A small town in South Africa

B 11 Barkly East evening BLOG

 

MY MOTHER AND THREE OF HER four siblings were born in King Williams Town (South Africa) in the home of their grandfather Franz Ginsberg, who became a Senator in the South African parliament in 1927. They spend the first few years of their lives in the tiny town of Barkly East in the Eastern Cape. Their father, who ran a general store, was also the town’s Mayor until he died in the early 1930s.

My mother migrated to England in 1947. Her sister, my aunt, and one of her brothers arrived in England in the 1950s. Both of them had vivid memories of their childhood in Barkly East, which they happily shared with me.

In 2003, we made a trip to South Africa in order to see places associated with my ancestors, who migrated there from Europe during the 19th century. We hired a car to travel between these scattered places. One of them was Barkly East.

Before leaving England, I discussed Barkly East with my aunt and noted what she told me. During one of these discussions, she drew a sketch map of Barkly East,  marking on it various places she recalled. I took her map to South Africa with me.

Barkly East was established in 1874. In 1885, my maternal grandfather’s uncle Sigmund Seligmann, who came to South Africa from Ichenhausen in Bavaria in about 1865. His nephew, my mother’s father, took over Seligmann’s store in the first decade of the 20th century and ran it along with Mr Blume.

Barkly East was an important commercial centre for the many sheep farmers and wool producers in the district. It began to decline greatly when the usage of motor vehicles increased and farmers were able to reach the far larger centre the town of East London.

When we arrived in Barkly East in 2003, we found a town with almost empty streets that gave little or no feeling of its once prosperous past. It looked like a place on its ‘last legs’, a bit like London is now during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’.

On our first day we visited the office of local newspaper,  the Barkly East Reporter,  which was then run by the two Mollentze brothers. They welcomed us and told us a lot about Seligmann’s shop, a place where you could buy everything from a needle to a tractor.

I showed my aunt’s map to the brothers. Despite the fact that she had left the town on the early 1930s, they said her map was very accurate.

Using her map, we found the location of her father’s store, which burnt down in the 1960s. The firm’s wool storage warehouse still stood. It was near to the small street where my mother and her siblings spent the first few years of their lives. It stands next door to the house once owned by Mr Blume.

We were keen to see inside my mother’s childhood home. A young man, probably a teenager,  was sweeping the front porch. His name was Frikkie. We explained our interest in the house. Without hesitation, he showed us around the house despite his parents being at work in their café located near a bridge named after my mother’s father.

It made my spine tingle wandering around the building where my mother was a child. Not having seen it before I was unaware that many internal changes had been made to the building since my mother’s family sold it after my grandfather,  the Mayor of Barkly East, died at an early age.

After my mother’s family left Barkly East, their large house was used for a time as a nursing home before being reconverted to a family residence. My aunt’s two children visited Barkly East in late 2019. They found the old family home, but were unable to enter it. Currently, it houses the offices of the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC). How the tide has changed! In my mother’s childhood, the only non-Europeans who would have entered the house were domestic servants.

We also visited the tiny museum in Barkly East,  where we were welcomed by its curator. Like other curators of local museums in other small South African towns we visited, the curator in Barkly East was concerned about their future in the light of lack of both funding and footfall. She told us about the six or so Jewish families in Barkly East. The last of these, the Bortz family, to leave the town had moved elsewhere a few years before our visit.

The curator said that the Bortz family home had stood empty since they left. Then, after rummaging in a drawer,  she showed us a small metal object in the palm of her hand, and said:

“I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I prised this off the frame of the front door of their empty house long after they left. I took it for the museum. Had I left it there, it would have been taken by someone else eventually. Are you able to tell me what it is?”

It was an empty mezuza, a casing for a prayer scroll that Jewish people attach to the doorframes of their homes and sometimes also within them.

On the last day of our visit to Barkly East,  we visited its extensive cemetery, overlooked by a sad looking shanty town. The small Jewish cemetery containing 11 graves, mostly damaged but identifiable was surrounded by a fence, separated from the resting places of white skinned gentiles. Even after death, apartheid exerted its unsavoury influences. The graves of non-Europeans were in a part of the cemetery well separated from the final resting places of the Europeans.

We left Barkly East, the place where my grandparents enjoyed dinner parties, fly fishing, tennis, and golf, as the snow began to fall on the town. We met many lovely people there during our brief but moving visit to the place where my mother lived for the first decade of her life. I am only sad that she died 23 years before our visit. I would have loved to talk with her about what we saw so long after her childhood.

 

New York! New York!

IN THE SUMMER OF 1992, I began planning a trip to the USA. It was going to be the first trip that I had made to that country since 1963, when our family lived in Chicago for the last three months of that year. While we were in Chicago, President JF Kennedy was assassinated. Most of my 1992 trip was to stay with friends who lived in Manhattan. I was also going to stay in Boston with some other friends. When my cousin Anthea heard that I was going to be in New England, she suggested that I looked up some cousins of my father, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island.

