The Renaissance people

Eric (snr) and Elly Holm.

by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”

Leonardo Da Vinci was the archetypical Renaissance man – engineer, biologist, painter, sculptor and musician. It seems almost impossible that one person can have so many varied talents, but certain families seem to breed talent. In Hartbeespoort the Holm family bears testimony to the fact that talent is indeed hereditary.

Elly Holm was the doyenne of fine arts in Hartbeespoort since she arrived here in 1946 from a war ravaged Europe. Her husband, Erik, with doctorates in classical archaeology and history of art, was a prisoner in the Baviaanspoort prison and she had to employ all her talents to provide for herself, her mother and six children in the house that Johan Schoeman provided for them in Meerhof. Life dealt them some strange hands before her husband was reprieved after he was sentenced to imprisonment for working in the German broadcasting service during the war.

To trace the circumstances that brought together so much talent here on the Southern tip of Africa, one must go back to the 1740s and the three Holms from Sweden – a father and two sons – who according to family lore were crew members on a whaler that came to grief in a storm on the Eastern Cape coast. History is not very clear on this, but it would appear that the father drowned and that the one son went on to America. The descendants of the son who stayed behind ended up at the Orange River near Bethulie. One of them, Gustav Adolf, married a German orphan, Hulda Grunau, who came to South Africa with the German settlers in the early nineteenth century.

According to Albrecht Holm, who researched the family history, Gustav was a very strong man who operated a pontoon over the Orange River. His brother, Henry, was the adjutant of Louw Wepener in whose arms Wepener died at Thaba Bosigo. The Free Staters erroneously wrote his surname as Helm.

Gustav, who died of malaria he contracted when he went to help the Transvalers against Sekhukuni, had a son, Sydney (Albrecht’s grandfather), who was an exceptionally bright young man. Although he did not spend many years at school he was postmaster at various Free State towns at a very young age. This resulted in him being in the service of the Free State government when the Anglo Boer War broke out and therefore he could go to war, unlike his family members across the river who were technically British subjects. Because of his knowledge of Morse code he served as telegraphist and was later promoted to an officer. Eventually he was taken prisoner and sent to Ceylon.

Sydney writes that after the war his mother wanted to revisit the country of her birth and he accompanied her. One evening they went to a musical recital in Leipzig where the girl next to him caught his attention. His mother, who happened to have met her the day before, introduced them. The beautiful Else Rosenthal, the daughter of a woman from the German aristocracy who married a Jewish teacher, stole his heart. There was little in the way of courtship for he could only speak Afrikaans and English and she only German and French. On his insistence he and his mother went to Heidelberg where he locked himself up with a dictionary and German newspapers and studied German. They went back to Leipzig where he had three days to win her heart before he asked her parents for her hand in broken German. A year later she joined him in the house he built for her on the part of the farm his mother gave him after the war.

Sidney Holm was an industrious farmer and artisan but after many set-backs he went bankrupt and eventually in desperation ended up on the diamond diggings near Lichtenburg. With his last 100 pounds he sent Else and the two eldest sons, Johan and Erik (christened Sidney Erich) to Germany where her brother, Wolfgang Rosenthal, was a well-known surgeon and singer. The situation in Europe in the early twenties was still desperate after the First World War and after nine months Johan returned to South Africa with his mother. Erik, however, was in his element. Within a few weeks he learnt to speak German fluently – up to that stage they only spoke Afrikaans. He immersed himself in his studies and obtained a doctorate in archaeology and later also in the history of art.

At the school of art he met Elly Pabst. She was the daughter of a Prussian officer who had an incredible talent for music. Without any formal training he played several instruments and insisted that his children take music lessons. Elly, however, was more interested in fine arts. Elly’s father died early as a result of the hardships he suffered during the war, but his musical talents lived on in his children and their children.

In the early thirties Erik went back to South Africa and went to look for his father on the diggings.  The only job he could find, despite his qualifications, was as primary school teacher in Pietermaritzburg.  Because he now at least had an income he sent for Elly and they were married. Here their eldest son, Dieter, was born. Later he got a better appointment at an Indian college in Durban where Albrecht was born in 1937.

While he was in Durban his friends informed him of a vacancy in the German broadcasting service for an announcer who could speak Afrikaans and German. It was an offer he could not refuse. He therefore went back to Germany in 1939 with his family where he headed the Afrikaans service of the German broadcasting service when the war broke out. South Africa was still neutral then and the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Eben Dönges, put him at ease when he enquired and said that he could remain in his post.

Albrecht well remembers the war years and says it was actually fun for the children[2]. Later when the Allied bombing attacks got too heavy they were removed to a little town in the East German countryside that at the end of the war was occupied first by the Americans and then by the Russians. He can well remember how the American tanks deliberately sped through the narrow streets of the ancient town and trampled everything in their path. The Russians again were very primitive and cruel and would have killed someone for a watch, which to them was something strange. Many of them walked with their arms covered with watches while one even wore a clock around his neck.

Erik, in the meantime, remained with the radio station until the end. When Germany surrendered, Erik went to Italy but later returned to Germany where the Americans were looking for civilians who could speak German in order to get the schools and factories going again. Because he was a South African the Americans employed him until the British began insisting on his extradition. The Americans countered that he was a spy sent by the British, refused to extradite him and interrogated him intensely. In the end they were satisfied that he was not a spy but didn’t extradite him either. Erik’s English colleague in the German broadcasting service, William Joyce, who was known as Lord Haw-Haw, was extradited, tried and executed by the British.

