Daniel ‘Danny’ George Hyams was born on 1 June 1921 at 24 Doran Street, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, to Louis George Hyams (b. 30 July 1882; d. ?) and Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton (b. 15 July 1899; d. 29 August 1973). He was baptised on 10 December 1922 in St Anne’s Catholic Church, Belgravia by Fr Francis Burns with sponsors being Louis Leon Le Breton (grandfather) and Lucy Duffield née Le Breton (sister to Danny’s mother).
Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton (b. 15 July 1899; d. 29 August 1973) – Danny’s mother, was baptised on 23 July 1899 at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Mayfair, Johannesburg by Fr J Dupays OMI. The lineage of Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton is traceable back to the 1820 Settlers. Danny’s father, Louis George Hyams was born at 21 Duke Street in the sub-district of Spitalfields, Middlesex County, United Kingdom, the son of a Jewish tailor, Soloman Hyams and Hannah Hyams (née Cohen). Louis George Hyams then married a Catholic, Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton, a marriage that resulted in 3 siblings, Louis Goodman Hyams (b. 13 October 1918; d. 20 December 1987), Daniel George Hyams (b. 01 June 1921; d. 28 December 2012) and Dina Hyams (b. 20 July 1929; d. 19 March 1974). Although Danny’s father was Jewish, according to verbal testimony from Danny, his father was resolute in ensuring that his children always attended Holy Mass on Sundays. The marriage of a younger woman, Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton, to an older man, Louis George Hyams (17 years difference), was not successful and after the two sons, Louis and Danny, the couple divorced. Some years later they then tried to reconcile and remarried which resulted in the third child, Dina Hyams. However this reconciliation was also unsuccessful and they then went through a second divorce. Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton then married Duket William Treurnich (b. 6 July 1892; d. 19 November 1956) on 5 May 1936 although by Danny’s frequent account to his family, his mother remained on very good terms with her former husband, often sharing social card-playing occasions and never having witnessed any acrimony. In the final days of Louis George Hyams (who did not marry again), Agnes Mary Joseph Le Breton was the one who nursed him to the end. In a documented dialogue with Danny’s youngest daughter in 2012, she wrote:
“…Danny said that …he could not understand why his parents broke up, separated and then remarried, then divorced…He does remember that his Mum tried to keep the friendship with his Dad and step- father, ‘Uncle Bill’ (that’s what they called their Mum’s second husband) going for the children’s sake…”
The dialogue continues:
“…When Danny was four years old he started Grade One at the Bez Valley Convent [St Angela’s Ursuline Convent in Bezuidenhout Valley, Johannesburg]… At that time in 1925, the boys were living with Aunty Amy and her husband Uncle John who lived near the Bezuidenhout Valley Convent School in Johannesburg. In 1926 Danny and Louis went to stay with Aunty Lucy and Uncle Sep (her husband, they had no children) on their small mielie farm in Naboomspruit [today, Mookgophong]. Both Louis and Danny attended the Convent in Potgietersrust [today Mokopane] from 1926 for four years. Uncle and Aunty were not well-off, but hard-working people and one year their crop was destroyed by a hail storm. They could then no longer farm as they lost all their income.
Uncle Sep then turned to building, subsequently building the church in Potgietersrust; the Sisters of Charity Convent in Pietersburg [today Polokwane]; and the Brothers of Charity College in Pietersburg (College of the Little Flower).
They then attended the Convent in Pietersburg [Dominican St Pius’ convent] from 1930 to 1931 while living with Uncle Sep and Aunty Lucy in a room in the laundry of the College of the Little Flower. Both boys then started at the College of the Little Flower where Danny matriculated as head prefect and captain of the under 15 rugby team…
… Dad said that his great devotion to St Thérèse began with the Brothers of Charity College of the Little Flower. Every morning and every night the boarding boys had to kneel next to their beds and pray to St Thérèse for Holy Purity. Dad, since then, has always had a great devotion to this Little Flower, St Thérèse.”
