Book review: When Jews fight for others

He Does Not Die a Death of Shame by Jack Hoffmann.

AFRICAN NATIONAL Youth League members interrupt a memorial service for anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada in Durban, South Africa, April 2017 (photo credit: ROGAN WARD / REUTERS)
AFRICAN NATIONAL Youth League members interrupt a memorial service for anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada in Durban, South Africa, April 2017
(photo credit: ROGAN WARD / REUTERS)
Jack Hoffmann’s novel is an exploration of moral conduct in extremis.
He has written two tales: The first a family saga ranging from protagonist Zak Ginsberg’s Lithuanian antecedents, nearly all of whom become early Holocaust victims, to Zak’s father Dan and uncle Len, who leave Europe in time to begin new lives in racist South Africa. It is the archetypal story of South African Jewry with its almost exclusively Lithuanian origins.
The narrative opens in 1920 with Zechariya, Zak’s great-grandfather after whom he is named, successfully delivering a Christian child in squalid conditions. Quixotically tilting at a pervasive antisemitism, Zechariya wants the goyim to know that, in the absence of the sick village midwife, they were helped by a Jew. But after the birth, the drunken Lithuanian father can find just two words for the man who gave his son life: “Filthy yid!”
The Ginsbergs are not religious. For them, the essence of Judaism is not in rite or ritual but in moral action, for example in helping to preserve human life. As the Talmud teaches: “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.”
Inspired by Zaida Zechariya and the family’s humanist outlook, Dan Ginsberg’s ambition is to become a physician. But his academic dreams are dashed when a late 1920s upsurge of antisemitism back home leaves the family unable to continue supporting his studies in distant Strasbourg. Acting on his father’s advice, he leaves for South Africa to join his brother Len.
There he sets up a successful business and marries for love. But when he learns of the annihilation in 1941 of the entire family left behind in Lithuania, he grows cold and distant. The marriage suffers.
Partly as a result, Zak, born in December that year, develops a close relationship with the black African “servant,” (housemaid-cum-nanny), Zanele, almost like mother and son. 
This untrammeled black-white bond frames a second tale which brings to the fore the moral dilemmas facing Jews in Apartheid South Africa. It follows the converging paths of Zak and Mpande Gumede, Zanele’s biological son, leading with tragic inevitability to their violent deaths. They meet first as young playmates oblivious of South Africa’s institutionalized color bar, when in the early 1950s, Mpande makes a rare visit from Zululand to be with his mother.
The focus shifts from one to the other until their paths cross again two decades later, when Mpande, turned hardened anti-Apartheid terrorist/freedom fighter, exploits Zak’s deepest inner conflicts, forcing the brilliant young surgeon to decide how far to go in assisting the black liberation struggle, the goals of which he backs.
THE BOOK’S title, He Does Not Die a Death of Shame, is taken from Oscar Wilde’s poem “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In Wilde’s universe, all men are morally tainted (“each man kills the thing he loves”) but nearly all escape unpunished. The few who are jailed for whatever offence, in Wilde’s case homosexuality, are the ones a cruel and arbitrarily conformist society deems shamed. 
Hoffmann takes Wilde’s vision a step further, beyond social mores. Both Zak and Mpande are tortured to death in captivity by a sickeningly vindictive state authority. But, in Zak’s case, and we assume in Mpande’s, too, they do not “die a death of shame,” steadfastly refusing to betray “the cause” or compromise their integrity even at pain of death. 
The novel challenges Jewish liberals trapped within the Apartheid system (or for that matter within any other repressive social structure) to make moral choices. Do Jews, themselves long-suffering victims of discrimination, have a special responsibility to fight a regime that dehumanizes, disenfranchises and victimizes others? If so, is it enough, as Zak initially does, to make a significant professional contribution, initiate small gestures for social change and treat whites and blacks equally? Or is it incumbent upon Jewish humanists to go further and fight for change through non-violent political action or, as Zak eventually does, by aiding and abetting random acts of urban terrorism?
For Hoffmann, the choices are never simple, the degree of morality relative and dependent on very specific circumstances. 
In Apartheid South Africa, most Jewish liberals simply left. Over 60,000, around half the Jewish population, emigrated to more democratic pastures, arguing that they wanted no part of the evil system for themselves or their children. Some came to Israel, as Jews choosing their own ethnic battleground for freedom.
Like many of his generation, Zak Ginsberg may well have ended up living and working abroad. After passing his final exams, he is about to take up a prestigious hospital post in London. But then comes Mpande’s fateful nocturnal knock on the door, sucking Zak into the maelstrom of urban terrorism and, at the same time, highlighting the chance nature of his involvement.
Had there been no knock on the door, Zak would have been able to live out his life abroad with few moral qualms. But once it came, given his overwhelming sense of the injustice of the system, he feels morally bound to transport a large quantity of explosives assigned for urban bombings. After his arrest, he sees the only honorable path in resisting his torturers at every turn, even though it means losing both thumbs, never being able to operate again and, ultimately, death. This in Hoffmann’s terms, is how he “becomes a man.”
In the wider scheme of things, Zak’s heroic sacrifice does little for black liberation. Violence played a negligible role in Apartheid’s undoing. It collapsed in the face of international isolation, economic stress and growing domestic recognition of the system’s inherent evil.
For Hoffmann, himself a South African-born surgeon, Zak’s moral predicament clearly poses a nightmarish personal test. But the fact that Zak’s choices cause so much suffering for so little gain, such waste of great promise, suggests a final twist: a retrospective justification for South African Jews of conscience finding other ways to help the cause or other causes to help.
The novel’s epic proportions, sharp political context and Hoffmann’s keen eye for detail make for an engrossing and enlightening read.