My father retained the box of discards. The photographs and colour slides that had never quite made the cut; a head cropped off at the neck, eyes caught between open and closed, a small dot of child in a vast and empty landscape. The pictures that were out of focus. Hopelessly over exposed. The disobedient photographs.
Browsing through them recently I came upon a copy of a photograph that I didn’t know was in there. It was wedged between several packets of 1960s Kodak colour negatives, tightly bound together with sticky, perished, yellow rubber bands. The photograph is captioned on the back in my father’s beautifully formed cursive handwriting: My Catch ! Tunny Fish. A 113 pounder. Me and the skipper, Hout Bay Harbour 1960.
My father (he’s the man on the left) and the Skipper are holding up between them a most enormous Tuna fish. Its mouth is painfully threaded and then hooked to a scale, which is in turn attached to a thick wooden stick, and they strain to hold this high enough above their heads so that the full weight of the fish can be suspended and measured.
The sheer scale of the fish strikes me now. It is almost as large as my father. And I notice the blood seeping out of a large wound on the fish’s body that forms a trickle pattern between the body of the fish and my father’s waist and hips as it rubs against his side. I notice the blood on my father’s clothes, and that he isn’t smiling. The fish appears to be looking back from the focal point of the image – that large, round and still very clear, perhaps still living – eye.
The Jews lived in a tight knit community running their lives in accordance with religious customs and traditions that had been handed down from the century before, and they called the town Ponevezh (pronounced pon-e-vesh) which was a transliteration of the name in Yiddish. While my grandfather was an artisan, a watchmaker, his father before him had been a Talmud scholar and was supported by the community. This was something my grandfather disparaged. He was himself deeply obsessed with notions of independence (and this is something that played itself out catastrophically in the generations that have followed, but that is another story).
My father recounts that one-day his father returned from the days work with his nose bleeding, his wire-rimmed glasses smashed and his garments torn. He sat down very heavily without speaking. He charged his way through his evening meal (as was his wont), shoved his bowl and spoon to the side with a great crash and splatter, slammed his fist down on the table, and said (in Yiddish): “Enough! We are going to South Africa”.
It was 1928.
Curious to find out more specifically what was happening in Ponevezh at the time, I google it.
Now, lists annotated with numbers have always consoled my father. It was the strategy that he most often used to tame and control his own fretful life. And in these last many years he has poignantly applied this same system to reign in his elusive and straying mind. I thought about this, and how much he would like this series of lists that I’d found embedded within the rather phlegmatic narrative of a website outlining the history of the Jews of Ponevezh.
According to the governmental survey of 1931 (so this is at more or less the same time that my family left for South Africa), there were 216 shops. Jews owned 163 of these. They they sold groceries, grain and flax, meat and poultry, beverage and food products, fruit and vegetables, textiles and fur, leather and shoes, alcohol, tobacco and cigarettes, haberdashery and home ware, medicine and cosmetics, watches, jewels and reading glasses, radios, bicycles, sewing machines, tools, building materials, furniture, stationary and books.
According to the same survey there were 105 light industry factories and of these 71 were owned by Jews. Factories that produced goods such as glass, textiles, wood, bricks, flour, paper, and baked. And then the most interesting list to me of all was this one:
There were additionally 263 skilled Jewish tradesmen: 70 tailors, 39 shoemakers, 21 butchers, 14 barbers, 14 tinsmiths, 9 bakers, 8 knitters, 8 painters, 8 tailors, 5 oven-builders, 5 glaziers, 5 milliners, 5 carpenters, 5 blacksmiths, 5 cobblers, 4 electricians, 4 corset makers, 4 bookbinders, 4 photographers, 4 watchmakers, 3 furriers, 3 leather workers, 3 dressmakers, 2 wood etchers, 1 printer, 1 locksmith, 1 textile painter and 8 others.
If my grandfather hadn’t left when he did, that number of watchmakers would have been five and not four.
This series of blunt and quantifiable facts suddenly evoked for me a real, physical and visceral sense of the town in which my father had been born. He never wanted to return to it, and I had always imagined it as very cold and bleak, black and white, set in something like the frozen landscape of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. These lists of words sound richly textured, and warm in temperature. They are definitely in colour. I can easily imagine wood, jewels, photographs, groceries, fur, meat, books, restaurants, shoes, coffee, vodka and cigarettes.
I read further that while Jews were clearly very important to the economic life of the town, the drought and other economic crises of 1928-1929 caused Lithuanians much hardship and frustration which they vented in physical attacks on the Jews.
And so, my family boarded their ship. But, in spite of the fact that things went from bad to worse and that in 1941 the Lithuanians helped the Germans to exterminate the entire Jewish community, my grandmother Rosa never forgave my grandfather for uprooting her from her home, and taking her away from her parents. Even though in so doing he had probably saved her life. She was bitter and angry and impossible to please, and the form of protest that as a small child I most easily understood was that she had refused, ever, to learn to speak English.
I don’t think my father liked her. His stories about his mother are never told with compassion, or with a sense of her loss. And there was a story about her that he loved to tell. While he layered and embroidered it with many curious details in the frequent retellings, the core of it always remained intact.
He would probably tell you what he had done the night before, and exactly, just exactly what he had been wearing. He might describe the colour of his shoes or his beat up old car and what it took to get it started. And then he might consider the conditions of the roads and even quite possibly the weather. But here are the bare bones.
They lived on Maynard Street in Vredehoek in Cape Town. It was a Sunday morning and my grandmother woke up and said that she longed to eat a fresh fish. The fishmonger in the neighbourhood was closed and so my father offered to drive down to the docks and find her one. He meets the fishermen just back with their catch and he buys her an enormous fresh Snoek. He takes this home to her, and she tells him that actually, she doesn’t like Snoek. So he sets off again, and this time for Kalk Bay where the fishermen usually sell fish off the quay in the middle of the morning. It’s very windy on that side of the peninsula and so the fisherman have had a bad day and they advise him to try Hout Bay harbour on the other side. He sets off and in Hout Bay he manages to find his mother some Hake. He has it filleted and skinned and is absolutely delighted with himself as he heads back to the house, his fish wrapped up in newspaper, and carefully placed in the boot out of the sun. He triumphantly hands this parcel to his mother who takes a look, smells it and pronounces, “but this fish is not fresh”. She tosses it aside and begins to boil a chicken instead. My father usually added at this point that he really hated boiled chicken and he never understood why she hadn’t learnt to roast.
The photograph of my father and the fish recalls for me this story about my grandmother. There he is, perhaps anxiously, but definitely seriously, holding up for the entire world to see what is by any account a very big fresh fish. I look at his earnest expression, and I think of the extraordinary effort it must have cost him to catch and reel it in. The muscles that strained and tensed to resist it’s formidable pull. And, looking at this photograph now unmoored from its original context it concentrates everything my father must have felt about his mother, and merges with this other well burnished, deeply grooved family myth.