This school, run by the Flemish Brothers of Charity, (together with the early formative years in the Dominican convents) provided Danny and Louis with a solid grounding in spiritual development, academics and sporting prowess to the extent that Danny matriculated in December 1937 at the age of 16 years and with a lifetime dedication and commitment to his Catholic faith. The documented dialogue continues further:
“A friend, Thomas Edmund Kinna tried to get him into a mining company to work but as he did not get an A for science (he got a B and he got an A for Mathematics) the company did not accept Danny. Mr Kinna then phoned Danny’s Mum, Agnes Treurnich, and told her he had arranged an interview for him with Hugh Hart who was a partner of Wakeley-Smith & Hart, an auditing firm. Danny attended the interview and was hired on the spot and started work the next day, in March 1938. Danny said this was a clear indication of the intervention of Our Lord as, should he have taken a job in the mining house, he would have led another life!
In March 1938 Danny started studying for his Degree towards becoming a Chartered Accountant at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)…So he would study in the morning before work, go to work at Magor House in Fox Street, Johannesburg during the day, and study again in the evening after work.
He joined the Catholic Men’s Society (C.M.S.) of the Braamfontein Parish (where he was a parishioner in 1938) and at the age of 17 years became Treasurer. He was so taken aback, just out of school, to be sitting round a table with these older, important men, Mr Kinna, a lawyer, Justice……a manager of Standard Bank …discussing accounts and various topics and they were asking him, Danny, about the financial aspects of the C.M.S. and asking his opinion on issues!…”
In the interim with Danny having taken his first steps out into the adult world the dark clouds of the imminent WWII were rising ominously and rapidly on the horizon. To quote from Danny’s essay, ‘A pair of pyjamas’:
“War clouds were gathering in the late 1930s but South African youths and, perhaps, many adults too, were not particularly aware of world events and did not feel threatened…
…This brings me to Monday night, 4 September 1939, when, at our weekly Active Citizen Force (ACF) parade, we were ordered to hand in our bayonets and rifle bolts to ensure we did not participate in the anti-German demonstrations which were causing chaos in Johannesburg. That evening, a momentous debate was going on in the South African parliament where General Smuts finally achieved the vote to side with Britain…”
Danny Hyams (left), mother Agnes Le Breton, sister Dina and brother Louis just before WWII
With a fervour of patriotic zeal, elder brother, Louis, boyhood hero of Danny, was soon amongst the young men streaming to join the recruiting queues. Danny was just as keen to join but having just turned 18 it required some persistent persuasion before his father consented to him taking the oath to volunteer for service “anywhere in Africa” with the Rand Light Infantry (RLI). Danny continues:
“After a seemingly endless nine months, mobilisation orders arrived on 8 June 1940, a week after my nineteenth birthday. A whole year had to pass before the 2nd Division sailed out of Durban harbour…On 21 June 1941 the 2nd Division disembarked at Port Tewfick [Tewfik or Taufiq], Suez… On 31 December 1941 the RLI took part in the Brigade’s siege of Bardia. When our “A” company commander was issuing battle instructions to the three platoon commanders and allocating positions, we section NCOs were also present. My section was part of No. 5 platoon. During the planning the No. 5 and No. 4 officers swapped their originally designated platoon positions. The result next day: No. 4 platoon suffered 100% casualties; No. 5 platoon: 1 wounded.”
