Posts filed under ‘South Africa’
By his son, Roon Lewald
The following lightly edited and commented memoirs, which I assembled from scattered notes found among the many poems and other writings left by my father after his death in 1988, is a tale of two countries. It is the story of a man who left his German fatherland in disgust over the rise of Nazi tyranny to settle in South Africa, where he became a well-known singing teacher and adjudicator. The memoirs bear witness to the remarkable development of South African classical music culture from the year he arrived in 1938 until his retirement in the early 1980s. By that time, he and other musical pioneers had helped to nurture a vibrant musical life in which there were opera houses in every major city and several fine symphony orchestras, while talented young singers were making a name for themselves in Europe. As a fugitive from Nazi racist dictatorship, O.A. Lewald learned to love his new country but abhorred its Apartheid-era race laws. Affectionately remembered by friends of all race groups, he privately ignored the colour bar to include Africans and Coloured among his singing pupils and joined Indian friends to find spiritual peace in yogic philosophy. (See also The Nightingale of Natal, Inyoni and Inyoni Postlude: Zarastro’s Temple).
Memoirs of Otto Albrecht Lewald
I was born in Berlin in 1905 as one of the three sons of Otto Fidelio Lewald, a senior Prussian civil servant who ended his career as governor (Regierungspräsident) of the Prussian administrative region of Hessen. The Lewalds were descended from a Jewish river barge skipper, David Wehle, who migrated from Poland to settle near the flourishing Baltic seaport of Königsberg in 1770. His descendants changed their surname to Markus and finally Lewald, which was adopted as a new German-sounding identity in the early 19th century by my great-grandfather, a prosperous wine merchant who became the first Jewish city councillor of Königsberg. Under the new surname, the entire clan converted to Christianity and rose swiftly to prominence under the Prussian kings who later ruled imperial Germany after the country was united in 1871. The Lewalds and the well-connected, non-Jewish women they married took pride in the artists, authors, publishers, lawyers, army officers and Protestant churchmen with whom their families had served the nation.
My parents, Otto (born 1856) and Margarethe Lewald (née von Roon, an aristocratic granddaughter of War Minister Count Albrecht von Roon, a nationally honored comrade-in-arms of Bismarck) were extremely happily married until Margarethe’s untimely death in 1920. I have seldom seen a more handsome couple. It was one of those marriages whose partners were so intimately united that they lived a separate life from their children. With my elder brother Bernhard and the youngest, Arnold, I was left to the care of a governess. My father was the Police President of Berlin in my early youth, a prominent post which required them to lead an eventful, hectic social life in their large house. It left no time for a normal family life. My parents invariably took their vacations alone at fashionable foreign spas or mountain resorts. At home, they frequently even dined alone.
This superficially glittering family life lacked any true sense of togetherness. My father was eventually transferred to Kassel to head the regional administration of Hessen, where I attended the Wilhelmsgymnasium grammar school. I discovered my life-long love for nature as a member of the Wandervogel hiking movement and revelled in the beauty of the forested Fulda Valley in long hikes and camping expeditions.
Like most German boys, I experienced the First World War as a patriotic lad, nurtured on hate propaganda against the Allies. I shudder to recall how my father, a fervent monarchist and pillar of the reactionary Prussian Conservative Party, made us greet each other with the slogan “Gott strafe England” (God punish England). My half-Jewish father’s marital connections to his wife’s aristocratic relatives encouraged him to develop an elitist class-consciousness which left no room for his honourable Jewish roots.
The militarist traditions of the Von Roons were the order of the day. The launching in 1906 of an armoured cruiser named after my maternal great-grandfather, the former War Minister, was a red-letter day for my parents. On Sundays, we three lads wore little sailor suits with the name of the ship – “His Majesty’s Armoured Cruiser Roon” – blazoned in gold on the cap bands. Strangely enough, my two brothers were much closer to my parents than I even though they were very poor scholars, whereas my own early pursuit of intellectual and artistic interests enabled me to sail through all my school classes and easily gain my Abitur (university entrance) certificate. This undoubtedly had something to do with my complicated, critical nature, which made me seek self-fulfilment alone in pursuing the rich rewards of literature, art and music. I started taking violin lessons at 7 and gained a modest skill with the instrument. The occasional theatre, opera and concert performances I was allowed to attend – but never enough for my taste – were unforgettable.
