Jackie was one of those unusual South African Jews whose mammaloshen was Yiddish, but whose social language was Afrikaans. Not until, in her teens, when the family moved to Johannesburg, did she learn that English was the lingua franca of most South Africans. That came as quite a shock.
World War I and the Great Depression had major economic consequences for the family. But, however poor the whites, there were always poorer black people (the schvartzes) willing to work for less – especially as domestic servants, work which gave them a roof over their heads.
Over the decades, apartheid came in and tightened the screws on black people. To be more accurate, on all non-white people, the ‘non-Europeans’, or in Afrikaans, the ‘nie-blankes’, the non-whites.
The only ‘nie-blankes’ Jackie knew were servants, delivery ‘boys’ (regardless of age) or men working on the roads under the supervision of a relaxed Afrikaner supervisor, lying on the grass and sucking at a sweet straw of grass.
But the schvartzes comprised more than just black Africans. Most were, but there were the Indians (the ‘coolies’) and the Coloureds, the people of mixed race living mainly in the Cape. One social (and legal) layer above the Indians were the ‘Chinamen’– touching one was meant to bring good luck.
Jews were higher up the ladder, just about acceptably ‘white’ to the apartheid dictatorship which had opposed their entry before, during and after the Holocaust. Some of the Hitler-supporting architects of apartheid had spent some of the war years interred in gaol. Somehow, they won the 1948 election and held onto power for four decades. The Lebanese were granted ‘white-hood’ only after pointing out to the Minister of Immigration that Jesus had come from their neck of the woods.
Jackie learnt English – very well – eventually qualifying as a high school English teacher.
But life took an unexpected turn. As the evils of apartheid turned frankly murderous, her husband decided ‘genug shein’ (enough already!) and decided to migrate to Australia, a place she had only heard of as terra nullius. “People actually live there!?”
The decades rolled by. Her husband died at a good age. She needed care, and Jewish helping organisations are never far away – even in Australia. So she ended her life being personally cared for by, but complaining about, “all these schvartzes”.
Schvartzes, in Australia? Well – actually Nepalese, Filipina, Taiwanese, Indian etc. – the kindest hands and the most attentive care one could imagine. But still schvartzes!
On one visit I discussed her medicines with Sister Patel (the head nurse). To my astonishment, she replied to me in the classic accent of an Indian born and brought up in Durban, the South African port city where I would holiday. “You’re from Durban!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, and I’m Jewish, too. My family came as indentured cane-cutters from Gujurat, because it was below the dignity of Zulu men to cut cane – they were hunters.”
“But we never let on that we were Jewish. There was prejudice enough against us as Indians. The family name was originally Joseph, but Patel was high class in India.”
Jackie’s head schvartze was another Jewess.