128. Port and Lemonade

By Peter Fraenkel

“Model?” he said, “Model?” And there was something in his voice that implied he knew more about her than I did. I was 13. Spyszek was no older but far more ‘street wise’. He had even explained to me what it was that homosexuals did. Of course, I did not believe him. But Spyszek spoke Polish and I did not, so he could pick up things that I could not. And he knew all about the Mandelstams and told me about them.

Mandelstam had been a furrier in Warsaw, with an elegant shop in the best part of the town. Fur had been good business in the cold winters of Poland, but in the hot climate of Rhodesia it was not. There was no demand for fur coats. Occasionlly he was asked to sew a narrow strip of leopard hide to the collar of a lady’s coat – not to keep her warm but to look opulent. And once in a while a loudmouthed American tourist would barge into his shop with a lion’s hide which he asked Mandelstam to tan. He wanted to take it back to the States to display on his wall. The great white hunter! There were, however, neither enough lions nor lion hunters to make that business profitable.

Mandelstam had brought his “model” with him from Warsaw. She would display his fur coats at functions. Good looking, Jewish like him, but neither was ever seen in a synagogue. With her had come her young son. Was this Mandelstam’s child? People thought it impolite to ask.

She had obviously been used to a grand life-style in Warsaw but here, in Africa, he could no longer provide it. She called him mean. They quarrelled. She threatened to walk out and after a particularly fierce shouting match she did disappear, leaving the boy with Mandelstam.

For a while there was no news of her, then tourists returning from a seaside holiday at Durban, South Africa, reported sightings but they seemed reluctant to say much more. Eventually it came out. She was, apparently, working there as a prostitute.

It caused consternation in the Jewish community. A khonte? A Jewish whore?! Impossible!

It was, in fact, very possible. In Tunisia and in Romania, in particular, a great many prostitutes had been Jewish. But most South African Jews were comfortably off financiallyand bending over backwards to appear respectable.

Outrage was soon raised in the kehilla, the community council. “Something has to done!”

The rabbi and the cantor were automatically members of the kehilla. The elected members turned to the cantor.

“Messerer, you’re a man of the world. What do you suggest?”

The cantor protested. He didn’t like the implication: He was the most faithful of husbands. He was outraged. But there were others on the committee … better qualified … And he looked around knowingly.

No, they protested, they had not meant to imply… no, they really hadn’t. But hadn’t he once been a member of the famous Vienna opera choir… even toured Europe with them? He knew the wide world better than they did. They valued his advice …

In the end he was mollified and agreed to talk to the khonte.
“Take her a bunch of roses,” suggested a member of the committee. “Certainly not,” said Messerer. “It might give her the wrong idea.”

He tracked her down to the lounge of Durban’s Grand Hotel, sipping port-and-lemonade … the preferred drink of prostitutes – low in alcohol. One had to remain alert in their profession. Some men could be dangerous.

“Look,” he launched in without preliminaries “if you want to get out of this …this business …I’m sure I could find you a job or some training. I can get it funded. I can. A hospital nurse? Provided you want to give up this …this…”

As he spoke she slipped off a shoe with a sharp stiletto heel and raised it menacingly: “You keep out of my life and I’ll keep out of yours. Go … now – now! Before I ….” But she never completed her threat. He had already beaten a retreat.