Hedy I Davis
In May 2008 I was asked if I would like to work on the Memories of Muizenberg Exhibition after the historian Dr Jocelyn Hellig had become seriously ill and was unable to continue the work she had so briefly begun. Although I grew up in Newlands, Muizenberg has always been close to my heart and we have had a holiday home there for 35 years. I accepted with alacrity and threw myself into sorting out the mountain of emails received in response to requests for memories and photographs of old Muizenberg. Overnite I became historian, researcher and editor of the material gathered and I would correspond with the over one hundred ex-Muizenbergers who had contacted us.
One day I took an old photograph that was crumpled and damaged to my friend who owned a small photo shop, and there I met a stranger who almost tore the photo out of my hand saying, ‘That’s old Muizenberg. Let me have it – I can fix it.’ Reluctant to part with such a precious photograph I refused the offer, and he handed me his card saying, ‘give me a call if you change your mind’. On the insistence of my friend, I phoned him a couple of days later, and soon we met and quickly became firm friends – Jonty Peters was so enthusiastic, he offered his services to help clean up and digitalize the hundreds of images received. That took care of the other great concern for the convenor.
The author at the Opening of the Memories of Muizenberg Exhibition at the Jewish Museum in March 2010 (photo Carin Matz)
Time was of the essence as the exhibition was due to open 18 months later and we had to work with what we had collected. Ideally one would have liked to see the panels arranged chronologically but a decision was taken to place the photographs in groups – boy scouts (we had dozens of those photographs), the social events around the Synagogue, Pavilion, People etc. And I worked 18 hour days trying to find additional information and confirming things mentioned in emails and interviews conducted with elderly Muizenbergers. Oral history is not exactly a science and mistakes would be made that for me, marred what could have been a more accurate record of old Muizenberg.
However it has become clear from the numerous presentations of the Exhibition, at the Casa Labia, the Great Park Synagogue in Johannesburg, then in Israel and London and more recently in Melbourne, that people love the Exhibition – it is a reflective walk through the past, and memories flood back as one soaks in the nostalgia. For me the work I had done would become the springboard for the book that I have had the great pleasure of writing, Muizenberg – the story of – The Shtetl by the Sea.
For more about Hedy, and her work on this project, you may enjoy watching the following video on the Exhibition
In 1959, as a UCT student I was fortunate to have a holiday job as receptionist at the quaint Esplanade hotel, across the way from the Muizenberg Pavilion. The owner, Mrs (Ehrlich) Rosen ran a strictly kosher hotel and in some ways I daily stepped back in time, to a world that existed for an exclusive few aging Lithuanian born Jews. They came for their annual holiday from Johannesburg and villages such as Bethel, Klerksdorp and Krugersdorp, and there were even some from the suburbs of Cape Town. For the most part they spoke Yiddish, a language I had never heard before.
Daily I spent hours typing up ‘tzentered’ menus on an ancient typewriter, the names of the dishes I was required to ‘center’, all in Yiddish. Before long I realised that most of our guests could not read, and would ask the waiter – ‘Sovot is good to-day?’, listen to an account of the various dishes, and then they’d say, ‘Nuh – Bring’.
It was an understatement to say that I jumped a huge cultural divide when tackling this job, but necessity makes receptionists of us – so there I was plodding away all morning at my menus, with the occasional interruption to answer the telephone or to attend to a guest’s needs.
For two or three weeks, depending on their finances, this was how the guests would spend their holidays at the coast. Annually they made the Great Trek (as it was known) from the hinterland to Muizenberg, which in those days was still THE beach resort of choice for all who could afford it. They came by train to Cape Town, a journey which entailed at least one or two nights, from there they took the suburban line and an hour or so later they arrived at Muizenberg Station. Mrs Rosen, aware of their imminent arrival, would send the porter with a trolley to meet them and together they would stroll back to the hotel, the luggage rattling precariously balanced on the trolley – all the while the anxious holiday maker calling out ‘Careful! Be careful!’ to the man, who if he was lucky would be rewarded with a couple of pennies for his troubles!
The clientele consisted mainly of tiny elderly women, and only the most daring would put on a swimming costume and go for a ‘tunk im see’. They would meet early each morning at the ‘Balmoral corner’– this was not exactly a swim, but more about a group standing in the shallows, watching and waiting for a wave to break around their knees or tummies if they were exceedingly brave. Invariably only one member of the group faced the sea, warning the rest of the impending wave, and then they would jump in unison and laugh away as they enjoyed the water tingling against flabby dimpled bodies, unused to exercise and smothered with cellulite. To see them bracing themselves for the waves or to see them scooping water into the ample bosoms of their costumes, was unforgettable.
