The Van Pletsen Saga

by Helen Lewald (nee Van Pletsen)

Translated by Blane van Pletzen-Rands 

 Klik hier vir Afrikaans 


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…)

December 1, 2009 at 5:38 pm 36 comments

Tales about (model) ships

By Roon Lewald

For the benefit of non-South Africans who don’t know the time-hallowed Cape Coloured ditty that celebrates the visit of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama to Cape Town in 1863, here are the words in Afrikaans: 

“Daar kom die Alibama, die Alibama die kom oor die see…

Nooi, nooi, die rietkooi nooi,

Die rietkooi is gemaak

Die rietkooi is vir my gemaak

Om daarop te slaap!”


Which translates as:



“There comes the Alibama (with an “i”),

The Alibama comes over the sea!

Girl, girl, my reed-cot girl,

The reedcot’s made for me

For to sleep upon!”


It was while building a model of the historic ship that I researched the background of that plucky little steam vessel and the Cape ditty she inspired. Under Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama was the bane of Yankee commercial skippers, boarding close to 450 vessels and capturing or burning 65 Union ships. Semmes took 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life and treated his captives with great chivalry. So he and his men were already a legend when they docked in Table Bay. 

They gave a party on board and were feted by Cape Town society ashore. The population, and the Coloured dockers in particular, were so impressed that they composed the ditty quoted above. It is sung to this day, perhaps in hopes of seeing Alabama in the harbour again one day. Alas, the Alabama was sunk by USS Kearsarge in a historic gun duel in the English Channel the very next year. So angry that he broke and cast his sabre overboard rather than present it to the victor as honour demanded, Semmes was rescued by the British  yacht Deerhound, but most of his crew were captured.

But what was the “reed-cot” of the song all about, I always wondered? Well, it seems that word-of-mouth tradition somehow merged CSS Alabama with a coastal merchant sloop named Alibama (with an “i”) in her honour. Alabama’s misspelled successor would regularly sail up the eastern Cape coast from Table Bay to a reedy inlet to harvest a shipload for sale in Cape Town, where it was eagerly bought by the Cape Coloureds as cheap bedding material. Custom in that community dictated that, if you planned to marry, you first had to build a reed-cot as a wedding bed for your bride. Which suggests that the reed-cot was made for two, not just one to “sleep upon”! 

No drawings of the Cape sloop survive, but copious plans, sketches and paintings of the British-built CSS Alabama have helped hundreds of model-builders to replicate her in miniature. My model isn’t finished yet, so here’s a picture of Alabama entering Table Bay.

Another model wihereby a tale hangs is a little Venetian gondola I built as a gift for Enzo Ghirardi, the friendly proprietor of Café Venezia, the ice-cream parlour where I order a tartufo every year on the first sunny day of spring and sit there al fresco to celebrate the riot of greenery and flowering shrubs that transforms my otherwise humdrum street after the long, gloomy days of winter. Enjoying this year’s tartufo in bright sunshine the other day, I had a brainwave. “Enzo,” I said, “I’m a pensioner with nothing better to do than build models – so many of them there’s hardly any room left in my flat. So would you like a model of a gondola to display as a reminder of Venice?”

Enzo was delighted and offered to advertise my model-building skills among his customers. I finished the model the other day after some more online research and gave it to him , along with a stack of cards informing his customers that I have models of historic ships, aircraft and suchlike things to sell, or to build according to the buyer’s specifications. So now I’m awaiting callers who will help me to indulge my hobby without cluttering up my flat. Which of you is interested? Meanwhile, ecco – la gondola!  





May 19, 2014 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The Song of the Carpenter’s Plane

By Roon Lewald

Roon Lewald

Roon Lewald

Inspecting his own face in his shaving mirror is a man’s most regular opportunity to commune with himself. For a watching male child, the sight of his father grimacing under a foamy white layer of shaving cream as the carefully guided razor draws attention to this or that bump or hollow is a fascinating spectacle that reveals a great deal about his parent’s facial and sometimes emotional characteristics.

Among my earliest memories of my father are the little German ditties he used to hum or sing while I watched him shaving. They included some rather off-colour barrack-room songs he picked up as a young lieutenant in the Weimar-era Reichswehr, e.g. “Mein Sohn heißt Waldermar / weil es im Walde war / O Anne, Anne, Anne-Marie!” (my son’s name  is Waldemar / because it happened in the “Wald” [i.e. forest] / Oh Anne-Marie!), and “Freu’ dich, Fritzchen, freu’ dich, morgen gibt’s Seleriesalat!” (Be happy, Fritz, they’ll feed us celery salad tomorrow – an allusion to the supposedly eroticizing powers of the celery allegedly fed to the troops going on furlough to counteract the libido-suppressing “bluestone” with which their usual canteen grub was said to be dosed).

But his own favourite “shaving song” was a humorously wise little popular ballad that summed up his own attitude to life and death. “Das Hobellied” (The Song of the Plane) likens destiny to a carpenter whose plane levels everybody in the end, making a mockery of perennial human dissatisfaction over the supposedly better fortune enjoyed by others. Gracefully accept the life you are granted and enjoy it until the very end without letting life’s large or small vicissitudes get you down. And when Death comes for you, you needn’t be too quick to heed his call – but when he insists, lay down your carpenter’s plane with good grace and go. It’s a message my dad fully accepted and lived out until the end of his life. As I myself head towards my 80s, I increasingly appreciate the grace and wisdom of that little song, capturing as it does one of my most intimate memories of my good father. Here is the text (scroll down for English translation):

Das Hobellied

Text & music: Konradin Kreutzer

 Da streiten sich die Leut’ herum wohl um den Wert des Glücks,
der eine heißt den andern dumm, am End’ weiß keiner nix.
Da ist der allerärmste Mann dem andern viel zu reich.
Das Schicksal setzt den Hobel an und hobelt alles gleich.

Die Jugend will stets mit Gewalt in allem glücklich sein,
doch wird man nur ein bissel alt, da gibt man sich schon drein.
Oft zankt mein Weib mit mir, o Graus, das bringt mich nicht in Wut;
da klopf’ ich meinen Hobel aus und denk, du brummst mir gut!

Zeigt sich der Tod einst, mit Verlaub, und zupft mich, Bruder komm!
da stell’ ich mich im Anfang taub und schau mich gar nicht um.
Doch sagt er: lieber Valentin, mach keine Umständ’, geh!
Da leg ich meinen Hobel hin und sag der Welt adé! 

The Carpenter’s Song

You often hear folks squabble over what good fortune means:

One fellow calls the other “fool”, but neither knows the truth.

The very meanest pauper seems to others far too rich.

Fate clamps them all into its vice and planes them equally.

The young forever strive with might for constant happiness

But once you age a little bit, you settle for much less.

My wife oft nags me woefully, but I don’t turn a hair;

I knock the shavings from my plane and let her grumble on!

And when Death shows up one fine day and beckons, brother – come!

I’ll act a little deaf at first, and simply look away.

But when he says: dear Valentine, don’t give me trouble, go!

I’ll lay my plane down on my bench and bid the world farewell!

April 22, 2013 at 6:35 am 1 comment

Webs of Destiny

By Roon Lewald

In the dark ages before tonsured monks from Lindisfarne and Ireland bore their Cross into the dense Teutonic forests, Nordic myths related that the destinies of men and gods were determined by three silent old crones who incessantly wove the myriad threads of individual lives into fateful patterns. The seamless web emerging from their spindles foretold which fallen heroes would soon join their companions in Odin’s heavenly drinking hall, or which chance meeting of man and maid would bless or haunt posterity with self-propagating chains of good or evil. When the calamitous pattern that finally emerged under their tireless hands brought the blazing timbers of Valhalla crashing down to bury the feasting gods and warriors, the old hags dropped their spindles and fled shrieking. The sway of the old gods over the world had ended.

The Norns

The Norns

Someone else must have picked up the fallen spindles and continued the work of the Norns. It was Arnold von Roon, a cousin of my father, who gave me my first glimpse of a stray thread of history that linked two continents and persons as disparate as a German parachute major, wartime South African saboteur Robey Leibbrandt and “Doctor Death”, the Apartheid-era physician who master-minded a grisly campaign of chemical and biological warfare against South African blacks and neighbouring African countries. A series of further coincidences showed me how blindly destiny weaves individual human lives into its vast patterns.

Arnold von Roon first swam into my ken shortly after I emigrated to Germany in 1971. He telephoned me out of the blue, explained who he was and asked whether my sister and I wished to take over the cost of maintaining the grave of my paternal grandmother, Margarethe Lewald (née von Roon), in Kassel. Unknown to us, a sense of familial duty had made him settle the cemetery charges for his Aunt Grethe’s grave out of his own pocket for many years after losing contact with my father, who had emigrated to South Africa in 1938.

Arnold was a former Wehrmacht paratroop major who was known to his regimental comrades by the English-sounding nickname “Ronnie” because he seemed a very model of a British gentleman officer. The modest, affable “Ronnie” was a real find – my first link with living German relatives who had known my father when he was a young pre-war music student in Berlin. The weavers of fate had spun very different careers for the two cousins. As the son of a half-Jewish senior civil servant, my father’s hopes of obtaining a teaching post at a Berlin music academy were thwarted by the Third Reich’s progressive denial of civic rights to “non-Aryans” under the infamous Nuremberg race laws. The night of the burning synagogues and the climactic horrors of the Shoa came later, but my father had thankfully emigrated to South Africa by then.

The two cousins met for the last time in the mid-1930s. At that time, my father had defied his authoritarian parent’s ban on the musical profession he had set his heart on. In doing so, he had abandoned the legal studies my grandfather had ordained as an entry ticket to a senior civil service career befitting the eldest son of His Excellency Moritz Otto Fidelio Lewald, retired acting administrator of the Prussian province of Hessen. Arnold and his mother came upon my good-looking father in the dashing, gold-tressed Hussar’s uniform of a lowly usher at the Ufapalast cinema along Berlin’s fashionable Kurfürstendamm boulevard. After my father showed them to their seats, Arnold’s mother whispered to Arnold: “That’s your cousin Albrecht Lewald. His father cut him off without a penny, and this is how he is financing his musical studies.” Von Roon told me later he was rather impressed by his somewhat older cousin’s dogged defiance of his father, who had struck Arnold as a perfect image of a stern, ramrod-straight Prussian senior official.

Arnold himself was the son of an infantry general and great-grandson of Field Marshal Albrecht Count von Roon, a Prussian war minister whose surname I myself bear as my Christian name. It was the old count’s radical military reforms that helped the Prussian-led German troops to smash the French Army at Sedan, setting the stage for the proclamation of the united German empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1871. As pillars of the old Prussian soldier aristocracy, the Roons were so apolitically steeped in military tradition that Hitler’s rise to power did not deter young Arnold from joining the Wehrmacht. He became a cavalry officer as family tradition dictated, but soon switched from horseback to the rear gunner’s seat of a Heinkel biplane and gained his baptism of fire with the Condor Legion during the Spanish civil war. He then switched once more to join the paratroops, a brand-new type of unit that was to prove its military value when hand-picked paras speeded the Wehrmacht’s lightning conquest of France by smashing the “impregnable” Belgian frontier fortress of Eben Emael.

Maj. Arnold von Roon, wartime paratrooper

Maj. Arnold von Roon, wartime paratrooper

“Ronnie” himself earned a Knight’s Cross during the legendary airborne invasion of Crete. “That was a hairy business all right,” he admitted when I asked him about it over 40 years later. The first paras to land behind the coastal defences took the British by surprise because “the Tommies were expecting a naval assault, so they kept peering at the horizon instead of the sky.” But Ronnie’s lot had such a tough time holding their inadequate bridgeheads that General Student gave a do-or-die order to crash-land slow, tri-motored Ju-52 paratroop transports and towed gliders straight onto wreckage-strewn, still fiercely defended airstrips. The Germans lost as many as 50% of their troops, but the gamble succeeded.

Luftwaffe chief Goering had the propagandistically ballyhooed heroes of Crete flown to his private retreat at Karinhall, a huge, pseudo-Germanic “hunting lodge” in the eastern forests of Germany. Arnold and other Knight’s Cross holders were led to forest clearings, where Goering’s foresters handed each man a loaded gun and helped him to slay a tethered stag at short range – strictly observing protocol that required the number of antler points on the trophy to reflect each “sportsman’s” military rank. During the victory celebration that night, fat Hermann Goering waddled up the enormous wooden staircase and disappeared from sight. Soon afterwards, an aide escorted Arnold and several brother officers to a kind of top-floor playroom. There, said Arnold, he was greeted by the sight of the jovial Reichsmarschall sitting on the floor in his shirtsleeves, for all the world like a grown-up Billy Bunter. With a boyish grin on his chubby, perspiring face, he proudly showed off what may then have been the biggest and finest Märklin train layout in Europe. Listening to Ronnie’s story four decades later, it seemed to me that I could hear the Third Reich’s railway tracks rattling all night long outside Goering’s fantasy world as long, ghostly trains of sealed cattle trucks shuttled Jews, Sinti, homosexuals and other “sub-humans” from the far corners of Nazi-occupied Europe to death camps in Germany and eastern Europe.

A man of my Uncle Arnold’s generation and military conditioning was hardly an instinctive democrat and showed little interest in the antics of the politicians in the modern parliament, which he tartly dismissed as the “Bonner Quasselbude” (i.e. the “Bonn hot-air factory”). Yet he had no sympathies with the Nazi regime he had served so courageously, seeing his wartime exploits purely in terms of a soldier’s duty to his fatherland. “We had no choice,” one of his old regimental buddies told me at Arnold’s 80th birthday party – a sentiment which may not satisfy those modern Germans who bemoan the lack of effective resistance to the Hitler regime within the Wehrmacht, but accurately reflects the apolitical traditions of the officer caste from which Arnold sprang.

In personal terms, Uncle Arnold was a lovely man – a kind, unassuming septuagenarian who kept himself as fit as a flea by regularly scaling the mountains surrounding the apartment he shared with his charming wife Anneliese in the sub-Alpine region of Miesbach, a village to the south of Munich. When he took me up his  “Hausberg” (favourite local mountain) one summer day, traditionally attired in huntsman’s green with a badger’s brush at the front of his hat, he kept striding or hopping from rock to rock ahead of my gasping, stumbling figure. Just a foothill, not a real Alp, he commented, but high enough for my unaccustomed eye to delight in a riot of small wild flowers that became increasingly tiny and more intensely coloured in the clear mountain air well above the treeline.

Von Roon in his late 70s

Von Roon in his late 70s

“Ssh – look,” he whispered at one stage, pointing to a bare rock wall looming high over us. My city-dweller’s eyes took some time to register what he had immediately spotted from so far below: the remote crags were spiked by the tiny heads of dozens of chamois, curiously regarding us from their lofty eyries to discover our intentions.

It was soon afterwards that Uncle Arnold’s studious preoccupation with military history confronted me with a thread that one of the Norns might well have dropped from her spindle. Proudly showing me the monthly paratroop journal he edited for contributors and readers all over the world, he said: “Here’s something that should interest you as a South African. What do you know about Robey Leibbrandt?”

My jaw dropped at this unexpected question from such an unlikely source. Not much, I admitted, other than that Robey was a diehard Afrikaner opponent of British colonial rule in South Africa whose pro-Hitlerian sympathies led him to become a Nazi secret agent on the eve of World War II. Robey is still revered by ultra-nationalist Afrikaners today as the Nazi-trained saboteur whose underground organisation disrupted vital South African shipments of troops, commodities and war materiel to embattled Britain during the war. His fierce oratory attracted support from some 200-300 diehard Afrikaner opponents of British imperial rule and led pro-British Premier Jan Smuts’ government a merry dance until he was betrayed by a supporter and sentenced to death for high treason. Smuts later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment and the Afrikaner Nationalist government which ousted Smuts in a landslide 1948 election victory finally amnestied him.

SA Police boxing champion Robey Leibbrandt

SA Police boxing champion Robey Leibbrandt

Over 40 years later, Ronnie published in his monthly paratroop journal “Der Deutsche Fallschirmjäger” a detailed account of how German Abwehr (secret service) agents smuggled Leibbrandt from occupied France to South Africa for his destabilizing mission. It was a thrilling story I had never encountered before. Leibbrandt was a bull of a man, a boxer who won the light heavyweight bronze medal for South Africa at the 1934 Empire Games and participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Like many Afrikaners unable to forget how the hated British empire crushed two independent Boer republics in the 1898-1901 South African war, Leibrandt was enthralled by the Hitler regime’s challenge to British global power. He returned to Berlin in 1938, volunteered as a German paratrooper and was then recruited by the Abwehr as a secret agent. The Abwehr had great plans for him. Operation Weissdorn (Whitethorn), a secret plan to upset the pro-British Smuts government in strategically important South Africa, was designed around him by the Abwehr chief himself, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Leibbrandt was trained as a saboteur in Germany to form an underground Nazi organisation in South Africa, sabotage the Smuts government’s war effort and perhaps even foment enough turmoil among pro-Nazi Afrikaners to stage a coup d’etat.

Leibbrandt at Nazi sabotage training camp

Leibbrandt (second from left) and friends in Berlin.

This article brought me into contact with Bernd Schaefer, a son of Leibbrandt who was born in 1940 to the fiancee he left behind in Germany when he left on his secret mission before the couple could marry (Leibbrandt later had .five children by the woman he married years after arriving in South Africa). Bernd, a retired school principal living in Stuttgart, was so fascinated by the father he never knew that he learned to speak Afrikaans fluently via the UNISA correspondence college. He flew to South Africa to learn more from his half-brothers and half-sisters in the late 1980s.  After Bernd read the original version of my article, he attentioned me to a few factual errors. I am grateful for his  friendly help in correcting the faults and fleshing out the Leibbrandt story with further details and personal impressions.

This is the picture that finally emerged of Leibbrandt’s epic voyage from the tiny harbour of Raimpol in Britanny in the Kyloe, a private luxury yacht used as a cover for secret Abwehr missions. I was riveted by the “Fallschirmjäger” article’s description of Leibbrandt as a pig-headedly obstinate (“dickschädliger”) Boer “who could not subordinate himself”   and exasperated his Abwehr crewmates by his individualistic, risky behaviour. The article describes an incident in which Leibbrandt allegedly dashed below deck to fetch a submachine gun with which to fire at an enemy aircraft that was circling above, taking photos. The plane left before Leibrandt could fire. The Kyloe’s captain, Christian Nissen, is said to have upbraided him for putting the ship at risk, since the plane could have called in an Allied warship if  fired on). Leibrandt allegedly replied “in all seriousness: ‘I would fire at the ship, then we could board it and attack the Britons.”

However, son Bernd dismisses this as one of many myths that have accreted around the Kyloe’s voyage. According to Captain Nissen’s log, he says, what actually happened is that the entire crew of the Kyloe and several escort vessels all fired at the plane and probably caused it to crash into the sea, because no alerted enemy warships subsequently showed up. Another story not borne out by facts is that Leibbrandt tried to fire at a patrolling British destroyer but was overpowered and locked up below by his alarmed crewmates.  However, both the “Fallschirmjäger” article and Captain Nissen’s personal diary state that Nissen ordered two of his crew to shoot Leibbrandt and throw his body overboard if he endangered he safety of the ship.

It is also on record that Leibrandt angrily refused an order to take a German radio operator along on his mission. Schaefer defends his father’s insubordination because the man’s inability to speak English or Afrikaans made him a security risk. “He wouldn’t take orders because he saw himself as an Afrikaner who wanted to save his country, not a German soldier,” says Schaefer. When the Kyloe finally reached the Eastern Cape coast at Koringkorrel Bay, north of Cape Town, Leibbrandt, wearing only shorts and sandals, steered a rubber dinghy  loaded with sabotage gear alone towards the share. The boat overturned and the equipment was lost, but the powerful Afrikaner performed the almost superhuman feat of swimming safely ashore in a pounding surf. Reading the vividly described adventure so many years later, I felt I could see it all as if I had been there myself. My God, I thought, what a lunatic — but what a man, with that berserk Afrikaner courage that his orderly German crewmates found hard to live with. As the Kyloe headed homewards, they proposed a relieved toast: ”Let’s drink to Robey – as long as he’s in hell and not on board!”

Bernd Schaefer’s research and talks with his South African family have left him with concrete impressions of a father he greatly admired as a youth, though he entirely rejects the Nazi ideals Leibrandt clung to until he died in 1966. “He was a typically obstinate Boer, easy  to inspire, undiplomatically straight-forward and unable to accept criticism,” says Schaefer. “But he was a real man. I greatly respect him because he was prepared to defend what he stood for with his last drop of blood.”

When I was visiting my father in South Africa in the 1980s, we were invited to the spacious home of one of his singing pupils in Pretoria’s Nob Hill suburb of Waterkloof Ridge. This pupil was a highly accomplished singer with a lovely soprano who was very well known on South African opera and concert stages. She was a gentle, quietly attractive woman of whom my family was very fond – a kind, generous person who proved a devoted friend to my aging, widowed father in his declining years. I still have a tape of her sensitive recordings of a cycle of Afrikaans poems my father had set to music. I  was somewhat surprised when I met her husband because he was such a very different kind of person: a large, heavily built man several years older, beside whom his wife seemed fragile and girlishly dependent.

Afrikaners respectfully address older men as “Oom” (uncle), and “Oom Koos” (equivalent to “Uncle Jack”) had an air of authority that made the honorific address seem imperative. His deceptively slow-moving bulk was muscular for his age and he had the knowing, level gaze of a man who has seen and done many things the general public knows little about. Before retiring, he had in fact risen to the rank of brigadier-general after a long career in the paramilitary South African police force – at a time when the police were a pillar of the secretive security establishment that kept the Apartheid regime going by fair means or foul. I was therefore a bit nervous and talked too much when, in deference to South African male protocol, I joined him in his beautifully landscaped garden at the open  grill where he was scientifically roasting braaivleis (barbecue meat). “Just imagine, Oom Koos,” I chattered away, “I recently read a fascinating article about Robey Leibbrandt. In a journal edited by a German relative of mine, of all things.”

Oom Koos grunted and called out to his wife: “Meidjie (Little Maid), bring me some beer. I need to douse this meat, it’s charring a bit.”

When “Meidjie” had dutifully done his bidding, I resumed my tale and finished off with that dramatic moment when Leibbrandt swam ashore to launch his career of sabotage.

The old policeman grinned and said slowly and deliberately: “Ja, ek weet (Yes, I know)”.

