Appreciation: Arthur Goldreich

Anti-apartheid icon, Machal volunteer, and abstract painter.

Arthur Goldreich 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arthur Goldreich 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Arthur Goldreich, founder of the architecture department at Bezalel Academy, previously a famous anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa and a colleague of Nelson Mandela, passed away on May 25 at the age of 82.
Goldreich, who had been chairman of the Arthur Goldreich Foundation for the Promotion of Art, Design and Architecture at Bezalel, and his late wife Tamar moved to Beth Protea retirement home in Herzliya in June 2009; she passed away in September of that year.
During a chat a few years ago, Goldreich and I recalled the days when we both served in Machal (volunteers from overseas who participated in the 1948 War of Independence). We also discussed one of his least-known achievements: Way back around 1950, he and a friend, Abe Abramowitz, had produced probably the first ergonomically designed chair, and he regarded this with as much pride as winning South Africa’s Best Young Painter Award in 1954.
In 1948, while I had the luxury of traveling to Israel in a Dakota airplane, Goldreich arrived on an overcrowded immigrant ship, the Fabio. Designed to carry 50 people, her holds had been converted into dormitories with boards, enabling it to transport exactly 292 souls. In Henry Katzew’s book South Africa’s 800, one of the volunteers, Morris Smith, is quoted as saying “You couldn’t have put a razor blade between us. If you slept on your back, you had to stay on your back.”
The Fabio’s passengers were mainly displaced persons – survivors of the Holocaust – including a group of stunted concentration camp children in the charge of a Hungarian girl, and a group of about 30 South African Machal volunteers. There were nine pregnant women aboard, and two gave birth on the voyage.
On returning to South Africa, Goldreich became an early member of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, led by Nelson Mandela. In 1961 Goldreich and his lawyer friend Harold Wolpe acquired a farm named Liliesleaf in Rivonia (a suburb of Johannesburg) to be used as headquarters for the underground movement. Mandela hid there, posing as a gardener and occasional driver. Mandela wrote in his autobiography how he turned to Goldreich as one of the few in the ANC’s nascent guerrilla army who knew how to fight because of his experience in Israel.
On July 11, 1963, security police raided the farm.
The 19 persons arrested and charged with sabotage included five whites – all Jews, namely Goldreich, Rusty Bernstein, Dennis Goldberg, Bob Hepple and Hilliard Festenstein. Wolpe was arrested shortly afterward and imprisoned at Marshall Square, where Goldreich was already being held. Before they could be tried, Goldreich and Wolpe escaped and fled to Swaziland disguised as priests. Their escape infuriated the prosecutors and police, who considered Goldreich “the arch-conspirator.”
Mandela, who had been arrested previously and was serving a five-year sentence, was brought from Robben Island to stand trial, which resulted in life sentences for eight of the accused, including Mandela.
IT IS good to know that the Liliesleaf farm acquired on the initiative of Goldreich and Wolpe for use by the anti-Apartheid underground will not be forgotten. In December 2001, Goldreich attended a reunion of the Rivonia trialists that was attended by about 150 guests, including then-president Thabo Mbeki, where it was announced that the Liliesleaf Trust had been formed to return the house and outbuildings to their original condition as a museum. Fittingly, the chief executive of the museum is Nicholas Wolpe, Harold Wolpe’s son.
An intriguing sidelight is that a Makarov pistol given to Mandela by Col. Biru Tadesse in Addis Ababa (when the former was on a trip to seek military assistance) has now become the target of a treasure hunt.
In 2003, when Mandela visited his former hideout, he recalled burying the weapon there. So far, although the garden has been dug up and a neighboring home was bought and demolished, the pistol (now valued at 22 million rand, approximately $3 million) has not been found.
During his imprisonment, several houses were built on the grounds of Liliesleaf, and it is now believed that another neighbor’s home is one of three possible hiding places. This building was put up for auction at an asking price of 3 million rand (some $433,000), which the Trust cannot afford. To its relief, the house failed to sell on May 5. Although there were many potential bidders, they fell silent at the opening bid of 2 million rand (approximately $288,000), so there is still hope that the Trust will manage to recover this first weapon intended for use in the struggle against Apartheid.
The writer is a commentator on current affairs. His website is