131. In praise of Brits.

By Peter Fraenkel

All the German Jews in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia – and there were some 40 families – agreed. The Brits were splendid people. Upright, honest, helpful. Herr Wittelshoefer alone had a reservation: Their women were bloodless. But then, several had repulsed his advances.

Someone – I can’t remember who – even produced proof to show the moral quality of the Brits. Their English language did not have a word for Schadenfreude.

I’ve consulted Collins’ dictionary. It offers ‘malicious joy’ or ‘gloating’. Neither is, to my mind, right – and German is my mother-tongue. The German original suggests there is pleasure, even joy, in another person’s discomfort or suffering. Would any true Brit ever display so unworthy a sentiment?

These qualities of the Brits were frequently discussed among the German Jews among whom I grew up. They made it clear they were not comparing the Brits with the Germans of the Nazi period. No, their comparison was with Germans of earlier periods before that man Hitler had led them so disastrously astray.

What accounted for the fine qualities of the Brits? Was it the self- confidence that came with being – for a while at least – a great imperial power? Was it the ethos of their public schools – which were, of course, not open to the public, but only to those who could afford hefty fees? Or what? I don’t know. What I do however, know is that today these qualities have become rarer, far rarer than they once were. Sad.

I remember Mister Teagle, the Justice of the Peace. “No, he could not be bothered to fill in that long form so that my impoverished refugee parents would be let off paying school fees for me.” I’d be happy to pay the boy’s fees” he said “but don’t tell people.”

There was Mr Armitage, the chicken farmer. He knew that as ‘enemy aliens’ we could not get visas to vacation in South Africa. “But everybody needs a break. Would your son like to come and spend a few weeks on my farm? My son will be back from boarding school. Your son will enjoy it. He’ll even hear a lion at night. The beast prowls around a nearby hill.

There was Mr Phillips. He discovered that my father had an enormous English vocabulary and could translate complicated texts – previously unseen – but understood very badly when spoken to. He offered to come three times a week to give him practise.  I could go on. There was the Northern Rhodesian European Educatio Department. Mr Gebbie, the headmaster saw that I was “university material but knew that my parents could not afford the fees. He helped my father to appeal to the Education Department. They immediately offered a loan interest free – for half the costs of my university education. Then Gebbie buttonholed the rabbi: “Couldn’t the Jewish community find the other half?”

They could and did. Three Bulawayo lawyers chipped in. After graduation I paid back the government in monthly instalments, but when offered to pay back the lawyers, they refused. So, my wife and I set up a fund to finance the studies of an African student. I had, I think, learnt something from the Brits.