“Hoe meen jy nou, Oom Koos? (What do you mean by that, Oom Koos?)”

He paused for effect, looked straight into my eyes and declared: “Ek was daar! (I was there!).”

Visibly enjoying old memories of youthful derring-do far beyond the pale of legality and political correctness, the old policeman told me he was one of the pro-Nazi Afrikaners who waited on the beach for Leibbrandt’s yacht to heave into view that night. “It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re young. We had our sports, but we made our peace with the government after the war,” he said. Then he clammed up again, but soon set off on another tack. He told me that his eldest son, a highly qualified cardiologist at a Pretoria hospital whose attentive, skilful treatment impressed my mother when she consulted him on one occasion, had given up his well-paid post to a join a secret commando operating “somewhere in the bush”. “You know what these young fellows are like,” he commented with apparent pride.

Although he gave no details, he seemed to be hinting at the type of clandestine operation the white minority regime was running to destabilize neighbouring black countries, especially Namibia and Mozambique. Details of frequently brutal secret operations in these border areas did not emerge until the white minority regime surrendered power to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in 1995. A trail of sabotage, rape, torture and murder left by the Apartheid-era operations was revealed at the subsequent hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The thread of history I had followed since Arnold von Roon led me to the article about Leibbrandt’s wartime voyage to South Africa took a final twist before it disappeared from my view. Back at home in Germany a few years later, I read reports about the TRC’s sensational 1998 hearing of Wouter Basson, a man described in media reports as “Doctor Death” or “the Josef Mengele of South Africa”. I was stunned to realise that this was none other than that son of Oom Koos who had so mysteriously disappeared from public view in the 1980s.

Basson was allegedly hired in 1981 to form and run “Project Coast”, a secret operation that recruited about 200 researchers from around the world to build up a formidable chemical and biological warfare capability in violation of the international BTWC agreement. Basson and his heavily government-subsidized project were allegedly involved in attacks and assassinations against the regime’s anti-apartheid opponents, using highly sophisticated lethal toxins, biogenetically engineered substances and mass-produced drugs said to have included toxically laced or abortion-inducing forms of Ecstasy. One project involved distributing such drugs among African women to curb black population growth by making them sterile. He himself allegedly arranged the killing of 200 imprisoned SWAPO freedom fighters in Namibia. Basson allegedly used his widespread international connections to divulge information about advanced chemical and biological weapons to countries including Libya. He is also suspected of having traded in arms and nuclear materials.

In a trial lasting 30 months, Basson faced 67 charges including 229 murder counts, theft, fraud, embezzlement of a total of some $4 million, drug trafficking and drug possession. His defence skillfully contested the accusations on technicalities. The judge successively dismissed all charges and granted him amnesty in 2002, ruling among other things that the South African court could not prosecute crimes committed outside the country in Namibia. Today, the unrepentant Basson remains a free, wealthy man with influential connections in Europe and the USA.

Though I met his father and retain fond, grateful memories of his sweet-natured mother because of her musical artistry and moral support of my ailing father in the last years of his life, I never personally encountered Wouter Basson. I therefore cannot presume to judge the complex motives that might have inspired such an exceptionally intelligent, gifted man’s reputed crimes against humanity. I can only state that, to me, his deeds represent one individual personal culmination of interlinked historical patterns that go very far back in time, even if they did not start taking shape until a century or so ago. And that is a very short period indeed by the standards of the Norns.

