When my parents were very young, only a few years older than my grandson is now, they fled their Baltic homes from the growing ugliness of European anti-Semitism. Much of the Western world was closed to them, so they found refuge in South Africa. In 1936, in their mid-twenties, they were married in Cape Town’s Great Synagogue. I was born in December 1938, just nine months before Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and thus started the Second World War. Other family members, not having had their foresight, were murdered in the Holocaust.
As a child growing up in Cape Town’s beauty and delightful climate, I became aware of a distant war, and from time to time evidence would spill into my young life. Opaque blinds had to be lowered over windows at night, and Cape Town, being a significant port city, harbored allied shipping. We were constantly warned “Don’t talk about ships or shipping.” There were men in military uniform in the streets. The adults listened to radio news each night. I was usually excluded, and there was little talk of war otherwise. I do remember the triumph of VE Day, and some guarded speech about concentration camps, and missing relatives. Not much was said, and my questions went unanswered.
After high school, I became an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, and there some of my curiosity about the war was satisfied. I spent much of my freshman year in the basement of the University’s Jagger Library, reading and reading and reading the daily newspapers of the entire period from September 3rd, 1939 to the German surrender on May 7th, 1945.
After graduation, I enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, to do my Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Political Theory and Government. A year later, after a few odd jobs, I applied for, and was granted, my first academic position, as Lecturer in Political Science and Public Administration at the University of South Africa, Pretoria.
A few weeks after my appointment, I returned to visit my parents in Cape Town. While I was there, they surprised me by taking me to a fancy showroom and buying me a watch. A luxury Swiss watch encased in real gold. I already had a serviceable steel watch, and asked why they had gone to the expense of purchasing this costly gift for me. It seemed such a departure from their usual modesty and parsimony.
When we got home from our shopping, my father drew me aside. “Mother and I came here from a continent where Jews were ejected from universities, both as students and as instructors,” he said. “Now we have a son who has just begun an academic career. The watch is to celebrate this critical, joyous moment in our lives.”
By the end of this year, 2016, The Gift will be fifty-five years old. For much of that time I’ve worn inexpensive battery-powered watches. But recently, I removed it from its decades-long hibernation in a bank safe deposit box. It’s on my wrist as I write. It works! Years ago I had thought of passing it along to my grandson, but he is a free American child, born to American-born parents, and has little capacity to understand what the watch represents. Though it weighs only a few ounces, this watch is freighted with a whole range of cataclysmic history and improbable triumph. I think I’ll wear it myself for a while, mostly for the depth and texture of memory. But then I may return it to the vault.
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Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries