Searching for Sarah: Extract from the new biography

The following extract is taken from 23-27 of Searching for Sarah: the Women Who Loved Langenhoven by Dominique Malherbe, Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021. JA thanks Tafelberg for permission to include here.


One of the first people I contacted in my search for Sarah was Elsa Joubert, the well-known, prolific and prizewinning writer of the legendary story, titled in English The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena.

Sadly, Elsa passed away in June 2020 at the age of 97. She was one of several of Sarah’s close friends, their lifelong friendship beginning when Elsa lodged in Sarah’s home in 1945 when she began her studies at the University of Cape Town. I visited her at a retirement home in Gardens, Cape Town. My journal entry for this visit was dated 19 September 2017:3

Elsa Joubert: I was there at the end. I used to visit her from Summer School because it was an easy walk down the hill from the University of Cape Town, past the windmill [to her house].

By then she was in a deep depression. She wanted nothing and no one and felt as though she was in ‘sinking sand’. She’d had a telegram from all the communities – the English, the Afrikaans, and the Jewish – wishing her well in her time of pain. And I had said, ‘Well, there’s at least that to hold on to.’ But she wasn't interested.

On her deathbed, I visited her on my way back to Cape Town from Paarl. Stikland was an ordinary hospital and I brought her some grapes from my mother. My mother always gave me grapes to give to her, though usually the nurses would eat them. Oh well.

I came in and she was in a room with other people – about eight of them, all women without any inhibitions.

One had her nightdress over her head, and one was reciting the Bible, and I heard from one corner of the room a little voice, ‘Mama, Mama.’ Sarah’s voice. Over and over again. It was the last time I saw her.

Have you got tears in your eyes?

I couldn’t answer. I looked out the window of Joubert’s little room in Berghof and thought how sad it was for Sarah to have died like that.

Sarah Eva Goldblatt died alone in a hospital in Stikland on 22 May 1975 from pneumonia and heart failure. She was 86 years old.

* * *

[Elsa Joubert:] She organised everyone. Oudtshoorn was hot as hell but she organised everyone. She had to go and give a talk in Beaufort West and then in Cape Town. She was scared of flying (like me), as she had motion sickness, but she could organise everything. She got into the administrator’s car. She had sandwiches and a flask and tried to sleep. I said, ‘Won’t you need to take something to freshen up?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘They’re not coming to see me. They’re coming to listen to Langenhoven.’

I knew nothing about an affair with him. One of our friends had once come back from holiday and told his wife that he had found someone else and was leaving his wife and Sarah went crazy. The thought of an extra-marital affair was too much [for her].

And another reason was that she would spend every Christmas with Vroutjie [Langenhoven’s widow]. Oudtshoorn was so hot. She would have felt so uncomfortable. Once she told me her hair was greying and all that.

‘I didn’t always look like this,’ she had said. ‘I had flaming red hair and I was in love.’

But perhaps that’s the writer [in me] embellishing the story. Maybe she didn’t say that.

[I asked Elsa about an affair Sarah had with Langenhoven. I relayed the story that Guillaume Brümmer, Langenhoven’s grandson, had told me about Engela having once caught the two lovers in the kitchen. Elsa looked surprised and was quiet for a while.]

Who would do that on a Saturday morning?

I admired her for the work she did in primary school education. She was a breakaway like me. We both had rebellious ideas on education.

* * *

The interview left me with conflicted images and thoughts on the life of my great-aunt. I thanked Elsa for her time and told her that I was reading Kannemeyer’s book on Langenhoven because he had a lot to say about Sarah, but it seemed as though he wasn’t very fond of her.

Back in the parking lot, I sat back heavily in my car and clutched the steering wheel. Tears welled up. I didn’t try to stop them. She deserved my tears.

I drove away from Berghof and wondered about my next meeting, with Guillaume Brümmer. I seem to be predisposed to older people. The last time I had visited Berghof was to meet with an old client from my days of private investment banking, many years back.

I had promised to meet him again soon as he had no surviving family, but had never managed to do so. When I phoned a year later, I was told that he had died some months before. I was saddened by this. As with Sarah, it made me tearful to consider someone dying alone with no one to hold their hand and reassure them of their path out of this life.

My association with Elsa Joubert, my elderly client and my impending visit with Guillaume Brümmer made me consider how strange it was that people were seldom known by many for the duration of their lives. So often, what we found out about people who died years back was how they were remembered in their old age but not frequently in their youth. It was far more difficult to conjure up a realistic image of anyone at twenty if you saw only a photograph of them as grey-haired and aged. Such were my first impressions of Sarah and I was determined to find out her story from the beginning. If I could.

Malherbe, Dominique. Searching for Sarah: the Women Who Loved Langenhoven. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021.

Malherbe, Dominique. Searching for Sarah: the Women Who Loved Langenhoven. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021.

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