jews who suffered personal losses, in addition to the shock of uprooting themselves from their native land, there was a chasm too big to repair—it magnified all of their dashed expectations. They could not fill the void, no matter how much time has passed.

David was one of a few people who spoke with Bagan, they argued bitterly but my father isn’t sure about the nature of those arguments. Bagan would retreat to his chest game, spending hours plotting his next move, then corresponding by mail to a phantom player abroad. He waited for months at a time before executing his next move; the anticipation for the letter was his only pleasure in life. Could it be that when the letter arrived, he expected to see his wife’s or daughter’s signatures on the bottom, and this is what kept him alive and focused on the game—always hoping the next letter would end his ongoing nightmare.

“Then you were gone, / Sad, sad man, / Chaim Bagan. // I remember you.” (69-72)

I too shall remember you Chaim Bagan.

About the poet: My dad, Leon Levinsky, is a heart surgeon by day and when he’s not busy learning new lines for a play, he makes up his own lines and writes poetry.

About the Author
Ilana was born in London, England, and currently resides in Camarillo, California. She graduated from Manchester University with an LL.B in 1991. Her writings include the play “A Recipe for Hummus,” and her novels "The Diary of a Wrinkle" and "East End Dreams." "Age Schmage" is a little book intended to help women in their moments of doubt; "A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking" is an honest, yet funny approach to cooking; "What if I Had a Different Name?" is a collaboration with her son Jack and it’s a fun exploration of some of the weird and fantastical names that Jack imagines as his own; "The Cloud That Covered My Head" is a whimsical story about a boy who preferred to stay in bed and dream rather than go to school, and "Rotten Tooth Ruth" brings to life T. Brush, Minty Paste, and Floss who must think of a way to befriend Ruth; "Bobby B. Sprout Meets a Bunch of Rotten Veggies" is an allegory for anyone who's felt like the "other." "Diary of a Wrinkle" is her blog where she muses on the topic of aging and beauty, and @wrinklerevolution is her corresponding Instagram account. You can follow her on Instagram at @soletseat for her daily culinary creations. Her latest work includes "My Best Friend Shadow," and it will be available for purchase on Amazon May 2020. "A Yemenite Bride" (a screenplay) tells the story of Ilana's great-grandmother Saida, and sheds light on the life of Jews in Yemen during the early 20th century.
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