Barbara’s Letter

. . to old Jewish Harrismith friends

Big sister Barbara Swanepoel Tarr met Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the travelling rabbi, who I wrote about some time back. He very kindly gave her a book. 

Barbara tells of her voyage of discovery looking up old Jewish friends. This post is snippets from a letter she wrote:

Many of the names and surnames have been mentioned to me in conversations over the years with my parents and some I knew personally and grew up with. We’re still lucky enough to be able to contact our folks, Pieter Swanepoel (98) and Mary Bland Swanepoel (92), who now live in Pietermaritzburg and still have amazingly good memories. They fill in the gaps with names and places and help make our history come alive.

In Harrismith, the Royal Hotel was built by my great grandfather Stewart Bain and was sold to Mr. Sookie Hellman; the Central Hotel was built by his brother James Bain and was sold to Mr. Randolph Stiller.

– the extended Stiller family –

We lived in the Central Hotel for about three months in 1960. Mom and Dad had bought our first house in town – 95 Stuart Street, and were waiting for the tenant’s lease to expire. There we got to know the Stiller family (Isa was a young girl at school, I think) and Becky Kaplan, the receptionist. The Deborah Retief Gardens were our playing fields, under the watchful eye of Ted and Fanny Glick, sitting on their balcony in Van Sandwyk Flats No 1.

Fanny Glick and my grandmother Annie Bain Bland were the best of friends. Sunday afternoons these two characterful old dears would pick up the three Swanepoel kids in Annie’s big cream Chev and tootle down to the Park on the Wilge River. There we were each given a sixpence and left to our own devices at the round kiosk. ‘Glick’ and ‘Anna’ (that’s what they called one another) enjoyed tea and scones in the Chevy, and us three would swing, slide and no doubt fight on all the wonderful ‘things’ in the playground. 

– See Anna and Glick, great friends, on a drive – we’re in the back seat –

Around 2015 a bee flew into my bonnet, and I started looking for old Harrismith High School scholars. Finding Ivan and Brenda Katz in Joburg was a gem of a find; I also found another strong Harrismith sister, Adele Cohen.

In 1961 in Std 1, I received my first bicycle for Christmas – a blue Raleigh that kept me going to matric in 1970. I remember going into your Dad Eddie Cohen’s shop for a patch, a new tube, a bell or just to look around. All too soon, the three Swanepoel kids were finished with school and our bikes were no longer needed. Happily they became the property of new owners…the three Cohen kids. 

Joy Kadey, your parents’ shop, Jack Kadey’s Jewellers, still stands and is very much alive. Now called Louis’ Jewellers. While the name has changed, very little else has changed in the shop and in the whole building, thanks to Louis Nel and his daughter Erika Nel du Plessis (the owner). She has managed to make time stand still in a little place of long ago. Absolutely worth a visit to this ‘lil ‘ol shoppe’ of our childhood. Erika and husband Pierre du Plessis live in Louis Green’s old home in Warden Street, which they have also restored beautifully. One of Harrismith’s magnificent old homes.

Other Jewish people from old Harrismith are Essie Rosenberg Lunz, John French (great nephew of Fanny Glick, who sent a Facebook link on the Harrismith Jewish Cemetery), David Babbin, son of Isaac and Joey Babbin from the Tickey Bazaar, where you could buy ‘everything.’ How I loved that shop! Walking in through the door took one into an amazing fairyland. Baskets of all sorts on the floor, glass compartments of sweets at mouth-watering eye level, and counters of ‘what you will,’ and everything that could hang was hanging …just ‘as you like it’…..it was all there! 

– the occasion: Ivan Katz’s barmitzvah! –

~~~oo0oo~~~

Shoot Me

We should have been more biblical. Us Swanie kids should have listened in Sunday School and been a lot more faithfully Biblical.

Doesn’t the Bible say quite clearly and unambiguously, ‘Obey Your Father’!? And Pieter Gerhardus said quite clearly and unambiguously, ‘Shoot Me When I Turn Sixty!’

We shoulda been obedient children.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Luckily for him (now aged 98) the Bible might also say ‘Obey Your Mother.’ Does it? Lemme check.

Yep. Ephesians 6 v1 – Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.

