The Girls in the Band: Jean’s Story
As a photographer, of the many documents and photographs I saw for the first time at that family reunion in 2002, the one that really captured my imagination was an extraordinary picture of my grandmother Edelstein’s sisters, Rosie and Raye Levin, taken in Cape Town in the early 1930s, members of (as inscribed on the bass drum) 'Raye Levin’s Original Ladies Dance Orchestra'. Dressed in dark flapper dresses, black stockings and buckled shoes, their hair cut short in bobs or Eton crops, the four band members looked rather stolid, posed carefully with their instruments – a violinist, a banjo player, my great aunt Raye at the piano and great aunt Rosie on drums. I remember Rosie and her sister Gertie from my childhood, and I remember them being fairly dowdy. I also recall their musty smell, a mixture of soap and mothballs, so these glamorous girls in the band are a stark contrast to those old ladies I knew.
When I searched through a pile of yellowed cuttings I found out a bit more about Raye’s life. In the Cape Times of 30 January 1934 she is described as Cape Town’s “first woman dance band leader”. It seems that the band’s mascot was a furry toy dog, which you can see in the picture, plonked next to the drum kit. Another article, dated 22 December 1939, tells the story of how lavish preparations had been made for a party of 300 soldiers and sailors from the UK on leave in Cape Town. All the preparations had been made but the orchestra who had promised to play failed to turn up:
An SOS was sent out to Miss Raye Levin, who got out of bed, after a hard day’s work, to play. Only a month earlier, according to a cutting from 14 November 1939, she had returned from a three month trip to Zanzibar, Manila, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mauritius, the Dutch East Indies and Singapore, where she had been exploring the music and dance in those countries. They play American jazz well and tangos even better. Every third dance in the east is a tango, and I have brought back several numbers to try on the Cape Town dancing public.
What really fascinated me about this battered old image is the row of fifteen bucks and horn trophies mounted on blocks of wood that adorn the wall behind the band. It is the juxtaposition of Africa alongside Eastern Europe – the story of my own history.
Great Aunt Minna
It was at a family reunion in Cape Town, in 2002 that my uncle Tony, my father’s first cousin, showed me a family tree that had been drawn up for the occasion. Listed there were my great grandparents, Wulf and Tomer; their three boys, Abe, Charles and Sascha; and a daughter, Minna: a woman none of the assembled family members had ever met.
In a photograph I had never seen before, taken in what must have been the family garden, Wulf and Tomer are seated in cane chairs, and behind them is Sascha, the youngest of their three sons, standing behind my great grandmother, and my grandfather, Abe, standing behind his father. Between the two young men is a small, plump young woman, her dark hair wound into a bun on top of her head, one hand resting on her father’s shoulder. That was Minna.
Everybody in the picture is well dressed, the men in their best suits, my great-grandfather in a double-breasted morning coat, my great-grandmother with a gold fob watch pinned to her breast, Minna in a high-necked dark-coloured dress. The photograph must have been taken only a few years before 1915, when all Jewish families were ordered to leave the village of Sassmacken, in northwest Latvia. To judge from their ages and appearance, it was probably taken between 1910 and 1912. In 1912 Sascha would have been 24, Abe 26, Minna 29 and Charles 32 years old. Once they had separated, Minna would never see her brothers again.
After the January reunion in Cape Town, before I flew back to England, I took a walk on the beach with my father. My parents had separated when I was nineteen and, at that point, my father and I had never had the kind of relationship that led to reminiscences and nostalgia. After seeing that photo, I was shocked, saddened and surprised by my complete ignorance of Minna’s existence. These emotions piqued my curiosity and galvanised me into action. I asked him why he had never talked to me about that side of the family, why he had never tried to contact them.
He seemed to think it was unimportant, which only made me more insistent.
“But why didn’t you ever tell me about Minna?” I asked.
“It never came up,” he said.
Call of the Ancestors
Later in 2002 I was back in South Africa. I had been commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to photograph the Sangoma, the traditional healers who live in the central region known as the Free State, where South Africa borders Lesotho – not far, in fact, from Bethulie, where my father had spent the first ten years of his life. Sangoma philosophy is based on their belief in ancestral spirits who call upon members of each generation to heal, divine and counsel in their community. A prospective trainee is advised not to ignore their call. I met several trainee Sangoma, who told me about the bad things that had happened to them before they heeded the call. One told me that my ancestors were in conflict.
The stories stayed with me when I returned to London. Their faith in the past had struck a chord. I had never really considered the influence of my ancestors before now. I was in my mid-forties, the time that many of us begin to wonder about the past, what characteristics we have inherited from relatives, how much their lives might explain the path we’ve taken in our own. Somehow, almost as if by instinct, in early middle age we start to look back and think hard about where we came from and where we really belong.
Immel, Jillian's Mother's Boyfriend, and his Influence
Whereas my mother believed photography to be about nothing more than weddings, Barmitzvahs and school class snapshots, Immel understood art and commercial photography. He had even collected some photographic prints – specifically of Sam Haskins, who was famed for his fashion photography in magazines such as Vogue and Harpers and for his book Cowboy Kate published in 1964. Haskins is believed to have had the 'first modern freelance advertising studio in Africa' (Wikipedia). He went on to have a huge international career.
