‘You lily-livered, knock-kneed, yellow-bellied, flat-footed, flaznaggled, bog-trotting ape.  You are a university student and your mind’s a blank.’[1]

Cecil Colwin was as well-known for his repertoire of insults as his ability to produce swimming champions.  South Africa’s first full-time swim coach, Cecil’s career spanned three continents and almost 70 years, during which he trained Olympic medallists and a world record holder.  He wrote numerous texts on swimming technique and is regarded as a pioneer of the sport.[2]

During the winters of 1957-1959, my siblings worked out with Cecil’s squad at Johannesburg’s Hillbrow pool.  He became a peer to my mother, giving her training schedules to use back home.  She would go on to coach her own squad in Cape Town.







Cecil was not without his critics.  I remember an incident at Hillbrow, circa 1957.  He was barking at my sister.  I walked up to the great man, pointed a finger at him and famously uttered the words, ‘you don’t tell.’  I’m told that he had the grace to smile.

Hillbrow pool was a subterranean venue at the bottom of a flight of stairs and, for many years, Johannesburg’s only winter training venue.  It was 25 yards long by about 20 yards wide, a configuration no doubt dictated by the available space.  I learned to swim there in a small open-topped ‘cage’ which had been hitched to one side of the pool.  The cage had netting on three sides and on its floor, allowing a view to the bottom of the pool but with the security of knowing that one couldn’t sink below the level of the net.  Flo Elliott, a learn-to swim-instructor whose son trained in Cecil’s squad, gave me the confidence to let go of the net and take my first freestyle strokes in that cage.  I was four years’ old.

In 1966 Cecil set up a summer swim camp at Bethlehem, a Free State town with an outdoor 50-metre pool.  The accommodation was a row of self-contained villa units set on Loch Athlone, a recreational lake which was also the town’s water supply.  A cement replica of the Athlone Castle, a passenger liner in the Union Castle fleet, was permanently moored on the lake; the ‘ship’ had a number of restaurants and cafés, and a ‘gangplank’ connecting it to land.  I attended two of these camps and remember them for Cecil’s constant reference to Newton’s Third Law of Motion – ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’ – to demonstrate the hand recovery in backstroke; and the tireless efforts of his wife, Margaret, in providing wholesome food to a bunch of kids who would rather have had burgers from the Athlone Castle.  I don’t remember ever having been sworn at, which I take to have meant that I’d been assessed as non-champion material.

Cecil left South Africa in 1971.  He spent two years coaching in Australia before being headhunted to a top swimming position in Canada in 1973.  He remained there until his death in 2012, aged 85.  His son, Robert, whom I remember as a tousle-haired toddler from the Bethlehem camp days, described how he sat with his close-to-death father in an Ottawa hospice and watched as ‘…(he) raised up (his arm) from under the covers and started to practice a freestyle entry!  I must tell you it was still flawless.’[3]

As more suitable indoor pools were built in Johannesburg, Hillbrow fell out of fashion as a squad training venue.   For a while it was used by the Summit Club, the first multiracial strip club in South Africa.  A photo taken in 1971, from the Club’s all-white period, is the last record of Hillbrow pool I’ve been able to find.


Goldblatt, D. 2010. TJ: Johannesburg photographs 1948-2010.











The pool’s fate is something of a mystery.  It is not mentioned among the venues listed on the Summit Club’s website.  My Johannesburg contacts don’t know what’s become of it.  Last week I fired off a query to the three communications and marketing contacts listed on Johannesburg City Council’s website; if I ever hear from any of them, I’ll update this post.

I became a good, but not a great swimmer.  I put my ordinariness down to a combination of some talent and not nearly enough fire in the belly.  But I’ve never regretted the training, the trips and the lifelong friendships forged through swimming.  Or the self-discipline that the sport gave me.

[1]              Thanks to my friend, Marissa Rollnick, for expanding this list.

