Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job

 

When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.

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In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: semanticscholar.org (Bhatia) & retractionwatch.com (Wolpert)

The road to Hogsback

In August 2003, the middle of winter in South Africa, we made a long tour around the Cape Province, visiting small places that figured in the history of my family’s sojourn (beginning 1849) in South Africa. Here is an account of our journey to Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. The writer JRR Tolkien is supposed to have been inspired by the landscape near Hogsback, but not all are agreed on this. The author was born in South Africa (in Bloemfontein), but left the country aged less than three years.

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Between Barkly East and Dordrecht

We sped on from Barkly East to Dordrecht. It was at Dordrecht in 1884 that my great grand uncle Sigmund Seligmann with his partner, another Jewish gentleman, Moss Vallentine opened their first business, a retail store. Later, he opened a general store in Barkly East, where his nephew, my mother’s father, became the town’s only Jewish Mayor.

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Dordrecht Museum

Dordrecht, a smallish place, still has several nineteenth century buildings including one with an elegant arcade supported by cast-iron pillars that serves as a museum. Andre Coetzee, the museum’s curator, pointed out an old shop opposite the museum that he believed had originally been Seligmann’s.  He seemed very certain that this was the building, but he could not show me any evidence to confirm this.

The rain and snow continued to shoot past us, propelled by a fierce wind. Between Dordrecht and Queenstown, we crossed a plain that was quite different to anywhere we had been so far. The plain was quite literally dotted with thousands of ‘black’ peoples’ dwellings, some with rondavels as out-houses. There were few fences. People and animals wandered across the road. The countryside was much less manicured than any other inhabited places we had so far visited in the Cape. Derelict cars were frequently seen. We were in Chris Hani District that includes the town of Queenstown and was under the Apartheid regime part of one of the so-called ‘Homelands’. 

Queenstown is not an attractive town but has a lively buzz and good shops. A sign in the town centre advised motorists to pay for parking at a “mobile parking meter”. This meter turned out to be a person who hangs around the parking area carrying a machine on which he or she records your arrival and departure times and based on these determines how large a parking fee needed to be collected. We found a wonderful spice shop run by a Pakistani man. He had a special table on which he can make spice mixtures to order and, also, had ready-made mixtures including one, very strong in flavour apparently, called “Mother-in-law Masala”. We visited a large branch of Woolworths as many people had commended this chain store to us. We were disappointed: it was like Marks and Spencer’s used to be in the UK many years ago.

We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour. A road marked incorrectly on our map as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. This road proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass (near Lady Grey), was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback.

The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or by walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under surface. Navigating around or across some of these dangerous obstacles reminded me of performing a particularly difficult surgical dental extraction. Just as I had to take care not to damage a hidden nerve or blood vessel during an extraction, I had to drive to avoid injuring some important part beneath the car. Had we broken down on this deserted, barely frequented road, we would have been in big trouble. There was no mobile ‘phone coverage in the area. Hair raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Later, a cousin in Cape Town told me that when he had used this road, he had grounded his vehicle and thereby damaged its fuel line. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised “Road not recommended for caravans.”

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A view from Hogsback

We found our accommodation: a collection of cottages called The Edge. The name refers to the position of the cottages which is at the very edge of the summit of the Hogsback ridge over which can be seen a view of the coastal plain over a thousand feet below. Our cottage was large but unheated except for a small, inadequate fireplace poorly located in one corner of the cottage remote from the bedrooms. We ate an excellent curry made by Dion and Shane who own a restaurant near our cottage. All night the snow fell, and the wind howled.

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A church in Hogsback

Reflecting on the Lehman Brothers

I have just seen a performance of the much-hyped, sold-out, “Lehman Trilogy” at London’s National Theatre. It is written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and ‘adapted’ into English by Ben Power. Starring Simon Russell Beale and two other actors, the three-and-a-half-hour drama charts the rise and fall of the Lehman brothers and the financial establishments they created. It is in three parts separated from each other by intervals. The first part and the beginning of the second narrate the Lehman’s family saga clearly, entertainingly, and quite interestingly. Then, the latter part of the play seems to ‘lose the plot’.

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Seligmann store in Barkly East, South Africa

The Lehman bank’s operations literally collapsed in 2008. Although I am the son of an eminent economist, I do not understand the subject at all. I was hoping that the collapse of the Lehman Bank might be explained in relatively simple terms as the “Lehman Trilogy” drew towards its finale, but it was not. Rather than explore the dramatic possibilities of what was surely a very dramatic demise of a great financial establishment, the playwright and his ‘adaptor’ merely hinted at the disaster but made no obvious attempt to depict the momentous events that led to a frightful ending that greatly impacted on worldwide news and financial affairs. So, as you can gather, I was not altogether satisfied by the play itself. However, it got me thinking about my own ancestors, who, like the Lehman brothers, left Bavaria in the mid-19th century to seek their fortunes away from Europe across the oceans.