The last two war years from 1916 to the November Revolution of 1918 and the defeat of Germany were extremely hard. The Allied blockade caused increasing food and coal shortages and the long, bitterly cold winters were hard to bear. Along with grief over the death of relatives and friends on the front and increasingly frequent battlefield setbacks, the spectre of final defeat and an attendant collapse of the entire Prussian hierarchy caused depression, ill health and severe nervous crises, with gnawing hunger our constant companion. One lighter episode stays with me as a farewell memory of the glitz and glamour of imperial times. In 1916, the Kaiser paid his last visit to Kassel, where my father was the acting regional governor. The imperial family resided in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, the splendid palais of the former Electoral Counts of Hessen,. The Kaiser’s last adjutant-general was General von Plessen, whose wife was an aunt of my mother. The general paid us a tea-time visit one Sunday afternoon and arrived complete with sabre and jingling spurs in a dashing uniform with red trouser stripes. Wearing our sailor suits, my brothers and I were presented to him and apparently pleased his soldierly eye, for he took us for a spin in the Kaiser’s open white Mercedes. What a contrast to our dull school lives it was to wave gaily at inquisitive onlookers as we sped by, with the chauffeur sounding fanfares on his brass horn! Our appearance inspired the Kasseler Post to report the following day that His All-Highest Majesty’s sons, the three young crown princes, had arrived at Wilhelmshöhe, escorted by the Kaiser’s adjutant!
When the November 1918 revolution heralded the defeat of German arms, the abdicated Kaiser fled to Holland and the Weimar Republic was declared. Chaos ensued as mutinying soldiers and sailors fanned out over Germany, bent on establishing revolutionary soviet republics. My father and his administrative clerks set up machine-gun nests on the roof of the regional administrative building and defended it against rioting demonstrators for three days. An order from the new Social Democratic President in Berlin, Friedrich Ebert, finally ended the siege. My arch-conservative father took great pride in proclaiming that the red flag of revolution had never flown over his headquarters. He continued to govern Hessen with great skill until the mid-1920s at a time of great social unrest, hunger and commodity shortages, and was effusively praised by all Kassel newspapers after his death in 1937. He remains an archetype of duty-conscious, incorruptible Prussian officialdom in my eyes.
The wealth of my parents and the elegant whirl of dinners, balls and other social events they hosted with the help of a swarm of servants, including coachmen, carriages and horses, petered out in 1916. The collapse of my father’s war bonds and post-war inflation diminished his financial resources and the death of my mother in 1920 ended what little was left of family life.
I was a late developer and my ambitions to become a singer – which would never have been tolerated by my father – were thwarted when I was forced to conclude that my voice was not promising enough to justify these hopes. After several false starts, such as unsuccessful attempts to study law, become an army officer or enter the book trade, I was advised by my singing teacher, the renowned Prof. Emil Lardy, to enrol for training as a singing teacher. Under his guidance, I successfully absolved lengthy musical studies at the Berlin Conservatoire. I owe the director of that time, Prof. Bruno Kittel, and his excellent staff a great debt of gratitude for pointing me towards a profession in which I felt I could achieve something positive and find personal satisfaction
However, the rise of the Third Reich thwarted my hopes of a career in Germany. My father did not inform me and my brothers of our Jewish background and our status as “one-quarter Jews” until 1933, when the National Socialists were preparing to impose their ideology on Germany as a new “state religion”. I was staggered by his belated admission. My brother Arnold was not affected because he had emigrated to Chile in 1925. My elder brother Bernhard, a lowly postal clerk, had been a National Socialist and an SA storm trooper for several years. Despite his “non-Aryan“ status, he somehow managed to retain his citizenship rights and fought with the Wehrmacht in World War II. He died of a stroke in 1946.
In my case, teaching as a non-Aryan was out of the question. But my engagement to Helen van Pletsen, a young South African singer whom I met during her studies at the Conservatoire under Lardy, seemed to promise a happy future elsewhere.
After seeing the Nazis browbeat an entire race of defenceless people – burned alive in their synagogues and disappearing into whispered-of concentration camps – I was so horrified that I swore never to harbour any feelings of racial superiority. Engaged to my lovely South African fiancee, I decided to leave a country which, with few exceptions, had been misled by a gang of criminals and adventurers. My grief and shame over what had happened to the nation of Kant, Goethe and Schiller remains indescribable to this day. Helen urged me to emigrate as soon as possible and give up my career as a singing lecturer at the Conservatoire, where I had become Prof. Lardy’s assistant.
