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Jo'Burg Days: The Boulevardier

...His preparations for the night included a hairnet, with a chinstrap to prevent a double chin, expensive scented creams which he rubbed into his hands before encasing them in white cotton gloves, and chamois bed-slippers in which he slept...

Giving away family secrets, Barbara Durlacher tells of an astonishing and violent marriage.

He was the very essence of Continental elegance. Double-breasted suit, silk shirt and silver grey tie with a pearl tie-pin, slicked back greying hair, elegant hands with manicured nails buffed to a soft pink, white spats and a natty pair of patent leather shoes. His preparations for the night included a hairnet, with a chinstrap to prevent a double chin, expensive scented creams which he rubbed into his hands before encasing them in white cotton gloves, and chamois bed-slippers in which he slept. Born in Berlin, he’d attended all Hitler’s rallies and was an openly professed Nazi.

She was a soignée sophisticate who’d rubbed shoulders with everyone; danced with the Prince of Wales on one of his Empire tours, and lived a life of interest and pleasure which had left her with little desire to marry and have children. Artistic, capable and energetic, she caught the eye of many a man looking for a wife capable of assuming the dual positions of hostess and mother. But she would have none of it until a long, and eventually heart-breaking affair with a senior public servant ended when his wife threatened to expose their affaire to the papers, she finally accepted the unceasing proposals from her German suitor.

Fate had brought this mismatched pair together, and after importuning her for several years, she gave in to the German’s entreaties and agreed to marry him, unaware of the kind of man he was. Incompatible, sexually frustrated, they were bound together in dissention. Yet, after the customs of the time, they gritted their teeth and stuck it out until war was declared in September 1939.

When, at last, the fatal day arrived and a thunderous knocking heralded the arrival of police to lead him to the official vehicle, it seemed a merciful release. He was transported from the city to an internment camp beyond Pretoria, where he spent years interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ in a strict men-only camp. Nevertheless, true to society’s expectations at that time, she remained faithful, and over the five years of war, paid him regular visits on the two occasions a year when wives and family were allowed access to their menfolk.

Unable to drive a car when the war began, she taught herself with the help of a friendly neighbour and again and again, drove the long distance to visit him. Allowed into the visiting area with her small parcel of toiletries and tasty treats, which experience had taught her would stand the scrutiny of the authorities and not be confiscated as contraband, they spent the permitted hours in stilted conversation and eye-avoidance until, with an inward sigh of relief, they thankfully said their goodbyes, and she left for home again.

After wracking her brains to think how to support herself without her husband’s income, she obtained a sinecure of a job working for a two-man agency which represented several overseas manufacturers. With her bosses out all day, she had plenty of time on her hands, and turning to one of her earlier pastimes, she took orders for hand-embroidered, lace-decorated bridal underwear. At that time, mass manufacture of ladies underwear was unknown, and her skills were soon in great demand and she was inundated with orders. Under her skilful fingers, imported silks, satins and gossamer fabrics were fashioned into alluring garments and month by month, her bank account grew. Soon, her sense of security and happiness at being her own master, alone and free to live as she pleased became more pronounced and she came to dread the day when peace would come and her husband return home.

The war ended and she received a summons to fetch him, free at last from his long years of imprisonment. The weary miles to the internment camp had never seemed so long, or the wait for his release so interminable. Over the years relations between the two had grown no happier and as news of the Allied successes against Germany became widely known and eventually filtered into the camp filled with German supporters, he became more and more embittered. Before long, she came to recognise signs which indicated that her earlier years with this man, with both of them sexually frustrated, had been the peace before the storm.

When he emerged from the camp she found a man who was no longer the natty boulevardier she had married. Prior to his internment, his most important consideration was his appearance. Revealed now was a coarse brute turned savage by his years of internment, frustration and political disappointment who had no ideals left or interest in anything. Over the time he had been in prison his body had grown fat and uncared for. He had discarded his European polish and sophistication and while in camp his instinct for preservation had pushed him into favouring South African farm-style dress and behaviour. Now he was filled with unspoken protests against the country where he had chosen to live. A liking for witblitz, the rough brandy of the veld, had taken over the man who previously could talk knowledgeably about vintage European wines. When in his cups, he revealed a hidden streak of cruelty that neither had known existed. The man she had married had disappeared for ever, to be replaced by a coarse, brutal stranger who openly professed his hatred for everything and everyone around him.

