The Life and Times of Solly Chesler

By Jennifer Chesler Rubin, Ramat Efal, Israel
(Adapted from an essay by Muriel Chesler on the occasion of Solly Chesler’s 75th birthday.)

This is the story of my father, the late Solly (Sholem) Chesler, a self-made man, who arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, from Lithuania, at the age of nineteen and a half, with two feather cushions, two silver spoons, three silver bechers and one dollar in his pocket. He was also wearing his Bobba’s overcoat, which his mother had altered for him, from American surplus stock sent to Europe after World War I.

Home in Lithuania

Solly Chesler was born on 21 January 1909 in the market town of Keidan, Lithuania, a Russian province which became independent after World War I and remained so until invaded by the Russians at the beginning of World War II. His parents were Sarah Ittel Lebiotkin (Lebetkin) (c. 1876–1941) and Gershon Chesler (c. 1875–1913), and he was the fifth of seven children, two of whom died young of natural causes.

In 1904 his father went to America with the intention of finding work and bringing his family over. However, he was too proud to suffer the bad conditions under which the immigrants lived and sweated, and five years later he returned to Lithuania. This accounts for the five-year difference in age between Solly and his elder brother Moshe Yitzchak (Morris), born in 1904.

After the birth of Solly’s two younger sisters, Feige and Chiena, Gershon died of a burst appendix – when Solly was four years old and the baby Chiena only nine months old – leaving Sarah Ittel with six children to provide for.

This she did by taking in dressmaking. Luckily, she had the support of her parents and family, all of whom lived in the same street (she lived at Gedimino 20), so that although conditions were hard, Solly’s family life was warm and close-knit.

The Jews, who were long established in the town, lived on good terms with their neighbours, so that the Cheslers had many gentile friends, Russian, Polish and German. Later, in South Africa, Solly also had many good gentile friends.

On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Lithuanian Jews were expelled to Russia proper, where the Cheslers spent four years, mainly in Tsaritsyn – later renamed Stalingrad, now Volgograd. Solly had vivid memories of that period, when he was aged six to ten, including a jaunt down the Volga when he stowed away on a boat, under a seat, to visit his relatives some miles down the river, where they were working a hired orchard. He was also an eyewitness to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

In 1919 the Cheslers returned to Lithuania, now freed from German occupation and in the throes of becoming a Republic. Solly’s eldest sister, Chana Leah, and eldest brother, Baruch Meir, had attended the Russian Gymnasium and were now considered among the intellectuals. But Solly, though shining at his cheder classes, had to leave school after his Bar Mitzvah to help support his aging mother.

He would accompany his uncles (the Lebiotkins, or Lebetkins), first on foot and later by sleigh or wagon, on buying trips into the surrounding countryside. In the summer, as was customary, the family would rent a dacha in the nearby forest.

At fifteen Solly became apprenticed as a mechanic in the engineering shop of his late father’s Polish friend. Gershon had been a foundryman and the Pole an engineer. Solly’s education of the world was completed by his four Polish bosses, the sons of his father’s friend. They called him “Sholomuk”, regarded him as one of the family and treated him as their mascot.

Solly’s father, Gershon Chesler, had a brother, Ephraim, who had left for South Africa back in 1898. His daughter, Fanny Chesler Berold (mother of Louis, May, Freda and George Berold), had come on a visit to Lithuania in 1925, and had taken the young Morris back with her to South Africa.

Another World in South Africa

In 1928, at age 19½, Solly left Keidan for South Africa to avoid being drafted into the Lithuanian army. There he joined his elder brother Morris, his uncle and aunt Ephraim and Chaya, and his cousins Fanny Berold and Simey (Zalman Ya’acov) Chesler.

He travelled, together with other immigrants, third class on a German ship that stopped at Hamburg and Rotterdam, arriving in Cape Town one month later.

Here he joined Morris and was befriended by his relations. His best and life-long friend was his cousin Simey, who cared for him like an elder brother and helped him through many a crisis. Simey was then a bachelor with a wonderful nature; he later married Monty (Miriam) Lewis, “a woman of worth”, when he was forty-four and she twenty-seven. They had three children and he lived to eighty-six, finding much nachas (joy) in his numerous grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Morris took Solly into his general store at Goodwood, a small suburb of Cape Town. Speaking Russian, Polish, Lithuanian and Yiddish, Solly knew no English, but took lessons for three months from a customer (an Indian book-keeper) and within two years was speaking it fluently. In 1932 there was a drought and a subsequent depression; Morris went bankrupt, and the brothers had to find another living. For four years they travelled the length and breadth of South Africa, first by motorcycle and later in a second-hand car, selling furniture on hire purchase. They travelled as far as South West Africa (today Namibia), Bechuanaland (now Botswana), throughout the Orange Free State, the Transkei and as far as Johannesburg, 786 miles (1,265 km) away. In those days South Africa was fairly primitive. The country roads were made of gravel and in very poor condition. Once Solly had a bad accident on his motorcycle and lay unconscious in hospital for nine days.  In the country he learned to speak Afrikaans and to enjoy a schnapps with the farmers.

In 1936 cousin Simey set the brothers up in a small café in Stellenbosch, a country town about 31 miles (50 km) from Cape Town. But after a few months the ambitious Solly decided it was not the life for him. He looked around and finally bought a third share in a small hardware store in Claremont, a suburb of Cape Town. By the time he married Muriel Hart in 1939 he was the sole owner of Lansdowne Hardware Stores, supplying materials to the building trade and doing speculative building on the side. He was then drawing £25.00 a month for himself and his wife, but by frugal living and hard work, he slowly improved his position.

In 1947 when there was a scarcity of timber in the country, Solly opened a small sawmill in Wetton on the Cape Flats. In 1948 he combined both businesses into Wetton Timbers, in a new store that Cecil Slevin, married to Muriel’s sister Pat, had built on his behalf.