I faced one major problem: I had been an officer candidate in the professional army of the Weimar Republic (the Reichswehr) and was liable to be called up. In fact, I had made all my arrangements to leave on the SS Windhuk in April 1938 when an order arrived to report immediately for military service. My influential uncle (Theodor Lewald, a former State Secretary in the Imperial Interior Ministry and organiser of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games – Ed.) helped me to secure a special exit permit from the Defence Minister, a personal friend of his, and I left in April 1938 as planned. Needless to say, the Nazis confiscated most of my savings and I arrived in Durban with 300 pounds sterling. We were married in Pietermaritzburg in December 1938.
It was a very difficult start as I could neither speak nor understand English or Afrikaans. We stayed in a cheap boarding house, where we were served tea at an ungodly hour in the morning by a pretty Zulu girl. As always when meeting a lady, I lifted my hat and greeted her with a bow. My Afrikaner wife was horrified and admonished me never to do that again. It was my first lesson in how to behave to Africans in South Africa. White men simply did not greet black women in the street. However, I was fascinated by the different races, especially by the beautiful Indian women and the physically magnificent Zulu men.
I depended entirely on Helen in company with other people, which was nerve-wracking for both of us. After taking stock of the beautiful countryside and meeting both English and Afrikaans speaking South Africans, I moved to Durban. We took two rooms in a termite-riddled house with a rather grubby-looking English couple and installed our furniture and my grand piano, pictures and books. It was the stoep (front veranda) which made me choose the house. I then met the musical director, who promised to help me, and started teaching a few pupils. I don’t know how we managed to understand each other. I had plenty of time and started taking walks to reconnoitre the surroundings. I would have loved to enter the Indian homes I saw along the Umgeni River and meet the residents, whose women wore such lovely saris. I greeted passers-by politely in my atrocious English, supported by vague gestures. They naturally saw that I was a foreigner, but they and the young Zulus always smiled and were very patient.
As a former Wandervogel hiker, I walked for hours. On Sundays, I took the train southwards or northwards along the Indian Ocean coast and was thrilled by the southern splendour of the flora and fauna, which was all new to me. I listened, observed and learnt as much as I could every day, studying local manners and customs and the way the different races treated each other. I was still too new to form settled opinions, but I was immediately disgusted by the treatment of non-whites, who had to humbly accept being shouted at, humiliated and patronised. With few exceptions, English and Afrikaans whites displayed the same contemptuous behaviour. I decided never to share such habits. I had always regarded members of all races and colours as equal human beings. Even as a boy, I had resented the way my parents followed the upper-class customs of the early 20th century in treating their servants.
The few Germans I met showed that the germs of Nazidom had already infected this country. Even the Durban Town Clerk once asked me curiously why I had emigrated to South Africa from a country with such a fantastic leader and government. I winced in discomfort, but how could I explain to him what was really happening?
We had meanwhile settled in a rented house. Helen taught at a Durban high school, took part in radio plays at Broadcast House, sang in municipal concerts and gave broadcast recitals of the Afrikaans Lieder I composed. I soon had many pupils and, from the beginning, the City Council sent me Africans with magnificent voices to train. My English and Afrikaans vocabulary improved considerably through much reading, conversation and language studies at the Technical College.
However, I was very homesick. I remember sitting on a rock at the beach in my spare time and looking northwards, especially when a German ship was leaving the harbour. News from home was very worrying as knowledge of Nazi cruelty and mass murders spread. A hostile atmosphere towards all Germans gradually arose. There were many Nazis in Durban. They rejoiced over what was happening at home, voiced hopes that South Africa would adopt the Nazi ideology and proudly wore swastikas. Many Afrikaners were infected. If they had only known what would happen here if the Nazis took over! To love the country of my birth and hear what was happening in Austria and Czechoslovakia was agony. I often lay awake in deep shame and grief before getting up to brood for hours. How could it happen – my country systematically brutalized, neutral countries invaded, new victims arriving daily in the concentration camps; not only Jews, but all non-Aryans of other “inferior” races treated like dirt – and my own brother an SA storm trooper!
