• Alba, 1867
• Pretoria, 1880
• Pretoria, 1885
• Pretoria, 1890
• Hong Kong, 1897
• Marseille, 1900
• Paris, 1904
• Valenciennes, 1918
• Buenos Aires, 1930
A man, whose teenage silhouette, leaving his house in Warsaw, can only be guessed.
Then on the road, on the seas.
And elsewhere, far away.
Always a stranger, always with strangers.
Farther and farther.
|У отца совсем не было языка, это было косноязычие и безъязычие. Русская речь польского еврея? – Нет. Речь немецкого еврея? – Тоже нет. Может быть особый курляндский акцент? – Я таких не слышал. Совершенно отвлеченный, придуманный язык, витиеватая и закрученная речь самоучки, где обычные слова переплетаются с старинными философскими терминами […], причудливый синтаксис талмудиста, искусственная, не всегда договоренная фраза – это было все что угодно, но не язык.|
Осип Мандельштам, Шум времени
|What my father spoke was not a language, but some stuttering, a non-language. The Russian of a Polish Jew? No. Of a German Jew? Neither. Perhaps a special Kurland dialect? I have never heard anything like it. A fully abstract, invented language, the convoluted and twisted speech of an autodidact, where everyday words mingled with outdated philosophical terms […] and a strange Talmudist syntax, artificial, not always completed phrases – anything you want, except a language.|
Ossip Mandelstam, The noise of time
While finding my way through the South African documents, I also ask myself: Which language, which languages did this man speak, Adolf Guttmann, the grandfather of my grandmother? Polish? Russian? Sheffield English? Afrikaans? German? Yiddish? And with whom?
Map of the European part of the Russian Empire with the various borders of Poland according to its partitions. Keith Johnston’s General Atlas, Edinburgh, 1861
You follow with a finger the border line between Prussia and the Russian Empire towards north-east. From Kalisz you slip up to Novemiasto in Kovno, somewhere halfway between Memel and Tilsit. Quite a bit east of Kalisz.
As often happens, the rich leave behind more traces than the poor, even when the rich began their life in poverty. From the life of Adolf Guttmann, there is not much left, but from that of his allies and relatives, on whom good luck has smiled, there is enough to fill a museum. And I would like to believe that, fortune aside, their path in life was also similar.
Samuel Marks was born in 1844 in the Lithuanian Žemaičių Naumiestis. Just like Kalisz, the birthplace of Adolf Guttmann, Naumiestis, where more than half of the population was Jewish at mid-nineteenth century, was at the time in the Pale of Settlement, in the borderlands of the Russian and Prussian Empires.
Samuel’s father, Mordechai Feit Marks, was a very poor itinerant tailor, with seven or eight children in his charge. Samuel had no other education than what he received at the heder. At twelve, he escaped the conscription for Jewish children ordered by Tsar Nicholas I only because this law was abolished a few months earlier by Alexander II. Around the age of sixteen, he followed the usual route to leave Neustadt: trading in horses.
He thus accompanied a convoy of beasts across Europe as far as England, and in 1861 he found himself in Sheffield, where he became a peddler. Later he was hired by the Guttmann Brothers of Sheffield (that is, by Adolf’s uncles), who in 1868 sent him to South Africa together with his cousin Isaac Lewis.
Like so many Jewish immigrants at the time, Sammy Marks and Isaac Lewis became itinerant traders, walking the streets of Cape Town in search of customers for their cheap jewelry and knives from Sheffield. Later they moved on to the interior of the country, going from farm to farm in Transvaal in a mule-cart in the wake of the pioneers. They became what was called there smouses, or hawkers, just lilke Adolf Guttmann ten years later.
Then, with the discovery of the diamond mines in 1869, everything changes. Marks and Isaac leave Cape Town for Kimberley with a cart loaded with goods, and will provide miners with all the equipment they need, as well as with food or tobacco – and the miners usually pay them in small diamonds.