The years which followed were a series of small successes as the large vacant property he bought grew from a single rondavel with a garage, into a reasonably comfortable home and a vegetable farm which she managed with skill and charm and in doing so made many friends in the area. The farm was fertile and productive and earned sufficient to support them both until he found employment working in the office of a factory some miles away. Then, when his frustrations turned to beatings, which on one occasion landed her in hospital for a few days and her broken arm in a plaster cast for weeks afterwards, she decided it was time to take action, and she left him.

As soon as their divorce was final, she moved back to the city and rented a rambling old house in one of the older suburbs. Stranded by the rapid advance northwards of the suburbs, this charming area had lost popularity and houses were going for a song, and before long, with the help of a married niece and husband who came to live with her and contribute towards expenses, together with the money she had earned from her bridal wear business and a small bequest left to her on the death of one of the former partners in the agency business, she bought the old house for a knock-down price.

Many happy years followed until, with the departure of the niece and growing family to their own home, she decided to sell up and move to the coast where she had lived years earlier. Property values had appreciated since she purchased the rambling old house, and she made an exceptionally good profit on the sale. With the money she moved to Durban and bought a comfortable flat on the Esplanade. She’d decided she wanted to be near a dear friend from her earlier days who had a flat in the same building. After a year or two the two women made up their minds to fulfil a lifetime dream, and investing part of their small capital in a voyage, they set off on a round-the-world cruise on a comfortable ship.

Postcards from exotic places followed, with happy messages in her unmistakable handwriting; Hawaii, Trinidad and the Bahamas; Alaska and Hong Kong, India and Australia. The two women saw it all and everything was a delight. They enjoyed themselves to the full and for the first time, in her mid-sixties, my dearest Aunt Ida came into her own and was seen for the delightful person she was, full of charm and gaiety, ready for anything, always excellent company and good for a laugh.

A few years after she returned from her world tour, she died of a brain haemorrhage aged 64 in the arms of her dear friend Sheila who had tried to warm and comfort her in her last hours, curled with her on her comfortable bed in the sea-facing flat on Durban Esplanade.

As an addendum to this story, and before she moved to the coast, and contrary to her long-held views on children, dear Ida developed a sudden fondness for the cute daughter of a friend and readily agreed to baby-sit the child for the weekend while the parents were away.

It was her custom to visit my family nearly every weekend as a break from her city life in a small flat and on this occasion she loaded the car with the paraphernalia necessary for a day out with a small child. However, being totally inexperienced in the needs of a young baby, she did not pack sufficient nappies. This was to prove her undoing later.

Hours later, after the tea and chatter so dear to the two sister’s hearts, it came time to leave. The baby was fractious and clearly wanted to sleep, crawling from one to another, seeking somewhere comfortable to cuddle up. Not long after this, it became clear that the child’s nappy badly needed changing, and the comfortable lap in which she was sleeping was hastily exchanged for another, as her unpleasant smell became more than the current holder could tolerate.

Soon the baby woke and cried in discomfort until my mom, with the experience of bringing me up, realised the little girl needed a new nappy. With nothing else to replace the soiled garment, the two women improvised with a couple of cotton tea-towels as the nearest approximation of the towelling squares normally used. Hurriedly re-dressing her in her leggings in the hope they would hold the tea-cloths in place, Ida, the child and her bags and baskets were loaded into her car and she set off for home.

My parents and I quickly settled to our usual occupations of an early Sunday evening, until not long later, we heard an almighty bang and concluded a motor accident had occurred, a frequent happening on this badly constructed highway to Pretoria.

Not long afterwards, a bedraggled Aunt Ida with the little girl in her arms, walked rather unsteadily through our front door to report she’d had an accident. In reaching down to steady the child who had fallen off the front seat (there were no child seats in those days) she’d crashed into a lamp-post. The car had suffered damage to the front including a broken radiator and headlamps, and a slightly twisted chassis.

My father towed Ida’s car into our yard where it waited a few days until taken away to be repaired. Then he put Ida and the child into his car and got them home as quickly he could. He helped her into her flat and saw she was safely settled before driving back home to supper.

Needless to say, Ida’s German husband was not informed of the mishap, the child’s parents never heard a word and the accident went un-reported to the police as it was not a requirement in those days. Just as well, as she had no driver’s licence, considered a minor necessity in the early 1940s in easy-going Johannesburg. With nearly all the able-bodied men away fighting in the North African desert and regulations conveniently slackened due to personnel shortages nobody seemed to bother over small inconveniences like these.

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