RIP my dear friend Denis
By Dawn A Denton
“Life, and life is wonderful!” Denis Goldberg called out across the Pretoria court room. It was 12th June 1964 and he and his comrades had just been saved from the death penalty.
For this 31-year-old (the youngest and the only white Rivonia Trialist), his parents, his family and all those who were fighting for a free South Africa, this was a time for celebration. It was to be a long journey of 22 years in Pretoria Central Prison. But on the 28th February 1985, when Denis walked out a free man, his story really began.
The prison superintendent personally drove Denis to Jan Smuts Airport. He flew to Israel to reunite with his family. Then onto London, where his wife and two children, David and Hillary, had made a life for themselves in exile.
The Goldbergs in London
With only £12 in her pocket, Esme Goldberg had arrived in London. She used her physiotherapy and reflexology to support her family, delivering treatments to stressed students and those with injuries. Esme’s treatments are still remembered with warmth, love and affection. But she wanted a family home, so she asked all her patients to pay for a year’s treatment in advance so she could put a deposit down on a house.
And so, The House at 8 Huntingdon Road in East Finchley became the Goldberg family home. Over the years Esme took in young and old. There were young activists, those in exlile, travellers, and those who needed a ‘mom’ from home. When Warren Kennedy, a young South African, came on one of my Contiki Tours around Europe in 1999, my path started to converge with the Goldbergs.
Between taking tours around Europe, I had stayed in a hotel in Euston in London. Warren asked Esme if she had a bed for me in the house. I was invited to meet Boba (as we all affectionately called Esme). I instantly fell in love with both Denis and Esme, and the community they had grown and were supporting, around them.
When I was not working away in Europe, I was home during the day. The house was quiet, and this time I spent chatting to Esme and Denis, which was incredibly special.
Denis Goldberg Writes
One day Denis called me into his study, “Dawn, I am working on my book and would love to read you a piece. Could you tell me what you think?”
Oh my goodness! What a question! “Of course, Denis. I would love to.”
The passage told of his release from prison. He was on the plane and developed a headache. He asked the air hostess for a headache tablet. It was perfectly acceptable in those days for the crew to hand out drugs. In the gully, she asked him why he had a headache. When he explained it was because he was not used to being around people and hearing so many noises, she became curious. And so the story unfolded. As he read to me, he was emotional. The process of writing the book brought back so many memories that he had not thought about, confronted, or worked through.
I was invited to the launch of his book at South Africa House in London in 2010. On the train home from Trafalgar Square, I paged through the book. I was eager to find the piece he had ‘tested’ on me. I was relieved to see it was exactly as he had read it to me over 10 years previously.
Memories of The House
Some of my most wonderful memories of Denis in The House (as it became known) are as clear as yesterday. We discovered that we both love to eat liver. Everyone else was ‘grossed out’ so Denis and I prepared and enjoyed it together. His adoration for the smell, the texture and the taste of a simple piece of bread came from the many years in prison. Behind bars they were given horrible, dry, tasteless ‘something’ that was apparently bread. I, to this day, think of Denis as I watch butter melt onto a thick slice of freshly baked bread.
The night our beloved Esme died, Denis asked me to cook a Sunday roast for everyone in The House. I had never cooked a roast in my life, and now it was to be for 20 people! A couple of us went to the 24-hour Tesco at 11pm and filled 3 trolleys of food. I am proud to say that I managed it – roast potatoes ‘n all! I know Denis was incredibly grateful and I felt proud to be able to support him and his family at such a sad time.
My Final Goodbye
In October 2019 I was off to South Africa for my 30-year high school reunion weekend in Joburg. I felt an extraordinarily strong magnetic pull to go to Cape Town to spend time with my uncle and to see Denis in Hout Bay.
I am and will be, forever grateful to the Universe for pulling me to see Denis. In my heart, I knew this would be the last time I would see him, so it was going to be the most special afternoon.
And it was. The view from his home, the artwork he surrounded himself with, the stories he shared about his time in prison, his comrades, his sadness about the state of our country today, The House, Esme – it was all perfect! And I got to share this afternoon with the two most precious men in my life – my uncle and my other half. It truly was incredible and something I will hold dear in my soul forever.
I had been thinking about Denis for a few days. On the night of the 29th April I was restless. I struggled to get to sleep, which is unusual for this sleep-lover. In the morning, a message from my dear friend Kevin Featherstone in Joburg, sharing the news of Denis’s passing, left me numb.
Due to the current Lockdown, South Africa could sadly not give Denis the funeral he deserves. A virtual memorial service was streamed live on YouTube on Friday 8th May.
Through tears and laughter, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this lovely man. In a lifetime as packed as Denis’s, my time with him was small, but the impact he made on me was immense.
And my biggest lessons from Denis?
- Appreciate warm freshly baked bread
- Spend time cooking with someone if you want to get to know them
- Laugh and always be cheeky and naughty
- Your story matters
- Never lose hope
When Denis was asked in an interview why he sacrificed so much of his life for people who ‘weren’t your people’, Denis replied,
“Yes they were my people. All people are my people”.
Denis Goldberg’s dream was to be an engineer: “I wanted to build houses, and railways and roads, bridges for people”. His career as an engineer never happened, but instead he built bridges between people.
His dream did come true.
Denis Goldberg’s House of Hope arts and culture project in Hout Bay is at its early stages. All donations will be received with much appreciation from The Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust, his family and those who he inspired to continue to build bridges, because ‘life is wonderful’.
Dearest Denis, Rest in Power!
Dawn A Denton
Podcaster, Writer, Trainer, Owner at Celebrate Southern Africa