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[Pages 264-265]

Litvaks at the Family Table

By Sybil Herbst (Berman)

Translated by Judy Grossman

My father Yona and my mother Sonia (nee Orlin) came from Lithuania; my mother from Dusiat [Dusetos] and my father from Viekshny [Vieksniai] but grew up in Utian [Utena]. My father had relatives in Dusiat and so my parents knew each other from an early age.

My father emigrated to South Africa in February 1924, and when he was settled financially, he asked for my mother's hand in marriage. My mother came to South Africa in July 1927.

Several years prior to then, when still in Dusiat, my mother's brother Moshe married Teibl, my father's sister, and together with their children also emigrated to South Africa, which is why Dusiat isn't a foreign name to me.

Meetings of former residents of Dusiat in South Africa were not a rare phenomenon. At times of celebration and of sorrow, they would always get together. In general, all the “greenies” (newcomers) frequently got together. Almost all of them settled together in Paarl and together studied English. Mutual assistance was widespread among the Jews of South Africa in general, and in particular among immigrants from Lithuania, and there were, of course, close ties between people from the same shtetl. My father was very active in this area.

I now recall the social hall in Paarl. There was a “family table” at every celebration, and that table, actually, circumscribed the entire hall, because almost everyone was a member of the same family. And if I hear now that Bobe Sore-Beile Chatzkel (Katz) relating the family tree according to which brothers ostensibly married sisters, I assume that she was almost correct…

  Yona and Sonia Berman (nee Orlin) – June 28, 1927


The distance between Johannesburg and Cape Town was shortened by correspondence, and thanks to this and the various photographs in my family album and my parents' stories, I know the family tree. My mother would tell us of memories from home, and my father knew the personal names she mentioned. From my mother I learned about Dusiat, and from my father about Utian. I think that my parents “transferred” their home to South Africa, and that is apparently what all the immigrants did.

When my father was on his deathbed, he asked me to bring him a pen and paper and he dictated the family tree with all its branches to me. He also asked me to write all the names and affiliations on the backs of the photographs. Now when I look at photographs of people from the shtetl, and someone points at them and says “here is so and so”, I know who they are. I connect these people to each other and feel the “togetherness”, and that gives me a good feeling.

Here is a story about my daughter Dorit, who returned from kindergarten one day and expressed her sorrow at not having grandparents. I understood that she had heard something in the kindergarten, and was envious of children who had grandparents. I took the pictures out of our album and showed her: “Here is your grandmother and here is your grandfather.” The next day she proudly told the children in the kindergarten: “I also have a grandmother and grandfather, but mine have already died…” That is how she learned about her roots from the photographs. She also drew an interesting picture: Characters holding hands are standing horizontally, and a semi-circular line connects the hands at the ends, that is all the characters are connected to each other… In this way she tried to prove that she understood the family ties…

Sybil and her daughter Dorit hosting
Yosef Yavnai (Slep) on the sixty-fifth anniversary
of his aliya to Eretz Yisrael. December 1985.


We Sang Hebrew Songs

The cultural life of the community was run in Yiddish. We spoke Yiddish at home, but I remember that it was very important to me that my parents speak good English. The kindergarten was a Jewish one, and we sang Hebrew songs there. After public school I went to the cheder to learn Hebrew, and my mother was able to help me. There was a KKL (JNF) box in our home. There was a Hebrew library in the city. I was a counselor in Habonim (Zionist youth movement), and I was active in Zionist organizations. When I graduated from school I moved from Paarl to Cape Town and was active in Zionist circles. My father was very proud of my Zionist activities, and he was pleased when I immigrated to Israel (1959).

Only a small part of my family immigrated to Israel, but I am in constant touch with my relatives abroad, by phone, via letters and through reciprocal visits.

Sybil (nee Berman) and Chaim Herbst during a trip to South Africa, with her parents Sonia and Yona Berman and her brother Abie (Abba).


List of Names

I was very moved by the Yizkor Book of Rakishok and Environs, which was published in Yiddish in South Africa. I attribute great importance to commemorative books. Perhaps my opinion is influenced by the values I absorbed at home, and from how I relate to my family, my relatives and my people. My husband Chaim, my daughter Dorit and I were in Rhodes visiting the synagogue in some remote place. There we found a plaque bearing various names, and I became excited when I encountered names that were known to me from South Africa, such as “Habib”, “Franco”, “Alhadif”, and so forth. This list moved me greatly; it was as though I had found their roots…

  Teibl Orlin and her daughters Chaya-Itka (right) and Ettie.

On the left – Sybil Berman.

South Africa


Chalutzim (pioneers) in the flax field of Shlomo and Tzipa Friedman (standing on the right), in Abel [Obeliai]. Their children Henia (below) and Abba (Abie) seated second from the left. On the far left – the pioneer Shalom-Meir Klavier (Kibbutz Dafna).

Abie Friedman immigrated to South Africa and married his relative Lily, the daughter of Moshe and Teibl Orlin.


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