Every year, Jews around the world tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in roughly the same way. And every year, familiar props help bring that story to life.
This Passover, two local Jews — a businessman and an eminent rabbi — are hoping to introduce to the seder a rarely told story about Jews who fought for freedom, bringing to the table a new object that could sit comfortably alongside the bitter herbs, matzah and charoset.
The new visual aid is three sheets of commemorative stamps, which tell the story of the many South African Jews who worked to bring an end to apartheid. The stamps, issued recently by three small West African countries, honor 12 brave Jewish activists, thanks to the efforts of Grant Gochin, a South African-born, Los Angeles-based money manager, who also serves as the Honorary Consul of Togo.
From the earliest days of the ruthless regime that denied South Africans the basic rights of citizenship, Jews were disproportionately found on the front lines of the internal resistance movement. The “Legendary Heroes of Africa” stamps were jointly released on March 1 by the postal authorities of The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Each country authorized a single sheet of four unique stamps, of which fewer than 100,000 copies were printed. Each stamp includes one individual’s name and picture, along with a Star of David and two Hebrew letters, bet and hay, the traditional inscription included on printed matter that serves as a nod to the divine assistance that helps projects come to fruition.
Gochin, who was himself involved in the anti-apartheid movement, worked for a full year to realize his idea, and when he showed the stamps to Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, the rabbi saw a story that could complement the traditional narrative of the Israelite slaves being freed from bondage in Egypt.
“Here you have contemporary heroes who really did effect an exodus,” Feinstein said, “who really did bring light out of darkness, and life out of death.”
The individuals on the “Heroes” stamps are not household names. Feinstein said he knew of Ruth First, a prominent South African journalist whose anti-apartheid activism landed her in jail, then in exile and ultimately led to her being killed by a letter bomb in 1982. He had also met Helen Suzman, who for years was the lone voice speaking out against apartheid in South Africa’s parliament; she was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize and is “the best-known out of all of them,” Gochin said. “There was no way not to issue a stamp for her.”
At a time when Israel is regularly accused of being an apartheid state, Gochin wants to remind people of the true origins of the word.
“There is zero comparison between apartheid and what happens in Israel,” Gochin said. “It is an absolutely outrageous falsehood that is demeaning to the victims of apartheid and to anybody that stood against apartheid, to compare the rights that everybody enjoys in Israel to the way people were victimized in South Africa.”
That intention may explain why a few prominent Jewish South African anti-apartheid activists are absent from the “Heroes” series. Two politicians, Ronnie Kasrils and the late Joe Slovo — both as well known as anti-Zionists as for their anti-apartheid activism — are not among the 12 featured on the stamps.
Other than First (who was married to Slovo) and Suzman, the 10 others on the stamps have received far less acclaim. “All of these people were just so ordinary and so unpretentious, down to earth and not looking for accolades,” Gochin said. “Their legacy is being forgotten, and we can’t allow that.”
Their stories all can be found on the Web site legendaryheroesofafrica.com — along with those of Gochin’s aunt and uncle, Esther and Hymie Barsel.
Gochin’s cousin, Sunny Lubner, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla., remembers her parents not just as leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, but as strong supporters of equality across the board. “They decided early on that they did not want to live in a society that frowned on blacks, Jews, communists, gays — everything,” Lubner said. “They were really ahead of their time in all of those issues.”
Like most South African Jews, the Barsels were both of Lithuanian descent, or Litvaks. Esther was born in Lithuania; Hymie was the son of two immigrants from that region.
“These were people coming to South Africa having experienced intense hatred against them,” Gochin said of South Africa’s Litvak Jews, many of whom arrived in the years that followed the 1915 expulsion of Jews from Lithuania. “And they got to South Africa,” Gochin said, “and they saw hatred against black people.”
Some Jews were reluctant to speak out, fearing they might make themselves unwelcome in their new haven. “At the same time,” Gochin said, “there was this other side that said, ‘How can you possibly stand by and see being done to other people what was done to us?’ You have to stand up.”
Jews made up just 2 percent of the white population of apartheid-era South Africa, but they constituted at least half of the country’s white anti-apartheid activists, Gochin said.
Signing up for the fight against apartheid was an easy way to make life in South Africa very difficult. “We always knew that our house was under surveillance,” Lubner said. “We always knew that our phone was tapped.”
Lubner was 8 years old in 1956 when her father was accused of treason, along with 155 other eminent anti-apartheid activists. “South Africa was such a police state at that point that people were afraid of being associated with us,” Lubner said. “Very few of our relatives would have anything to do with us.”
Hymie Barsel was held for three years before the apartheid-era government dropped the treason charges. While in jail, he was brutally tortured. “They were very clever,” Lubner said of her father’s captors. “They would inflict damage on the spleen, which apparently is very difficult to detect.”
Esther Barsel, who was not tried in 1956, went to prison for her part in the anti-apartheid struggle in 1964. She spent four years in jail, followed by five years of house arrest. She had to get police permission to attend her daughter’s wedding in 1968. Lubner got married in a Johannesburg synagogue 10 minutes from her childhood home. “She [Esther Barsel] had to be home by 10 o’clock that night,” Lubner recalled.
