A cemetery in Zimbabwe

Among my family’s many legends is one that ends in a cemetery in the heart of Africa.

A newspaper clipping showing a synagogue in Salisbury (today Harare), Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe (photo credit: COURTESY ZIMBABWE JEWISH COMMUNITY/ WWW.ZJC.ORG.IL)
A newspaper clipping showing a synagogue in Salisbury (today Harare), Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe
It is a rare family that has no legends. Legends that have been embellished or diminished with time, new details invented to replace those long forgotten. Among my family’s many legends is one that ends in a cemetery in the heart of Africa.
My maternal grandfather George Ravin left his village on the outskirts of Kovno at the end of the 19th century. Sixteen at the time, he settled in Boston where two sisters and a brother already lived, leaving a younger brother, Charles, behind.
Nothing remarkable in that. Between 1870 and 1914 more than two million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to America.
My grandfather arrived in the US in 1896, in the midst of a deep economic recession that had begun in 1893 and would last yet a few more years. After working for some time in his sister Gertrude’s grocery store and even peddling from a horse drawn wagon, he and his brother Louis – both as yet unmarried and both long since disabused of the notion that America’s streets were paved with gold – received a letter from their younger brother Charles who together with some cousins had moved to the township of Bulawayo in the new British colony of Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe).
Louis Ravin (left) and two other men of the Rhodesia Group in Bulawayo (Courtesy)
Though there were few paved streets at all, gold, real gold had recently been discovered. George and Louis Ravin set sail for the “Dark Continent” in 1902 and after landing in Cape Town, South Africa, made their way overland to the colonial settlement in Bulawayo, more than 2,000 kilometers away, to which several hundred other Lithuanian Jews had also arrived to seek their fortunes.
I was too young to remember my grandfather or his tales, but my mother and uncle grew up on stories of Africa; tales far more interesting to them than stories of Lithuania. There was nothing novel in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Roxbury in Boston about having parents from Lithuania.
But the jungles of Africa were something else.
IN 1913 my grandfather and his brother Louis sold their shares in the general store, farm, hotel and mines that the Ravins and their Ralstein cousins had formed, and returned to Boston as immigrants for the second time – though this time not in steerage. Both had decided that it was time to find wives and start families.
Victoria falls in Zimbabwe (Wikimedia Commons)
The Ralstein cousins remained in Bulawayo and so did Charles, and it is with Charles that the real legend begins.
Like my grandfather and Louis, Charles too seems to have decided to start a family; but unlike them, found no reason to look so far afield.
Instead, he left the white settlement and the Jewish community and in the parlance of that time, “went native.”
A young woman, a native of the “bush,” came once a month or so to the store for supplies and apparently, Charles, who was about 21 at the time, fell in love with her, moved to her village and there he spent the remaining five decades of his life.
Nothing is known of his time in the village in which he spent the rest of his life. No one ever conjectured aloud as to whether he might have become a notable of any sort with his high-school education and knowledge of English and German as well as Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.
Or had Charles been content to remain a simple farmer living on his “Walden Pond,” a life as far removed from Kovno as Mars is from Earth? Had the villagers by then become Christian, and did Charles ever share with his African family anything of the Jewish faith he had seemingly abandoned? Had he ever regretted his decision? Had he ever missed the once-familiar rituals or even the familiar melodies of his previous life or tried to contact his family? All that is known for certain is that from that moment on neither his cousins nor anyone else from the Jewish community had any contact with him.
George and Louis Ravin and two Ralstein brothers and possibly the wife of one of them outside their Ravin and Ralstein hotel in Bulawayo (Wikimedia Commons)
SEVERAL YEARS ago, my uncle – then in his late 90s – told me that while, yes, it was true that Charles Ravin was never heard from again, there was one last chapter to the legend. It seems that upon his death, Charles, or in any event, his body, was brought by his African family to Bulawayo along with their father’s final request; to be buried among his people in the Jewish cemetery. One imagines a solemn procession of the African sons and perhaps others from the village arriving in Bulawayo – by then a far larger city than the small town it had been when Charles left. Why after decades among the villagers had he wanted to be laid to rest among the people whom he had left? Though my uncle’s mind and memory remained quite clear until his death earlier this year – a few months short of 100 – I had some doubts as to whether the story of his burial was true or perhaps one of those embellishments through which with the passage of the years family legends acquire new details and in this case, a measure of poignancy.
Traveling to Zimbabwe to find the cemetery, as exotic as that might be, was not very practical, nor was the matter quite so pressing. I also wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to risk the possibility that there was no evidence to confirm the touching end to the story in my uncle’s version.
Of course now anyone can travel to even the most remote location without stepping out of his own house. A Google search took me straight to the website of the well-documented Bulawayo Jewish cemetery. The index of names led me to a photo of a row of graves that showed my great-uncle Charles’s grave. There was one stark difference between his and all the others. The graves of his cousins and their wives and in fact all of the graves in the cemetery are marked with traditional and fairly identical Jewish headstones, but Charles’s grave is unmarked. The cemetery records note only that Charles was buried in plot number 462 and notes the day on that he died: May 31, 1953, seven months before my grandfather himself passed away. Apparently the family would not refuse the last request of their wayward cousin, but neither could they – or perhaps it was the burial society – bring themselves, it would seem, to honor his memory beyond seeing that he was laid to rest with his own people whom he had left nearly 50 years before.
One question that will remain unanswered is whether Charles’s descendants, of whom there might be few or many, have any idea at all that they are descended from generations of Lithuanian Jews. I could speculate of course, but then I would risk a bit too boldly crossing the line myself between fact and fiction. An opportunity I will leave to future generations.