However, I had my work to distract me and it kept me very busy. I had very pleasant relations with my pupils and they all improved enormously. My African students were intelligent people who were soon singing successfully in public. Black painters and poets came to visit us and I remember one of them reading a beautiful description of the Zulu heartland in the Valley of the Thousand Hills. My wife and I were always careful to respect other races and our children learned to communicate in four languages in their infancy – to their mother in Afrikaans, to me in German, to other whites in English and to Africans in Zulu.
Among my African pupils was Victor M’Kunu, a slim, handsome youngster with an intelligent, Egyptian-looking face and a lilting, very melodious voice. He was very musical and had a truly amazing flair for languages. As a domestic servant (“house boy”) at the Durban firm of Allan & Hanburys, he had a tiny salary and had to support his parents as well, so that he could only pay 10 shillings a month. Even so, he had managed to install a second-hand piano in his kaya (servants quarters). Besides voice production (based mainly on deep breathing), he also needed tuition in note-reading and the basics of Musical Theory and Harmony.
After a successful audition at Broadcast House, he soon started broadcasting regularly with the small SABC radio orchestra. His voice was also recorded. We finally decided to send him to England and arranged a farewell concert with the help of the Mayoress, Mrs Ellis Brown. To a packed house, he gave a long singing recital in German, English, French, Latin and Italian. His last song, the Lord’s Prayer, was so deeply felt and moving that I saw several people wiping tears from their eyes. We collected 70 pounds and the Mayoress presented him with a large suitcase and wished him Godspeed. He soon achieved success in London and made many appearances. Not long afterwards, however, I was grieved to hear that he had died of tuberculosis. As a farewell present, he had given me a pastel sketch of the Valley of a Thousand Hills which he had drawn and framed himself in gratitude for my treating him “like a son”. The late Erna Sack, a personal friend who was a famous soprano in her day, was so taken with the picture during a concert tour of South Africa that I gave it to her as a present.
As my children became older, I often took them out into the country by train to hike in the green countryside or bathe in the sea. We once had to wade along a river for a few miles because I had lost the way, but a charming young Zulu brought us to a railway station. I well remember the brothers of the Marianhill monastery. They had a beautiful cathedral with a black Christ, Madonna and apostles and a little chapel in the woods where I loved to meditate.
I was spiritually confused at the time. I meditated and read voraciously but could find no answers in Christianity, which seemed narrow, smug and intolerant of other religions. I was fortunate to find a German translation of 80 sayings by the Chinese sage Lao Tse. The clarity and wisdom of this little book became my daily companion. (Editor’s note: The author’s deep interest in religious philosophy subsequently led him to find spiritual fulfilment in Indian yogic teachings).
I was overwhelmed with grief and shame when the immensity of the Nazi hate harvest was fully revealed at the end of the war. With mad Hitler dead in his bunker, Germany’s beautiful cities were in ruins and the starving population was ruled by the Allies. Apart from the six million Jews and other non-Aryan victims of Nazi persecution, five million Germans had died, thousands were in concentration camps and many more fugitives from eastern Germany were streaming westwards to seek shelter. Large parts of pre-war Germany were sliced off and shared between France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, while Stalin and the western Allies carved up the rest into hostile halves. Grief-stricken as I was, I realized that the victorious Allies too had suffered millions of deaths. I knew that the unforgivable Nazi atrocities had aroused a world-wide loathing of the perpetrators that would eternally brand every German. But I had to accept that the punishment and the hatred were just. From now on, every decent German would have to live down our shame through an exemplary style of living.
Broadcast talks and publications in Afrikaans about German music brought me invitations to adjudicate two successive eisteddfods in Pretoria. I did so successfully and met many musicians and other interesting people in the national administrative capital. I was greatly attracted by the city and its warm hospitality. The Middleveld climate was much healthier than in subtropical Durban, where I had little hope of enlarging my studio as a German among the mainly English-speaking population. And in the final analysis, Durban was a culturally limited holiday resort where I had never felt physically or mentally comfortable.
