63. Margot

By Peter Fraenkel

No one in my family’s memory, ever made money.  Some had been in business, but most were failures.  One great-grandfather was a respected printer and publisher – but he hovered, all his life, on the verge of bankruptcy. Thinking about that now, it’s not surprising. He published Jewish books of devotion in the wrong century: By 1870 most German Jews were reading Goethe and Schiller in German and not what he printed: the commentaries on the Talmud in Hebrew.

Margot, my mother, was the first exception. But she was a late starter. In her youth, back in Germany she had been a lady of leisure.  As a hobby she had, occasionally, sewn a dress for her aged aunts. Several times she accompanied the Social Democrat prefect (whose private secretary was her cousin) on the campaign trail. She kept this secret from my father who said that, as a civil servant, he and his family should keep out of politics.

When the Nazis forced us to emigrate Margot found a job as alteration hand in Mrs. Mendy’s dress shop at Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia. As her English became more fluent – though it always remained eccentric – she graduated to sales lady. She proved good at that.

When Mrs Mendy retired she opened a shop of her own – “Margot’s”. Some tell me she could always see which dresses would suit whom.  A few others were less complimentary:

“You had to be very insistent to be allowed to leave her shop without buying a dress.”

But she did “outrageous” things that could have undermined her success. She had suffered racism in Nazi Germany and wanted no truck with the anti-black racism of  white Rhodesians. She encouraged African customers to try on dresses in her shop. No other shop in that place permitted this at that time. But perhaps this could be done discreetly in fitting rooms. One incident, however, forced her dissident views into the open.

A terrible thing had happened: A white farmer employed a small African boy, aged eight or nine, as ‘nurse boy’ and playmate for his 5-year-old daughter. That was common practice at the time. The boy allegedly “molested” the little girl.  Just what this meant among such young children I never found out. The irate father tied the little boy up in a sack and dumped him in a shed on his farm.  Then he drove into town – a distance of 15 or 20 miles – and bought a set of castrating instruments. He drove back and emasculated the child.  He was arrested and charged. The court sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment.  The white settler community was up in arms. They circulated a petition demanding he be pardoned. When they came to my mother for her signature she yelled at the top of her voice that three years was far too little for such a crime and chased them out of her shop. It must have lost her customers but she said she didn’t care a damn.

I am proud of her.