Whatever was it that had brought Dr Hofstra to our school as our Afrikaans teacher? At Enkeldoorn he had been the headmaster. Wasn’t this a demotion? A punishment posting? Was yet another scandal about to break upon our school? Our poor headmaster had already had to cope with two that very year.
You won’t find Enkeldoorn on a modern map. It is now called Chivhu – a small rural town originally settled by poor Afrikaner migrants from South Africa. You won’t even find the country. Southern Rhodesia has become Zimbabwe.
But around 1947 a number of adventurous young Englishmen, recently demobbed, had made their way out to the ‘colonies’. Among them came some real chancers. Our English literature teacher, Mr Greerson, was one of these. It soon turned out that all his qualifications were forgeries. He disappeared overnight and was never again seen in the land.
The second scandal got into the newspapers. It ended with Mr Bickley’s arrest, trial and imprisonment. The papers referred to “gross improprieties” but details were hushed up. There were, however, whispers around the school.
But Dr Hofstra? He seemed so eminently respectable and surely his doctorate, from the University of Stellenbosch, was genuine. He was portly man in his 50s with a belly like that of a medieval monk. He was married to a very thin lady who taught domestic science at a nearby girls’ school. He did not seem very interested in teaching us his language. His interests were confined to Afrikaans poetry. But that could not have explained his punishment posting. His pedagogical methods were unusual but effective: When my first essays proved that my grasp of the language was woefully inadequate he handed me a pile of paperback thrillers in Afrikaans and told me to get stuck in. My language improved.
Once he invited me to tea at his house. No other teacher had ever done this. Perhaps, conscious of the last scandal, he reassured me that two other boys had been invited for the same afternoon. I noticed that all three of us were Jews.
His wife’s cake was memorably good. The afternoon’s conversation was entirely about the Jewish religion. He was fascinated to hear I was a cohen – that I claimed descent from the ancient biblical priesthood.
What privileges did this give me? he demanded to know.
None, I explained. At least, none since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and that had been a long time ago. It merely meant that when seven men were called up each Sabbath to read their fragment of the lesson for the week, a cohen was always called as the first. He was followed by a descendant of the ancient temple servants, a levi. Only after these two were five ordinary Israelites called up: commoners, descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Whatever tribal affiliations their ancestors had once had, these had been forgotten in the intervening centuries.
“No other privileges?”
“None – not unless you call this a privilege: I don’t have to attend funerals. Deaths are considered polluting for a member of the priesthood.”
But why was Dr Hofstra so interested in matters Jewish? we asked.
He told us he was a British Israelite! He believed – yes, he did – that the lost tribes of Israel had, in ancient times, migrated to the British Isles.
We expressed scepticism but – being a very gentle man – he made no attempt to convert us. Only when we demanded explanations did he tell us about the teachings of his people. “British”, he told us, came from the Hebrew berit ish – people of the covenant. Queen Victoria had been a direct descendant of King David. Her family tree had been meticulous researched. It was this descent that entitled the British to have dominion over land and sea.
All this was in sharp conflict with the views held by other Afrikaners. They belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and most of them detested the rooineks who had defeated them in the Boer War and had maltreated their women and children in concentration camps.
We had a curious, puzzling afternoon but as evening approached Mrs Hofstra sent us home with packets of delicious biscuits she had freshly baked for us.
Next term a new boy joined our class. Theo van Straaten had come from Enkeldoorn, just like the good doctor. He could tell us what had brought about Dr Hofstra’s downfall.
“They wanted to lynch him,” he told us. “If his wife hadn’t got in between they might have strung him up. They say they had even brought a rope. But he managed to run to the police station and beg for protection.”
“He had lost his temper. He sure had! He bawled out the entire school assembly because our school had got terrible exam results. “The worst in the country,” he shouted. He was red-faced, furious.”
I found this difficult to imagine: this soft-spoken, portly gentleman?
“A bunch of degenerates!” he had shouted (or so van Straaten told us). “Is there any point in trying to teach such inferior specimens? Intermarriages! Inbreeding!”
Van Straaten said he hadn’t understood all of his tirade, but one of the other teachers had taken notes and had sent them on to the ministry. A copy had also been sent to the predikant of the Dutch Reformed church who had made further copies.
“It’s all those intermarriages… I mean among the trekboers. Look at you lot! After the Great Trek Afrikaners were dispersed in a vast and empty land. When the nearest neighbour is a day’s ride away you marry your neighbour’s daughter, or her cousin – the same thing generation after generation. They became a nation of halfwits. Look at you lot! It’s that inbreeding that I see right in front of my eyes! Brandy didn’t help either… homemade rotgut! You know the song ‘O brandewyn laat my staan”? Oh brandy leave me alone? I ask you: who takes the initiative – the bottle? Or the Boer?”
“Add to it that the lack of intellectual stimulation in that empty veld. Vast space full of nothing! But civilisations develop in cities. Cities!”
We listened fascinated. Was that why he’d been demoted?
At the next opportunity Crick junior, the boldest or the cheekiest of us all, asked the good doctor, tongue-in-cheek: “Sir, why did you leave Enkeldoorn?”
Dr Hofstra chuckled amiably. “I told them a few home truths. That never makes you popular! Remember that, boys! Always remember!”