After much trouble, the Americans managed to get Erik’s family transferred from the Russian sector to join him in Bavaria. About a year after the conclusion of peace, Erik was indeed extradited to the British and sent to South Africa to stand trial. His defence was conducted by Oswald Pirow who used to be Minister of Defence in Hertzog’s cabinet before the war and who later was the prosecutor in the Mandela treason trial in 1956. Pirow managed to avoid the death penalty, but Erik and the other South Africans who worked in his section were found guilty and in the end he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.

Pirow managed to get Elly brought out from Germany as a witness on government expense but the government refused to pay for the passage of Oma Pabst and the children. The Ossewa Brandwag collected money for their return and during December 1946 they arrived at Palmietfontein near Germiston, after an exhausting week-long flight through Africa. They were welcomed by a crowd of people – a fact that astonished the children.

Albrecht relates that it was quite a scene when they arrived at the airport. Apart from the people who came to welcome them, there were throngs of journalists and photographers with flashing cameras. He said his eyes were so sunken that the artist at the newspaper drew in spectacles for him so that he didn’t look so bad.

The Schoemans came to fetch them at the airport. Tolstoi and Lincoln were there with what looked to the Holm children like two tremendously big cars – Albrecht remembers the one was a Buick. The Schoeman boys were very friendly but couldn’t speak a word of German and the Holm children – Dieter, Albrecht, Konstanze, Maja, Cornelia and the baby Erik – not a word of Afrikaans. The way over Saartjiesnek at that stage was still a dirt road and only went up to Meerhof. There Johan Schoeman accommodated them in the old Meerhof cafe which he converted into a dwelling.

When the schools reopened in the beginning of 1947 the children had to go to school. The only school in the area was at Kameeldrift to which they were taken in an old army lorry that was converted into a school bus. They also had to learn Afrikaans very quickly. The railway kids whom they had to pass on their way to the bus stop each day were not very keen on the “Germans” and they constantly had to duck to avoid confrontation.

On Christmas Day, 1948, the Malan government released Erik Holm and the Holm family was reunited. They obtained stand No 102 in Karel Street and there, in 1950, Erik built their first house himself. Meanwhile, their seventh child and fourth son, Tielman, was born.

The house in Karel Street provided a firm base where the talents and genes from successive generations could develop and prosper. Elly immersed herself in her art with vigour and saw to it that her children’s abilities in art and music were developed to the full. Many of the art forms she practised were unknown in South Africa, such as encaustics (using bees wax in painting) and sgrafitto – an almost three dimensional form of painting. She must have been South Africa’s most versatile artist and very productive too. She was fascinated by slate which was so freely available and her slate art, sgraffitos, coloured glass, sketches, paintings, ceramics, bronze sculptures and wood carvings can be seen in many houses and public buildings in Hartbeespoort and elsewhere in South Africa, as well as Europe, England, the US and other places all over the world.

About his father, Albrecht writes in the Hartbeespoort Heritage Association’s survey of points of interest that after he arrived in Meerhof he initially built boats and made furniture for a living[3]. His first appointment was as a teacher at Kameeldrift primary school and later at Brits high school. He excelled as an inspiring educator whose interests were far wider than the prescribed curriculum. He wrote plays and had them performed by his pupils. During this time he immersed himself in the study of prehistoric rock art of Southern Africa and was the first person to discover a relationship between the rock art and the Bushman legends and mythology. He was so intrigued by a special research project for the Human Sciences Research Council in which he had to compile a comprehensive bibliography of South Africa’s cultural history that he published articles on his research on rock art and European and ancient Greek art simultaneously in Afrikaans, English and German.

The thirst for knowledge and the work ethic that Erik and Elly got from their parents, they instilled in their children. The children did well at school and with their initial European schooling they had an advantage. Dieter and Albrecht were the first to pass matric and went to university together.

Albrecht wanted to study music, but his parents were in favour of something more practical. He joined Dieter in studying architecture. Both qualified and started a practice together. Albrecht still pursued his love for music while Dieter was more academically inclined and eventually occupied a chair in architecture at the University of Pretoria. Both designed their houses on either side of the road over Saartjiesnek in such a way that they are completely self-contained and self-sufficient as far as water, electricity and sewerage are concerned.

Erik (jnr) was a professor in entomology also at the University of Pretoria but he is also an accomplished artist and musician. He is also widely known for his restoration of ox wagons and horse carts and built The Ring Oxwagon Inn all by himself. Maja Beyers’s jewel designs are widely known while Cornelia attained fame as a painter and Konstanze excelled in pottery.

Erik (snr) died in 1996 and Elly in 2000, both incidentally at the age of 89 years. Their genes are also visible in the next generation. Their progeny all excel in areas such as the theatre and performing arts, fine arts, science and medicine. Of their 27 grandchildren four are doctors, two are professional musicians, two are architects, three goldsmiths, one veterinary surgeon, one an engineering student, another a mathematician while still another is a violin builder by trade.

This generation is literally dispersed over the world – Imme is a musician in Germany, Stefan is an anaesthetist in Canada, Dirk is a medical doctor in Germany and Meta an industrial designer in New Zealand, while Regina is also in Germany. Of those still in the area, Henning, an architect like his father, is involved with the research of alternative energy resources on a full time basis.

One of the actors, Erik’s youngest son, Erik, after a promising debut, broke his neck in a diving accident in 1997, but with characteristic perseverance carries on to apply his trade from his wheelchair.

Generations come and go through wars, droughts and depressions, but in the end it is enthusiasm, drive and work ethic that build dynasties. This is the legacy that keeps the flame of the Renaissance burning. This is what Erik and Elly Holm left their descendants on the shores of Hartbeespoort Dam and these are the memes that are being spread from here throughout the world.

A copy of the book by Willie Meyer is available at the Kormorant office.