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Home away from home: memories of King David Hostel

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Operational for about 30 years, the King David Linksfield School Hostel became a home away from home. Largely accommodating children from South Africa’s farming communities, the hostel offered a warm, holistic, Jewish boarding experience, playing an important role in the history of King David.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Dec 13, 2018

Louis Sachs, one of King David’s founders, suggested opening a hostel on the school’s premises. “There were many Jewish children in country districts who were denied the opportunity of a Jewish education because of where they lived,” says Elliot Wolf, the Director of the King David Schools’ Foundation and the former principal of King David High School Linksfield. Built in 1966, the hostel was named Sachs House.

At its height, the hostel accommodated 130 to 150 kids. They came from far afield, from the Mpumalanga area, Bethel, Dawel, and other farming districts. “We also had people from Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Vereeniging, and Carletonville,” recalls Wolf. “When Rhodesia experienced its difficulties, a whole group came into the hostel. We also had people from Dar es Salaam and the Belgian Congo during difficult times there. The kids were wonderful. Always on the property, they created a great school spirit. They were one of the school houses, Sachs House. I’m not saying they didn’t get up to mischief because they did, but they were always more courteous and respectful than their Johannesburg counterparts.”

Arnold Altshuler, who served as head of the hostel for many years, recalls the family feel it fostered. “I first came to the hostel in 1975,” he says. “In those days, there were 110 girls and boys. I realised I was entering a family where everyone looked after each other. Yet, all was controlled and on time. It was an active, vibrant, and successful entity. Respect, compassion, and assistance were the hallmarks. The boarders were so well-behaved because they came from loving farming families who had brought up their children in the most positive way.”

Known for their sporting prowess honed by constant access to school facilities, the boarders excelled in soccer, cricket, and table tennis. “Sports injuries, although not usually serious, were quite common, and we had our own GP on call,” says Altshuler. He recalls two serious incidents. One was when a senior got kicked in the chest. He fractured his rib which pierced his lung. “Fortunately, he recovered well.”

“I’m a bit embarrassed to mention that as house master, I probably suffered the second most serious injury,” he says. “When playing cricket with the boys, I hooked the ball into my nose, dislodging and breaking it. After an operation – and a nose guard – I also recovered well.”

While the kids were generally well behaved, there were the typical incidents of teenage rebellion. On one occasion, Altshuler and a colleague checked the senior rooms for smokers. “We found none, but later, a matric boy came to me to admit that he had his lit cigarette under his body when I came into the room. He was in distinct pain from a burn!”

Jacques Tariqua, lived at the hostel between 1967 and 1968, his last two years of high school. “My dad was working in the DRC – then Zaire,” he recalls. “Perhaps the best part of hostel living was the close camaraderie all the kids built in spite of coming from different backgrounds and regions. This was easily seen on the sports front where, in spite of being the smallest house, we were by far the fittest – we banded together.”

Among his memories of misadventures is the night four matric boys sneaked a bottle of alcohol into their room after a Barmitzvah. “Two of our roomies consumed the entire bottle on their own, with the resultant after effects. In spite of our best efforts to hide the evidence, news of our escapade spread like wildfire. The next morning, we were called into the office by ‘the boss’, Headmaster Mr Sandler. My fate? Six of the best – caning was still allowed then.”

Harold Kahn, a student at the hostel between 1969 and 1971, came from Koppies in the Free State, where his father owned a general dealer store. “I attended an Afrikaans school – the only school in Koppies. My parents sent me to King David School Hostel to give me a Jewish education. I left the hostel at 15 when they moved to Johannesburg.”

Kahn remembers the familial atmosphere and the friendships he made there. “Friday night Shabbat dinners were special,” he says. “It was the weekend, and there was a warm, fun atmosphere.” Things weren’t always easy though. “The worst part of hostel life was being homesick for my parents and family. Not having your freedom was especially hard. There were restrictions only hostel kids faced like having access to treats in the ‘tuck room’ for only one hour an afternoon.”

Yet there are many happy memories. “The night before we were due to go home for the much anticipated school holidays, there would be wholesale raiding of dormitories – ‘apple pie-ing’ each other’s beds and other shenanigans. Saturday night movies in the school hall – with a projector and film reels – was another highlight.”

For Debi Cooper (nee Jocum), hostel life was challenging. With her parents living on a farm in the Northern Cape, Cooper had been at a boarding school in Kimberley. “I experienced anti-Semitism there, and my parents wanted a Jewish education for me and my older siblings. I was in the King David hostel for nine years between 1975 and 1983, from the age of eight. My father had to fight for them to accept me so young. At eight, it was really tough for me. I missed my parents.

“However, there was a lot of positivity. The hostel kids were like family. I’ll always have a link with those people. Hostel life was quite regimental though, there were set mealtimes, benching, Mincha and Ma’ariv every night, and designated prep – homework – time. There was chill time though, and I remember us gathering around the TV in the lounge to watch Dallas.

“Food was important to me,” she says, “although it was quite good, you got the same meals all the time. Once a week we had steak and chips, that was the best. There are certain foods I still refuse to make in my house though, like jelly and macaroni and cheese.”

Boys and girls found ways to mingle that were often quite innovative, recalls Cooper. “On a Friday night, the boys came over after lights out. They used screwdrivers to unscrew the burglar bars and get in. You never really had privacy though. You had to go into the school grounds and sit outside to get away from people.”

By 1996, the influx of students had diminished almost completely, with only eight students remaining in the hostel. The farmers had bought townhouses in the area, with farmers themselves usually commuting. The Jewish population in country towns had also diminished, recalls Wolf. “It was no longer economically viable, so we closed the hostel and housed the remaining students with people living in the area.”

Over the years, attempts were made to house small classrooms in the hostel rooms. A computer laboratory and the Elliot Wolf Media Centre were later installed. “About three years ago, we had a major transformation as the other parts of the building had been left as is,” says Wolf. “The King David Schools’ Foundation got involved, knocked out the interior walls, and created 14 new magnificent classrooms, now called the S block. The dining room has also been converted into an indoor gym. The hostel has been completely transformed.”

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