In 1950, German and Afrikaner backers formed SAMUT (South African Music and Theatre Organisation), a cultural group that aimed to engage famous European musicians for concert tours all over South Africa in outback as well as urban communities. The proceeds were intended to finance foreign study bursaries for promising young South African musicians. To my surprise, I was offered a directorship in Pretoria, responsible for choosing both artistes and bursary candidates. I would also represent SAMUT in Pretoria, where all concert tours would start, attend to the personal needs of the artistes and plan media advertising. The salary they offered was reasonable. I had always abhorred the idea of office employment that would chain me to a desk and fixed working hours. I also had hardly any business experience. But the chance to leave Durban and settle in Pretoria seemed too good to be true. So I enthusiastically accepted after persuading my wife to give up her teaching job and move to Pretoria with the children. The move also required me to give up my Durban singing studio and find accommodation for us in Pretoria.
The staff were very pleasant, especially the secretary, Eva Lubbe, whom I had already met. The first two singers to be invited for tours were the famous coloratura soprano Erna Sack and the renowned opera and Lieder singer Heinrich Schlussnuss. I had known them very well in Berlin and was consequently asked to help organise and advertise the concerts, arrange receptions and invite all musicians and others interested people to meet them.
It was only five years after the war and anti-German animosity was still running high. A reception for the two singers was organised with the help of snacks and refreshments from the German community and was hailed in the local press as a great success. The City Hall was packed for Erna Sack’s first concert, though the city fathers and the Music Director deliberately snubbed her by failing to appear. Wearing a light-blue dress that set off her blonde hair, the attractive singer was hesitantly received at first. But after a series of Italian arias and German Lieder, capped by the Valses of Johann Strauss with their coloraturas, quick runs and the incredible top notes for which she was famous, the audience went mad. Such singing had not been heard in South Africa since Amelita Galli-Curci, long before the war.
In his pre-war heyday, critics had hailed Heinrich Schlussnuss as the world’s greatest lyrical baritone. I had often heard him at the Berlin State Opera, at Bayreuth and in many Lieder recitals before the war. Though he was now in his sixties, I found his lilting, melodious voice incomparable, both in opera arias and even more so as the greatest (then) living interpreter of the German Lied. He sang to packed houses everywhere and, in my opinion, reached a mastery which is still unrivalled today in Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Strauss. At my request, he sang Richard Strauss’s “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (Dream in the Twilight) so sensitively that I was moved to tears.
The first student to win a SAMUT bursary was Lessie Samuel, a fine young pupil of the renowned former pianist and teacher Adolf Hallis. She soon left for Germany to study in Hamburg with Konrad Hanssen, himself a highly respected pupil of the world famous Edwin Fischer.
SAMUT’s fortunes waned after inviting the German tenor Marcel Wittrisch, whom I had often heard at the Berlin State Opera in his prime before the war. He had also sung in Bayreuth and made many records. I was not responsible for the choice of Wittrisch and his tour was a costly flop. I was not impressed by his singing during the SABC publicity broadcast I arranged for him. His high notes especially were no longer good and he was no longer the serious artist I remembered. His Lieder interpretations were sugary and he seemed more effective as an operetta bon vivant. He was furious when I advised him to avoid top notes and concentrate on a frothy repertoire more suited to his talents. SAMUT lost heavily and was unable to make its planned bursary award to Dawie Couzyn, a very promising baritone. Wittrisch complained of lack of support from me. I had never been given a contract and SAMUT suddenly told me that my services were no longer required.
I was now in a very precarious position, but with the support of influential friends like choir leader Helena Strauss, founder of the well-known choral ensemble Cantare, I opened a singing studio in Pretoria and rented a large, comfortable house. My wife and the children arrived before Christmas. Quite soon, I had enough pupils to make a living and we were soon able to buy a well-situated house with a large garden and a front verandah, which we had partly enclosed to make a separate studio for me. The fact that I had recommended a tour by the famous Lieder singer Elisabeth Schumann before I left helped to make me known in music circles. The German Lied was tremendously popular at the time and my own wife had gained a considerable reputation with concert and broadcast recitals of Lieder and arias in Durban. Helen had a rich mezzo-soprano voice and a vast repertoire in German, English, French, Italian and Afrikaans. Among her successful appearances in Pretoria was a recital at the residence of the Transvaal Administrator, Dr W.M. Nicols.