And fortune is there. They join the French Diamond Mining Company, and then the Hungarian adventurer Hugo Nellmapius, they build the first factory of Transvaal, De Eerste Fabrieken, a grain distillery. Nellmapius, Marks and Lewis seize the monopoly on alcohol production in Transvaal for fifteen years. Some years later, in 1886 they follow the gold rush to the east of Transvaal, and they found the African and European Investment Company, responsible for managing the finances of various gold mines. At this time, Marks and Lewis are already among the richest men in South Africa.
Sammy Marks (fifth from the right) at the building site of the railway which will link the Orange Free State with Transvaal in May 1892. In the center, President Kruger.
Having become a billionaire, Sammy Marks founded the town of Vereeniging in the coal mining region near Johannesburg. He developed workshops, mills and factories. He built a large synagogue, then another one in Pretoria. He financed charities, and became the head of his community, the Jewish community of Transvaal, composed of Eastern European Jews, which broke with the much older “English” synagogues of Cape Town, to form their own congregations.
He not only built the first synagogue in Pretoria, but he also erected (or restored) the synagogue in his own hometown for £ 1,000, which was considered “a fabulous sum”. This inspired many young Jews of Lithuania to go to South Africa: about 40 thousand Jews from Eastern Europe, mainly from the Russian Empire, emigrated to South Africa between 1880 and 1910, 70% of whom were Lithuanians, mainly from the Kovno region, usually via England (like Isaac Lazarus, who began with retail commerce before engaging in intensive agriculture, and becoming the King of Corn). Compared with their situation in the Russia of the Tsars, Transvaal appeared them a haven of freedom, even if the constitution of the republic, asserting the Calvinist character of the territory, restricted the rights of the non-Protestant naturalized whites, the Uitlanders, while the blacks were excluded from all rights. Yiddish was also recognized as one of the languages of the Union in 1906.
Also encouraged by these successes, around 1880 the Guttmanns of Sheffields send at least two more sons to South Africa, and together with them, their cousin Adolf (born Joseph), who had come from Warsaw at an uncertain date. At least one of the two Josephs will then join the business of Sammy Marks.
Meanwhile, as Marks before them, they begin their career as hawkers, or, a more elevated rank, merchants traveling with a covered wagon, we do not know exactly, but they were still selling knives and jewelry. I also imagine that, like many other Jewish peddlers, they trade in ostrich feathers, at a time when the feathers had the same value by weight as diamond. Or, to put it another way, at a time, when a couple of ostriches was worth the same as a synagogue in Lithuania – £ 1000.
Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital was known to the Jews of Lithuania as “the Jerusalem of Africa”. The road leading there was nicknamed Der Yiddishe Gass.
Traveling between Cape Town, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, the Guttmann cousins headed to the new city of Johannesburg, founded in 1886 during the gold rush, a few dozen kilometers from Pretoria. But nothing, really nothing indicates that they would have made any fortune in any way.
Finally, luck seems to smile at Adolf, and in a sensational way, at that!
Sammy Marks, aged 40 and a billionaire, decides to wed, and choses as his wife the daugther of the man who helped him to start his career, by confiding to him a hawker’s stall. In 1884, he marries the 22-year-old Bertha Guttmann, the daughter of Tobias the watchmaker and cutler in Sheffield, and the cousin of Adolf. Sammy Marks, the billionaire thus becomes a cousin by marriage to Adolf…
The old father of the billionaire, Mordechai, as he could not join his son in Transvaal, traveled to Sheffield for the wedding. He sits alongsid the three Guttmann children: the girls remain standing, even his future daughter-in-law Bertha (in the center, with glasses), while the son is sitting. He is undoubtedly Joseph, the future partner of Sammy Marks, one of the cousins of Adolf, who is going to embark on a murky business around a jam factory. (He is a little bit favored by Mr. Samuel Marks but a more hypocritical scoundrel I have never met, one of his competitors will remark later). In the corner, to the left, a picture of the young Mordechai, with a little child, of whom you can imagine to be a future great man.
And Adolf, cousin by marriage of the great man, can finally also march to fortune, he can also embark on the murky business around jam or diamonds, ostrich feathers or coal, railroads or whiskey – but in life, nothing is ever that simple.
What is simple, in contrast, is to marry.
Without making mistakes.
Not to be alone.
Continuation: In search of Adolf Guttmann, 3. Marriages