This was the first of what Danny was later to describe as:
“…a thin thread of minor, seemingly inconsequential decisions/occurrences being woven into the rough fabric of my life during 1939/1945. They went unnoticed at the time but, on reflection, they make one wonder: was it Divine Intervention?…”
This ‘thin thread’ of Divine Intervention continues to be evident in Danny’s story:
“…We occupied sangars – low walls of rocks where we took cover against shell-bursts or whatever. I shared a sangar with Charlie Garrity… Our section dutifully dispersed to their sangars, but one chap and I remained in the mess area, for no particular reason. The next thing Charlie was hit and badly wounded and my rifle (where I should have been) broken by the shattered rock. This was a case of my being at the wrong place at the right time…
…on Sunday morning (21 June 1942) Tobruk was in flames … and thereafter it was ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost!’… A dozen of us scrambled through the anti-tank minefield… There were some close shaves [before being captured and transported to] Benghazi awaiting embarkation for the port of Brindisi, Italy…
…We were taken from Brindisi by cattle truck to Lucca… In this camp I casually got to know Pax Hallett by attending Sunday Mass … …On 19 March (St Joseph’s feast day) two volunteers were required to empty the latrine pit. As an NCO, I considered it proper to step forward. A moment’s silence and then a tall member of the Natal Mounted Rifles joined me. I had not noticed Owen Fox before…This casual coming together of kindred spirits was the start of a wonderful friendship that lasted until Owen’s death 50 odd years later….
…With the subsequent Badoglio Armistice on 19 September 1943… during the chaos, we …made for the hills. We holed up at the shooting range at Ponte San Pietro, some 10km outside of Bergamo…Who could have foreseen that “week or two” dragging on for 20 long months till the Armistice of May 1945?……And this is how we stumbled into Albenza, the mountain village overlooking Bergamo in the distance and the Lombardy plains beyond. It was already nightfall. The good people welcomed us with a steaming pot of minestra [soup] and polenta [yellow mielie meal porridge]…”
Even though Danny and his friend Owen Fox at that stage lived a life of hide-and-seek, sleeping in various different places in order to avoid detection by the fascist authorities, Danny regularly attended Holy Mass at Albenza’s San Rocco church. Returning to his account:
“…During the Stations of the Cross, Passion Week 1944, at the third Station, I heard the priest whisper, as he stood just behind me, ‘Please don’t come to Mass or services anymore. You are endangering the church and the people.’ There was a single known Fascist in the congregation and he must have threatened the good Don Gasparini…”
Danny then recounts how he came to know the matriarch Elvira Rota and his future wife Maria ‘Domitilla’ Rota . Of interest here and with reference to Danny’s ‘…thread of minor, seemingly inconsequential …occurrences…’ the following is but one of these incidents as related in Danny’s ‘A pair of pyjamas’:
“…On one occasion, while playing bridge out in the fields with our South African friends, the alarm was sounded and we dutifully dispersed, one chap going back to his hide-out to cover his possessions. I was behind a low bush when six men, including our friend, with some Italian lads and two in raincoats with rifles, hurried by. This did not surprise me as the young men often took their weapons with them when hiding. I stood up and tried to call as I wanted to join them. But I had no voice! The two armed men were carabinieri marching the other four to prison…”
Following Armistice and Danny’s proposal of marriage to Domitilla, he subsequently returned to South Africa where he completed his studies before returning to Albenza to marry Domitilla. In this context it is worthwhile to recollect his entry:
“…Now, with hindsight, I realise that I was predestined to be her companion, her protector enabling her to express this missionary vision as recorded in her diary on 25 February 1971: ‘Little Eden is growing and is blessed as desired by the most beautiful Madonna who appeared to me in June 1967, filling my heart with joy and hope, but also with cares and anxieties. I have dedicated myself to my Jesus and to His most holy Mother’…”
It has been the universal observation of all who knew the couple that Danny fulfilled exactly that role i.e. of a protector, an enabler, one who acted in the background, one who gave encouragement and support and who proved to be THE central and necessary complementary figure in the work which Domitilla initiated. Domitilla had the incessant drive, ethereal vision and missionary spirit for the betterment of humanity not constrained by materialistic or earthly considerations. Danny on the other hand complemented this free spirit with a solid grounding in the tedium of daily realities, a cautious, conservative approach and a true gentleman in every respect, acknowledging and giving due consideration in all situations. He was the one that worried about the mundane but real difficulties facing the nascent LITTLE EDEN Society – navigating the socio-political complexities and economic realities of the day. But at the very apex of all these, he was that necessary loyal and faithful companion, a great supporter and guardian of his beloved Domitilla – one who understood her motivation and encouraged her from the very beginning to continue to fulfil her mission on earth.