Sam Goldberg is dead. But he lives on.
One of the characters in the sell-out play, “Cincinatti”, was based on Sam, who died in Johannesburg this week. Sam was alisted person under the Suppression of Communism Act. This means he was not able to be quoted in life – and the ban on anything he said continues after his death. I cannot tell you what he said to me or anyone about anything at any time. But Barney Simon, director of Johannesburg’s market Theatre immortalized Sam by basing one of the characters in “Cincinatti” on him. Barney told me this at Sam’s funeral on Thursday. It was a jewish funeral, which I am sure would have irritated Sam, as it certainly did one of his sons.
But the son who was upset that his father was planted in the traditional way wasn’t at the funeral. He was in Pretoria Central prison where he has already been for 15 years and where he is scheduled to remain for the rest of his life. Dennis Goldberg was given a life sentence at the sensational Rivonia trial, where he abd others like Nelson Mandela were found guilty of trying to overthrow the govern-ment.
For 15 years Sam Goldberg, an atheist visited him whenever he could. He last saw Dennis, the son he appeared to love so much, three weeks ago. He shouldn’t have gone on that visit. He already had the pneumonia which killed him on Sunday.
Middway during his chat with his son the shrunken old man started coughing up great gobs of phlegm and was taken back to Johannesburg and admitted to hospital. It was obvious he was furious at becoming ill. He seemed angry as age and frailty restricted his movements. As though he resented age standing in the way of his being part of a changing world.
For 11 years, a Johannesburg woman, Hillary Kuny, has been visiting Dennis Goldberg. She was probably closer to Sam than anyone in the world, other than the son he saw for only 90 minutes a month. “I felt sad that Sam never lived to see Dennis [his son] freed. That must have grieved him,” she told me. More than 20 years ago a domestic row lead to an estrangement between Sam and his older son. A son who has asked not to be named because he may be alienated from many people if the connection between him and Dennis Goldberg is made public. This son never saw or spoke to his father again, but he was at the funeral.
Denis was the favoured son. He went to university to become a brilliant engineer. The older son also qualified professionally, but at his own expense and through UNISA. The brothers were estranged from each other but the rift started healing about four months ago when they started writing to each other. This week the older Goldberg visited his politically committed brother in Pretoria central. They hadn’t met for 18 years.
Earlier this year Sam was admitted to the Jewish old age home. For many years he remained, despite failing health, in a tatty Berea hotel where the food was frightful. He lived frugally on his old age pension.
“We were so glad when he went to the home. He found the comfort he needed. There was someone to help him get in and out of the bath. They were terribly good to him there,” Mrs Kuny said. For a long time washing his crumpled old body must have been agonizing for Sam. He performed amazing physical contortions getting himself in and out of the hotel bath. At the old age home, he seemed to enjoy his meals more than he had for years.
Conversation between political prisoners and their visitors is restricted. Certain subjects are taboo, such as politics. It was politics which had absorbed Sam Goldberg all his life. His knowledge of history was immense. He read and read. All the librarians in the Johannesburg central library knew him and would keep new books they knew he would want to read aside for him. Sam went to the library more than anyone else they ever met, bus fare permitting, of course. He knew many of the suburban libraries pretty well too. And the first person he got to know at the old age home was the librarian.
The day before he died, Hillary Kuny visited the desperately ill old man in hospital. “I knew he was dying because he looked so awful. He was having terrible difficulty breathing. But I felt sure he wanted to live desperately,” she said. “His will to live was so strong. I half-believed he would hold on. When I visited Dennis the next day I told him his father was critically ill, but I also told him I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t fight back, recover and carry on again. Sam always fought his illnesses with courage – determined, it seemed, to live.” Later that day, after she learned of his death, the Department of Prisons allowed Mrs Kuny a special visit to tell the man who has now become her firm friend that his father had died.
She asked for a contact visit for the occasion – normally visitors are not allowed to touch maximum security prisoners, they are separated by a glass screen. But no. When Denis saw me he said: ‘So it is all over’. He asked that his father have a cremation with no service,” she told me. “I wanted to just put my arms around him and give him a hug. But I couldn’t so I put my hand on the glass, and he put his hand on to the glass. We nearly touched.”
I didn’t know Sam Goldberg. I met him only a couple of times. His daughter-in-law, Esme Goldberg, lives in London, where she went after Dennis was arrested. She is not allowed into South Africa to visit her husband, but her children come occasionally.
He had a Jewish funeral because it was the only one possible at the time. He had left his body to medical research, but Mrs Kuny was told the doctors would not be able to use it because it was too old and debilitated. Getting a Jewish body out of a Jewish old age home is very complicated, and arranging private cremation is expensive.
But Dennis Goldberg’s other request was carried out. A poem, chosen by him, was read at the grave side by Barney Simon. Written by Berthold Brecht it was, all things considered, brutally significant:
“our forces were slight, Our goal lay far in the distance It was clearly visible, Though I myself was unlikely to reach it. So passed my time Which had been given me on earth.”
The things I just Can’t tell you …
I am unable, because of the laws of the country, to tell you the following things about Sam Goldberg:
• Where he was born • Where he grew up. • Whether his Mum was a duchess or a charwoman. • Where he was educated. • Whether he lived in a palace or a hut. • What he did as a young man where he was educated. • Whether he was ashamed of his son in jail. • Whether he did not feel anguish about his son’s incarceration.
And many other things about this stoic old man. He wa publicly listed in 1962 and has been silenced for 18 years.
And many other things about this stoic old man. He wa publicly listed in 1962 and has been silenced for 18 years.Every sentence of this story has been studied carefully by legal experts, I have had to examine and re-examine – and check again – every single word in this report. To be careful that even indirectly, anything Sam Goldberg said is not quoted
I can’t tell you whether he did or did not want to go to an old age home, whether he did or did not believe his son would one day be freed, whether he did or did not weep occasionally. There are more gaps than facts in this story. And that’s part of my responsibility and yours – unless the law is changed. But people know people. Fill in your own gaps. They are the emotions, hopes and sorrows of us all.
It’s a story that begins in the recorded history of this country, in a series of events that is remembered by everyone who was around to read newspapers in 1964 -16b years ago, every year which Dennis Goldberg for one, remembers. Those events culminated in the trial that frightened the Government intoi changing the laws to the degree that I cannot now tell you a whole lot about an old man who died last week. I tried to get to the Minister of Justice to ask for permission to fill in some innocuous biographical details about Sam Goldberg, but I was unable to contact him. I have been advised it would have been unusual for such permission to have been given.