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I was keen not to waste a moment in Manhattan. So, unusually for me, I spent many hours of my spare time at home reading numerous guidebooks to New York. Each of these detailed tomes contained a section on keeping safe in New York. Each one of these explained what to do WHEN you get mugged rather than IF you get mugged. It seemed to me that getting mugged in New York was an inevitable experience for tourists in the city. The more I read, the more anxious I became. As the date of departure drew closer, my inclination to cancel my trip increased steadily. However, my desire to visit New York was greater than my fear of the dangers described in my guidebooks. I decided that should I get mugged, as seemed inevitable, I did not want all my money to be taken. I wanted to be left with some so that I could make my way back to where I was staying after the robbery had taken place. I decided that a safe place to hide my ‘emergency’ cash would be inside my sock beneath the sole of a foot. This is what I did every day in Manhattan, but, fortunately, the guidebooks were not entirely accurate: I was not mugged.

Plenty of beggars tried to entice me to put money into the paper cups they held out hopefully. Once, I succumbed and threw a coin into one of these cups, and its owner shouted:

“Is that all? I was hoping for a hundred Dollars,” adding a few seconds later, “well, it’s a start.”

I loved Manhattan. I loved the quick wittedness of almost everyone I met. I felt as if I was taking part in a Woody Allen comedy, but the things said by New Yorkers were often far cleverer and funnier than any of Woody’s lines.

One purchase I wanted to make in New York was a padded winter jacket. When I entered one shop, I explained what I wanted. When I told the salesman that I wanted both outside and inside pockets, he exclaimed:

“Hey, what are ya? Some kind of secret agent?”

He sold me a superb jacket, which I used until a couple of years ago.

My father had told me to look up one of his first cousins, who lived in Manhattan. She lived high up in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Its windows overlooked The Metropolitan Museum and Central Park. After dinner, I announced that I would walk the few blocks to where I was staying. She was dead against this and insisted I went by taxi. As she and her husband were seeing me off, she said:

“Press the elevator button marked ‘taxi’.”

I boarded the lift, found the button, and pressed it. The lift descended and when the doors opened on the ground floor, I could see a taxi waiting just outside the doors to the apartment block. I was amazed. I had never encountered such a thing before. I felt like a country bumpkin marvelling over the wonders of the big city. This button that summoned taxis seemed to me an example of what made ‘America great’.

It was fun visiting my friends in Boston back in 1992. However, after the excitement and uniqueness of Manhattan, I was not as trilled by the city as many other visitors are.

I took a train from Boston to Providence. It was the time of the famous ‘Fall’ colours. The journey afforded me with a great opportunity to view the outstanding display of autumn leaf colours, which far exceeded my expectations. I had no idea about what sort of time I would be spending with my newly discovered cousins in Providence. My main worry was that they would not take me sightseeing. So, I told them that I would be arriving on a train that reached Providence in the late afternoon but boarded one which arrived in the middle of the day. That allowed me a few hours to look around before I met them.

After spending a few hours on my own in Providence, I returned to the station platform, and then walked up the stairs to the waiting area where I had planned to meet my relatives. I had no idea what any of them looked like. They had no idea about my appearance. I entered the waiting area and found that a lot of people were seated there. I scanned the faces and spotted an elderly lady sitting with two young boys. I fancied that the face of one of these looked like I did when I was only a few years old. Then, I thought that I was being silly, but I was right. I approached the elderly lady, the grandmother of the two boys and introduced myself. Greta, widow of one of my father’s cousins, said she had noticed me and thought that I had a family resemblance to her late husband. She drove us to her daughter’s home in a large American saloon car, swinging the steering wheel with gusto whenever a change of direction was required. My cousin’s family did take me sightseeing. I particularly remember the roads in an Italian neighbourhood. The median road markings were in the three colours of the Italian flag.

I enjoyed my trip to the USA in 1992. My next visit to Manhattan was in 2007. Things had changed a lot since 1992. The city seemed to have lost its edgy, almost electric feel. Gone were the men on the pavements with their paper cups and witty comments. Also missing, were the endless stream of dubious characters walking, often menacingly, along the corridors of the Subway trains. Although Manhattan had probably become a safer place for its inhabitants, I felt that it had become almost twee in comparison to what I had found so exciting in 1992.

Sadly, now in April 2020 as I write this piece, New York City is facing one of its greatest, if not greatest, crises: a viral epidemic that is trying to outdo the Spanish Flu that occurred at the end of WW1. May it return to normal as soon as possible.

Calm sea and Prosperous voyage

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A few years before my mother died, I persuaded my parents to invest in a stereo hi-fi system. My mother would only have such a system if it looked nice. So, they settled on a Bang and Olufsen system. Unfortunately, the aesthetically pleasing speakers sounded awful and we replaced them with something less pleasing to look at but which sounded good. When CD’s (compact discs) became available, I added a CD player to the system. By then, my mother was dead and the appearance of the player no longer mattered.