The 19th century was a turbulent era in both Europe and faraway Southern Africa that contained curious analogies and eventually interwove the destinies of two related peoples – the Germans and the Afrikaners, themselves descended from Dutch and German settlers. The belated forging of Bismarck’s united German empire “in blood and iron” in 1871 filled the old Central European power vacuum with a powerful, militantly expansionist young state that was too politically immature to live in peace with its neighbours. Led by an autocratic Prussian monarchy, the German nation consequently marched vaingloriously into the catastrophe of World War I and reeled from its crushing defeat into the genocidal lunacy of the Third Reich. At the southern tip of Africa meanwhile, the fiercely independent spirit of Boer pioneer farmers in a rugged land forged the Afrikaner nation in the crucible of the Anglo-Boer War. The defeat of the two independent Boer republics by the mighty British Empire rigidified Afrikanerdom’s hatred of the victors as well as its most primitive racist instincts, with fearful long-term consequences for both white and black South Africans. These two historic patterns in regions that were separated by thousands of miles finally intermeshed when the rise of the Third Reich made the interests of extremists in both countries converge.

And so a young soldier named Arnold von Roon, just one individual among millions of Germans embroiled in Hitler’s war, found himself watching fat Hermann Goering play with his toy trains as cattle trucks bore their human freight to extermination camps in the real world outside, while Oom Koos and his young fellow-conspirers hid on a dark beach to welcome the fomenter of yet another diehard Afrikaner rebellion against British colonial dominance. And finally, several decades later, the scientific methods of human destruction developed by Nazi chemists and doctors culminated in the biochemical warfare project supervised by Oom Koos’s son. Following these strange connections, I learned little about the cataclysms of the 20th century that professional historians have not already researched exhaustively. However, I vicariously followed individuals whose lives were intertwined by fate into bygone worlds I had not personally experienced. That journey left me feeling a bit like Oom Koos: “Yes, I know. I was there.”


September 25, 2012 at 3:40 am 8 comments

Expatriate awareness

By Roon Lewald

Roon Lewald

Roon Lewald

When I emigrated to Germany from South Africa in 1971,     there were hardly any other expatriates I could share my memories, thoughts and feelings with. South Africa wasn’t the sort of birthplace you bragged about in those days. Unlike the British, my new German fellow-citizens knew very little about the place other than the buzz-word Apartheid, while less sophisticated, politically disinterested people seemed incredibly ignorant about it. My first landlady actually asked me: “Südafrika? Is that in South America or something?” All that has changed completely now that the Mandela miracle has banished the evil reputation of my old home country. A flood of sun-seeking European tourists plus the achievements of South African sportsmen, film stars like Charlize Theron and opera singers like Deon van der Walt have magnified the Rainbow Country’s new international popularity and renown.

All this has allowed me to live comfortably at last with my South African roots, banished to the back of my mind during the Apartheid years by a shamefaced feeling of guilt by association. Now at last I can come to grips with the dislocation and nostalgia most people, however well acclimatized to their second homeland, experience after turning their back on the once beloved country where they were born. I discovered that my situation is not very different from that of emigrants from other countries. Since there is a large Australian diaspora in Europe and denizens of the Land of Oz have very comparable values to those of white South Africans, comparing notes with ex-Aussies here has been rewarding. (more…)

September 8, 2012 at 1:03 am Leave a comment

Memoirs of Otto Albrecht Lewald


By his son, Roon Lewald

Otto Albrecht Lewald

Otto Albrecht 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.

Otto Albrecht Lewald

Otto Albrecht Lewald

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.)

The End

March 19, 2012 at 10:19 pm 1 comment

Die „Saga der Van Pletsens“

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]

Helen and Albrecht in their Berlin student years

Helen and Albrecht in their Berlin student years


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…)

August 13, 2011 at 2:19 am 1 comment

But what good came of it at last? 36 years after “The Yellow Train”

By Roon Lewald

 Hansina Oktulseja, the young Moluccan train hijacker who diedAs a young staffer of a U.S. news agency’s Bonn bureau in Germany 36 years ago, I was seconded to command the agency’s forward desk in the Dutch town of Assen during the final week of a sensational train hijacking by armed South Moluccan terrorists. In an autobiographical  short story (see “The Yellow Train”) posted on this blog a few years ago, I described the lasting emotional impact on me of the events. (more…)

July 17, 2011 at 6:12 am 3 comments

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