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From Russia with Lunch by David Smiedt

From Russia with Lunch by David Smiedt

Author:David Smiedt
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: University of Queensland Press


7

Smiedt nothings

After many years of being stranded on a desert island, a man is finally rescued. Before being taken home, he decides to give his saviours a tour of the island. They are duly impressed when the castaway shows them an ornate and imposing synagogue constructed entirely of palms and coconut husks. Asked why he had crafted such an elaborate structure, he explained that he was a religious man and that nothing mattered more to him than the practice of Judaism. A few minutes later, the rescuers were astounded to discover another impressive synagogue which the man had obviously built over many years. ‘What’s this building?’ they asked the castaway. ‘That,’ he replied with the barest trace of malice, ‘is the synagogue I don’t go to.’

My visit to the Akropolis in Kaunas was not strictly necessary. It was a tarry. A stall. I had delayed leaving because of where I knew I was going next. Two hours from the city lies the hamlet of Naumestis or Naishtot. Small enough to war-rent neither bold nor capitalised typography on a map, it was from this market town that my great-grandfather, Solomon Hershl Smiedt, set out for South Africa around 1892. Within two years, he had sent for his wife Sheina Reich. They had six children, one of whom was my grandfather Louis. Louis’ second son, Sydney Ronald, was my dad.

I’ve never been one for genealogy. Fortunately, a cousin of mine in Melbourne is and a few months before travelling to Lithuania, Paul Epstein presented me with a dossier decades in the making. Thanks to the dedication of Paul and his brother Herbert, I now had a series of sullen photographs of my grandfather and grandmother which led me to believe I came from a long line of the chronically constipated. More importantly, I could pinpoint the spot where the roots of my family tree penetrated Lithuanian soil.

As I mentioned earlier, my maternal grandfather was loath to talk about his life before South Africa. Similarly, I can’t recall my father ever going into specifics about his lineage. It seemed enough that we came from Lithuania, which for almost the entirety of his life was part of the Soviet Union. While Australian children were told not to waste food because there were children starving in Africa, we were already in Africa. Therefore, one of the few meagre concessions to our collective past was that these children were ‘starving in Russia’.

As far as my dad was concerned, we came from the small town of Kroonstad in the Orange Free State province of South Africa. This is most probably because my grandfather had died when my dad was sixteen and consequently had fewer years in which to relate his own father’s tales of a Lithuanian childhood. Unsubstantiated hypotheses aside, I know two things are certain. The first is that the word ‘Naishtot’ was never spoken around our table. The second is that my entire visual notion of life in Lithuania came courtesy of Robert F Boyle, production designer for the 1971 hit musical Fiddler On The Roof.



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