[2]              http://www.ishof.org/cecil-colwin-02.html; http://swimhistory.org/articles/item/95-cecil-colwin

[3]              https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/passages-cecil-colwin-85/


She was born on 27 November 1906, the year in which the British Labour Party was founded, Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated, and the International Radiotelegraph Conference agreed on “SOS” as the global standard distress signal.  In South Africa, Gandhi led the Indian community in the first passive resistance march against social injustice, the African National Congress sent a delegation to Britain protesting new legislation in the Orange Free State that had stripped blacks of legally acquired land, and tuberculosis reached epidemic proportions.

Early photos of Julia show a child who was dressed in the height of fashion and wore the latest accessories.  To the extent that a comfortable life can be inferred from such details, it came to an abrupt halt when Harry died.  The fourteen-year-old Julia was taken out of school and sent to work to support her mother and my then eight-year-old father.  I’d hear that a young man would later claim a special place in her heart, but due to her reduced circumstances or his family’s subsequent redirection of his affections elsewhere – perhaps both – that relationship did not progress.  When she married Issy, a Latvian-born dealer in bathroom accessories, she was 28.  Old for the times.

Julia was the aunt to whom I was despatched as a toddler, too young to travel overseas with my parents and siblings.  I spent three months in Johannesburg with her and Issy, and their daughters, Hilarye and Rosalind.  I celebrated my second birthday with them, the occasion recorded in a photo of me blowing out candles on a birthday cake, flanked by my smiling cousins.

The single-level house at 75 Louis Botha Avenue in Houghton – where Nelson Mandela would one day occupy a grand mansion – became synonymous with holidays in Johannesburg.  It was small compared with the double-storey home of my childhood, but it did boast several things that ours didn’t, including a tennis court and two bathrooms.  There were also burglar bars on every window, reinforcing the perception that Johannesburg was a much more dangerous place than Cape Town.  And, of course, it was.  While lying in bed one afternoon, Issy noticed a fishing rod poking through the bars of an open window.  He watched as the rod advanced towards the dumb valet where his jacket was hung, flipping open the left front.  By the time he understood the purpose of this exercise, the rod, which was liberally covered in razor blades, had retreated from view with his wallet.

My aunt was a short version of my father, but with brown eyes and more hair.  They had the same crinkly – and slightly mischievous – smiles which seemed to start at the corners of their eyes and travel down to their mouths.  Julia’s most distinctive feature, however, was at the other end of her body.  During the day, her feet would rise like loaves of bread in a warm oven, their skyward progress accentuated by the unyielding toes of her shoes.  I was endlessly fascinated by her swollen feet and hoped that this condition was not genetic.

Julia’s house was populated with dogs, always German shepherds, and good food.  Every morning bulkes – yeast buns – would emerge from the oven, hot on the heels of a cooked breakfast.  There was delicious yogurt in glass pots, stopped with a disc of cardboard under which a layer of cream lurked.  Julia’s Danish herring, with its sweet tomato base, was more approachable to my child’s palate than the vinegary tang of Mom’s pickled herring.  In the pantry, a jar of glacé cherries was regularly topped up to indulge my love of crystallised fruit.

When my turn came to travel overseas, Julia gave me a diary.  At the time, it seemed like doing homework and I was resentful of such a thoughtless gift.  But I dutifully scribbled in it, letting go of the discipline only in the last week of the trip.  No further diaries were pressed upon me and, without the prod, I kept no records of subsequent travel.  But a seed had been sown.  It would take 35 years for it to germinate and, since 1999, I have made notes on every overseas trip I’ve undertaken and of many local ones too; my only regret is that I didn’t pick up the habit earlier.  It appears I was not the first journal keeper in the family.  Among the various items we found when packing up my mother’s apartment in the early noughties were my father’s travel diaries and some of Mom’s jottings.

Julia was habitually late for everything.  Even when she was ready to go out, she would find some excuse not to leave on time.  I remember an occasion in the 1960s when we were preparing to go to the new Cinerama[1] where How the West Was Won was showing.  I was bursting with excitement about seeing a movie projected onto three[2] screens, wondering how they would achieve the curved effect and whether I would see the joins.  We were going nowhere, however, until Julia had finished combing the knots out of her granddaughter’s hair.