Immel's first wife, Peggy North, had been an artist and her canvas depicted scenes of the quaint harbour called Kalk Bay. The shining little fisherman village nestled below the mountain overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, was ‘down the line’ from Muizenberg. That meant that if you caught the train that hugged the coast line, almost all the way to the most southern part of the Cape, you would reach Kalk Bay. You would pass St James first – the place in the Cape where Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist and mining magnate ‘wintered’. I remember, as a little girl, often passing the cottage with its thatched roof and the ox wagon on the front stoep (veranda). Some kind of plaque adorned the stone wall outside. It was only later that I realized how much of an impact he had on the colony. In 1887 Rhodes told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that the “Native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.” Once he put it as bluntly as “I prefer land to niggers.”
The fishermen and their families lived for years under what could referred to as a ‘Supended Sentence’. The government could not impose the Group Areas Act on the community because the fishermen needed to go out as early as 4 a.m. to net the daily catch. There was no infrastructure for a transport system from the townships at that time that would get them to the harbour so early in the morning. They had no choice but to allow the community to co-exist side by side – the Whites and the Coloureds, as they had done for so many years.
It was a unique situation: a peaceful multi-racial society existing in a tiny enclave under the National Government’s repressive apartheid system. A little beacon of light, for me it shone like a bright beam and I chose to point my camera at it with a hunger until it filled me up.
Victor, the Wild Boar Hunter, Scientist and Kosher Condensed Milk Maker
Victor had planned to meet us at our hotel and insisted that, whatever the hour, he would be there to welcome us. At 2 a.m. we arrived in a deserted cobbled downtown street of Dnipropetrovsk, where Victor appeared out of the blanketed mist like an apparition. Walking towards me, clutching a vividly coloured red rose, he said “Welcome Jillian,” in a strong Russian-accent and deep voice. Things felt surreal as I scanned his dark, sad, smiling eyes, his widow’s peak and olive skin, searching for family resemblances.
The depressing exterior of the hotel glowed in the dark as the neon signs around it flickered on and off. The interior was the kind of lime green you always see in hospitals and was decorated with artificial flowers and velvet ‘paintings’ of naked girls. We were led towards our rooms and passed a man covered at the waist with a towel, bidding farewell to two girls.
Victor told us that his son Dennis and Dennis’s girlfriend and translator Natalia would collect us in the morning and take us to the factory. Dennis arrived stylishly dressed in a pin-striped suit and long black overcoat, toting a leather wallet, mobile phone and his blonde girlfriend. Later he joked that he had a gun stashed in the wallet – “Pah, puh, puh, pah!” he said, pretending to brandish the imaginary firearm. I’m not sure what I was expecting as we drove into the main gates. It was freezing and a cold steam rose up off the forecourt. An army of men with heavy machinery were working the road. The scene was something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I knew Victor had bought a milk plant, as he referred to it, and that he’d hatched a plan to manufacture kosher condensed milk. It seemed his business was doomed before it had even begun. There would not be a huge demand for sweet milk blessed by the local rabbi, as the Jewish population was tiny. (Fifteen had survived World War Two; 80,000 had lived there before the war but on 12 October 1941 11,000 of them were taken to the local square and shot by the Germans, after they conquered the city.) After our tour of the factory with it’s redundant milk vats and rusty, empty equipment, we huddled around a heater in the secretary’s office to drink vodka and eat ‘salo’, a Ukrainian and Russian and Eastern European delicacy of salted pork fat. Dennis smiled like a Cheshire cat and said “It's better than sex”.
Over the next few days I got to know the family quite well. Dennis doubled up as the local rock star and we sat in on a band rehearsal in a run-down basement listening to him blast out his favourite songs. He and Victor played ice hockey, wrestled and hunted wild pig in the forests in summer together. Victor’s daughter Nataly, whom my companion Simon referred to as ‘sex on a stick’, wanted to be an interior decorator. She did seem to curl her plump lips around words, and her figure-hugging skirts and sweaters moved gently with every sway and sigh. There was something poignant about her explaining to the camera that she would hatch an escape plan to get to America, the promised land. She had memories of accompanying her grandmother Minna and spending hours queueing in the cold to get food rations during the Cold War. It was clearly a life of hardship; they had learnt how to make the best of these limitations.
Rand Show, sometimes known as the Rand Easter show, is an annual event in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is the largest consumer exhibition in the world; historically, it was an agricultural show. This particular time I happened to be photographing its President when a fire that started in the kitchen threatened to burn the main exhibit down. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1982.
Refugee clothes hang on the perimeter fence of car park they occupy after the crossing from Turkey, Molyvos, Lesvos and mainland Greece. August 2015.
Mother and baby at PIKPA, an open refugee camp in Mytiline, Lesvos (Greece) that provides humanitarian support to the most vulnerable refugees including families with children, pregnant women, those with disabilities, those who suffer from serious medical conditions and victims of shipwrecks who have lost loved ones in the sea. August 2015.