A hero to the troopies

Cecil Meltz’ profound love for every Jew meant that no Jewish man in uniform was ever alone

By Chandrea Serebro

Ask anyone from Bloemfontein and it’s a sure thing that they will recall knowing the legendary Cecil Meltz, who inhabited so many roles while being defined by none. His life story is a gripping tale of love and loss, war, murder, tragedy, friendship, and extending a hand to strangers.

It started in Zastron, Free State, in 1920, when Cecil Meltz was born, one of nine siblings. He saw active service in the SA Air Force as a navigator, getting his boots full of holes after dodging a spray of bullets from a German Messerschmitt on a mission to Italy. “While stationed on the Reef,” said his wife Freda Meltz in tribute on Cecil’s tenth Yahrtzeit, “Cecil had not received the friendship of the Jewish community which should have been extended to a man in uniform,” finding himself and a group of friends alone for Shabbos meals without any invitation. “He was determined to rectify what had happened to him on the Reef,” said Freda, and Cecil made it his life mission that no soldier would find himself alone as he had once been and he did everything he could to make sure that every solider had a warm family home to go to for his Shabbos meals.

“This is a promise he upheld from the moment he was back in Bloemfontein after qualifying as an attorney in Pretoria in 1951,” says Gary Lewenstein, husband to Cecil’s daughter Nanette, who holds Cecil in high esteem, “a strict but fair man who had the respect of everyone he came into contact with the.” “Cecil went on to become the military father to each new Jewish intake,” said Freda, taking care of all of their religious needs, organising them Shabbos hospitality and kosher facilities, and also involving himself with their personal and emotional wellbeing – purely because he cared so deeply for fellow Jews and serviceman alike.

“He was a well-known personality in the Jewish and non-Jewish community of Bloemfontein,” says Gary, and even rose to fame that extended beyond the town of Bloemfontein. “Cecil defended a woman on a murder charge during 1968 where she allegedly shot her husband in self-defence,” recalls Peter Yazbek, Cecil’s partner at Lovius Bloch Meltz and partners, now known as Lovius Bloch. “It was a sensational trial which gripped the attention of the Bloemfontein public lock, stock, and barrel. “A well-respected medical practitioner in Bloem,” but all was not as it seemed. The doctor was about to assault his wife and she warded him off with a rifle, having shot a warning shot into the ceiling first to no effect, after which she shot him.

“As you can imagine, all the ‘tannies’ of the town gathered in the public gallery to hear the daily ‘skinner’. They hung on to every word of the court proceedings,” says Gary. She was acquitted on the charge of murder, and Cecil became a Bloemfontein hero overnight. He built up an extremely good reputation as a criminal lawyer and, later, a civil lawyer in Bloem taking many cases on a pro deo basis.

But arguably his real claim to fame was the way he lived up to his promise to himself and to every Jewish serviceman in Bloemfontein, to look after and nurture these fellow yidden who found themselves in this small, seemingly strange town. “Those ‘troopies’ that were stationed in Bloemfontein from the ‘70s to the ‘90s will remember the late Cecil Meltz. Cecil used to organise everything for the ‘troopies’ stationed in Bloemfontein ‘Amolikke Yoren’,” says Stan Smookler, aka ‘Stan The Good Shabbos Man’.

“Here was a man who sought to render assistance to strangers, obviously for no reward other than the desire to perform mitzvahs. And he sure performed many,” recalls Trooper Jeffrey Lazarow. “I have many memories of those months in the SA Armoured Corp and, particularly, the city of Bloemfontein. City may be an exaggeration as most of the time was spent in the veld and in Tempe. As a boy of seventeen, being away from home for the first time other than for a couple of rugby and swimming tours, it was a daunting experience. Truth be told, until I met Cecil Meltz, I did not think there was a single friendly or welcoming face in Bloemfontein. Initially, it upset me terribly. But then Cecil explained patiently how the system worked and I took comfort from his efforts, kindness, and care for the troops,” says Jeffrey.

“Cecil had a love, concern, and compassion for every Yid,” says his stepdaughter Lesley Marks. “He was a man who stood by his principles and strong beliefs.” The late Dr Gary Cutler was stationed at Tempe and Ewaldé Cutler, his wife, recalls just how firmly intact Cecil’s moral compass was. “At some point, some of the Jewish soldiers (including Gary) decided to ‘invent’ a Jewish holiday called ‘Shalach Manos’ and informed their Lieutenant that they needed to take a day’s leave of absence, which was approved by a high-ranking officer. Everyone was set to enjoy their day off, until Cecil found out about the arrangement and put a stop to it. Cecil did everything strictly by the book.”