Afrikaners who remembered my SAMUT activities encouraged me to develop a second occupation as an adjudicator, which was to take me to towns and rural communities throughout the length and breadth of South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) during the next 12 years. After I had adjudicated in several centres, the University of South Africa (UNISA) asked me to adjudicate for them. I was initiated by Petrus Lemmer, a brilliant teacher and well-known composer as well as a UNISA examiner. I was later appointed to the board for Licentiate Examinations, where I worked with Lemmer, Dawie Roode and the Italian musician Lorenzo Danca.
Recalling South African musical life in the early years, I must express my admiration for its remarkably swift development since then. Of famous singers during the war years, I should mention the wonderful dramatic soprano Cecilia Wessels and Betsy de la Porte, a mezzo with great artistic potential, an amazing memory, a gift for languages and an enormous repertoire of operatic arias and songs. Both had sung successfully in Europe for years. Other names that come to mind are the fine spinto and teacher Margaret Roux, the charming English mezzo Dorothy Clarke, the “Transvaal nightingale” Nunus Holtzhausen, lyrical tenor Dirk Laurens and the baritones Stephen Eyssen and Louis Knobel. I also admired the gifted composers S. Le Roux Marais, P.J. Lemmer, M.C. and Dawie Roode, Dirkie and Pieter de Villiers, Prof. Gerrit Bon and Sydney Richfield. Along with the fine conductor Jeremy Schulmann, Anton Hartman did perhaps more than anyone else for young Afrikaner artists and the development of a national symphony orchestra.
In my opinion, South Africa in my time could be compared to Italy as a fount of golden singing voices, perhaps due to the climate, the outdoor life and the mixture of European cultures. But compared with today, aspiring singers had very few chances to reach a professional standard in the early years, apart from competing for examination honours or eisteddfod prizes. There were no opera houses except the charming little Pretoria opera house. The venues were cinemas like his Majesty’s in Johannesburg, the Criterion in Pretoria and the Alhambra in Durban. There were only a few municipal orchestras under the baton of Fritz Schuurman in Johannesburg, Edward Dunn in Durban, the excellent Theo Wendt in Cape Town and a few very small SABC orchestras, undoubtedly the best of which was led by Jeremy Schulman.
English organist John Connell, a very enterprising musician but a mediocre conductor, founded an opera company in Johannesburg in the 1950s and imported foreign singers for the heavier roles. A renowned Lithuanian prima donna with an impressive knowledge of opera repertoire, Madame Olga Riess, was the backstage mainstay as coach and producer. She later left to teach at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York. A particularly memorable production was Verdi’s Aida, with the excellent lyrical tenor Dirk Lourens as Radames and the silvery-voiced Betsy de la Porte as Aida.
Outside the white community, the voices of the other races – especially the Cape Coloureds and Africans – was enormous, though completely unexploited at that time. When I think of the wonderful voices of the black Americans performing in all the great musical centres of the world, I am sure that will happen one day. Theirs is a natural gift, unhampered by the psychological inhibitions whites often suffer from. One still encounters the absurd idea among white boys and men that singers, other musicians and dancers are “sissies”, which often makes it very difficult for a gifted young artist to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to his talent. No such problems exist among the other races. Their emotional freedom and dedication to all arts including painting, sculpture and acting is overwhelming, and if they had a chance to develop to a professional level, the result would be stunning. I had the privilege of adjudicating eisteddfods in Mamelodi and Eersterus and was amazed by what I heard. Their harmonisation, the way they constantly stayed in tune, their choral singing and their rhythmical sensitivity are a joy to hear.
My own Pretoria studio expanded so swiftly that I was finally forced to abandon adjudication, which paid me less than the lost income from private pupils during longish adjudication tours for UNISA. (An indefatigable worker who rose at 4 a.m. to practice yoga exercises before teaching well into the evening hours, he eventually opened a second studio in nearby Johannesburg and commuted there by train for one day every week. Though the racially conservative climate in Afrikaner-dominated Pretoria prevented him from teaching non-whites there, his pupils in the more anonymous atmosphere of the Johannesburg financial metropolis included several Africans and Coloureds.- Ed.)
Some of my pupils achieved national and even international repute. They include Doris Renyard, a lovely coloratura soprano who sang in all South African cities and gave frequent radio recitals; Ilse Lotz, who later sang in Berlin with Giuseppe di Stefano and later became a lecturer at the Technikon; Gé Korsten, who enjoyed great local popularity as an opera singer and made many recordings of popular ballads; Bronwen Basson, a cultured opera, oratorio and concert singer; and Wicus Slabbert, who sang at several European opera houses and many international festivals before joining the Vienna State Opera ensemble. After Helen’s death in 1984, my deteriorating health and advancing age made me retire to a senior citizen’s home, where I still write and compose. (Written several years before his death in 1988 – Ed.)
