Jewish Affairs

Simple Beginnings


(Author: Zita Nurok, Vol. 77 2, Autumn 2022)


At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, four brothers and a sister emigrated from Kurshan, Lithuania, to South Africa. Many are the reasons why people leave the country of their birth. Those four brothers and also a sister who were my family were enticed by the idea of attaining instant wealth in the diamond fields of Kimberley. Soon realizing that instant wealth was not to be, they used the only skills they knew and had already learned in their homes as they attempted to establish life in a different country. With little formal education they began to establish businesses, such as a bottle store, a furniture store, a clothing store, and a bicycle shop.

The bicycle shop stood on Gustav Street in Roodepoort. It was on the border of the white and non-white business section of town. On one side were the shops owned and run by white people, and on the other those mostly owned by Indians. Black people could not own businesses in white areas. Such was the division between different races in South Africa while I was growing up in the days of apartheid.  

My father’s bicycle shop was part of a series of businesses close to a gold mine. African mine workers traveled by bike from the mine into Roodepoort to shop after sending a portion of their earnings to their families who lived out in the country. They would stop at our shop to look at or buy gadgets for their bikes. My father waited patiently behind the linoleum-covered wooden counters for potential buyers. I’d often walk to the shop after school on my way home. There I’d jump up on the counters to sit and watch the activities of the day. 

“Just looking baas,” they would mumble. “How much?” in limited Bantu-accented English. Lack of learned skills limited job opportunities for many of the mine workers. They would dig into the pockets of their often tattered clothes, and count out the pennies, tickeys, and sixpences to make enough shillings and pounds for items they wanted. With a kindly wave Dad would accept the closest and most reasonable amount for the article. Goods were marked with his own special code. Those goods were packed into little brown cardboard boxes – screws, nuts and bolts, spokes for bikes, bulbs, nails, mirrors, bicycle bells – an endless variety of stocks. 

Enclosed in one glass cabinet were harmonicas, other rustic African-made musical instruments, and cheap watches that had been repaired by Gibson, the loyal African worker who had only one functioning eye. He never told us how or why this had happened.

The shop was mostly dark and drab inside. Grey/black tires and tubes for bicycles hung from the ceiling by ropes. These emitted a musty rubbery smell that pervaded the air, only disguised when Wilson cooked his ‘pap’ on the primus stove in the back where the trade-in bikes stood. New shining bikes were stacked in the front windows inviting customers to come in and browse. 

Mother had taken over responsibility for record sales. 78 speed records were stacked in alphabetical order on wooden shelves against the wall. These were played on a gramophone. Two loudspeakers attached to the shop windows outside amplified the rhythmic music from the records onto the pavement. African women with baskets balanced on their heads, containing items they had shopped for along Gustav Street, stopped to listen, clapping their hands, singing and ululating with the music. Men, other than mine workers entered into the spirit, and they too stopped to listen. I recognized even at a young age how much African music is a part of African life. Indeed, workers from across the street at a building site joined into the rhythm – lifting picks and shovels in unison, singing and chanting as they worked to accomplish the task at hand. 

When the music was over, stragglers remained to window shop or purchase items while Mother replaced the records, organizing them for sales the next day.

Once a month a traveler from a bicycle wholesaler in Johannesburg came to take an order for fresh supplies.  He and Dad had developed a kinship – both having left Lithuania to improve their lives, and to begin anew in a different country. They talked about the difficulties of starting over in a new place. But they continually marveled at the fact that the children of European immigrants as they were had been able to pursue professions and become teachers, doctors, architects, lawyers, or engineers –- these educated children were the first of the generations that would follow.

The traveler brought news of bicycle shops in different parts of the province of the Transvaal – news for improvements and changes that could be helpful for our family business.  

“Yes, but one day I will get out of this place and move to the big city, and maybe I can be a teacher again that I learned to be in der heim,” my father would tell the traveler, who listened with no response. He watched Dad as he helped his customers. He seemed to know that perhaps this was but a faraway dream. 

Cajee the Indian tailor who had emigrated from Calcutta owned a small shop next to the bicycle shop. He too had started life over in a new setting. On one of my return visits from the USA to Roodepoort in the 1980’s I visited him. He stood up enthusiastically as he recognized me from my childhood, broke into a smile and grasped both of my hands in his. This seemingly ageless gentleman began to share memories of days when my father’s shop was operational, and when my brother and I spent time there. He reminisced with me while serving his customers who came in to collect their garments.  Suits, trousers, jackets hung all around the little shop that was open to the street. Newly acquired sewing machines buzzed around me, and as I waited, I remembered my father’s clothes that were to be repaired, hanging in the same places.  Another memory came to me of Cajee’s little sons and I blowing soap bubbles outside, laughing and running to catch them.

“Do you remember my sons?” he asked. “Now one of them is a doctor living in America,” he shared proudly, “and another is studying at a university in Michigan to become an engineer.  Yes, I am very proud of my boys. Good things came from this little shop.”  

“So where do you live now Cajee?” I asked. He guided me outside and pointed to the alleyway beside his business. His step had slowed on the worn path which for thirty years had led him to the same little house which he and his wife shared. She appeared outside the door in a colourful traditional sari, shuffling along toward us, suspicious of the stranger in her husband’s company.  But she too grasped my hands in hers after Cajee explained who I was.  She invited me in and insisted on making tea with her own delicious home-made Indian treats. She too talked enthusiastically and with deep pride about their sons.  They both wanted to know about our family and where we lived.  After sharing that I, just like their sons, lived in the USA I suggested, “Maybe one day you will travel to see where your sons live.” 

“Oh no, it’s too far for us. We can’t go there.” Cajee said resignedly.

“And to go on an aeroplane,” she confirmed, “We are too old now.”

He nodded in agreement. 

I said goodbye with a promise to return on future visits. 

“Yes, I thought as I left, “Good things can come from simple beginnings. Good things have come from simple beginnings.”  




Zita Nurok, a regular contributor to Jewish Affairs, is a former elementary school teacher who grew up in South Africa. In 2019, she retired after 48 years of teaching, nine of which were at the then Jewish Government School in Doornfontein. She is a member of the National League of American Pen Women, and has served as Vice-President and President of the Indianapolis branch.