Their holiday routine was cast in stone - after a hearty breakfast, the ladies went for a stroll along the Promenade followed by a session seated on a chair or bench at the Pavilion, for which they would have to pay 1 penny. As you can imagine, gossip was their main occupation. At noon they would return to the Hotel to eat a five-course lunch in the heat of the day and then retire to their rooms, emerging refreshed at 4 o’clock to take tea served with cake and sandwiches on the enclosed balcony. At five sharp, they would once again stroll along the Promenade, breathing in lungs full of healthy fresh sea air, the ‘luft’ which they believed would set them up for another year back home! It also gave them a healthy appetite for the five-course dinner they would consume, before forming into small groups to play gin rummy or canasta.
Annually they wanted to stay in the exact same room. For some, settling in took a couple of days in which time they made everyone’s life a living hell, demanding either softer or firmer pillows, the mattress was sagging or the mattress was too hard – the room was too far from the toilets, or it was too near, they had asked for a room on the first floor and were put on to the second floor, or vice versa – the complaints were endless. After each meal, someone would be at the reception desk to complain about food that was served cold or food that had no taste.
For many, I think, the best part of their holiday was to see who could notch up the most complaints – and then all too quickly for them, their holiday was over. The journey home would commence, but not before stopping at reception and making sure they reserved the same room for the same period the following year. They would go home revitalised, their faces slightly tanned, a couple of pounds heavier than when they had arrived, ready to take on the year ahead.
Now why on earth would any fun-loving Varsity student want to spend her holiday working in the musty interior of a boarding house type of institution surrounded by aging folk? The hours were inordinately long, because I had to leave home at 6.00am, walk three kilometres to the railway station, endure a bumpy 35minute train ride to be there at 7.00am and woe was me if I was a minute late. In the evening I left at 6.00pm and got home exhausted by 7.00 if I was lucky. The great benefit was not the pay of R27.00 per month, (less than one rand per day from which I had to pay my train fare), nor the free meals I could take in a quiet corner of the dining room, but the two precious hours off between 2.00 and 4.00pm.
On the dot of 2.00pm I’d waste no time dashing out, and in a matter of minutes I would be in the secluded Snake Park where all young South African Jewry flocked during the summer months. It was THE place to mix and meet. And it was less than one hundred meters from my place of work! Besides, it was hard to find a holiday job in February.
The other benefit was befriending the owner’s daughter, a bit older and wiser than me who would spend the day on the beach scouting out the talent and then report to me!
One Monday morning she came back with the news that some really nice guys from Pretoria had arrived. I could not wait for 2.00pm and went to the beach wearing a long pink mohair pullover over my very ordinary plain black swimsuit. Heaven alone knows why I needed the pullover on a day when temperatures probably hit over 100 degrees in the Snake Park!
One entered the Snake Park down a flight of steps through a short subway, and there, dead centre sat a row of guys on hired beach chairs. Hilda came over to introduce me, and I stood there gawkily as I was introduced to Judge Davis, Doctor Karp and heaven alone knows what Stern! Such titles, and they looked so young. The one, I definitely fancied from that moment, but who knew if he would even talk to me. I sat down on my towel on the sand and did my best to make chatter, but they were so smooth and much more Hilda’s type than mine. I decided to head for the waves and swim out beyond the breakers, and to my surprise the Judge guy followed me into the surf. Not many girls would swim out as far as I did, and for an up-country guy, this one was unusual following me all that way.
I should mention that in those days there were no (known) man-eating sharks in the waters of Muizenberg. We used to joke you had to be wary of the sharks on the beach, especially those from Jo’burg!
A day or two later, Jeff asked me out on a date. Of course I accepted, after all the blokes were only in Cape Town for a fortnight, and there was little point in refusing and playing hard to get. They were nice enough guys, certainly not as smooth as their flashy Jo’burg cousins, sharing a very modest room at Mrs Norman’s above the Beach Café. Jeff and I dated for the rest of his holiday, and only much later did I learn that the Pretoria blokes had given me the name, Miss 224 – because of my hours off work! The following February, found me once again working at the Esplanade, and once again Jeff pitched up with his cronies. This time round our relationship became a bit more serious.
During the coming year we would phone each other on the rare occasion and then only after midnight when it cost less. We corresponded mainly through writing long letters. By the end of that year, we became engaged to be married. For years we would talk about what it was that had attracted us to one another – and for me it was the smile, the good looks, and the charming manners – but most of all, my fascination with his Pretoria accent. Jeff invariably comes back to that pink mohair sweater, and seeing my long legs he wondered what lay underneath it!
On the basis of such flighty and superficial observations, under the baking sun, probably with our brains frying away, were life-long partnerships founded in the Snake Park! Jeff and I tied the knot on 16 December 1962, and have been married for over 50 years!