In the opening paragraph of Shirli Gilbert's (2012) article about representations of Anne Frank in South Africa, she describes how Ahmed Kathrada—an anti-apartheid activist imprisoned for eighteen years on Robben Island—secretly recorded inspiring quotations from The Diary of Anne Frank in his prison notebooks, among other quotations from books and newspapers smuggled into prison. In November 2014, I visited the Robben Island Archives and located the handwritten words that Kathrada recorded from The Diary, passages that were very much oriented to Anne Frank's longing for freedom and optimistic hope, on the one hand, and to Jewish suffering and the morbidities of the war, on the other.
Excited about this finding, I turned to Kathrada's Memoirs, a volume that confirmed my gut feeling about possible imaginative links drawn by him, between the Holocaust and his own situation—as an Indian South African, as a political activist, and as a prisoner of the apartheid regime. Two months before my third visit to South Africa, I ran into a Facebook post by the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, about an event they had organized marking “World Refugee Day.” They had invited a special key guest: Ahmed Kathrada. Through the director of the Centre, Tali Nates, I established contact with with Kathrada, for a possible future interview.
On Friday morning, August 11, 2016, I was invited to meet Ahmed Kathrada in his apartment in Johannesburg, a meeting that will remain engraved in my heart forever. I met a kind, humorous and happy man. He received me with open arms and was very keen to share his fascinating and inspiring life story with me. Here and in subsequent posts, I would like to share with you some of the things he told me in those magical moments that we spent together.
When we began talking, I told Kathrada about myself and mentioned that I was travelling in South Africa with my baby boy, Ori, a sweet one-year-old child. His eyes lit up as I was talking about Ori, and he became emotional. Kathrada was a political prisoner, imprisoned for 18 years on Robben Island, and then for another 7 years in Pollsmoor Maximum Prison near Cape Town. He told me
You know, what we missed mostly in jail was children. You know how long I waited to see a child? Just to see a child, 20 years, didn't see a child in jail. And saw this child in jail when after 20 years we were transferred to another prison in Cape Town, where we were only five prisoners so it was very relaxed and my lawyer came to see me with his little girl, his daughter, and she wouldn't leave the car so…
Kathrada immediately asked to meet Ori. Two days after the interview, Kathrada called to invite Ori and me for a coffee at his apartment. Kathrada's happiness when he saw Ori is evident in the picture I have posted here: "You made my day!" he announced with a big smile on his face.
In that moment, it became clear to me that this 87 year-old man who was an activist from the age of 17, was sent to prison when he was my age, at the age of 34. His 60th birthday was the last birthday he celebrated in prison. So he did not get to raise a family and to have children and grandchildren. Nevertheless, Ahmed Kathrada was not bitter, nor cynical. It is as if Anne Frank's optimistic spirit, to which he was so finely attuned during his imprisonment, had left its mark on him.