When I was a child in Kimberley Julius Kretzmar was our family doctor and he and his wife Althea were close friends of my parents . When they retired to Cape Town where we were then living, our families spent much time together.
Later I introduced him to the curator of the Malmesbury Museum , the former Malmesbury Synagogue, when she was busy setting it up and he played an integral part in providing her with information about the Jewish community.
When Julius told me that he was translating the letters with the help of my school friend’s father and had prepared a talk about it, I arranged to take him to meetings at the branches of a Jewish seniors association where I worked. The seniors found his talk fascinating, as did I and he gave me a copy which I mined for many of my historical articles. I was very fond of Julius and when he got frailer, I would often pop round to their flat to spend time talking to him - he was a man of great depth, wisdom, intellect and compassion. I told him how important a resource the letters were and that I would love to be able to edit them but it remained an unfulfilled dream. Dr Kretzmar passed away in 1995 aged 88, deeply missed by many.
In 2019 I was I invited a presentation on the trip to Birzai (formerly Birzh), Lithuania, and the unveiling of a memorial to the Jews of Birzai killed in the Holocaust. One of the guests was a visitor from Ottawa, Julius’ son Philip, who had come to see Althea. To my delight he told me that he had copies of the letters and to my utter delight, offered to make them available to me . At the end of the year I received a phone call - Philip was back in Cape Town and to my absolute delight , he had remembered and had brought with him photocopies of the letters.
I must express my gratitude to Philip and David Kretzmar for enabling me to fulfil a long-held dream - something that does not often happen, I would also like to thank Philip for sharing my enthusiasm in the project and for the interviews and time he has given me so generously and Althea Kretzmar, Lester Braun and Dr Sorrel Kerbel for providing me with information and access to family photographs. I need to thank Dr Veronica Belling for kindly assisting me to source photos of Birzh, including some from collection of Eilat Gordon as well my gratitude to Jacqui Rogers of the Jacob Gitlin Library for her assistance in sourcing a thirty-year old article about Malmesbury written by Julius.
I am greatly indebted to Prof Adam Mendelsohn of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, who agreed that these letters, from 1899 to 1903, provide a valuable primary source describing the trials and tribulations, the disappointments and disillusionment, the loneliness and the homesickness of the newly arrived East European immigrants and who agreed to publish it as one of the Kaplan Centre’s on-line searchable publications, and a big thank you to Libby Young whose marvellous eye has turned the document into something magical.
Finally, I owe a very big thank you to Roy Robins, the sine qua non, without whom my dream would never have materialised, who, to please his old mother, uncomplainingly undertook the mammoth task of typing out nearly 82 000 words, a sacrifice of his time and effort.
Cape Town 2020