Among the scattered graves in the sandy earth of the small Jewish cemetery in Swakopmund, Namibia, southwest Africa, one headstone, made of reddish stone, stands out. Few visitors come here, but this particular stone has for decades ignited the imagination of rabbis, journalists, inquisitive travelers and readers. In addition to its unusual color, the words “kosher for Pesach” were engraved in Hebrew – though upside down – together with a Star of David, on the top part of the headstone. Eventually, in the 1970s, that peculiar inscription was effaced. Very little is known about Walter Galler, who was buried there in 1939, and, according to a recently published book about Namibian Jewry, virtually nothing is known about his family.
The mystery of the “kosher for Pesach” grave cropped up from time to time over the years – and then by chance, Chaim Motzen, a Harvard Business School graduate and an entrepreneur in the field of renewable energy in Africa, arrived on a visit. For an amateur genealogist like Israeli-born Motzen, a family name without a family, as it were, was just the sort of challenge to keep him awake at night, scouring obscure East European archives, lists of addresses from the early 20th century, ship manifests and illegible marriage certificates.
“I feel that I am commemorating people who would be lost to us otherwise. I try to document things that are in danger of being forgotten,” he told Haaretz. A few hundred emails and interviews later, when his research of recent months was concluded, the reddish stone in the small Jewish cemetery in Swakopmund had sprouted a multibranched family tree with a chronicle of wanderings encompassing ordinary people, family pride and also love.
“As the windswept desert sands progress and soon cover all in sight, so too will the time-swept memories of a community be sealed beneath the sands of the great Namib,” say local members of the Nama ethnic group. This is the story of a forgotten community and within it a small family that rediscovered its past.
The family of Walter Galler, Motzen discovered, originated in the Central European region of Galicia. His father was Aron Schnupftabak, a tailor and cantor from Tarnow and the father of 10 children. Parts of his family arrived in England in approximately 1900. One of his grandsons, a victim of crib death, was buried in South Shields, near Newcastle where, in a local census, Walter Galler makes his archival debut: age 21, a tailor of women’s clothes, born in Krakow.
“I don’t know why they left England,” says Lewis Wasserstein, Galler’s distant cousin, who at one point investigated the family’s history. “But I think there were people selling tickets to different countries and promising a better life… So somebody is wandering around the East End of London, an agent, and he’s handing out little pamphlets, saying you can have a better life in southwest Africa, speaks German, diamonds have been discovered near Luderitz. This is the place. And he would try to sell places on steamships. I think that’s what happened… they were looking for a better life.” After a decade or two in England, evidence of the family begins to crop up in South West Africa.
“Swakopmund and Luderitz are good examples of towns where there was once a wonderful Jewish presence and Jewish life. Now all we have is a history of that,” says Andrea Barry, fourth generation of Namibian Jewry, who is non-executive director at Pupkewitz Holdings, a family business in Namibia, and lives in London. Her great-grandfather arrived in Namibia from Vilna in 1902 and established an oxcart business. Years later he was joined by his wife, who agreed to come only after the construction of the synagogue in Windhoek, the capital, was completed.
“Being born in Vilnius, the ‘Jerusalem of Eastern European Jewry,’ and knowing what discrimination meant, and coming here [to Namibia] and experiencing freedom for the first time in the full sense of the word, created a love for this country which nothing will ever eradicate,” Andrea’s grandfather, Harold Pupkewitz, said in a 2003 television interview.
Freedom is of course a matter of perspective, and the Jewish community of Namibia began to take shape during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century: during the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples from 1904-1908, by the German Empire, which ruled the country through 1919. Though the scale of the murder, apparently fewer than 100,000 victims, may pale in comparison to other colonial crimes, its historical impact was far-reaching; indeed, it is considered the first genocide of the last century.
At the time, in what was then called German South West Africa (Namibia only achieved independence, after British and South African rule, in 1990), there was talk of creating lebensraum, an ideology later adopted by the Nazis, of “the final solution to the native question” and of a war being waged within whose framework an official “annihilation order” was issued. The Herero and the Nama were taken in cattle cars called “transports” to “concentration camps.” One of them, “Shark Island,” built on an expanse of granite opposite Luderitz, was an extermination camp. Missionaries who visited the Swakopmund concentration camp in 1905 gave an account of starving prisoners, incarcerated behind a double barbed-wire fence and exhausted by forced labor: “Like cattle hundreds were driven to death and like cattle they were buried.”
Walter Galler himself arrived in Namibia in 1913, Motzen discovered, shortly after the German monument commemorating the victory over the natives was installed in Windhoek. A Luderitz business guidebook from that period reveals the seeds of the love story whose end is in the “kosher for Pesach” tombstone. Galler started to work for his brother-in-law, a master tailor named Max Wasserstein. Also employed there, according to the guidebook, was 18-year-old Anna Hüllenkremer, a Christian from Oldenburg, in northern Germany, who had come to the colony a few years earlier with her family and would later fall in love with Walter.
When World War I broke out, South African forces allied with the British invaded the colony and arrested the German settlers, who included the Hüllenkremer family. Krakow-born Galler, an Austrian subject, was also taken into detention. In 1914, Galler appears in a photograph, sitting on bare ground in a suit, with barbed-wire fences and a guard in the background. “Walter in Internment Camp. S. Africa,” the caption above the picture says.
