150 The Mendies

By Peter Fraenkel

In Lusaka, my dreary home town, the Mendies were a family of Jewish business people – Mr and Mrs Mendy, two sons and “Sissie” Katie. The son Simon they called Simie. Maurice, his younger brother, was known as Mouggie. Years later I discovered that their family name was not Mendy but Mendelson. They had come from the East End of London and spoke Cockney. They also spoke Yiddish, but I only discovered this when I heard them speaking to Grannie Mendy. The old lady had never learnt much English. There was also an aunt called Katie. This story is mainly about her.

Katie married Sam Osrin who owned and ran the Corner Bar. He too came from the London East End.  I was at their wedding and – aged perhaps 14 – managed to pour myself several whiskies when no one was watching… and suffered terribly the morning after.

At Jewish community events people always begged Sam Osrin to sing. He had quite a good voice and a large repertoire of songs that must have come from East End music halls. Not many people today remember these music halls (I never knew them myself) but once upon a time they provided prole entertainment – before TV took over that function.

In these music halls audiences were encouraged to join in lusty chorus singing or at least to clap the rhythm. Comedians told jokes full of innuendo and these were oft repeated and loudly applauded.

I still remember some lines of one of these songs:

Her mother’s name was Cleo

    and her father’s name was Pat

  so they named her Cleopatra.

 You could tell she was a Yidne (=Jewess)

 from the movements of her hands.”

Mouggie was being trained as a barman. He confided to me once that his uncle was constantly being stood drinks by friendly customers. It would have been rude to refuse, so he accepted the money but poured his own “gin” from a bottle that contained pure water. “If he hadn’t done that, he’d have been under the table in no time,” Mouggie explained to me.

Katie started a branch of the Corner Bar in a new suburb of Lusaka. Was she, perhaps, trying to get away from “Hubbie” Sam’s supervision? She fell rapidly into alcoholism. I was shocked to see her a while later, red faced and bloated, struggling to get into her car. They advised her not to drive but she ignored this. Before long the police confiscated her driving license. She ignored that and drove without a license. She was discovered and would have been sent to prison but the Mendies got her off. They knew everybody who mattered in the town.

I think the hours in an austere cell awaiting trial, had a salutary effect.  She got to employ an African driver!

But booze still killed her off early. She never made it to 45.


The first Yiddish song that Cantor Metzger (who came from Lithuania) taught us had the refrain “Shikker is er, trinken miss er, weil er is a goy”

“He’s got to drink, he has to, because he is a Goy” – a gentile. The next verse, however, tells us “Davnen miss er,davnen miss er, weil er is a Yid.” He’s got to pray. He has to pray – because he is a Jew.

It was presented to us as a statement of fact. And it is true that drunkenness was very widespread among gentile Poles and Ukrainians and much rarer among Jews. More likely, however, this was an appeal to Jews to conform to that image of the sober and God-loving Jew immersed in prayer.

Time for a sundowner drink!