The content of the letters

Most narratives of new Jewish immigrants to South Africa are rags to riches stories. The struggles they endured are sometimes glossed over.  There are many such memoirs, for example, as a produce market agent (Albert Chiat, Seeds of my life), as a hotelier (Evan Kaplan, Time, Gentlemen), as a bottle store owner (Benny Goldberg, Larger than life, a legend in his time),   in furniture (Solomon Stone, Airflex 1934-1984), in fishing (Ellis Silverman, Before memories grow dim), in metal (Mendel Kaplan, From Shtetl to Steelmaking).

Tuvye’s letters written to his wife and close family members are different.  They were not meant for publication. They are heartfelt and honest letters that do not gloss over the difficulties and challenges he encountered.

Collectively, they are a first-hand record of the initial unhappy years of struggle, when he was alone, lonely, missing his family, trying to adjust to a strange culture and language and worrying how to earn money to send to his distant family.  There is no future success to cast a sheen over these early years of insecurity. These are earnest, private letters in which Tuvye expresses his misery to his wife.  Their correspondence and feelings are delayed in time, as it could take five or six week or longer -- he often expressed frustration and disappointment at the delay in receiving mail -- for a letter from her to reach him. These letters portray the candid reality experienced by so many anxious grieners in their first years in South Africa

 I know that I am wrong to cause you pain for nothing, but alas I can’t help it. I know that you owe a lot of money, and the office of my father is very small, and I know about your business and your foot problems. It is a great pity that one can’t send more to my wife and children, and it is a great pity that my parents must support the married children, especially when one has not much for themselves. It is a great pity on everybody if one suffers a lot all for nothing. That is what makes one depressed and despondent. (14.1.1902)

 

He gets depressed, she gets depressed. They squabble. He apologises.

 

It is a pleasure to do business and to save a few pounds and to send it home, and so the wife is not cross with me. My wife is cross. My father is also annoyed. My mother-in-law and friends are also. I myself am here without a relative or a friend, for whom can I hope to wait? I hope for nobody except to God alone. (8.9.1901)

 

He has reason to be annoyed with her – Taube does not always write regularly, she often does not acknowledge receipt of his hard-earned money and for two years he unsuccessfully nagged and cajoled her to send him a photograph.

 

I want to ask, that when I send money, to get a photograph of yourself and the children and send it to me. I can’t imagine what a pleasure it will be for me if you were to do it (7.5.1902)

 

For instance, if the husband is in Africa and he sends his photograph without waiting to be asked for it, a sensible wife will know what to do to please her husband, especially after one has asked for it. Of course, money one sends as much as possible, it would be only right if the wife would send some photographs. I have been waiting for over a year and I have still not seen them. Maybe this summer, if you are not so busy, you could accomplish it. You shouldn’t strain yourself – you should do more important things first. Everything at home must be right, and after I’ve waited so long I can wait a little longer. (8.9.1902)

Again and again.

 

I've asked you before that you should send me photographs, but so far I have not yet received any. Apparently, you have not sent any. You are cross with your husband and you don’t want to show your husband your cross face, so I must try to appease you. I must also tell you that I think that you are very beautiful, and that you should send me some photo. (3.1. 1903)

 

But she does not.

 

He comes across as a warm loving husband who is sensitive to her moods and tries to cheer her up, sometimes with jokes or stories.

 

I can sense all your letters are written in a dark, depressed mood, full of pain and despondency. It is seldom that I see any sign of hope and cheerfulness, but always with one thought of despondency, and this depresses me more in my mood and hopes, as well as my health, with which to keep strength and hope… Under such a burden of such thoughts, even the most courageous man must bow down, especially to a weak woman. (12.9.1900)

 

What comes out clearly in these letters is the loneliness of the new immigrant, bereft of his family and community and the long-distance anxiety about the folks at home. He worries about Taube’s health, about the children’s health, about Noah’s chicken pox, about David’s progress at cheder.

 

I thank you for the information that our son Noah is beginning to walk. I can tell you the truth, that I was so excited by the news – that I, as a father, should be so far away and not know his child or even imagine what he looks like. (16.10.1900)

This would have been the reality for many fathers, separated from their families for long periods. Often when the family is reunited, neither side recognises the other and the relationship as a family has to be re-established.

Tuvye constantly asks, begs, nags, for letters, for information about the family, the friends, the neighbours, about the cow and the potato crop. All suggest his sense of isolation and homesickness. Here is just one example of many similar  complaints.

I am writing every week and I hope likewise to receive your letters regularly, but if you don’t write, I cannot receive any regular letters. So today I have heard nothing. The mail from Russia is normal, even if one gets one letter one counts the days for the next one, and when there is no letter one is disappointed, because everybody gets letters – so one feels sad and heartbroken. (Oct 1900)

 

He is desperate for news about friends and family, even gossip.

 

How is Jeta Memighas? What does she say about the rabbi? Is she going to hit him again with the rolling pin? How is the tyrant getting on?... How is ‘Zebia’? … Is she still childless? (29.3.1902)

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© Kaplan Centre
Letters courtesy of Phil Kretzmar