Social Commentary

After a stay in a hospital near my home in Berkeley, California, I received a questionnaire from the Administrator. I responded that I had been delighted with the courtesies and professionalism of the nurses, technicians and physicians, but I resented the antisemitism. On my second morning there, my breakfast tray contained a curious item: wrapped in cellophane was a round, cold, soggy bread-like substance, ashamed of its own pallor. The menu labeled it as a bagel.
Once a week, usually in the morning, the fruit and vegetable man drove his Jewish truck down our street in Cape Town, stopping outside our home and blowing the horn. Until I walked out to look at his truck, I didn’t know motor vehicles could be Jewish.
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.
I wore my best blue suit to meet Harry Springett. In a place where even modest dwellings were named, my parents took me to “Fairhaven,” 15 Flower Street, The Gardens, Cape Town. Mr. Springett was the first photographer I’d met.
My wife nudged me awake and said “I have a pain in my belly.” “Not surprising,” I said, “given all the boerewors (farmer’s sausage) we ate at the neighbor’s braaivleis (barbecue) last night. Would you like Alka-Seltzer?” She said “I don’t think that’s the reason. I think the baby is coming!” Well, that certainly changed the day. She kept a small suitcase of personal items under the bed. It came along with us to the Marifont Nursing Home, a Catholic maternity hospital just two blocks away.
Davey Neipris of Boston, Mass., gave me a left-profile portrait of George Washington. It’s crafted in metal, fractionally short of an inch in diameter, and cost him no more than 25 cents. That was in the days when you could get a cup of coffee, including a refill, for 5 cents.
On a unique occasion, before I entered elementary school, my mother spoke of her birthplace. She called it “Yelok,” the Yiddish form of Ylakiai. It was then a tiny village, a shtetl, in northwest Lithuania, with a population of less than one thousand. About half of them were Jewish. My mother’s family name was Abramson, her father, Simon. I don’t recall her mother’s name, and mother quietly refused any further inquiry. By the time I was a teenager, I realized that she was taking refuge from intense pain, and I didn’t pursue the subject.
We talked with each other for twelve years. To be honest, I did most of the talking, he did most of the listening. I knew he was actively engaged because he would cock his head slightly, just so, and look at me unblinkingly with his warm, beautiful brown eyes. We started at a conversational run, no baby talk.
On the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah in 1946, before my eighth birthday, I accompanied my parents to visit my only remaining grandparent, Blume-Devorah Westermann-Shevelev. The others had all died in Latvia and Lithuania before I was born. We lived in a flat on the lower slope of Table Mountain, with a view of the city and harbor. My paternal grandmother – bubbe – lived in the vibrant suburb of Sea Point, two or three blocks from the oceanfront, from which one can see Robben Island.
In January 1947 my father’s pride and joy arrived. His only child was then eight years old. The brand new 1946 Chevrolet Fleetmaster, grey with a blue top, had been transported to Cape Town by rail from South West Africa (formerly German West Africa, now Namibia) where my mother’s only surviving brother, uncle Abe, owned a dealership. The license plate read OT414, the letters being an abbreviation for Otjiwarongo, an inland town a thousand miles north. 
In 1964, the United States Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, had two Fourth of July parties. One was for people of all ethnicities. The other was a reception for government officials, “sanitized” for whites only. Invited to attend, I declined, repelled by this American tolerance of apartheid. 
Many, many years ago, in deep midsummer, I journeyed to consult with the wisest of all people, the Oracle of Delphi. The arduous horseback ride north of Athens was quite uncomfortable, especially the last twenty kilometers into the mountains. Arriving at the top of the hill, where the temple is located, I sank to the ground and rested on the cool, shaded marble, drinking copiously from an unglazed amphora of cold water provided by an acolyte. I sat there, quietly and reflectively, for perhaps an hour, before being summoned into the presence of the Oracle.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, my father would occasionally bring home from the synagogue on Friday nights a person or couple who had survived the Holocaust.