“He wanted the military to know that the Jewish serviceman’s behaviour would always be above question. These were not just soldiers that happened to be based in Bloemfontein – they were family,” says Martin Meltz, Cecil’s son. Cecil went above and beyond to help the Jewish men stationed in his vicinity. “Soon after we arrived at the camp in 1966, the Jewish guys were called to a hall where we were introduced to Cecil. Of course we were confused at all the shouting and the commotion going on. Cecil was quick to put us at ease, explaining to us the realities of the situation and that he had a good relationship with the Officer Commanding,” says Dennis Wiener. Cecil arranged an army truck to take the men to shul in Bloemfontein every Friday night, and for them to be hosted for Shabbos dinner by a family of the Congregation. “He also told us that, should we have any problems with anti-Semitism which we could not handle – or even any personal problems – we were to advise him. I kept in touch with Cecil for many years afterwards. He was the epitome of a perfect ‘mensch’ – he quietly helped so many ‘troopies’ through their trials and tribulations,” says Dennis.

“But organising meals, which is what he is remembered for, was such a small part of what he did for the Jewish Serviceman all over South Africa,” says Martin. Reuben Rock arrived in Bloem between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of 1981. “No-one had told me about the Jewish community in Bloemfontein, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back home for Yom Kippur. I’d only been there a day or two, when I got a call from a very Afrikaans sounding guy who said he was Cecil Meltz, the Jewish Chaplin in Bloem. He told me he’d arranged for me to go to one of the Jewish families in Bloemfontein for Yom Kippur – allaying all my concerns.”

Reuben never saw Cecil again, but three years later, after getting engaged in 1985, Reuben gets a phone call from him wishing him mazel tov. “I really think he didn’t forget any of the servicemen who came through Bloem, and I know none of us forgot him.” Cecil also created deep and lasting bonds of friendship, which prevailed despite life’s challenges and tribulations. Cecil’s first wife Hannah (Weitzman) was killed tragically in a car accident in which Cecil was severely injured. Cecil wasn’t allowed visitors in the hospital, but when Lenny Karpes arrived with his mother from Pretoria, the doctor agreed to allow them a few minutes. “We spoke very little during these few minutes, but there was a special bond between us, and no words were necessary. Cecil was a mentor to me, even after I left Bloemfontein. We remained very close friends until his untimely death,” says Lenny.

After a painful and difficult six-month recovery, Cecil went on to marry his young love Freda (Kroll). “He was the most phenomenal father and stepfather – none of Freda’s children ever saw him as being a ‘stepfather’. He treated all of us as his own. He was a man of integrity, extreme intelligence, and a man who was also the most down to earth human being that one can imagine,” says Gary and Nanette. “My dad was a man amongst men,” says Cecil’s daughter, Sandy Sher. “No matter where I go, I keep hearing stories about my late dad. A number of ex-Bloem residents and army guys planted trees in Israel in the name of my dear father. He was the most incredible human being, always doing for others, not seeking grandeur nor honour, but because it was the right thing to do.” Sandy remembers how on a Friday night her dad always sorted every Jewish soldier out. “He would remain behind till the last soldier left and then lock up the shul.” Sandy’s highlight was accompanying Cecil on his weekly visit to the various army bases. “He would always visit the men in the sick bay and hospital.” She remembers how he would bring home “any amount of guys to eat in our home without prior warning”.

“I have a clear memory of my late mother offering to host for one Friday night a group of boys who were meant to be in the bush, but who had returned early. Cecil was anxious as to what he would do with some 30 boys late on a Friday afternoon and my mum said, “What’s the problem? They can all come here,” and they did! Chesed epitomised my parents – for them it was all about small acts of kindness. This small gesture to my dad was one way he knew he was making a difference,” says Cecil’s son, Stephen Meltz.

“Just consider: a busy attorney taking the time to look after somebody just because he wanted to do so,” says Avi Modlin. “I remember two occasions when Cecil was a lifesaver. I woke up one morning with an extremely swollen face due to a bad tooth. Being a Junior Leader I had some privilege and I was able to phone Cecil. He immediately organised (with the Commandant, no less) for a day’s leave, picked me up, delivered me to his dentist, who extracted the tooth, took me to his offices, and then to his home.” Cecil didn’t only care in theory, but he put all of his lofty ideals into action and offered each and every man a true friend, support, and genuine concern. “We all had his home and office numbers, making him available to us 24/7. When I needed help, Cecil left his practice to make sure I was attended to by a private dentist, and either he paid the bill or was given a no charge visit, which I suspect was due to his standing in the community. Cecil was an absolute hero to us ‘troopies’ in those long-ago days,” says Avi.

He was a father to all of the boys who found themselves in Bloem, and holds a firm place in the hearts and memories of all those who met him. Cecil was a man of many mitzvahs. He died at the age of 75 in 1995, and is missed by all who knew him and those who had yet to meet him, but he left a legacy of love and kindness behind him in Bloemfontein and beyond.

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