~~~oo0oo~~~

On the other hand, our disobedience (or mine, as a son) could have led to this:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, . . . that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother (Ah, Mom woulda saved me) lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place . . . And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die . . . (Blimey! But God Loves ya! Eish!) – Deuteronomy Chapter 21 v18

~~~oo0oo~~~

Again, thank goodness for Mother Mary!

Where Eagles Dare

We drove off the dirt road and onto a green hill, stopped the light blue Holden station wagon and walked up to the top of the low hill which ended in a steep cliff overlooking Natal down below. About 30m below us (I’d guess) was a nest, just as Robbie Sharratt had told Dad there would be, and on the nest was an eagle chick.

– location Normandien Pass arrowed – detail in inset –

The main reason the ole man had taken his dearly beloved son on an outing was his new Canon FT QL SLR camera with a 200mm telephoto lens. It needed a subject, and there was the Black Eagle chick right there in the hot sun. Aquila verreauxii, now called Verreaux’s Eagle.

The way I recall it, we got pics of the nest and the chick, and a parent landed on or near the nest while we waited, but I could be imagining that part. Wonder where those pics are? I’d guess this was ca.1965 when I was ten years old.

It looked something like this (this pic from the Western Cape Black Eagle Project ):

The top pic was taken at Giants Castle in the Drakensberg by ‘Veronesi.’

~~~oo0oo~~~

Drunken Revelry

OK, not really; more a reverie on drink – a nostalgic lookback on a bottle store. Platberg Bottle Store / Drankwinkel in Harrismith, the Vrystaat. The Swanepoel family business. We all worked here at times.

We were talking about the trinkets, decor and marketing stuff. Like those big blow-up bottles hanging from the ceiling. Turns out big sister Barbara kept some of them from way back when:

Younger sister Sheila has some whisky jugs; and I had found an old familiar brandy-making figure online:

..

This is where they were displayed, along with the statues of Johnny Walker whisky, Dewars White Label whisky’s Scottish soldier ‘drum major’, Black & White whisky with their two Scotty dogs, Beefeater Gin’s ‘beefeater’, etc. Spot them below:

~~~oo0oo~~~

Ancient Movies

The old man bought an 8mm cine film Eumig camera and Eumig projector. Made in Austria. This was ca.1963, I’d guess. It once did a bit of – potentially – famous footage!

Later he bought a Canon SLR camera with a 50mm lens like this, and a 300mm telephoto lens. An FT QL like this one. He used Agfa slide film. Had to be Agfa, not Kodak! Agfa had ‘better greens and blues.’

Once I heard Dad had been present when I won a 100m race at the town’s President Brand Park athletic track. I didn’t know he was there – found out later that he had been taking photos. At the finish, in my lunge for the tape, I fell and somersaulted, skidding on my back. I won or tied for first – not sure which, but one of the two. Never did see a photo of that finish – !? Had two roasties on my back for a while.

Once – 1967 – he took a photo of the all-winning U/13 rugby team holding a trophy. So I do have one photo a father took of his son’s school sporting career!

~~~oo0oo~~~

We saw other ancient movies too – those were 16mm.

Knives are Out

. . at this bunfight

The ole man gave me a knife quite recently. Well, in the last ten or fifteen years or so. He told a story in a rare letter to his darling son, written on the back of a Maxprop invoice and folded into the special PUMA green and yellow case:

– PUMA knife – model 3585 – serial no. 29771 –

Let me tell you about this knife, he writes. I first saw it in Rosenthals, a big safari shop in Windhoek more than 30 years ago. This on one of his family holidays he took in the family car. Without the family.

When friends of ours, the Maeders, went to Germany on holiday, he asked them to get the knife for him in Austria, where it is made, by one man, whose name appears in the brochure – a small 50-page brochure that comes with each knife.

– PUMA knife model 3585 – with skinning tips – can also sagen through knochens

The letter continues: Anyway, the knife arrives by post in Harrismith. Uproar!! Urgent meeting: Me, the police and the postmaster – in his office. I had imported a dangerous weapon – the blade was more than 4″ long – illegal!

The postmaster unlocks his safe in the presence of all concerned, removes the knife, makes a tracing of the blade. This is to be sent to the SA Police in Pretoria. Meantime, the dangerous weapon goes back into the safe.

I told them not to be bloody silly; I could walk over to the OK Bazaars right now and buy a butchers knife with a 12″ blade!

After all the dust had settled and all charges paid, the knife cost me R64.00

The ‘over the counter’ price at Rosenthals in Windhoek – which he refused to pay, knowing he could save money by ‘getting it direct’ – had been R63.00!