The Lehman brothers, who migrated to the USA in the mid-19th century, were born in Rimpar (Bavaria), near Würzburg. Heinrich (later’ Henry’) Bergmann, my great-grand uncle, was born 50 kilometres south-east of Rimpar in Ditenheim (Bavaria). He was only a few years younger than the Lehmans. In 1849, aged 18, he sailed to Cape Town in South Africa. Soon after arriving, he became the manager of a general store opened in the newly-established town of Aliwal North in the same year. Like the Lehman brothers, Heinrich became very successful as a middle-man. Like the Lehmans, during bad times he gave the farmers (his customers) credit, which they repaid when the wool harvests were brought to his shop (to be sold on to wool merchants). By the early 1860s, soon after marrying the daughter of a Jewish banker in Frankfurt-am-Main, he became the manager of one of the Aliwal’s three banks. Eventually Heinrich’s bank took over its two rivals. For reasons that are not at all clear, young Henrich shot himself in 1866.

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The grave of Heinrich (‘Henry’) Bergmann in Aliwal North, South Africa

Heinrich’s death was not the end of the story. During his time in the Cape, Heinrich was joined in South Africa by his brother and some of his cousins. The cousins in question came mainly from Ichenhausen in Bavaria, 163 kilometres south of Rimpar. Heinrich’s brother married Klara, a daughter of Jakob Seligmann, a successful merchant in Ichenhausen.  Klara’s only brother Isak Rafael Seligmann and his wife had 18 children, of whom 15 lived to adulthood. One of the sons, Sigmund, Heinrich’s nephew, migrated to South Africa from Ichenhausen. He did not join his uncle, but began working for another German, a merchant in Lady Grey, which is not far from Aliwal North. Other young men from Ichenhausen including Sigmund’s brother Jakob and the Reichenberg brothers, one of whom joined Heinrich Bergmann, migrated to South Africa.

Sigmund Seligmann was offered a partnership in the business in Lady Grey but turned it down. He left Lady Grey to open his own shop in Dordrecht, a small place in the Cape. Soon after this, he opened a branch in Barkly East in the heart of a sheep grazing district. Like the Lehman brothers who bought cotton and sold it on, and also acted as bankers for the cotton-growers, Sigmund bought wool from his farmer customers and sold it on as well as lending money to the farmers when times were lean.

The Lehman brothers set their sights high. They moved from being merchants to becoming brokers, and then bankers. Their descendants continued the progression until, finally, others took over the running, and eventual ruining, of the business. Sigmund and many others like him, who went from what was to become ‘Germany’ to South Africa, more often than not retired to Germany when they had made their fortunes. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, life in South Africa was a lot less comfortable than in civilised Germany or the USA, parts of which were becoming very sophisticated. Those who returned to end their lives in Germany had to face WW1 and then later the advent of Hitler’s regime. Sigmund and his children left Bavaria for Palestine, thereby escaping the fate of many Jews who remained in Germany.

Before Sigmund left to retire in Germany, he left the running of his by now very successful business in the hands of some of his very numerous nephews. One of these, who arrived in South Africa in about 1903, was my grandfather Iwan Bloch. Hardworking Iwan, like his father-in-law the future Senator, Franz Ginsberg (an industrialist in the Cape, who had migrated there from Prussia), maintained the successful running of his business as well as entering politics. Iwan became the first and only Jewish Mayor of Barkly East. His life was cut short by ill-health, but had he lived longer I feel sure that he would have entered national politics following in the footsteps of his father-in-law Franz.

With the exception of Iwan’s ill-fated uncle Heinrich Bergmann, this extended Bavarian Jewish family did not take the same road toward high finance as the Lehmans did, but they started at the same point.

Furthermore, the Lehman fortune began to be built from the labour of black slaves in Alabama. This is skirted around casually in the play. Although formally, there were no black slaves in South Africa when my ancestors arrived there, much of the dirty work required to make their fortunes was performed by black Africans, whose treatment by the white Europeans was very far from admirable.

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Adam Yamey’s grandfather, Iwan Bloch, brought the railway to Barkly East in South Africa

I am glad I saw the “Lehman Trilogy” because it is engaging and, although there is little acting, what acting there is was good. Also, it got me thinking about my own history. However, like the doomed bank, the quality of the plot declines gradually as the three and a half hours pass by. Would I recommend it? The answer is “no”.

