The life and times of a freedom fighter

Arthur Goldreich was "a freedom fighter, a teacher and an artist" but was most defined by his commitment to fight apartheid.

arthur goldreich_521 (photo credit: W. Braun)
arthur goldreich_521
(photo credit: W. Braun)
After the eulogies at Sunday’s funeral for Arthur Goldreich, a legend of the anti-apartheid movement, the glorious national anthem of his native South Africa – “Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika” (God Bless Africa) – played over the sound system.
During apartheid, the song had been the anthem of the African National Congress, which Goldreich, who died at 82, joined in the 1950s in South Africa and of which he remained a member for the half-century he lived in Israel.
“In his earlier life in South Africa, he chose an extremely volatile, difficult route, which was to engage in direct political action” against apartheid, his son Paul told some 100 mourners at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha’s cemetery.
“He was a freedom fighter, a teacher and an artist,” said a former student of his at Bezalel Academy, where he founded the design and architecture department in the mid-1960s, remaining there until retirement.
Born to Sam and Sadie Goldreich, who owned a furniture business in the city of Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Goldreich started out as a freedom fighter at 18 – not for South Africa yet, but for Israel.
He told Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of last year’s book The Unspoken Alliance – Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, that seeing photos from Auschwitz had transformed him: “I decided that studying architecture in South Africa was a luxury that I politically or morally...couldn’t afford.” He went to fight with the Mahal foreign volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence – an experience he would soon find extremely useful to him and a new set of comrades.
Returning to South Africa in 1954, he studied architecture and became a promising artist, but within a few years he was helping plan sabotage operations for the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). He was arrested for treason in 1963 with several top ANC leaders. (At the time, Nelson Mandela was in prison on another charge, but he was tried with the others for treason and sent to prison for 27 years.)
Goldreich, however, was not in court for the historic “Rivonia trial.” Instead, he and a comrade from Liliesleaf bribed a jail guard and made a Hollywood-worthy escape across Africa. The following year, at the invitation of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, he left London and moved here.
CHARISMATIC AND handsome with wavy hair and taste in clothes, he was, by all accounts, a passionate man of contrasts – an aesthete and revolutionary, a man of strict principle and life of the party, a South African and an Israeli.
In the end, though, it was the fight against apartheid, the pivotal drama of his life, that most defined him – to history, to others and to himself. Not by chance was “Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika” played at the end of his funeral service, followed by two songs from King Kong, a landmark, all-black 1959 South African musical whose costumes and sets he designed.
In Israel, for the many people who got caught up as activists or supporters in South Africa’s saga of liberation, Goldreich’s death marks the passing of a golden age. He was Israel’s link to that time. He was also a Jewish idealist of that time, and his death is a poignant reminder of how times have changed.
“He was knowledgeable about guerrilla warfare and helped fill many gaps in my understanding. A flamboyant person, he gave the farm [site of the 1963 raid] a buoyant atmosphere,” wrote Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
I interviewed Goldreich in February 1990 after Mandela’s release. With his design sense and collection of African art, his house in Herzliya evoked his native continent with deep browns and reds, as I remember, as well as tribal masks and other African pieces.
He showed me copies of the ANC newsletter he still received, describing himself as “a disciplined member of the ANC.” The focus of the interview was Mandela, not him, so we talked about his history only as it intersected with that of Mandela, whom he met in 1954. About his time in Umkhonto we Sizwe, Goldreich said: “We penetrated to the heart of the government; we blew up the agriculture minister’s office in Pretoria.” He stressed, though, that the targets had been national infrastructure, not people, adding that neither he nor Mandela had taken part in the actual attacks.
BACK IN 1950s Johannesburg, he moved in “what you would call leftist circles,” said Maurice Ostroff, a former anti-apartheid activist who knew Goldreich from Mahal, from Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University and, 50 years later, at Herzliya’s Beth Protea, the retirement home for South African immigrants where Goldreich spent his last two years. His wife, Tamar, died there a few months after they moved in.
“He was a marvelous raconteur. I used to see him at parties; he was very, very funny,” said a retired South African Jewish architect who worked with Goldreich in the early 1960s on the design of a Johannesburg department store.
“But we had no idea what he was doing politically,” said the old acquaintance. “He was totally secretive, and when he was arrested with the others, we were absolutely astounded.”
Goldreich leased a farm called Liliesleaf in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia in 1961, and went to live there with his first wife, Hazel, and their children. He was chosen by the ANC leadership to be the front man at Liliesleaf precisely because he’d hidden his underground activities so well; unlike others in the underground, he’d never been arrested.
