91. A Swarm of Bloody Foreigners

By Peter Fraenkel

I was aged twelve and the first of that “swarm of bloody foreigners” to descend on Lusaka Boys School – curiously named since it also had girls. Mr Jones, the headmaster, saw at once that I would become the victim of bullying: I wore shorts far shorter than customary in Rhodesia and a Basque beret instead of a battered man’s hat.  Even worse, I spoke little English. He appointed Eric as my protector. He was English. The majority of our class were Afrikaners…the tough, rough sons of Boers with farms some distance from Lusaka. Some drove themselves to school in mule carts.

I was put into Standard VI but it soon became apparent that my English was inadequate. So I and the four other of the ‘bloody foreigners’ who arrived a week or two after me, were moved, en bloc, down to Standard V.

Thinking back years later I thought the headmaster made a mistake.  In subjects apart from English – arithmetic, for example – we were well in advance of the class.  I had even learnt some Latin.

On the other hand, in Standard V, we had an excellent teacher, Mr Taljaard, an Afrikaner who spoke German, English as well as his native Afrikaans. Perhaps he also spoke French: his name seems to have been a Huguenot name – Talliard, perhaps – but spelled the Dutch way.  He was the sort of teacher who sensed immediately what might be puzzling his pupils.

One of our parents, Freddie’s father, went and complained so his son – and he alone – was allowed to stay in the higher class. I wish my father had done similarly because a few years later I found myself disqualified from a scholarship because I was then three weeks too old.

We swarm of foreigners were highly motivated. We learnt English quickly. Even among ourselves we soon conversed in English and all but one even refused to speak what came to be called “Hitler’s bloody lingo”.

I was the exception. My father would say “Mit dem Goethe hab’ ich keinen Krach” – ‘I have no spat with Goethe’ and insisted I keep up my German. When, later, I was sent to boarding school in Southern Rhodesia my father even demanded that I write my weekly letter home in German. He posted these letters back later with corrections in red. I approved. This frustrated my teachers’ censorship. I called it ‘snooping’. I made doubly certain by using the Sütterlin alphabet – sometimes called the ‘gothic’ alphabet.

What happened to this swarm of “bloody foreigners”?

Stiel usually got the best marks in class.  His father was a butcher and he became a butcher. Later, he migrated to the United States and, I believe, went into waste recycling.

Strauss came from a family of cattle traders. He became a bookkeeper in a supermarket.

Isaac came from a family of book keepers but set up as a dealer in motor spare parts. Later he moved to Israel and opened a similar business there. I guess competition was fierce. He soon went bankrupt. It would not have helped that his eyesight had deteriorating dramatically. He needed a complicated operation which he could not afford. Three of us, his former class mates, put money together. Strauss contributed surreptitiously because his wife objected vigorously. She objected to his giving away her children’s inheritance. Isaac died young and we discovered he had never had the operation we had paid for. He had needed our money to eat.

Wiesenbacher acquired a saw mill. He had an accident and lost the four fingers of his right hand.  After a lengthy spell in hospital he became a timber trader and learnt to manage with palm and thumb only.

Hertz – I have always been puzzled about him. Could he have suffered early onset dementia? He proclaimed himself a medical consultant and offered unasked for advice to all and sundry. When I challenged his credentials he protested he subscribed to a Popular Medicine monthly from America.  I was subjected to cascades of his e-mailed advice. I asked him to desist. This did not deter him so eventually I blocked his e-mails.

I was the only one to get to a university. Strangers found the money for half of my studies. The Northern Rhodesian European Education department offered the other half as a loan. Somehow, everybody around me expected I would go to University – as my father had done and both my grandfathers. Even one great-grandfather had been a printer and publisher, though, throughout his career, he had hovered on the verge of bankruptcy. He had been publishing Hebrew books of devotion at a time when German Jews were, increasingly, reading Goethe and Lessing and Schiller rather than involved scholastic interpretations of the Talmud.

I have always thought fate had been unfair to Stiel. He had done better than any of us at school. He would have been what they used to call “university material”.

Life is often not fair.