Chronik der Familie Van Pletsen von Helen Lewald, geb. van Pletsen*
[Aus der Originalsprache Afrikaans ins Deutsche übersetzt und kommentiert von ihrem Sohn, Roon Lewald]
Nachdem meine Mutter im Jahre 1974 in Pretoria die Chronik ihrer Familie handschriftlich verfasst hatte, wurde das von einem Vetter säuberlich getippte Manuskript von ihrer Verwandtschaft als einzig bekannte Ahnengeschichte dieser in Südafrika weit verzweigten, burischen Sippe mit großem Interesse begrüßt. Sozusagen im Samisdat-Verfahren ging die 9-seitige Chronik von Hand zu Hand und tauchte bald auch bei Stammesmitgliedern auf, von deren Existenz nicht einmal sie in ihren eifrigen Recherchen erfahren hatte. (more…)
By Roon Lewald
It’s the first of the four Advent Sundays, when folks here in Germany light the first of four candles on their Advent fir-branch wreaths and get into the pre-Christmas spirit. Even agnostics can’t help reflecting on the meaning of it all on a quiet Sunday evening when Christmas-minded people take a short break from their gift-shopping labours before plunging back into the seasonal shopping rush again on Monday (illuminations are already up and Christmas markets are booming in the city centers, and Germans are again spending this year as if the recession never happened.) With new terror scares vying with the global economic crisis for attention, the news is so depressing nowadays it’s hard to believe that there’s any room left in the world for the human love, friendship and compassion we hear so much about at Christmastime. I can only draw comfort from the knowledge that many people like myself are at least linked to other individuals by such bonds.
In this mood, I was reminded of a short story by a South African author named Charles Bosman. (more…)
By Roon Lewald
Today, bulk carriers hog the route around the Cape:
a trunk-to-tail procession of robotic mammoths,
shambling blindly by along their migratory trail.
Their polluted wakes despoil the silver tracks
etched in history by wooden ships
erratically tacking through these seas.
First came the great discoverers –
Diaz, Da Gama, Magelhao, Drake.
On their heels, the merchants, priests
and colonizers of Europe
pursued the treasure and the souls
of Marco Polo’s fabled Indies
and the island groves
of costly herbs and spices. (more…)
Translated by Blane van Pletzen-Rands
Click here for extended Genealogy
by her son, Roon Lewald
When my mother completed her hand-written chronicle of her Van Pletsen ancestors in 1974, a typed manuscript produced by an admiring relative was photocopied many times and found its way to numerous members of her tribe throughout South Africa. As far as I am aware, the Afrikaans-language manuscript remains the only known history of the Van Pletsens (or Van Pletzens with a “z”), and graphically portrays a typically huge clan of Afrikaner (Boer) descendants of mingled Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers.
I was nevertheless astounded when, during a random web session in 2008, I stumbled on a faithful copy of the “Van Pletsen Saga” in both the original Afrikaans AND an English translation in this very same blog. From Bonn in Germany, where I have lived since emigrating in 1971, I immediately contacted the responsible blogger in New York. I was delighted to find out that editor The Rev. Br. Blane van Pletzen-Rands BSG is indeed a remote relative as well as a fellow expatriate, with a similarly nostalgic attachment to the positive aspects of Afrikaner traditions and the expressive Afrikaans language with its fine literature. Like many Americans, post-colonial South Africans – especially those who have joined a swelling diaspora in Europe, both Americas and Australasia in recent years – are deeply interested in their ancestral origins. Since Blane came upon a copy of the Saga during a visit to relatives in South Africa, he has therefore made it a centrepiece of his blog. The many comments it has attracted show that it has become a watering hole for virtually migrating Van Pletsens and other South Africans. (more…)
Deur Roon Lewald
(Scroll down for an English Translation)
1. This isle is full of noises…
Jy wonder soms watter skalkse geeste
hierdie skraal vinger land geskep,
van die hand van Afrika geskei het
deur die hoe kneukels van sy berge
en geplaas het tussen wêreldmere
wat hier kop-aan-kop baklei oor
die besit van dié besondre plek,
waar hul wisselstryd van wind en weer
sy see- and bergtonele telkemaal vertower
en besiel met sy unieke plant- en dierelewe. (more…)
There is, for me, something remarkable about well-crafted Afrikaans prose. Her words are fertile; a faithful translation into English will often demand of a translator three words for each pregnant Afrikaans word. She remains, for this writer, a language that at once embraces and estranges her readers, for she is essentially tribal.
