In Calcutta four years ago on a visit to one of the festering slums he calls a “hell on earth,” best-selling journalist-turned-altruist Dominique Lapierre was speaking with another writer, who knew of the Frenchman’s interest in heroic figures.
“Do you want to meet a South African Mother Teresa?” the writer asked.
Lapierre, who knew the renowned Saint of the Slums, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, learned that day about Helen Lieberman.
A speech pathologist married to a wealthy attorney in Cape Town, Lieberman had ventured four decades earlier into South Africa’s black townships, during the dark days of apartheid, to begin work as a speech therapist. Her work grew into the country’s largest non-governmental social service agency. She did so, the
Jewish Theological Seminary
writer told Lapierre, at the risk of her life.
“I had never heard her name,” Lapierre says. “I had never been in South Africa. I knew nothing about the country,” beyond what any educated person knew of the nation’s choking discrimination policies.
That quickly changed.
Back in his Parisian home, Lapierre, intrigued, contacted Lieberman — who, it turned out, knew the author’s writings — and he was on a plane to South Africa within a month.
Lieberman, he says, was reluctant to talk about herself. “She’s extremely modest.” Lapierre, who has authored and co-authored nearly a dozen books that show sweeping historic events through the eyes of a few key individuals, convinced Lieberman to talk. He taped her words, nearly 60 hours’ worth, about seeing the effects of apartheid firsthand, about wanting to leave a homeland that could produce such monstrous treatment of people, about deciding to stay and continue her work, about learning words in one of South Africa’s tribal languages, about losing friends who did not understand her commitment to the country’s black population, about lives saved and lives improved. This, he told himself, was his next book.
He saw in Lieberman a kindred soul. Inspired by the selfless people he had encountered nearly 30 years ago in India, who dedicate themselves to fighting poverty, he and his wife — also named Dominique — founded a charity, Action Aid for the Lepers’ Children of Calcutta (the American affiliate is City of Joy Aid) that cures tuberculosis patients, builds schools and wells, and supports hospital boats on the Ganges.
Lieberman, he saw, was doing in South Africa the type of humanitarianism his foundation was doing in India. Lieberman, he says, “redeemed the bad conscience of South Africa.”
“A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa,” published last month by Da Capo Press, is 288 pages of South Africa’s founding and subsequent history, extensive context built around the story of Lieberman and of Christian Barnard, the late surgeon who pioneered heart transplants by putting the organ of a black man into the body of a white person, then unthinkable in South Africa.
Lapierre wrote “A Rainbow in the Night,” he says, not as the history of a country, but primarily as the chronicle of a single woman, with enough background provided to let the reader fathom her greatness.
The book is dedicated to Lieberman “and to all those — whites, blacks, and coloreds — who put an end to apartheid oppression and brought about the triumph of freedom, unity, truth and reconciliation.”
“It’s a book dedicated to a Jewish hero … an unknown Jewish hero,” Lapierre, 78, says one recent morning, sitting in a friend’s Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park.
“A Rainbow in the Night” — the title is an allusion to Nelson Mandela’s call for a “rainbow nation” after the long night of apartheid — is at once a very Jewish and a very Christian book, and neither.
With the Jewish sensibility shaped by his work two decades ago on “O Jerusalem!” the story, co-written with American Larry Collins, of the founding of Israel, centered around a crucial 1948 convoy to the capital, Lapierre drops Jewish references throughout, like the Jewish identity and self-identification of several characters, and the Jewish roots of a prominent black township named for the daughter of a Jewish developer.
“It’s not a ‘Jewish book,’” he says, calling it “a tribute to the Jewish religion.”
With an awareness of Nazi ideology shaped by his research for “Is Paris Burning,” his 1990 book about the liberation of Paris near the end of World War II, Lapierre colors his latest book with references to Auschwitz and “Nazi methods,” with citations of apartheid’s founders’ affinity for Nazi Germany and Nazi leaders.
“Short of the gas chambers,” he writes, “the Apartheid regime was as terrible as the Nazi regime. The Jews of Hitler were the Blacks of Apartheid.”
