Family’s tightly-stitched secrets unravelled

A group photo taken in 1981. Jeff is spotted in the gold hard hat, second from left. Kneeling in front is Harris Berzack.

For nearly a century the Berzack family name has dominated the sewing and clothing industry in South Africa. Established in the early 1930s and run by its founders, the five Berzack brothers, and their 11 sons, the business made headway in clothing and sewing technology. But, behind the scenes, greed, deceit and bitter feuding led to the unravelling of the family business, according to a tell-all page turner stitched together by a Berzack himself.

Jeffrey Cyril Berzack, son of Joe Berzack, one of the founders, spent a year writing a book about how his English-Jewish family metamorphosed from humble beginnings into a powerful dynasty before everything caved in.

Jeff, 73, was inspired to write the book after going through a “treasure chest” of old photos, documents and business correspondence left behind by his father.

The book is filled with black and white photos but what impresses the most is Jeff’s brutal honesty about sensitive issues, including his strained relationship with his eldest daughter, Lee, or his father’s death.

Joe Berzack died in 1985 after suffering a fatal heart-attack and even though he had been ill for some time, Jeff admits that there was much left unsaid.

“I reflect upon how much was left unsaid between us that really should have been discussed, in order for me to feel a true sense of closure,” he said.

Meeting Jeff in person you find the book to be a reflection of him: straight-shooting and unapologetic.

“Nothing in my life has ever worried me. I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do,” he says.

Jeff was 20 when he started working in the business. He was sent to Stuttgart to train how to become a sewing machine mechanic. “After my experience in Germany, I could virtually assemble a sewing machine blindfolded,” he says.

His grooming also included visiting customers’ factories and shadowing salesmen, all of which moulded him into a capable businessman who held his own until he sold out of the business in 1989, a few years after his father’s death.

His tendency to go against the grain naturally led to the “tension and conflict” in later years between himself and the family and the business. Jeff’s “probing questions” into finances and private activities did not go down well with his uncle, Morry, says Jeff in a section of the book titled “family breakup”.

It didn’t help either that Jeff’s father in-law, Benny Illman, “a sixth brother to the Berzacks”, was also a part of the company and turned his back on Jeff after he split from Benny’s daughter in a “terribly bitter” divorce.

“For some time, their knives glimmered threateningly in the shadows, but when my looming divorce became a reality there was no attempt to hide the fact that Morry, his sons, and Benny, collectively wanted to take me down – and that’s when I felt how sharp those blades really were.”

Jeff compares his split from his family legacy to leaving a “deeply troubled nest of stinging hornets” and admits to a deep sense of sadness for his life which had come to ruin.

That was until he met Lynne Hamburger, whom he calls the love of his life. Fast-forward to the present and there are no Berzacks left running the company. The remaining family members sold out of the business over the last three years, says Jeff, who now lives at Oasis retirement village in Century City with Lynne.

Throughout the years, he has lived in Sea Point, Constantia, Clifton and even owned a quaint little B&B in Bantry Bay. He encourages people to read the book because he believes it’s part of the country’s history.

“If it wasn’t for Berzacks, there wouldn’t be a clothing industry in this country,” he says.

Berzacks – A family business unravelled is available in hard copy and online at Jeff is offering free downloads to the ebook for June, July and August. For more information email