Thursday, July 15, 2010

When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin 2006

"[Godwin's] account of his family’s history and his parents’ lives in an increasingly desperate Zimbabwe is written with the unsparing eye of a journalist and the tender, conflicted emotions of a son." from a review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakitani, May 2007

Be forewarned: This memoir deals only in small measure with the author’s Jewish roots. Peter Godwin is a journalist who was born in Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia) and now lives in New York City. In this memoir he chronicles his frequent trips to Zimbabwe from 1996 through early 2004 to visit his aging parents, and the book is mostly about the political/social/economic situation he found in Zimbabwe. In 1996 his father was suffering from diabetes exacerbated by a heart condition, and Godwin narrates his deterioration as he reports on the deterioration of the country under the dictatorship of Mugabe.

During one trip Godwin returned to his parents’ home and noticed a photo on the wall that had never been displayed before. When he asked his father who the people were in the photo, his father revealed for the first time that he was not a native Englishman, but rather a Polish Jewish refugee, the son of the couple in the photo. This was, of course, shocking news to his son, and the author followed it up with many questions, all of them extremely painful for his father to discuss. His father did his best to send his son lengthy e-mails, trying to fill in his family story.

Some of what Peter Godwin learned was that George Godwin was an assumed name; his father’s real name was Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb. His grandfather was an assimilated wealthy shipping agent living in Warsaw whose wife and daughter (the author’s grandmother and aunt) were transported presumably to Treblinka. The author’s father had been sent in  1939 to boarding school in England and never saw any of his family again although he heard from his father frequently from Warsaw where his father returned after the war and lived under an assumed name.

The author starts thinking about his own Jewish identity. He notes the small Jewish community that lived in Zimbabwe, mostly immigrants from the Baltics who were turned back from South Africa because of quota restrictions. And he mentions the Lemba, an African tribe who claim to be one of the "lost tribes" whose DNA confirms Jewish roots. He also remarks on the Jewish section of Pioneer cemetery that has 2000 graves.

The author also started reading contemporary Jewish history and attempted to find out the fate of his grandmother and aunt. He has gained a new understanding of his father, who always seemed somewhat remote and taciturn. And he understands the crowning irony: His father and his family were vilified in Poland because they were Jews, and he thought he’d made a secure future for himself and his family when we started anew in Africa, only to end up being vilified for being white and becoming fearful for his life and the life of his family, yet again.

This memoir includes photos.

To read about the Lemba in Southern Africa, click here.

Maurycy Goldfarb (assumed the name Stefan Golaszewski) - married to Janina Parnas
    Halina - their daughter
    Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb (assumed the name George Godwin) - son of Maurycy and Janina; married Mary Helen Godwin Rose
        Peter Godwin - son of Kazimierz and Mary Helen - relation ship with ?; author
            Holly - his daughter
        Joanna Cole - married to Peter Godwin
            Tom and Hugo - their sons
        Jain - daughter of Kazimierz and Mary Helen
        Georgina - daughter of Kazimierz and Mary Helen; married to Jeremy
             Xanthe - daughter of Georgina and Jeremy
Sophie Parnas - sister of Jenina; author's great aunt
        Alexander and Jeannette - children by different husbands

Zimbabwe, Africa
Warsaw, Poland


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