Prison cells across the Orange

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The Karoo near Colesberg

In August 2003, Adam Yamey and his family enjoyed a long motor trip, an exploration of his South African ancestry, through rural South Africa. Most of the journey was in the Cape, but a couple of days were spent just over the Orannge River in the Free State (formerly the ‘Orange Free State’)…

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Octagonal church, Colesberg

…The road from Graaff-Reinet to Colesberg passes through the Karoo just missing Middelburg. Along the roadside near Middelburg, there were many people trying to sell fragile looking models, made in wire, of the ubiquitous Karoo windmills we saw along the way.

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Typical windmills seen in the Karoo and the Free State

We ate lunch in Colesburg, which boasts an octagonal church.

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Jewish inscription, Colesberg museum

We visited the town museum housed in the building that was formerly the Standard Bank.  There is a good collection of Anglo-Boer War memorabilia as well as a display of the history of the Griqua people. Upstairs there were two memorial stones, one in Hebrew and the other in English. The latter lists the founder members of Colesberg’s Congregation, dated 1920. As we were to find in many museums in small South African towns, the one in Colesberg had a selection of second-hand books (often as we discovered later with pages missing!) for sale.  Under the watchful eye of an official of the Standard Bank we inaugurated use of the newest ATM to be installed in Colesberg. It worked well.

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Orange River

A road from Colesberg runs north across the rolling hills of the Karoo for 60 kilometres to Philippolis (when spoken, emphasis is on the third syllable). Half way along this road we encountered the wide Orange River over which we crossed, entering the (Orange, formerly) Free State. The countryside along this road was dotted with aloes, creaking windmills, sheep and the occasional rather odd-looking cattle known as Boerebeeste. 

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Philippolis

If Colesberg can be described as a ‘one horse town’, then Philippolis is a ‘one horse village’. It was a village with charm and character. Signposts directed us to the Old Jail House.

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Old Jail, Philippolis

Until about 46 years ago this was, in fact, the jail for Philippolis. The army then used it for about 20 years before it became a police post.  For two years it remained derelict but largely untouched by vandals as the locals considered the place to be haunted.

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Cells in the Old Jail, Philippolis

Its most recent owner, Harry, bought the jail and has turned it into a bed and breakfast business. He has preserved as many as possible of the jail’s features and guests may spend the night in the cells. The converted warden’s office is very popular with honeymoon couples.  We stayed in a large bungalow next door to the jail.

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Birth place of Laurens Van der Post, Philippolis

Laurens Van Der Post was born in Philippolis. Following his death in 1996 at the age of 96, a very beautiful memorial to him has been laid out at the edge of the ‘white’ part of the village just near to the edge of the ‘black’ part.

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Z 8 LVDP

This picture and the one above it were taken at the Van Der Post Memorial in Philippolis

A series of white concrete pillars, representing the various stages of Van Der Post’s ‘journey through life’, overlook a beautiful sunken garden made up with stones and bricks of many textures, all having various symbolic meanings.  Adjoining this, there is a small guesthouse that is a very good piece of contemporary architecture. The architect of the whole memorial complex is a South African woman.  Jens Friis, a PhD law student at Stellenbosch and travel writer, and his mother Naomi, showed us around. 

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House with a stoep, Philippolis

We explored Philippolis, which is essentially a fine collection of old single-storied houses with stoeps and often adorned with decorative cast-iron work. There is no restaurant in this town, only a café, the Kokkowitz Café, which closed at 7 in the evening. Harry had arranged for us and, it seemed, all of the other guests at the Old Jail House to have dinner at the home of the Friis family, near the Van Der Post memorial. We enjoyed a bottle of very good red wine, which was produced in the Free State. 

NEXT MORNING:    Harry does not provide breakfast himself, but instead he told us to eat it at the Kokkowitz Café. After a very long wait, we received an excellent fried breakfast. We then walked past the simple flat-roofed house that used to be the residence of Adam Kok (1811-1875), the King of the Griquas, to see the houses that used to be owned by the father of Van Der Post, where the author was born. In Voortrekker Street we visited the Trans Garriep Museum. This museum was icily cold inside. It contains a series of rooms that attempt to reconstruct the kind of house in which white people lived in 19th century Philippolis. There is a small exhibit about the London Missionary Society that set up a mission in the town and also another about the Griqua Kingdom that thrived in the 19th century, and its successful King Adam Kok III. 

