Jesse and Jeremiah Shewitz. That’s who they were, before the war came and changed everything. Twins. The focus of the Shewitz household. The pride of the small Jewish community of Warmbad, north of Pretoria. Some of the older people still remember the Bar Mizvah at the old synagogue. The boys recited their passages and both gave a d’var Torah, to the delight and the tears of their parents.
But in August 1986 the brown envelope arrived. The one with the official emblem of the Republic, addressed to J Shewitz. The one that said the addressed, J Shewitz, had to report to Voortrekkerhoogte in January 1987. This of course, caused much debate in the household. The two boys were of similar age and initial. Who did the war-hungry machine want? And, after waiting for the next two months, it became evident that the Government (with a capital ‘G’ in those days) did not call up both twins. In the confused and chaotic days towards the end of the Border War, the army never considered the two J Shewitz’s, born on the same day according to their records, were two people. It was far more logical for them to assume a double entry. Such things happen when panic nibbles at the edges of logic and the slide towards surrender begins.
Papa and Mama Shewitz called in the boys, and prayed with them. One of them had to go and defend the indefensible; the other had to disappear. It was obvious who was going to win the war and they were not going to allow both their children to be heroes for a cause they never supported. It was Papa who suggested the Old Testament way: let them draw lots, he said. Mama cried, saying not one of them should wear the browns of the army, but Papa said it was too late. If they kicked up a fuss, the army would come and realise there were two Shewitz boys. And then, he said, they’d lose both.
In later years Mama Shewitz could never sit through Sophie’s Choice. It was impossible, she said. How can it be – a mere generation apart – that the same mistake was done all over again? But it was: the letter n the brown envelope confirmed it.
Jeremiah drew the short straw. Papa Shewitz cried. Mama sobbed. And Jesse, although emotion prevented him from saying anything, wanted to protest. Jeremiah was the weaker of the two – he’d always been. Childhood illnesses, splinter fractures and delayed puberty were all his brother’s lot; while he was the healthy one – the star of the rugby team; the Valentine of the immature girls in his class.
They made the decision that evening. If the lot fell on the one, the other had to disappear. It was the only logic to oppose the inevitable call-up of both of the Shewitz boys. On that terrible day in January, when Papa and Mama accompanied Jeremiah to the station, Jesse stayed at home. They dared not risk the exposure of their luck – if it could be called that. Still, in those days when every able-bodied young man was forced to defend the country against the terrorists (they weren’t elevated to the heady status of freedom fighters yet), the omission of one son from the rigours of the Defence Force was seen as a blessing from above. Divine intervention, Papa called it. Mama didn’t see it as grace – she hugged Jeremiah while she instinctively knew her little boy would disappear from their lives. He might come back as a seasoned soldier – or not at all. Whatever happened, her Jeremiah – the weaker twin – was about to board a train that will take him away from her forever.
Back home, the parents planned the way ahead for Jesse. They had enough money and he was a very competent young man. Their dreams of the two boys taking over the small lawyer’s practice Papa had built up over the years, were shattered. If Jesse enrolled at the university, the game would have been up. If he registered as a voter, the government would know. Even obtaining a driver’s licence was an unacceptable risk. The government had eyes and ears everywhere. No young man was exempt. You either took up their guns to fight for a lost cause, or you were thrown in jail. And once saddled with a criminal record, the prospects for employment, study and even a simple thing like opening a bank account … all those things were impossible.
The remotest, smallest, most backward outpost of South African civilisation. Papa did meticulous research: his son could set up a small shop there, away from everything, safe from prying eyes. Oh, he considered sending the boy to the family in Israel, but that would imply passing through customs. And, short-sighted though the government might have been – they were extremely competent at sniffing out young men intent on skipping National Service.
And so, the evening – the last one in the town of Warmbad – arrived for young Jesse. His parents invited some close and trusted friends for a traditional Sabbath dinner. Challah and gefilte fish were followed by mousse cake, with Mama lighting the Sabbath candles. It was a solemn, sad occasion; with only the presence of Rachel to lighten the atmosphere. Rachel, young, vivacious and alluring. Rachel with the sparkling eyes. Rachel with the typical conservative dress, long sleeves and covered collar bones. Rachel, who surreptitiously played footsie with Jesse under the table.
And then Rachel; in complete contravention to tradition; sang to Jesse afterwards, in the garden.
Papa Shewitz drove to Pretoria. As a man versed in legal matters, he found it surprisingly simple to change Jesse Shewitz to Samuel Rabinowitz at the Department of Internal Affairs in the Hallmark Building in Proes Street. He expected a lot of questions, but he found the usual disinterested clerks all governments employ behind the dirty glass cubicles inside the building. After a while, he even discovered h didn’t have to pretend to change his own name; all he had to do was to fill in the appropriate forms. And so Jesse Shewitz became, at the sound of a bored rubber stamp on a piece of unread paper, Samuel Rabinowitz. And Samuel, safe from the possibility of discovery by the army, was free to escape to the Northern Cape. Certainly, Papa argued, there was no way the authorities would connect his son with J Shewitz. He was right.
Jesse, now answering to the name of Sammie, retreated to Rolbos without incident. When his brother was killed in Operation Moduler in 1987, Papa ordered him not to attend the funeral. The risk was too great.
And now, every year on the anniversary of his arrival in Rolbos on fifth of December, Sammie closes his shop early. With Papa and Mama gone, he has no one to phone. He can’t say how sorry he is; nor is there anybody around to tell him it’s okay, some things are meant to be. There are no candles on his table, no traditional fare to enjoy. All he has, is the memory of Rachel. Rachel, dressed to hide her femininity. Rachel, playing footsie and singing to him. Rachel, the sexiest woman he ever laid eyes on.
Just the other day he told Boggel he mustn’t allow circumstances to jeopardise his love for Mary Mitchell. He said he could see the way she looked at him. And he told him: the saddest thing ever, is to remember the words when the song is lost in the past.
Boggel didn’t understand, of course.
It takes time.
Ask Sammie. It took more than twenty years.