“The Goldreichs went riding every weekend, hobnobbed at the polo club and held frequent dinner parties in their new country home. Arthur affected the air of a foppish country gentleman, dressing in tweeds and riding boots,” wrote Glenn Frankel in the 1999 book Rivonia’s Children. “It was all a front. Arthur Goldreich was in fact a dedicated communist and a member of the logistics committee of Umkhonto.”
His frivolous façade allowed him to travel to communist Czechoslovakia and East Germany, where he “gathered expertise on running a campaign of insurgency against a conventional army and on the manufacture of armaments,” wrote Frankel.
The farm, chosen for its seclusion, served as the headquarters of the underground.
“I was at his house once and I thought the dining room was unusually large for one family. Afterward I realized it was the [ANC’s] board room,” said the retired South African architect.
Little by little, South African security forces realized it, too, and in July 1963 they raided Liliesleaf, arresting 18 people, including most of the ANC leadership. Goldreich was arrested when he drove into the farm carrying documents “which laid out in embarrassingly rich detail the various munitions and explosives that guerrilla warfare would require,” wrote Frankel. South African authorities named him as the “archconspirator” of the group.
Imprisoned in Johannesburg, he and his comrade Harold Wolpe bribed a guard and escaped. They were hidden in safe houses for several days, then driven in the trunk of a car over 200 miles across the border to Swaziland, where, disguised as priests, they were flown first to Botswana, then, with South African agents looking to capture or assassinate them, to Congo and finally to freedom in Tanzania.
As all five of the white activists arrested were Jewish (along with 13 non-whites), the raid, the escape and the “Rivonia trial” divided South African Jewry.
“In the liberal circles I belonged to, we were very pleased when we heard the news of the escape,” said the retired architect.
But leaders of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies did everything they could to disassociate the community from the socalled traitors, Goldreich told Polakow- Suransky. “[T]hey went to great lengths to say that I wasn’t really a Jew, that I didn’t observe. When I escaped they offered to pay additional money for the reward on my head,” he said.
“I met him in 1963 when he came to London after his escape. We marched in anti-apartheid demonstrations together,” said Ismail Coovadia, South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, who’d left his country over the racial laws and was active at the time in the ANC’s London branch.
“He addressed many of the university campuses and was extremely well received,” Coovadia continued. “He was very generous and gentle, spoke very clearly about all sorts of issues, very philosophically, and he could speak for hours.”
When he arrived here the following year at the Foreign Ministry’s invitation, Israel and South Africa were natural enemies. The apartheid leaders had a deep streak of anti- Semitism; some had supported the Nazis in World War II. They saw Jews as communists and “kaffir-lovers” and Israel as a socialist state allied with Africa’s post-colonial black governments.
That began to change in the 1970s, and Goldreich became the leader of the small, local anti-apartheid movement, protesting Israel’s warming relations with South Africa, which culminated in 1975 with their official, mutual recognition.
The next year, prime minister John Vorster, who’d been a member of a militant Afrikaner nationalist, pro-Nazi group during World War II, made an official visit, praying at the Western Wall and laying a wreath at Yad Vashem. “Arthur Goldreich was one of the few anti-Vorster protesters out in the streets,” wrote Polakow-Suransky, noting that he “plastered telephone poles with posters featuring Vorster’s name alongside swastikas.”
ISRAEL WAS now his home, but South Africa was still Goldreich’s cause. Almost inevitably, though, he was incensed by the occupation he saw. In a 2006 two-part feature comparing and contrasting it with apartheid, he told the Guardian’s Chris McGreal that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounted to “brutality and inhumanity,” characterizing the control over the population as “bantustanism.”
“Don’t you find it horrendous,” he asked rhetorically, “that this people and this state, which only came into existence because of the defeat of Nazism in Europe, and in the conflict six million Jews paid with their lives for no other reason than that they were Jews, is it not abhorrent that in this place there are people who can say these things and do these things?”
Yet he didn’t become an activist in the anti-occupation cause. “He had liberal ideals about the situation, but he didn’t go on marches, he didn’t demonstrate at the security fence,” said a long-time Israeli friend.
And while he was vehemently against the occupation, which started after he moved here, Goldreich was by no means against the Jewish state, which he left home as a teenager to fight for. “He was a Zionist, he loved this country, and anybody who says he was anti-Israel is totally wrong,” said his friend.
Over the years Goldreich stayed in touch with his old comrades in South Africa and abroad. He visited South Africa after apartheid ended in 1994, and again in 2001, attending reunions at Liliesleaf, now a museum.
At the funeral, his son Amos said that while going through his father’s belongings, he came across a journal in which his father had begun writing down his ideas about architecture. “It was dated 1975,” said Amos, “and on the cover he had written a quote from Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
By now, 36 years after he copied them on a page, those words are a cliché. In Goldreich’s day, for him and the others who committed themselves to the cause of justice in South Africa, they were words to live by.