126. The qualities of the British (part 2)

By Peter Fraenkel

An earlier, shorter version of this story was entitled “The Qualities of the British.”

The year? 1939. The place? Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia (since renamed  Zambia.)
In town there  were some 40 families of German Jews recently arrived, my own family among them. Locally we were called “the refugees” but amongst ourselves this became “se refugees”.[Many had difficulties with the English TH.]
My grandfather, who served on many committees, used to say “two Jews …three opinions!” But among the Lusaka refugees there was only one opinion about the British: They were honest, upright, helpful. Herr Wittelshoefer only had a reservation: their women were bloodless. But then, several had repulsed his advances.
Someone – I can’t remember who it was – even produced evidence to demonstrate the moral qualities of the Brits. Their English language did not have a word for Schadenfreude.
I have consulted Collins’ dictionary. It offers ‘malicious joy’ or ‘gloating’. To my mind neither is right. The German  suggests there is pleasure, even joy, in another person’s suffering. Would any true Brit ever display so unworthy a sentiment?
The qualities of the Brits were frequently discussed among the German Jews. They made it clear they were not comparing them to the Germans of the Nazi period. No, their comparison was with Germans of earlier, happier times, before that villain 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, private and elite?Or what? I don’t know. What I do, however, see very clearly is that these qualities have become far rarer than they once were. Sad. Very sad.
Is it a blessed land without racism? Not at all. They long regarded and treated black Africans as hewers of wood and carriers of water but problems arose when these Africans acquired education and came to challenge the white position.
But we German Jews suffered little or no racism. After all, we were white.
I remember Mr Teagle, the local Justice of the Peace. “No”, he told my mother, he did not wish to fill in that tedious form that might have had my impoverished parents dispensed from paying fees for my education. He would be happy to pay my school fees. “But don’t tell people.”
There was Armitage, the chicken farmer. He knew that, still classified as “enemy aliens”, we could not obtain visas for seaside holidays in South Africa. “But everybody needs a break. Would your son like to spend his school holidays on our farm? My George will be back from boarding school. Your boy will enjoy it. Most nights he’ll even hear a lion. The beast prowls around a nearby hill.”
There was Mr Phillips.  He spotted that my father had an enormous English vocabulary and could translate “unseen” texts with ease. But Dad understood spoken English very badly. Phillips offered to come regularly to give him some practise.
There was Gebbie, my headmaster. He saw that I was ‘university material’ but knew that my parents could not afford the fees, He helped my father write a letter to the European Education Department.  They immediately offered a loan – interest free – for half the costs of my university education plus my keep. Next Gebbie buttonholed the rabbi. “Couldn’t the Jewish community find the other half?”
They could and they did. Three Bulawayo lawyers chipped in.
After I graduated I paid back the government in monthly instalments. Then I offered to pay back the three lawyers. They refused.
I had long been uncomfortable, seeing how I was treated while African education was underfunded and neglected. My wife and I then set up a fund to finance the university studies of an African student.
I had, I think, learnt something from those Brits.