By David Sommer
Fredy Sommer, a”h, was born in 1910 in Langenselbold, a small town close to Frankfurt, Germany. As the oldest of four children, he shared in the responsibility of taking care of the family. His parents were too poor to afford to send him to high school so he began working in the family bakery at the tender age of twelve. Initially, the “bakery” involved renting an oven in one of the four corners of the town where bread and rolls were baked. Fredy’s job was to deliver the goods by bicycle. Over time, his parents were able to save up some money and open a modest bakery of their own.
After waking one day around 1936 to find that his family’s bakery had been covered with anti-Semitic graffiti, Fredy realized that it was time to leave Germany. His father, Sigmund, was not as convinced that the situation was so dire and was not eager to leave Germany, as he had fought in several wars defending the country, including the First World War, for which he had been awarded a medal for distinguished service. Over a period of time, Fredy wrote letters to the British authorities, asking for permission to immigrate to Israel (known as Palestine in those days). He never received a reply. With Hitler, yemach shemo (may his name be blotted out), already in power and working rapidly on preparing the German nation for war, Fredy decided that he could not afford to wait any longer. His parents gave him their blessing and Fredy set out with his few belongings for South Africa, where his brother had already emigrated. And, it was not a moment too soon, as the Nazis arrived at Fredy’s house shortly afterwards to take him away. Following several weeks at sea, he arrived in Cape Town.
Despite the unfamiliar language and culture, Fredy started a new life in Johannesburg. But, his top priority was to get his parents and remaining two siblings out of Germany before it was too late. After much effort, Fredy managed to secure a loan from a wealthy distant relative so that he could bring out the rest of family. Fredy promised that he would “pay back every cent even if it would be in bags of flour,” and, true to his word, he eventually paid back the entire amount. Fredy found a job at Crystal Bakery in Doornfontein. Surprisingly, he was allowed to keep both Shabbos and his job – a rather unusual phenomenon in those days. He quickly earned a reputation as a hard-working and reliable individual. One Sunday, a disagreement broke out at the bakery. Someone had stolen some baking supplies over the previous Shabbos. Even though Fredy was innocent, he realized that his long-term future was not secure as long as he was working for other people.
Fredy would later marry Ilse (nee Isaak), with whom he would have two children: Barbara, a”h, and my father, Martin. Fredy’s wife was a very competent and modest woman. She stood by his side both at home and at work. They both worked hard and did their best to give their children a solid upbringing. As staunch members of the Adath Yeshurun (today known as Adass Yeshurun) community, they were active both in the davening as well as the social and educational programs at the shul. When Fredy eventually opened his own bakery, it was a cause for personal celebration, as well as reason for the entire Jewish community to celebrate – the first shomer Shabbos bakery in South Africa. Armed with youthful optimism, a solid work-ethic, and a genuine love for people, he initially rented a shop on Rockey Street in Bellevue. The bakery began as a small, personal business and that’s how it remained. Fredy’s business philosophy was: people first, business second. A few years later, he relocated the bakery to Raleigh Street, Yeoville.
Fredy’s bakery serviced the broader local community in general and the Jewish community in particular. This was no mean feat. It involved long hours, day in and day out. He would go to sleep early each night so that he could wake up and start baking around 4:00 each morning, while everybody else was comfortably sleeping in bed. Fredy almost never stayed late at weddings and other simchas because of his dedication to his fellow Jews. He also hardly ever travelled overseas to see his beloved daughter and her family, except for rare family occasions. Because the bread and rolls needed to be ready early, Fredy could not daven shacharis with a minyan, instead davening each day alone in his shop. A jogger, who would frequently run past the bakery on his daily run, once told the family how inspirational it was to see Fredy davening through the window of the shop, immersed in his prayers and completely oblivious to anyone and everything around him. Fredy had an “attitude of gratitude,” grateful for whatever anyone brought to him or did for him. Whenever someone wished him a happy birthday, he would say, “Every day’s a birthday!” Likewise, he was famous for saying, “If you can eat, drink, and sleep, then you are well and there’s nothing to complain about!”
Fredy kept the name of the shop that he had bought, ‘Fitz’s Confectionery’, and, as a result, became affectionately known as ‘Mr Fitz’ thereafter by old and young alike. All of his products were lovingly and proudly made by his own two hands, and had that special homemade, German flavour. Whenever he weighed a purchase, he would do so very carefully, always making sure to put in an additional item so that there could be no question of under-weighing. Children loved to visit the store and get a warm smile from him, along with a couple of melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, which Fredy always insisted on giving them. If the children were old enough, Fredy would even ask the children to make a brocha before eating the biscuits. Parents, of course, enjoyed taking their children to the bakery and one woman who used to live in Yeoville told the family that she used to take her children to the bakery because she “wanted [her children] to see what a tzaddik looked like.”
There was a huge iron oven in the backroom from which Fredy produced many of his tasty masterpieces. But, more important than the taste, was the love and smile that he invested in each and every item that he made. Although he had many recipes written out in German, he generally made everything from memory. In addition to the standard fare, he produced one-of-a-kind cakes, biscuits, meringues, and chocolates. His most famous delicacy, however, was his ‘Baumkuchen’ cake (lit: tree cake) – an incredibly time consuming and labour-intensive treat that was, as a result, also quite expensive. Made from real butter and eggs on an open, gas rotisserie, it required him to painstakingly brush on layer-after-layer of batter over an open flame. Each thin layer of batter would cook before another thin layer would be poured over it until, finally, the finished product was covered completely in chocolate. People from all over the world made it a point to come by and purchase this especially delicious treat.
Even after his beloved wife passed away, Fredy carried on with the business, taking care of his customers and always checking to see that they were physically and emotionally well-nourished. As he got older, he maintained his regular schedule despite standing long hours on failing feet. Eventually, he could no longer stand and was forced to leave the shop. It was a sad day when he closed the door to the bakery, never to return. ‘Fitz’s Confectionery’ was eventually sold to a couple who had recently moved into the community, changing the name and producing their own line of baked goods and kugels. A while later, the bakery closed and was sold, becoming a second-hand furniture store. The shop may have closed permanently, but the first-class name that Fredy, aka Mr Fitz, so carefully built-up, lives on.
Fredy was fiercely independent and did not want to move into an old-age home. Instead, he preferred to live in his own home in Yeoville for as long as it would be possible. His family took care of him and spent many precious hours with him. Despite his failing health, he continued to exude his trademark warmth and concern for those around him. He may have needed more physical assistance but he still found his own way to give back – in the form of personal encouragement and sage advice. His personal stories and life lessons were a delight to hear, over and over again. A few close friends and old-time customers would visit him occasionally – to inspire and be inspired. He was always grateful to everyone who visited him when he wasn’t well and thanked them for taking time out of their busy schedules to visit him.
Fredy passed away peacefully in his bed on Tisha B’av at the age of 88. He was a man who personified integrity, radiated warmth, and treated every human being with the ultimate respect. He loved people and was, in turn, loved by all who came into contact with him. His legacy to date, includes two children, nine grandchildren, over thirty five great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren. At his funeral, a gentleman told the family that he used to go every Shabbos to the Chassidishe Shul on Harrow Road just so he could enjoy Fredy’s kichel at the Kiddush each week. Eventually, this man became Shabbos observant as a result of his love of Fredy’s kichel! May Fredy’s beautiful personality and sterling reputation serve as an inspiration for all of us.
Family members and Advocate Natie Segal, who was a good friend and customer, shared some of their memories for this story.