I saw Julia less often during the 1970s.  The family dynamic had changed and I now had the choice of staying with my brother, who had relocated to Johannesburg in 1972.  Issy died in 1974, the end of his life spent in a dementia care facility.  Four years later we were rocked by the news that Rosalind had committed suicide in London.  I can’t imagine the grief Julia must have suffered, and the questions that would never be answered.

On a return visit to South Africa in 1986, I rang to arrange a time to visit.  Julia was still living at the house on Louis Botha Avenue, with the two domestic servants I remembered from the 1960s.  She was almost blind and her feet were still rising up in her shoes.  There were no dogs nor the smell of freshly baked bulkes.  I was ushered into the formal reception room where my surviving cousin and her daughter, on account of whose knotted hair we’d been late for the movies twenty years ago, were seated.  Julia was cool, the others belligerent.  There was a grievance held by another party, they said, as they  looked in my direction.  I was shocked and hurt, but mostly I was dismayed by their misrepresentation of the facts.

It was the last time I saw Julia.  She died on 5 May 1997.  Four days earlier, Tony Blair’s New Labour had been swept to victory in Britain with the largest margin in its history.  In South Africa, a newly emancipated Nelson Mandela was negotiating a transition to majority rule with the then Nationalist government.  The incidence of TB was about to soar once again.[3]

On a visit to Johannesburg in 2014, I decided to look for Julia’s grave.  We drove out to Westpark Cemetery, a sprawling multi-denominational burial ground, with a printout of the plot location tucked into my handbag.  The office at the main gate was unattended, but a passing official gave us directions to the Jewish section.  ‘Go out the gate, turn left, pass five gates and you’ll see it.  You won’t miss it, darling,’ she said.  We drove through the fifth gate and parked near a function centre where a funeral service had just concluded.  Friends and family of the deceased were spilling onto the steps, a black man in a yarmulke an incongruity in the all-white crowd.  I approached an elderly man and asked where P Section was.  ‘Ten minutes on foot’, he said, pointing toward a clump of trees in the distance, his breath reeking of stale cigarette smoke and bad dentition.  Over at P Section I showed the printout to one of the attendants.  He nodded and set off at a trot, stopping at the end of a row.  He made a show of pulling weeds from the grave – there were barely any – then hurled a bucket of water at the tombstone, buffing up the lettering with a cloth.  I gave him 20 Rands, took a few snaps and left.

Julia and Issy had always intended to lie side-by-side at Westpark.  After Rosalind’s death, Julia offered up her plot so that her daughter could be interred alongside her father.  With no room left in the row, my aunt was squeezed into the grass verge between the last grave and a roadway.

Time is a great provider of perspective.  Despite the unfortunate circumstances of our last encounter, I remember Julia with fondness.   The three months of care was an extraordinary gift, even if I don’t remember any of it.  Whenever I stayed with her she looked after me with the responsibility and affection of a parent.  I should also give her credit for having influenced my writing career.  Without that first diary, I may never have taken up the habit in later life.

[1]              https://johannesburg1912.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/theatres-in-early-johannesburg/

[2]              The early system required shooting three synchronised cameras that shared a single shutter, giving a 146-degree field of view.  The ‘joins’ between the screens were clearly visible.

[3]              ‘The increasing burden of tuberculosis in rural South Africa – impact of the HIV epidemic’ South African Medical Journal vol. 87, 4, April 1997.  https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:215788/UQ215788_OA.pdf

One last crack at a marriage record

‘What we have are the Jewish Orthodox marriage application records, divorce, conversion and adoption records for the Johannesburg area and the surrounding towns/areas…If you want to search under any of the above categories that we do keep, you will need to provide me with full names and surnames of the people, the full date of marriage and shul of marriage…Please also be aware that there are UOS (Union of Orthodox Synagogues) admin fees that apply to cover the searching as well as manual and electronic archival retrieval and scanning of documents etc. These fees can range from R300- to R800 and sometimes more than that; it all depends on the extent of the search…’

It was as if I’d been dismissed from class.  I was less put out by the open-ended nature of the fee quote – although I don’t like entering into such arrangements – than that Nirit Selbst, custodian of archival records at the Johannesburg Beth Din[1], had asked for the very details I was trying to establish: the date and synagogue of my grandparents’ marriage.

