The problem with Gertruida is that she has to know everything. Once she finds out that there’s something she hasn’t heard of before, she gets upset the way a Great Dane does when you take away his steak. She simply can’t stand intellectual ignorance and will go to extremes to fill that void. And – realising that knowing more about Hendrik Meintjies held the key to Annatjie Blum’s isolation – she was determined to find out about the young soldier who died so many years ago.
Impossible? Not with Gertruida and her many contacts. Once a spy, always a spy…
That’s why she phoned Colonel Gericke, an erstwhile colleague in National Intelligence. Yes, he said, there are still masses of information about the Border War that was classified. Too many of the current leaders in the country played both ends against the middle and it would be political suicide to make these facts known to the general population. But…he’d try to find out.
Two days later he phoned her with data about the Cessna that was downed on the Angolan border in November 1975. He had to bribe a clerk, he said. It cost him a Streetwise 5 from KFC – so Gertruida would have to have dinner with him whenever she visited Pretoria again. She laughed, but made a mental note to avoid the city for the foreseeable future.
Gertruida brings her car to a stop under the lone tree next to Annatjie’s house, not sure at all what to say about Gericke’s information. Does she tell the already distraught woman the truth? Is it more humane to lie? Tapping the steering wheel with an impatient forefinger, she wishes she had the answer. Best play it by ear…
To her surprise, the stooped figure of Annatjie waits at the top of the veranda’s stairs. With her hair brushed and the slightest tint of rouge on her cheeks, she looks years younger.
“I want to show you something,” she says even before Gertruida can say hello.
Gertruida quietly follows her down the corridor, afraid to derail Annatjie’s train of thought by asking questions. It seems strange to see her act so spontaneously, almost normally. At the same time it is a most encouraging sign, considering the almost surreal conversations they have had up till now. But, Gertruida knows, an unstable mind is a fragile thing. This ‘normality’ may not last.
The last door on the left leads to an office of sorts, featuring a desk, a chair, and old-fashioned Remington typewriter and three bookshelves.
“My grandparents.” Annatjie points at a yellow and faded photograph of two people dressed in black. The man stares at the photographer with the slightest of smiles while the woman has the somber look you only find in old photographs.
“Your grandfather is wearing a kippah…” Almost as soon as she said it, Gertruida wants to retract the words. This isn’t the time to be probing into Annatjie’s spontaneity.
“Yes. We’re Jewish. Didn’t you know?”
Gertruida shakes her head.
“Our original surname was Bloomberg. My grandparents had a jewelry shop in Berlin…before the war. My father was a mere boy back then. Late 30’s. But then the…thing…with us Jewish people happened. Grandfather refused to leave Berlin but sent his son – my father – to France…just in case. There were rumours – too many rumours – back then. My father was a boy of two or three at the time.”
Annatjie speaks in a monotone, as if she’s reading from a well-known book. Her voice, however, is clear and certain, her expression still blank. Emotionless, she seems to be reciting the history of a stranger.
“Anyway, the war came to Europe in a big way. The family where my father stayed realised what was happening and boarded a ship – at Le Havre, I think. They didn’t care where the ship took them, as long as they could escape the war. Well, eventually they landed at Cape Town. The voyage cost them everything they had. They were – like people referred to them then – ‘poor whites’. Back then, Jews were viewed with some suspicion. Still, they eked out a living in Cape Town by buying and selling fish.”
She pauses, studying the photograph. “This picture came with them. It’s the only bit of his real family to survive the war.” Again the pause as she organises her thoughts.
“When the war ended, their troubles began in all earnest. Uncle Jacob, my father’s ward, contracted Tuberculosis and died just after armistice. His wife – and my father- were destitute. She waitressed here and there and did sewing to keep them alive. Then the Nationalists came to power and things got tougher. By then father was twelve. Knowing he had to do something, he eventually found work on a wine farm near Franschhoek, where he worked in the vineyards.There was a farmer there, looking for help on his small farm. He and his wife were childless, and welcomed the arrival of – so they thought – a German orphan.”
Gertruida has read about the Dietse Kinderfonds, an organisation that brought out German orphans after WW II. Nodding her encouragement, she listens without interrupting.
“Well, the wife of the farmer grew very fond of him. He was a bright boy and worked hard, sending every penny he had to his adopted mother.” Annatjie hesitates, the pain of remembering etching new lines on her face. “He never knew what had happened to his real family, you know? Like so many others. they simply disappeared. Could have been the bombing of Berlin…or the camps. We’ll never know.”
Gertruida is fascinated. To hear Annatjie talk like this, is so unexpected and so precious. Has she broken out of her prison?
“Well. The family sent my father to school. The headmaster wanted a birth certificate. So the farmer’s wife told them my father was one of the German orphans that were brought to South Africa after the war. It was a big thing back then. The Prime Minister, DF Malan, himself adopted one of these orphaned girls, see? But, Bloomberg wasn’t a common German surname – it was too Jewish. So his new mother – she was his third mom – simply went to a magistrate, swore that his papers were lost (which they were) and said his surname was Blum.
“His new father and mother treated him like an own child. Even let him study in Stellenbosch. That’s how he came to be a lawyer.”
“So. There. Now you know where I come from.”
Exhausted by her speech, Annatjie shuffles back to the lounge. Gertruida doesn’t follow. She stares at the photograph for a long, long time. So much makes sense now: why Mister Blum opposed oppression so vehemently, why he rendered cheap service to those in need, why his daughter felt the loss of Hennie so acutely – even after all these years.
Is sadness inherited in some cases? How much damage is done by one generation telling the stories of past injustices to their children? Did Annatjie simply give up, because the spirit of loss had been indelibly imprinted in her mind? Or…did she become the reclusive spinster to avoid further grief? Even with her understanding of psychology, Gertruida knows it’d be an impossible task to explain everything. The reaction of any specific individual to loss and disappointment is so often unique and unpredictable. Annatjie’s subconscious mind had formulated a strategy to protect her from the past – it’d take a miracle to snap her out of it.
One thing is certain: under no circumstances could she tell Annatjie about her conversations with Colonel Gericke. That would be cruel. No, she’ll have to be extremely circumspect, and be creative with the information Gericke had supplied. A new history for Hennie…that is essential. That, Gertruida decides, won’t be a punishable lie. Surely not…
Gertruida sits down next to Annatjie and joins her in staring out of the window. The chintz curtains, she notices, have been drawn aside, allowing the sun to dispel the gloomy atmosphere inside.
“Annatjie,” Gertruida reaches over to lay a hand on the woman’s knee, “how about a cup of tea? Then we can talk about Hennie for a while. What do you think?”
Almost absently, the withered hand reaches for the switch on the record player.
“I’ve still got his letters.” The eyes are clouded again. “Did you know that?”
(To be continued…)