A Litvak who served in Allenby's army

Lieutenant Benzion Morrison on the eve of his departure for Egypt in June 1918 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lieutenant Benzion Morrison on the eve of his departure for Egypt in June 1918
(photo credit: Courtesy)

My father, Benzion Morrison, was a quiet man but a deep thinker. He carried a great deal in his mind, and he also carried a gene in his body that would prove to be his undoing.
I was born in 1928 in a small town called Dewetsdorp in the Orange Free State, South Africa. We lived in a comfortable Victorian house next to which stood my father’s four-bed hospital, but the Great Depression put an end to it all when the townspeople and farmers could no longer afford to pay for medical care. In 1932, Benzion locked the hospital and put us all in his Model-T Ford. Then he drove the three-day journey (now less than six hours) to Johannesburg. It was in Johannesburg that I grew up and where I was shaped by him.
Benzion was born in Kelm, Lithuania in 1889. His family came to South Africa in 1894 and settled in Oudtshoorn in the Cape Colony at the time of La Belle Époque and the ostrich feather boom. In 1909, after completing his education in the Oudtshoorn boys’ high school, his oldest brother Louis undertook to pay his expenses to study medicine in Edinburgh. In later years Benzion paid it all back by taking care of Louis and their extended family.
The family surname was originally Brody but at some point somebody in the family changed it to Mendelssohn, and it was as Benzion Mendelssohn that he was known. In 1916, Benzion Mendelssohn graduated as a doctor with the letters M.B.Ch.B behind his name. The First World War with its endless slaughter was raging while he did his residency.
Somehow a number of letters that he wrote to his brother Louis have survived and in one of them he informed Louis that he had changed his surname to Morrison, because Mendelssohn was of German origin. In March 1918, Benzion received his call-up papers and was sent to Blackpool, where he received basic military training. Then he was assigned to the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of General Allenby.
In another of his letters Benzion shows a deep commitment to Zionism.
Somewhere in Palestine, October 18, 1918
Dear Louis: The fact of the matter is that while we were on the move during the last push which finally cleaned out the Turk from Palestine one had little time to write and less opportunity to post letters. You can hardly imagine how I felt when I was taking part in the last offensive. Although I was never in any great danger yet I realize that I was making but a small sacrifice in offering my life for the liberation of our country.
Page of letter missing
I think the ultimate establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine is bound to come sooner or later. The dream of twenty centuries will come to fruition in the near future.
The nucleus is there. The Jewish settlements are a pride to our race. They are peaceful, contented, and live out only in the present but have an eye to the future developments of the land.
Remainder of letter lost
In 1919 Benzion was discharged and sent back to London where he learned that there was a worldwide shortage of shipping. To keep himself occupied, he completed two further degrees at Edinburgh University, an MD (equivalent to a PhD) and an FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons). He was now Dr. Benzion Morrison, MD, FRCS. In 1924 he returned to South Africa after having been away for 14 years. There he married my mother and bought a four-bed hospital in Dewetsdorp. After being forced by the Great Depression to leave the Free State, he started again, struggling to build a practice in Johannesburg.
If I reach back into the deepest recesses of my mind I can still recall him telling me that he was taking lessons in Hebrew. Not long after that he told me that he was finding pairs of words in the Old Testament that had common origins but opposite meanings. An example in English would be the words bleach and black, which have a common origin but antithetical meanings. A Hebrew example would be the word ahal, which in Genesis 13:12 means to put up a tent, but in Genesis 13:18 it means to take down a tent.
I remember him telling me that he was going to call these words polarisms. Next I recall him telling me that he was busy identifying all the polarisms in the Old Testament, and over a period of two years he identified approximately 140 such pairs. His next step was to research what he had found. As soon as the evening meal was over he would start poring over his books. Today, with the help of computers the task would be immeasurably easier but all that he had was his raw memory power. By 9 p.m. I was asleep in bed, but on the few occasions that I wandered into the dining room at 1 a.m., I was sure to find him there. Next day at 9 a.m. he would leave home to make house-calls and by 11 a.m. he would arrive at his consulting rooms, to examine the patients who were waiting there.
Time passed. In May 1945 World War II ended and we became aware of the murder of our people in Europe. I had joined a Zionist youth movement named Hashomer Hatzair and the news from Europe resonated strongly for us because many of the leaders of the ghetto uprisings had been members of the same organization.
Benzion’s research continued, but in 1947 disaster struck for the second time. I was an 18-year-old university student and I knew that something was wrong. In many of the letters that he wrote to his brother Louis from England he spoke about the heavy burden that the family bore. I already knew about his brother Isaac, who always required a sheltered environment. There was also a sister, who required similar support.
The condition that afflicted members of his extended family is called depression. I have shown a version of our family tree to a geneticist, and it was his opinion that Benzion’s extended family had a genetic condition that shows up in some members and not in others. The geneticist also mentioned that similar conditions afflict surprisingly large numbers of families throughout the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
In July 1947, Benzion handed himself over to the care of a psychiatric nursing home. He had suffered a total breakdown, and was unable to function by himself. The family gene had struck again. After six months in the nursing home, he was discharged and he came back home, but his medical practice had suffered irreparable damage. This was the second occasion that his practice had been destroyed during the years that I knew him. He returned to his biblical research in the nights, but in the daytime there were fewer bedridden patients on which to make house calls and when he arrived at his consulting rooms there were fewer patients awaiting him than before. It seemed to me that his nighttime work was now his total salvation.
I had dropped out of the university during his breakdown, and had found shelter in the bayit where senior members of Hashomer Hatzair lived. In the daytime we worked and in the nighttime we sang songs about the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland. We were preparing to make aliyah and in 1948 the State of Israel was declared. Some of our members had made aliyah earlier via Aliyah Bet, and I had been sent to Cape Town to take charge of the movement there, but throughout all of this I remember my father counselling me: “Make aliyah if you wish but get yourself a profession first, while I am able to pay for your expenses.” In 1950 I accepted his offer. I left Hashomer Hatzair, and returned to the university to study engineering, a decision I have never regretted.
The last time I saw my father was at 5 o’clock one morning in December 1952. I was leaving on an overland journey from Johannesburg to London and was carrying a 35 kilogram rucksack. My route lay via the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda, where I and three of my companions were to spend a month mountaineering. He spoke the last words that I ever heard him say: “Norman, never make a fool of yourself.” By then – and thanks to him – I had completed the requirements for a BSc degree in electrical engineering, and once I reached London I was due to commence postgraduate studies there. The journey took seven months to complete and in July 1953 I finally made it.
On May 21, 1955, I received a telegram to say that my father had died the previous day. It was only upon my return to South Africa that I learned that he had taken his own life. As a doctor he would have known how to do that.
His life’s work was completed – he had published what he had uncovered in the Old Testament. His practice was destroyed – for the second time – by his breakdown in 1947.
Perhaps he did what he did because he sensed another breakdown coming on, or perhaps it was because he was staring at penury in his old age. I am now 90 years old and so it is safe to say that the family gene has passed me by. Like him I have earned a PhD degree, and also like him I have undertaken research and written books – in my case three, all of a mathematical nature. Like him I am a deeply committed Zionist with an unbreakable love for the State of Israel. And throughout it all I was constantly aware of how similar I was to the person who shaped me, my father Benzion Morrison, a Litvak who served in Allenby’s army.