And I’m always trying to get a better price, to save money! Love Dad

– PUMA knife – 50-page brochure – even a song! – ‘beating of the blade’ –
PUMA knife 3585 details – made by senior forester Frevert, I think –

~~~oo0oo~~~

As a kid way back in the sixties, I took over my Dad’s much bigger dagger; also with a bone handle. One day the duP’s came to visit and Pierre and I were playing with it, stabbing it into the hard Vrystaat ground on our side lawn on the aviary side of the house, seeing how deeply we could bury the blade. I plunged it down with all my might, not seeing Pierre was still tamping down the ground and lawn from his attempt! I just about cut his finger off! Typically, stoic Pierre said Shh! and kept it quiet, going straight off to show his Ma Joan, who cleaned and bandaged it!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Louis, Imperial Schoeman

Mom Mary fondly says bachelor Louis Schoeman was quite important and quite full of himself – ‘He thought he was the Prince Imperial!’ she says teasingly. ‘Louis the Seventeenth,’ she says, adding one to the last of that French line of kings.

‘He played polo, you know, and that was very posh. He walked with a regal bearing. So when he walked in to Havengas bookstore one day and threw down a document on the counter in front of Dad saying, ‘Pieter! Sign here!’ Dad said ‘What for? I don’t sign anything unless I know what I’m signing!’ all the assembled men’s heads turned to Louis, sensing drama.’

‘I’m getting married!’ he announced, ‘to Cathy, the sister at the hospital.’ Well, like sympathetic, caring, thoughtful bachelors will do when a friend is in need, the men roared with laughter and teased Louis unmercifully!

‘And you know what?’ says Mom Mary: ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to him! Cathy bore them five lovely children and was a wonderful companion, mother and home-maker. Wonderful sense of fun and humour, and they were very happy together.’

~~~oo0oo~~~

Buckle the Blacksmith

After Maritzburg College, Dad joined the General Post Office as an apprentice electrician. Around 1st April 1938. Here’s a spirit level he was issued that day:

– Spirit level – Wilson Lovatt & sons Wolverhampton –

While he was still apprenticing, he tried to enlist to join the WW2 war effort, but was sent back. He was transferred to Harrismith, from where he again made his way to Durban and was sent home again, finally being allowed to join after Oupa gave his reluctant blessing. He left for ‘up north’ in 1941.

While in Harrismith ca.1940, he met old Mr Buckle the Blacksmith down in McKechnie street, near the railway station. He was from England.

He ended up with a few tools from old man Buckle: a back saw and a set square with a beautiful brass inlay and brass leading edge.

Dad stayed on a plot outside town – townlands – and bought horses, schooled them and sold them for a profit. I assumed he’d had them shod by Buckle but he corrected me. Buckle was a blacksmith, upholsterer, wheelwright and wainwright/wagon-maker. He didn’t shoe horses. That was up to Charlie Rustov, Harrismith’s only farrier.

From his plot on townlands out west of town** he would ride out to Boschetto Agricultural College for Ladies on the slopes of Platberg, the mountain that dominates the town. Boschetto was where the girls were. The first time he went he met the formidable Miss Norah Miller, the founder and principal. Luckily for him she needed something done, he was able to help and so became a firm favourite of hers from the outset.

While he was telling the story Mom remembered a story about Norah: She knocked on someone’s door. Whoever answered went back and was asked ‘Who was there?’

They said, I don’t know, but she’s got one eye, one leg and a hell of a cough! Norah had one lens of her glasses frosted out, she wore a leg brace (probably childhood polio?) and smoked like a chimney. When her leg brace buckled, Dr Frank Reitz made her a new one. A better one. He would have loved that challenge. He was a hands-on fixer.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Harrismith author Leon Strachan found some fascinating info on Norah Miller’s leg – it was not polio. His source, Isobel Kemp (Dr Frank Reitz’s receptionist for thirty years. Isobel knew everything): It was probably osteoporosis resulting in a hip fracture in 1928, only six years after she established her college. Usually this would have resulted in incapacity and excruciating pain, but Norah was in luck: she was in the right place at the right time, and knew just the right man, bold innovator and pioneering surgeon Frank Reitz, trained at Guys Hospital in London, then did surgery specialisation in Germany.