Nine years passed. Walter and Anna were married and had two children. The younger son was also named Walter; years later he moved to Johannesburg, where he established a family. He knew very little about his family’s history until he got a phone call from Chaim Motzen. Many of the headstones in the Jewish cemetery in Swakopmund where Walter, Sr. is buried, were – unlike his – made of wood, and by the 1980s sandstorms had worn away the names of the deceased.
“Regrettably, I have very little recollection [of my father]. I seem to remember a vague memory of getting into bed next to him. I never ever grew old enough to speak with him – he died when I was 4 years old,” Walter, Jr., 84, told me when I spoke to him, in his sickbed, via Skype last month.
With the death of the senior Galler in 1939, the connection with the Jewish side of the family was severed. The echoes of the war in distant Europe created tension between the Jews and the Germans in Namibia. Walter Jr. remembers being taunted by the town’s Jews because of his mother’s origins. Mrs. Kaplan, the neighbor, shouted at him one time, “Here goes the little Nazi,” and someone smeared excrement on the door handle of the house. “On the other side of the coin,” said Joy, Walter Jr.’s daughter, joining in the conversation I had with him, “my father’s brother, who was 10 years older and attended a German school, was ostracized for being Jewish. It’s ridiculous, because everybody was German, irrespective if you were Jewish or gentile.”
Chisel and hammer
For many long years, the elder Walter Galler’s grave remained without a headstone. Only in the 1950s did his widow, Anna Hüllenkremer, who passed away in the early 1960s, decide to address the lacuna.
“My mother did not have sufficient income to buy a headstone,” Walter, Jr., explained. “She worked as the housekeeper of a German gentleman. Through one of the boarders, she came to know a lady named Lotte Thompson. She had carving skills and also had a suitable stone and offered to make the headstone. One day Lotte presented my mother with the stone; I wasn’t even present when it was placed on the grave. I remember seeing the stone at some stage, but obviously took no note of the engraving. And my mother was not knowledgeable in the Jewish language.”
Years passed. The Jewish community of Swakopmund died out and was succeeded by a small group of newcomers, mostly Israelis who arrived for business purposes. Walter Galler’s name was forgotten. In the 1970s, a journalist who saw the headstone and understood the engraving published an amusing anecdote in the South African Jewish Times about the upside-down words and their odd context.
“That had an influence on me,” Walter, Jr. related, his voice growing serious and his speech slowing down. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the headstone, he told Haaretz, and it said that “my mother’s nationality or origin was in doubt. And in connection with the inscription it said something … about kosher matzot. Obviously this upset me to a certain degree. I was then centered in Johannesburg, but I used to come back to South West Africa [Namibia’s name before its independence] to visit. On one trip, after having read this article, I borrowed a small chisel and a hammer from a friend and I went to the cemetery and personally removed that engraving.”
He continued after a short pause, “And that, as far as I was concerned, settled the matter, except that the article in the Jewish Times needs to be corrected,” he told me. “If you ever rectify that erroneous publication that appeared in the Jewish Times, I would like to receive a copy of that rectification,” he told me.
Why did Lotte Thompson engrave the words “kosher for Pesach” on the headstone? Was it an innocent gesture of friendship for her friend Anna? Did Anna herself ask Lotte to find Hebrew letters as a mark of respect for her husband’s Jewish heritage? Perhaps she asked her only to copy a Star of David from a sample she found, and Lotte mistakenly also copied the words below it?
“I thought it was a joke, that someone had taken a stone and made that engraving,” said Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, of the African Jewish Congress, in a phone call from his home in South Africa. The “traveling rabbi,” as he is known in the region, Silberhaft is responsible for the Jewish communities in 10 southern Africa countries, including Swakopmund’s 12 remaining Jews. He visits the communities every year, he explains, and if there are no Jews left, he “shuts down” the community, digs a grave to bury any holy objects, places a headstone over the grave describing the community’s story and proceeds to his next stop. Swakopmund is his favorite place. “When I retire, I’ll go there,” he said in heavily accented Hebrew.
There’s no way to know what the two women – Anna and Lotte – were thinking, but the innocent mistake they made created an opening for more recent generations of the family to become acquainted with the history of their forebears and to forge new ties with relatives they had never met.
Their new family tree, which Motzen helped them create, now goes back to about 1750. “Having come from Cornish, Greek, German and Austrian Jewish parentage, I have always felt that I didn’t truly belong anywhere, and yet I always felt a very strong pull toward the Jewish aspect of my heritage,” said Joy, Walter Jr.’s daughter. “Knowing now how far back my roots go, has given me the most wonderful sense of finally, truly, belonging somewhere.”
“I like solving mysteries like this,” Motzen says. “But they are more than mysteries, because they have a good influence over people’s lives and allow them to understand their family history better. I enjoy helping them in this. Some people bring a bottle of wine when they come to visit – I bring a family tree.”
“I don’t think he [Motzen] realizes what a blessing it is for the people he does it for,” says Candice Rossouw, Galler’s granddaughter, who already got in touch with Lewis, Max Wasserstein’s grandson, and this year celebrated the Passover seder for the first time in her life. “For him it’s a hobby; it’s life-changing for us. The family feels more whole, feels more in depth. It’s not like just a skeleton structure anymore.”
Two days after my interview with him, Walter Galler, Jr., died in his sleep. Said Joy: “I know that my dad was at peace, knowing that the record regarding his father’s gravestone was going to be set straight.”
Itay Mashiach (@itaymash) is an independent journalist and data journalist based in Berlin.