Any engelsprekende that has ever ventured into a conversation in Afrikaans with Afrikaners might know what I’m trying to place my finger on: his toungue immediately betrays him as an outsider; there is an awkward moment of sheer horror when conversation halts — and resumes — in English. There is little to no middle ground for those who speak Afrikaans as a second, third or foreign language. Our battered vocabulary and slaughtered syntax betray us immediately for the buitelanders that we are. It is our shiboleth. (more…)
by Roon Lewald
In one of my latest visits to the blog of an American friend, I was intrigued by a sensitive description of her visit to the remote grave of Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leipoldt, sheltered by an overhanging ledge of sandstone at Pakhuis (Storehouse) Pass in the rugged Cedarberg mountains some 200 miles north of Cape Town.
Christian Frederik Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947) is revered by Africa’s only white tribe as one of its finest poets. He was a leading luminary of the “Second Movement”, the generation of language pioneers which produced the first poems of genuine literary value in Afrikaans immediately after the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. His name is hardly known outside an estimated 10 million or so native speakers spread over South Africa and the now rapidly expanding diaspora of Afrikaner emigrants to the USA, Europe, Australasia and elsewhere. But blog hostess Jenny Bennett has such wide interests that I wasn’t too surprised by her tribute to such an exotic poet. (more…)
In memory of my sister, Deanne Seneschal Raszat, née Lewald, born 31 Jan. 1940 in Durban, South Africa; died 26 Sept. 1996 in Leimen-Gauangelloch, Germany
By Roon Lewald
After cancer won a five-year battle for my elder sister’s life, my brother-in-law sent me a parcel of old studio recordings of Deanne’s singing recitals made by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC/SAUK) between 1953 and 1958. Apart from a pile of yellowed newspaper clips and eistedfodd certificates, they were all that remained of the years when my mother’s coaching of Deanne’s voice propelled her into brief local prominence as a promising young singer. My dutiful elder sister had already been slaving away at her piano lessons for nearly five years when, at the age of 10, our Ma yoked her girlish lyrical soprano too into the musical harness of our parents, both of them singing teachers. At the age of 13, she piped German Lieder and Afrikaans liedjies into an SABC mike for the first time and was introduced on the nationwide “Young South Africa” programme as a young singer with a great future.
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Deur haar seun, Roon Lewald
Toeval? Bestemming? Nee, net weer ‘n bewys dat die Internet alles weet. Nadat my moeder in 1974 haar handgeskrewe familiegeskiedenis voltooi en ‘n hulpvaardige neef dit mooi netjies vir haar oorgetik het, moes fotokopiëe daarvan soos die bybelse wonder van die visse en brode vermenigvuldig het. Want dit het gretige lesers orals in die Van Pletsen-wêreld gevind, siende dat dit blykbaar die enigste bekende kroniek van my oorlede ma se wydverbreide familie is.
Nogtans kon ek amper nie my oë glo toe ek in 2008, amper 30 jare na haar dood, toevallig in die Internet op hierdie einste Amerikaanse blog geland en heel bo ‘n sorgvuldige afkskrif van Ma se “Saga” – nogal in Afrikaans met ‘n Engelse vertaling! – ontdek het. Ek het die redaksie in New York dadelik vanaf my huidige woonplek in Bonn, Duitsland gebel en vasgestel dat redakteur Blane van Pletzen-Rands ‘n vérlangse neef en nes ek ‘n emigrant is. As sulks het hy gedurende ‘n besoek by familie in SA ‘n kopie van die manuskrip in die hande gekry. En dis hoekom my ma se Saga nou ‘n ereplek gevind het in ‘n blog wat gedeeltelik geskep is as ‘n virtuele kuierplek vir diegene wat belangstel in die Van Pletsens (oftewel Van Pletzens, soos sommige takke van die familie dit spel). (more…)