He operated and joined the femur using an ordinary screw to hold the femur ends together! This trick would only become common decades later, in the fifties. Thirty years later she was still walking – with difficulty, but still mobile, and in charge of her college. When Cedara took over Boschetto she moved there, where she died in 1959, aged 79.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Aug 2021: Ole man phoned me. He found some (one? more? maybe the one I photographed above?) old ‘tri-squares’ with handles made of ebony with brass inlay. Do I want them? I bought them in the late 40s and Buckle was already an old man, maybe eighty. So they are probably 100yrs old. Hell yes, I’d like to have them!

~~~oo0oo~~~

** Old man bought his first townlands from old Englishman Bill Mundy. On the right bank of the Wilge river downstream from town; out on the road that turns south towards Swallow Bridge after leaving the west edge of town below 42nd Hill.

Flag Wappering

If it wasn’t for Arthur Kennedy the ladies of Harrismith would have had a more boring Republic Day in 1961. They would only have seen kids waving flags and men on horseback. Thanks to Arthur there was also a strapping male physique in a tight-fitting white leotard with a bulge in the broek. No ways the komitee vir die viering van hierdie groot dag would have arranged that. That needed Arthur Kennedy.

Here’s footage of the goings-on down at the pawiljoen in the President Brand Park that day. Preserved thanks to the old man Pieter Swanepoel filming it back then with his 8mm Eumig cine camera, and preserved thanks to his daughter Sheila recently having it digitised:

~~~oo0oo~~~

wappering – waving, fluttering

broek – trousers; leotard

komitee vir die viering van hierdie groot dag – prize committee to be on; demonstrated status and power; you got to have input into the celebrations of the day South Africa left the British Commonwealth – uiteindelik! You did not, on said committee, suggest that all South Africans be allowed to be present; if you had those kind of thoughts you would not be on the said komitee

uiteindelik! – at last! Free At Last! Thank Goddlemydee Free At Last! Oh, no that was Martin Luther King Jr

the flag – I know; I just prefer this one

~~~oo0oo~~~

Early Bird Book

Way back around 1968 a new book appeared at 95 Stuart Street Harrismith. I was fascinated. Nearly as fascinated as I’d been when cousin Jack read Valley Of The Dolls from the big wooden bookshelf in our long, dark, carpeted passage. That novel must have been good, as Mom actually physically took it from me, saying ‘You can’t read that’! Oh? Oh, well, back to the bird book:

I was fascinated by the orange Cock-of-the-Rock on the cover. Fifty years later the book was on my bookshelf in Westville and I was sad recently to discover other bookworms also liked it and had got into it in a big – and deep – way. It was riddled with holes. I copied the pages with the plates I remembered best before turfing it out. Hopefully a whole family of borer beetles went with it!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Valley of the Dolls – by Jacqueline Susann was about film stars, their raunchy pecadilloes and their use of ‘dolls’ – amphetamines and barbiturates. Time magazine called it the ‘Dirty Book of the Month,’ probably thinking ‘that’ll kill sales,’ but that and other anti-reviews made people think ‘that sounds interesting,’ and the book was a runaway commercial success, becoming the best selling novel of 1966. I mean, a review saying ‘Dirty Book of the Month’ might have made Mom Mary not buy it, but it likely had Dad head straight for the bookstore! So there it was: From one metropolis to another – New York to Harrismith – in no time.

By the time of Susann’s death in 1974, it was the best selling novel in publishing history, with more than 17 million copies sold. By 2016, the book had sold more than 31 million copies. In 1967, the book was adapted into a film. Like the book, the reviews were scathing, but it was an enormous box-office hit, becoming the sixth most popular film of the year, making $44 million at the box office. Author Jacqueline Susann had a cameo role in it as a news reporter, but she said she hated the film, telling director Robson that it was ‘a piece of shit.’ – wikipedia

~~~oo0oo~~~

Birds of the world: a survey of the twenty-seven orders and one hundred and fifty-five families, by Oliver L. Austin, (1961); Illustrated by Arthur Singer; Edited by Herbert S. Zim, New York, Golden Press; Many reprints were made and it was eventually published in seven languages over many years. I think ours was the 1968 edition published by Paul Hamlyn;

~~~oo0oo~~~

bookworms: The damage to books attributed to ‘bookworms’ is usually caused by the larvae of various types of insects including beetles, moths and cockroaches, which may bore or chew through books seeking food. Mine were little brown beetles. Buggers. I’m procrastinating about checking all my other books! Must do it . .

They’ve got into my books before, the blighters!

~~~oo0oo~~~