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View from Adam Kok’s fortress, Philippolis

The Public Library is next door to the museum and is housed in one of the town’s largest buildings. Formerly this was the home of the Jacobsohn family who owned a shop, still standing but now closed, in the town. The Jacobsohns, the last Jewish family living in the area, now live on a farm and have donated their home to the town.  A very friendly and informative librarian showed us her library. Most of the books were in Afrikaans, also quite a few in English. There were also books in Southern Sotho, Xhosa, and Tswana (only two books in this language – one appearing to be a manual on woodworking). Philippolis is located in an area where several different kinds of Africans live. Many of the ‘black’ people in the area have some Griqua ancestry.

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Colonnaded house belong to the Jacobsohn family, Philippolis

Behind the library, and only accessible through it, there is a pathway that takes one to the summit of a small hillock in the middle of the town from which a good aerial view of Philippolis can be obtained. The remaining three of Adam Kok’s collection of cannon perch here above the town. As we bade farewell to the librarian her parting words to us were, “Even if we all end up killing each other, South Africa is such an interesting country that no one will ever die of boredom”. Philippolis had a curious hold on us; we left with some sadness.

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Library on Vootrekker Str, Philippolis

We were told that we could make a short cut by taking a dirt road to Donkerspoort, near the Garriep Dam (formerly the Verwoerd Dam, a name by which it is still known by local black African farm workers). A thirty-minute ride would, we were assured, save us much time. An hour and a half later we had completed the so-called ‘short cut’. The surface of the dirt road forced us to drive quite slowly. Our progress was further impeded by a series of closed gates across the road that separated fields through which the road passed. At each gate Lopa had to leave the car to allow us through and then to close the gate behind us. As we proceeded, the frequency of these gates increased. Had we taken the long way around, we would have reached the other end of the ‘short-cut’ in 20 minutes! 

Huberta the hippo

 

We visited South Africa in 2003. Wherever we parked, young men offered to ‘look after’ our hired car for a small fee. It was NOT a good idea to turn down their offers!

My great-grandfather, Franz Ginsberg, began industrial enterprises in King Williams Town in the late 19th century.

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Once part of my great-grandfather’s factory in King Williams Town

We drove the short distance to the Amathole Museum (formerly called the ‘Kaffrarian’) in King Williams Town. Our car-minder was David, a friendly young man, who appeared to live in a derelict car parked near the museum…

We returned to the museum on the next day. We received a friendly greeting from David, our car minder from the day before.  He offered to wash our car whilst we were away. As it needed this, we agreed. We met the curator again. She had prepared a vast number of photocopies for me. I returned the photograph album, we chatted briefly, and bid farewell.

We had a quick look around the large museum. One exhibit in the Industry Section was a poster exhorting people not to buy imported matches but instead to buy locally made matches, that is matches made by Ginsberg & Co (my great-grandfather’s company). Near this is a picture of another large enterprise, King Tanning.

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My great-grandfather’s home in King williams Town

The museum has an enormous collection of stuffed animals.  The curator said that this collection was better than the Kruger National Park, and that the animals were easier to see, as they don’t move around! The best known of these animals is Huberta, the Hippo. This creature, in the 1920s, wandered many 100’s of miles south from its tropical habitat in the north of the country and passed through King Williams Town. Near Port Elizabeth, an ignorant farmer ended her life by shooting. The body of Huberta was sent to London for taxidermy before returning to South Africa to its present home.

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David, the car-minder, and his friends

After about an hour we left the museum. David and some of his friends had just started to clean our car. We watched them perform this procedure painfully slowly. Eventually, it was sort of done. To some extent it was a bit cleaner that before! We said good-bye and David asked to visit him again. He asked us to bring him a shirt and a pair of shoes on our next visit to King Williams Town.

She found a strange object…

Barkly East (Barkly Oos in Afrikaans), South Africa 2003:

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The museum curator met us. She gave me a list of the eleven Jews who had been buried in Barkly East’s cemetery. She told us that although Edelsteins was a smaller store, that it acted as a rival to Seligmann’s store. Mrs. Van Wyk related that the last Jewish family to live in Barkly East was the Bortz family. Lazer Bortz had come out of Russia to South Africa with his sister (? Or wife) and both had been employees of Seligmann’s before Lazer set up his own business, as a fuel (i.e. oil and coal) supplier. The business still exists, with new owners, under its original name of “L. Bortz” but the family has long left the town. They went to Bloemfontein. Lazer had a son. The curator used to teach him when he still lived in the town. She then asked for our assistance.

Long after the Bortz family had left Barkly East she noticed something attached their house – she prized it off the wall in order to keep it safe from vandals. She did not know what it was.

It was a mezuzah*, complete with its prayer scroll.

[ * These are always mounted on the right hand side of entrance doors in traditional Jewish homes]