After my mother died, I was living in Kent. I used to visit my father on Sundays. We used to have lunch together in various restaurants in Hampstead village in north-west London. Always, after we had eaten, we used to viit the Waterstones bookshop and the Our Price music shop nearby.  Often, I would purchase a CD to add to my father’s small collection. On one occasion, I bought a CD with some orchestral music by Beethoven.

Some weeks later, I asked my father if he had enjoyed that CD. He said:

“There is something wrong with it. There is complete silence for the first few minutes.”

I said that I would look into this. When I reached his house, our family home, I turned on the hi-fi system and inserted the problematic CD. My father was right. For the first few minutes, there was nothing to be heard.  Then, I looked at the volume adjustment slider which was marked at equally spaced intervals from 0 to 10. I discovered that my father had been using the system with the volume slider set between 0 and 1. 

The first track on the CD was Beethoven’s Opus 12: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The first few minutes of this piece are very quiet, which is why setting the volume so low made it sound silent. My father’s penchant for barely audible low volume background music was the reason for doubting the integrity of the CD, which I had given him.

 

You can listen to the music mentioned above by clickingH E R E

Why I started to write

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Well over 10 years ago, I came across a website specialising in genealogy relevant to my background. I was curious about my ancestry, but knew very little about it. So, I registered with the site.

One of the sections of the website allowed members to insert surnames alongside towns with which the surnames were associated. So I put my mother’s maiden surname next to the name of a small town in South Africa, where she lived with her parents as a young child. I did the same with my father’s surname. The idea behind this particular section is fo researchers to see if any of the surnames that they are looking into match entries that other researchers had entered. For example, I might have entered ‘Goldberg’ alongside ‘Cape Town, South Africa’. If another person was interested in ‘Goldberg’ families either in Cape Town or South Africa searched this section of the website, they would find all of the Goldbergs in Cape Town or South Africa, which had been entered by other researchers, alongside a link for contacting the person who had entered the information.

So, I entered the two names as described earlier, expecting very little or nothing to happen. My skepticism mas ill-founded. Two days later, I received a message from someone, whose name I did not recognise. He had found my mother’s maiden surname alongside the small town where she lived in South Africa. My new correspondent had worked out that he and I are second cousins. Subsequently, he sent me a family tree for my mother’s father’s family. 

When I told my mother’s brother about this beginner’s luck, he added to it by giving me the family tree for another of my ancestors. One thing led to another, and soon I had compiled an enormous composite family tree. 

My wife commented that it was all very well collecting ever increasing numbers of names to add to my family tree, but that it was not particularly interesting. She suggested that what would be far more interesting would be to look into what the individuals on the tree did when they were alive. This proved to be fascinating, and was the reason that I began writing and publishing books and articles. I fell in love with writing. Regular readers of this blog will know by now that my interests are no longer confined to tales about my ancestors.

 

Picture shows Cuneiform writing at the British Museum

MOTHER IN LAW

This story was related to me by a good friend. She suggested that I publish it on my blog because it illustrates certain attitudes still prevalent in India. I have changed the details for obvious reasons and will tell it in the first person.

This happened during my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1970s. Those days, we were all hippies, often high on dope. I had a fling with Raj. Nothing came of it.

Later and quite by chance, I found myself enrolled in the same postgraduate course as Raj. We got together again, and I became pregnant. Although we weren’t married, I wanted to keep the child, who was conceived out of love, not as a result of rape.

One day, Raj, without informing me where we were going, took me to his parent’s home. I was not dressed appropriately for such a visit, to meet a boyfriend’s parents. I was in shirt and jeans, wearing non matching socks and tatty sneakers.

When we arrived at his home, not only were Raj’s parents waiting to meet me, but also various of his uncles. Raj’s mother, let’s call her ‘Mom’, made me sit beside her and the men left the room.

“So, where did you do it?” Mom began, “was it in a hotel?”

“No, in my room at the hostel” I replied, wondering why she needed to know.

“Oh, in your room… very liberal,” she commented.

“And how many times did he do it?” Mom enquired.

Irritated, I replied:

“Too many times to remember.”

Then, the men returned to the room where we were sitting.

Raj’s father addressed me formally: “My son has been unjust to you. We will honour you by asking you to marry him.”

Raj and I were duly married. Just before our wedding, Mom took me to be examined by a gynaecologist. I was surprised as I had already consulted one before I was introduced to Raj’s parents.

Years later, it dawned on me why Mom had taken me for the gynaecological examination. She was probably checking that I really was pregnant, and not falsely claiming to be with child in order to entrap her son into matrimony.

To save face, Mom always told people that my child was born three months later than its true birthday.

Read what you wish into my friend’s story, but try not to be surprised by it. After all, deciding ones spouse by means other than by arrangement is still relatively uncommon in India.