Kimberley, South Africa


Book review: ‘The Last Mentsch’ by Peter Bayer.

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The Last Mentsch’ a novel by Peter Bayer, partly set in Kimberley.

Book review by Trevor Toube

The author of this book, which was written as a contribution towards his MA degree at Witwatersrand University, was for many years a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail.  It covers a period of some 125 years, starting in 1862, and deals mainly with the life of Todoros Ivanchuk [who later has his name changed to Theodore Isaacs] from a small village near Vilnius, whose parents put him onto a ship bound for Cape Town at the tender age of 8 in order to escape an upsurge of anti-Semitism which, we later learn, will wipe out the entire community of the shtetl.

His story is told by Theodore’s son, Yitzchak, now in his 80s and somewhat of a recluse, in a series of visits by a journalist, the son of his ‘best friend’. Yitzchak himself is frail, wears a yarmulke and tzitzit and, despite being described as having ‘an astonishing grasp of the nuances of English – and .... several other tongues’, is said to speak ‘accent without a trace of English’.

Theodore [as he was soon to become] arrives in Cape Town and lands up in what is called a ‘Bording [sic] House’. (‘Bawdy’ would have been a better description!) He develops an entirely novel personal morality and works for the Jewish owners as a cleaner purely to cover his costs of living. In the meanwhile, he embarks on a highly successful process of self-education. By a series of ingenious moves he ends up owning the boarding house, which he turns from its previous purpose, so that he has become significantly wealthy. He has also marries [probably] Leah, the servant brought to South Africa by a wealthy English couple who have disappeared under mysterious circumstances on a trip to the interior, apparently murdered by the Coloured man they engage to guide them.

Theodore and Leah next move to Kimberley, having teamed up with three British brothers in setting up a transport network taking people to the recently discovered diamond fields. In Kimberley, he prospers, and becomes involved as a leading light in the Jewish community. He embarks on raising funds to build a synagogue, putting a substantial amount of his own money into the project. He writes to the Chief Rabbi in London asking for a rabbi to be provided for the emerging community.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that events involving a cast of interesting characters [including Rhodes and Rudd] result in Theodore losing both his wealth and his reputation. He also loses his young son, Jacob, in an accident for which Leah blames herself, which results in her decline into a delusional state. Delphinia Witbooi joins the household and takes over the care of Leah.

Needing money, Theodore is coerced into taking part in a dangerous and illegal smuggling activity, from which he extricates himself with the ingenuity that we have by now come to expect of him, and the family escape, eventually making their way to the goldfields in what was soon to become Johannesburg.

There he works at various jobs, including travelling to recruit labourers for the mines in tribal areas. Two sons are born, Harold, who has the mind of a child, and our narrator, Yitzchak. The story ends with Yitzhak’s death – and the contents of a file of documents he leaves to the journalist, containing some astonishing revelations.

An interesting read, and one which I believe has a real ‘feel’ for what life must have been like in Kimberley in the early days.