Lapierre lived under the Nazi thumb.
“I spent my young life in occupied France — all this was familiar to me,” he says. At age 14, when Paris was liberated, he knew only one expression in English: “corned beef!” He ran up to a U.S. soldier on the Champs-Elysees and greeted him with these words, receiving a box of it from the G.I.’s tank.
Raised Catholic, Lapierre brings in Christ and Calvary and the New Testament, and the beliefs of the Dutch Calvinists who established a colony on the southern tip of Africa with the perception of themselves as “the new children of Israel, chosen by God to liberate their land, as the Hebrews had once won the land of Canaan.”
Lapierre is a liberal Christian who feels equally at home worshiping in a synagogue or mosque. “I could be a faithful Jew,” he says. “I know all about the religion.”
As he did while working on earlier books, Lapierre spent much of the last few years on-site. In South Africa, he conducted archival research and personal interviews, escaped a pair of hungry lions and lay in the prison cell where Mandela had spent most of his 27 years of internment.
He paints a picture of Lieberman, 32 years old when she originally looked beyond the curtain that separated white South Africa from its segregated blacks, as an apolitical idealist. “She was not an activist. She didn’t know much about apartheid.”
The Jewish community had a reputation as disproportionately at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, with another Jewish Helen — Helen Suzman — serving as the lone voice against apartheid in Parliament for three decades. However, most South African Jews were passive observers, voting largely for liberal political parties but taking no public stand against the policies that put opponents of apartheid in prison, killed many and made publication of their names a crime.
The Liebermans, Lapierre writes, “lived with their three children in a luxurious villa in the coastal suburb of Sea Point, a few miles from the center of town. Sea Point looked out onto the magnificent waters of Cape Town, with the rock of Robben Island in the sometimes foggy distance. Lieberman knew there was a penal colony on the rock but did not really know who the prisoners were or why they were being confined there. If she had heard the name Nelson Mandela, like many South Africans, she knew very little about him.”
Lieberman opened a speech therapy practice. She began working in a clinic “for blacks and coloreds [the South African designation for mixed-race individuals.]” She witnessed the inequitable medical treatment that non-whites received.
Lapierre describes in his book one particular Friday in the clinic. Lieberman was helping a young black mother whose dehydrated infant had just undergone surgery. “Helen then glanced at her watch,” Lapierre writes. “It was four in the afternoon. The sun was already setting behind Devil’s Peak at the back of the hospital. Since Shabbat was starting, the young Jewish woman hastily gathered up her things and gave the nurses and little Andile’s mother some last instructions. She would come again tomorrow when Shabbat was over.”
Lieberman came back. Eventually, she started traveling to the townships, where living conditions were abominable, where white faces were a rarity. “Much as Mother Teresa had answered the need for love and justice by bringing dignity to the poor lepers of the slums of Calcutta,” Lapierre writes, “Helen Lieberman could perhaps salvage a little of the honor lost by white South Africans.”
In the townships, Lieberman risked death at the hands of white police who despised her and black residents who did not know her. “Helen was convinced that one day she would pay for her audacity with her life,” Lapierre writes.
Lieberman persevered and survived. Today she is founder and leader of Ikamva Labantu (Xhoso for “the future of our people”), which does health, education and community-building work.
Was the journalist who first told Lapierre about Lieberman correct in comparing her to India’s icon? “Was Helen Lieberman a South African Mother Teresa?” Lapierre asks in his book. “Certainly, but with a difference. South Africa was not India, respectful of a saint entering its slums to preach love and compassion.”
It’s a miracle — and a blessing — that Lieberman’s work continues, he says. Half of Lapierre’s royalties go to his foundation, which has expanded to supports Lieberman’s initiative.
Now he’s at work on his next book, but he offers no details. It’s about other people like Lieberman, other “unsung heroes,” is all he will say. “All my books are about the heroes of humanity. The world is full of anonymous heroes.
“Thank God,” Lapierre says of Lieberman, “there are people like her.”