Harold Behr

Schneider and Son

We used to call him Uncle Schneider. His first name was Isaac but as there already was an Uncle Isaac in the family he was known to his nephews and nieces as Uncle Schneider, to avoid confusion. He was a tall, distinguished looking man with a shock of grey hair, a ruddy complexion and a jovial air which sometimes yielded to an expression of stern authority whenever he had to give orders to one of his servants. As I remember him, he was never happier than when sitting on the stoep of an evening, glass of whisky in hand. drinking a ‘lechaim’ with his brother Wolf, while the two of them pondered their investments and worked out how to move their shares around the stock market.

He prided himself on being a self-made man. He would sometimes regale us, in his thick Yiddish accent, with stories of his early days as a travelling salesman. He would tell us how he used to set out at four o’ clock in the morning, motor ‘hundreds of miles’ along bumpy country roads with his suitcase full of wares and return home late at night or even the following morning, having snatched a few hours of sleep in the back of his Chevrolet.

He was fond of saying, ‘The more you give in life, the more you receive’ and he exemplified this by donating to many charities, both Jewish and non-Jewish. His generosity, coupled with his sound business acumen, earned him a prestigious role in the local synagogue and ultimately led to his election as mayor of the town, an unusual distinction for a Jew in the heart of rural Afrikanerdom.

His wife, Dvorah, Aunty Dora to us, was the ideal partner for him. She was a warm-hearted, gracious lady, marinated in common sense and unfazed by his excitable temperament. Their two children, Ruth and Geoffrey (aka Yehudah) were as unlike each other as chalk and cheese. Ruth, the firstborn, was easy-going, conscientious and ever ready to please.

Geoffrey was ten years her junior, an unexpected but precious gift to his by now middle aged parents. Unfortunately, he manifested problems from an early age. Clumsy, irritable, easily frustrated and prone to alarming outbursts of temper, he soon acquired the reputation of being out of control, a ‘wilde chaya’ in the family vernacular, graduating later on to the status of ‘bulevan’, ‘grobbe yung’ and ultimately, ‘rotter’, the last in reference to his habit of stealing cash from his parents and sister in order to bribe his schoolfellows into parting with their possessions, although he wanted for nothing.

Tests showed him to be an exceptionally bright child in an otherwise bleak profile. He had limited powers of concentration and resisted all attempts to educate him. He was shunned at school – the older pupils mocked his ungainliness while the younger ones steered clear of him for fear of becoming the target of his aggression. There was a collective sigh of relief when he dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and went into the family business.

The crunch came when Uncle Schneider, who was getting increasingly anxious about the wisdom of the move, discovered that Geoffrey had been siphoning off sums of money from the takings. Ruth ratcheted the tension up a further notch when she discovered that her younger brother had been rifling through her possessions and decorating her private correspondence with lewd drawings.

Geoffrey’s residence in the Schneider home was becoming untenable. The choice lay between consigning Old Man Schneider to an early grave or exiling Geoffrey to a place as far away as possible from the family abode. The latter option being preferable, Geoffrey was moved into an apartment (paid for by his parents) situated next to a service station on the outskirts of the town. Beyond, lay vast stretches of open veld, the South African equivalent of a gulag. The reasoning was that this enforced isolation would bring him to his senses and wean him from an over-dependent reliance on handouts from the family.

Of course, the experiment failed. Geoffrey found it easier to stay where he was and shop for provisions at a nearby store whose clientele were largely Black labourers, rather than to trek a couple of miles along a dusty road into the town centre to seek sustenance and employment in more salubrious surroundings. Within a few weeks the new apartment had been remodelled into a ‘hegdis’, a chaotic mess in which clothing was strewn over the floor and dishes clogged with food piled in the sink. In vain did Aunty Dora, the only member of the family to visit him, plead with him to mend his ways.

But then, inexplicably, the landscape changed. The apartment became tidy as if by magic. The fridge was filled with healthy food. The bed was made. It had not occurred to anyone that an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle had so far been missing from Geoffrey’s life and that he had at last found himself a girlfriend.

One of the waitresses at the cafe where Geoffrey regularly ate his lunch of burger and chips and drank his milky coffee, was a buxom young woman by the name of Pauline du Pisanie, who felt sorry for this awkward-looking, badly dressed young man sitting on his own, avoiding eye contact. Pauline had a missionary streak in her, which expressed itself in a wish to rescue him, she did not know from what, perhaps himself. This urge began to work in tandem with a desire to give herself to him unconditionally. The chemistry of opposites began to operate and what had started as out as an offer to help him to maintain his apartment in a neat and orderly fashion developed into a warm and mutually agreeable relationship. For the first time in his life, Geoffrey felt accepted and understood.

There was only one small problem – Pauline was a dark-complexioned lass whose physiognomy and identity card clearly marked her out as ‘Coloured’. Although the structures of Apartheid had already been dismantled by the time Pauline and Geoffrey’s relationship had begun to blossom, the prejudices which had been etched into the nation’s collective psyche for several centuries had not yet begun to fade. Nature and social taboo were on a collision course, and to escape the opprobrium which was being heaped on them, they retreated into an even more remote region of the gulag, where they took possession of a ramshackle dwelling with corrugated iron walls and blankets for doors.

Here, they started up another cafe of sorts, from which, thanks to Pauline’s charm, energy and diligence, they eked out a modest living. Geoffrey often decorated the front of the cafe with his presence and sometimes helped out with menial tasks but otherwise remained in the background.

I wish that I could conjure up a happy ending to this story of father and son, but reality seldom obliges. Having recited the mourner’s Kaddish for his son on receiving news of Geoffrey’s marriage to Pauline, Uncle Schneider and Aunty Dora lived on for another two decades without ever getting to meet any of their four grandchildren, and when the time for them to be laid to rest, Geoffrey’s voice was not among those at the cemetery reciting the Kaddish for them.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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