By this time, he had taken Morris in as a partner. During World War II Morris had served with the South African forces attached to the British Army in Abyssinia and North Africa. The two brothers worked together until they retired and the business was finally sold.

Solly was known in Cape Town for his honesty, reliability and good service. He sold the business in 1971 and retired at the age of sixty-two. For his sons he wanted something better than a business life. His business had been his sole interest until he began to enjoy playing golf at the age of fifty-seven.

A Wife, a Home and a Family

Solly met Muriel Hart of Muizenberg in 1937, when he was twenty-eight and she 18 1/2. They married two years later in December 1939.

They came from different worlds, but were united by their approach to life and the traditional values of honesty, integrity, industriousness and application, as well as the family warmth which both had known and lost. They had three children, Jennifer, Geoffrey and Anthony.

Even though the family home in St. Patrick’s Road, Newlands, was called “Sojourn”, in anticipation of aliya, the Cheslers spent thirty-four years there, as well as another three years in an apartment at “Dennekamp”, in Kenilworth, before they were able to realise their life’s dream of “going up” to Israel in November 1976.

During all those years their home was open to family and friends, and many a simcha (party) was held in the house or garden. Strangely, No. 2 HaChartsit Street, Ramat Efal, the home of their daughter Jenny and her family, resembles “Sojourn” both in its layout and the use to which it is put.

The family was involved in Zionist and Revisionist activity for many years, with Solly as the silent partner. His three children all joined the Betar youth movement, which has always stressed the importance of aliya.

In 1962, a milestone year, Jennifer and Geoffrey moved to Israel, ages twenty-one and seventeen-and-a-half respectively – one after completing her B.A. and the other his Matric. Arrangements were made for Geoffrey to join the Israeli Army through Machal, the foreign volunteer force. Though they intended to follow the children within a couple of years, it took another fourteen years before Solly and Muriel made aliya. By then they had made altogether twelve trips to Israel, starting in 1952.

In 1962, Jenny met and married Lonya (Leonid) Rubin, from Belarus, whose background resembled her father’s. Solly and Muriel, Geoffrey and Anthony, were in Israel for the wedding and later for the birth of their first child. However, in 1965 the Rubins went to South Africa and stayed for five years, spending the first year at “Sojourn” with the family. Here Lonya changed his profession and learned English, and they had two more children.

Geoffrey, meanwhile, entered the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where he graduated in History, worked for a while at Kol Israel and on the Israel Exploration Journal, and then left for London where he felt more at home in the English publishing world.

Anthony remained at home with his parents, served in the South African Army and then completed his degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, after which he started working for the Post Office. As a senior engineer he was transferred to Pretoria and in 1982 spent a year in France studying the new telephone system purchased by the South African government.

A Third Life in Israel

In November 1976, Solly and Muriel made aliya and settled in Ramat Poleg for two years, after which they moved to Netanya for another four years. Finally in June 1983 they came to Tel Aviv to be nearer the Rubins, who by this time had had a fourth child. During these years they made regular trips to England and South Africa to visit their sons, who also made frequent trips to Israel, so that the family remained united.

It was not easy for Solly to uproot himself and start a new life once again, in a new country with a new language and culture, even though he remembered a lot of Hebrew from cheder in Keidan. To see his grandchildren growing up and to participate in their development made it all worthwhile, however.

My mother believed that Solly’s Zionism was based on the feeling of debt he owed to his lost family, who were all murdered in the shekhita (slaughter) of 28 August 1941 in Keidan, Lithuania. For their sake he wished to see the Jewish people rebuild itself in its ancient homeland.

Members of the Chesler family who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices include Solly’s beloved mother Sarah Ittel (aged 65); his eldest brother Baruch Meir (43), his wife Dvora (41) and their three daughters, Briene Reize (16), Gittel (12) and Riva (11); his sister Chana Leah, her husband Avram Podlas and their two sons Gershon and Peretz; and his sister Feige, her husband Elkanan Zissler and young daughter Rivka.

The Keidan Yizkor (Memorial) Book records that Baruch Meir Chesler, locksmith and owner of the mechanical workshop and radio and bicycle shop, displayed an example of courage and resistance when he wrenched an automatic pistol from the hands of one of the Lithuanian collaborators and tried to shoot him. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to use it, and was himself shot.

Sarah Ittel’s brother Hirshel (Hirsh Yitzhak) Lebiotkin, age 52, hanged himself on 26 August and was buried in the Jewish cemetery. The rest of the Lebiotkin family were killed in the massacre two days later. They include Hirshel’s wife Sarah (35) and daughter Rivka (17); his brother Moshe (45), with his wife Miriam Gittel (43), their daughter Sarah Bracha (18) and son Abel (16); Moshe’s twin brother Reuven (45), his wife Rachel and their three daughters Pesia (19), Rivka (17) and Heine (8), and their two sons Chaim Leib (18) and Yosef (14); and Sarah Ittel’s sister Leah Yente (57), her husband Uriya Bloch and their children Shimon and Chaya Rochel.

The victims were buried in a mass grave of 200 square metres in the fields outside Keidan.

Muriel hoped that this life story of Solly Chesler would help the grandchildren to appreciate their grandfather as well as to understand their family history and their roots. It is important to remember that the State of Israel did not come into being in a vacuum but was the active response to generations of Jewish suffering.

Solly Chesler passed away in Tel Aviv on 12 March 1988 at age 79. He is buried in the cemetery at Holon, not far from the memorial set up in memory of his murdered landsleit from Keidan.

Muriel Chesler passed away on 16 August 2014 at age 96. She is buried next to him. May their memories be blessed.

The Chesler Family, from Keidan to Cape Town to Israel