I grew up in Ndola, a small town in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), in the heart of Central Africa. Ndola had a small vibrant Jewish community of 40 families at its height in the early 1960s, part of a group of seven or eight towns a reasonably short distance from each other known as the Copperbelt. There were about 100 Jewish families living on the Copperbelt and four or five of the towns had small shuls.
My parents were the first couple to be married in the new shul in nearby Kitwe in 1946. We were all one large family and got together for simchas. Our shul did not have a rabbi, nor did any of the others, but there was always a Friday night service, a Saturday children’s service and Habonim on Sunday. Of course, we celebrated all the High Holidays.
After independence from Great Britain in 1964, most of the Jews began to emigrate. After my brother’s bar mitzvah in 1968, my mother left for Cape Town, South Africa, where I was studying architecture at the university. My father, Charlie Blumberg, died in 1964 at a young age, a few months before independence, and was buried in the Ndola Jewish cemetery.
Ndola’s last remaining Jews left in the mid-1990s. The last Jew on the Copperbelt, Gus Liebowitz, died in Kitwe in 2017. (There are still a small number of Jews living in Lusaka, the capital.)
I last visited Ndola in 2013, mainly to pay homage to my father, and found the Jewish part of the Ndola cemetery to be in great condition. When the Ndola synagogue was sold, funds were left for the maintenance of the cemetery, and someone was doing a good job looking after it.
But in May 2018, I received an email from a friend, Aviva Ron, who lives in Israel and often visits Zambia, telling me that my father’s headstone had been badly damaged. An Israeli named Tzvi Nachshon, the general manager of a large tire retreading facility, who had been working in Zambia since 2013, had reached out to tell her about the damage he discovered when he visited the cemetery.
How it was damaged remains a mystery. (I doubt it was vandalism as my father’s was the only one affected. Perhaps it was the weather!)
Ron introduced me to Tzvi, the only Jew now living on the Copperbelt (his family lives in California), and our long-distance project began.
Tzvi contacted a local monuments manufacturer, but they were unable to repair the headstone due to the Hebrew engraving. So I reached out on a Facebook page called “Zimbabwe and Zambian Jewish Community” and a member of the hevrah kadishah in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Raymond Roth, responded, telling me he could get a headstone manufactured and shipped to Zambia.
Around the same time, Zimbabwe erupted into chaos after its president, Robert Mugabe, was deposed and the economy sank to a historic low. Transportation companies could not even source fuel for their trucks, so Roth suggested he would drive the stone 440 kilometres to Victoria Falls if I could get a Zambian transport company to pick it up from there and drive the remaining 805 kilometres to Ndola. Alas, it was not to be: Roth could not secure gasoline for the trip and I was unable to secure a reliable transportation source.
Aviv Gruer, a complete stranger living in Cape Town, heard of my plight through the grapevine. He emailed me and suggested an African friend of his, Joe, living in Livingstone, was prepared to rent a truck, pick up the headstone from the border and drive it to Ndola. Although this was great news, we still faced the problem of getting it from Bulawayo to the border. Gruer put me in touch with a young man from Cape Town, Ilan Wiesenbacher, also a complete stranger to me, who offered to have it picked up in Bulawayo and driven to the Victoria Falls border crossing.
Apparently, one of Wiesenbacher’s ventures is a pizza restaurant in Victoria Falls and he ships supplies to his facility from South Africa. He would not consider any compensation for this task and also paid the customs duty for the stone.
Joe brought the stone to Nachshon’s factory in Ndola, apologizing for not arriving on time due to the condition of the roads. He had to drive slowly to ensure the stone did not crack. Nachshon arranged to place the stone on the grave.
Rav Moshe Silberhaft, known as the “Travelling Rabbi,” recently restored the Ndola cemetery. His team is dedicated to looking after Jewish cemeteries in areas where there are no longer Jewish residents in central and southern Africa, as well as Mauritius. They prepared my dad’s grave to receive the replacement stone, and buried the broken stone in the grave, as required by Jewish tradition. It took a year to accomplish, but it was done.