Hymie Barsel died in 1987 without seeing the fruits of his activism. Esther Barsel, however, lived to see the end of the apartheid system, which began to be dismantled in 1990. South Africa has since honored her memory in various ways — the cell where she was incarcerated has been turned into a memorial installation, and when she died in 2008, Nelson Mandela publicly mourned her passing.
In the age of e-mail, just what does putting someone’s face on a stamp really mean?
“The world looks at a postage stamp as the utmost honor that can be bestowed by a government on an individual,” said Joseph Malamud, vice president of the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corp. (IGPC). A privately held for-profit corporation headquartered in New York City, IGPC is the world’s largest philatelic agency. The company produced the “Heroes” series — The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone are just three of IGPC’s more than 70 client nations — and IGPC is now distributing the stamps to retailers around the world.
Malamud and Gochin believe the “Heroes” stamps will help set the memories of these individuals into the historical record — although their undertaking is also clearly a very good business venture.
The face value of each individual stamp is the equivalent of about $1 U.S. in each country’s currency. Collectors from around the world are paying around three times that at cyberstamps.com — around $13 for each sheet of four.
Indeed, Malamud said, many of IGPC’s client nations depend upon income from their stamps being sold to foreign collectors. Agencies like IGPC typically pay a percentage of the revenue from their wholesale operations back to the countries of issue, an amount that can make up as much as 80 percent of their postal services’ annual revenue.
Malamud was unwilling to guess how much revenue the “Heroes” stamps might generate. Nevertheless, for at least the last two decades, these nations have been producing stamps with collectors in mind.
“Why would Mongolia issue a NASCAR stamp?” asks Neil Coker, a reference assistant at the American Philatelic Research Library. Small African and Caribbean countries issue stamps depicting popular subjects, from Princess Diana to dinosaurs to the pope.
And though it might seem unlikely, Judaic and Jewish-themed stamps are among the most popular new issues.
“It is a very, very strong field,” Malamud said.
Israel Kugel runs the Web site cyberstamps.com, which at press time was featuring the “Heroes” series on its home page. About three weeks after the stamps were first issued, nearly a thousand copies of each sheet had been sold — meaning that the “Heroes” series was selling better than any of the 69 different stamps celebrating the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton for sale on the site.
“It doesn’t compare to other stamps, to be honest,” Kugel said of the “Heroes” series. “It’s in a league of its own.”
Coker speculated that only a small number of these stamps will be sold in their countries of issue, and that they’re unlikely to make much of an impact there. “Most people in Sierra Leone are going to have no idea that that stamp was even issued,” he said.
Malamud said his company’s stamps all “are sold in the post offices of the country that issues the stamps before IGPC sells one stamp to any stamp dealer around the world,” because a stamp that is never sold in the country of issue, he said, is not an official stamp.
He would not say how many “Heroes” stamps would be sold in the three countries of issue.
And though the series’ theme is South African, that country, which is not an IGPC client nation, was not approached about participating in the “Heroes” series. None of the individuals involved in the planning and production process would speak on the record as to why this was the case, and the South African Post Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if stamps like these are geared toward collectors, many purist philatelists don’t buy them.
“Stamps are produced by the zillions, and sometimes countries will produce stamps for completely wacky purposes,” said Alan Lipkin, a senior vice president at Regency-Superior Auctions in Beverly Hills, which specializes in stamps and other collectibles. “Like Michael Jackson on the stamps of Uganda.”
But even purists like Coker — who collects “definitive,” or noncommemorative, stamps from the United States, Russia and Ukraine — acknowledge the capacity of the “Heroes” stamps to convey information. “There will be some educational opportunities,” Coker said, “even if a pure philatelist would say, ‘That’s crap.’ ”
Despite being a devout communist, Esther Barsel had a strong cultural Jewish identity. Lubner, now 63, remembers her mother telling her and her two younger sisters about the connections between Passover and her fight to end apartheid half a century ago.
“On the way home from a seder,” Lubner said, “she once told us that there was a correlation between Passover and wanting to see all slaves freed.”
In 1978, Lubner and her husband left South Africa and moved to Florida. “It really stuck with me,” Lubner said of her mother’s lesson. At their first seder in the United States, Lubner told her children, then 3 and 5 years old, about their grandparents and the fight to grant black South Africans equality under law. “They knew nothing about apartheid,” Lubner said. “I can just see their big blue eyes getting wider and wider.”
Telling the story became a Passover tradition. “Every year, we started talking about how Pesach is about the liberation of all people who have been subjugated,” Lubner said. “And now we have two grandchildren, and we tell them this, too.”
Collectors may differ about whether the “Heroes” stamps have value today or will retain that value over time. But, ultimately, that question probably is of consequence only among collectors.
For Lubner, Feinstein and Gochin, these stamps are just another set of tools to fulfill Passover’s central commandment — telling the story of liberation.