I tucked the response into an email folder and mentally closed the file.  That was in September 2012.  Two years later, finding myself in Johannesburg and bruised from the year-long Home Affairs encounter, I reconsidered.  I offered to come into the Beth Din’s office and do the research myself.  And I’d pay whatever fees were involved.

It was one of those hot dry days that precede the set-your-clock-by-the-4pm-storm that is so typical of a Highveld summer.  For the sake of decorum, I donned trousers – the black and white jazzy pair I’d picked up at a pop-art shop in Sydney’s Darlinghurst district – and teamed them up with a plain short-sleeve shirt and sandals.

I was buzzed in through a security gate at the street entrance.  There was another check at the entrance to the administration office and a third one at the staff door where Nirit was waiting to meet me.  Her manner was friendly, a nice contrast to the long-distance exchange of 2012.  Barely five-foot tall, I guessed her to be in the late thirties.  She was wearing dark trousers and a long-sleeve top.  My gaze came to rest on her too-perfect hair; from the parting, I could tell that it was a sheitel.[2]

We walked to a small anteroom which opened into a vault where the records were kept, its entrance secured by a thick door like one you would find in a bank.  Against each wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves randomly packed with boxes, books and folders.

Nirit pointed to the stacks which held records for my period of interest.  I started pulling out books, getting onto my knees to reach the lower shelves.  I piled the books on the small wooden desk in the anteroom and started working my way through them.  A man in a black frock coat and yarmulke – I assumed he was a rabbi – came into the anteroom to look for something.  I read into his sideways glance a flicker of distaste.  Perhaps it was my uncovered arms.  Or my imagination.

After an hour, I wandered over to the accounts section to make a donation.  When she heard where I came from, the woman handling the transaction started talking about her son who lived in Bondi.  She had visited Australia twelve times, she said.  Despite this, I detected a singularly Eastern Suburbs-centric view of Sydney which tends to form in people who don’t stray far from the Bondi bubble.

The conversation drifted to the topic of Sydney’s property prices.  The woman told me that her son resented ‘all the Chinese buying up property because it was preventing him from getting into the market.’  I wondered if I should tell her about the investment rules that limit non-resident foreign nationals to buying property ‘off-the-plan’; and that such development occurs mostly in suburbs remote from Bondi.  That in looking for something to buy, her son was most likely competing with cashed-up locals or other migrants – including South Africans – with the same rights to residency as he had.  There was a lot I could say about a myth rooted in the type of prejudice that she and I had grown up with.  Instead, I gave a sympathetic nod and waited for my receipt.

There was no record of marriage application in the Beth Din archives.  I might have known.

[1]              An ecclesiastical court that presides over, among others, kosher certification of restaurants and food manufacturers, conversion to Judaism, bills of divorce, questions relating to burial practice, authorising who can carry out circumcisions, adjudicating technical points of Jewish law, etc.  In Orthodox Judaism, it consists of three observant Jewish men who are often rabbis.

[2]              Yiddish word for the wig worn by some Jewish Orthodox married women to comply with the requirement of Jewish law to cover their hair.


She was the young bride whose photo stood on a dresser in what was euphemistically referred to as the ‘homework room’.  The dress was white and I recall some lace, but if you were to ask me to describe what the woman looked like, the best I could do would be to say that she had dark hair and brown eyes.  This was because whenever I looked at that photo my eye went straight to the flowers she was holding below her waist.  The triangle-shaped bouquet seemed to sprout directly from the woman’s pelvic region.  I didn’t understand how my parents allowed such a rude photo to be on public display.

Rose Kantor was born circa 1876 in the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai – or Shavel in Yiddish.  Located on a major road and railway intersection, Shavel was Lithuania’s third-largest town at the turn of the century and well-known for its leather industry.  It was also predominantly Jewish with more than half of its population representative of that faith.

Rose left before the persecution began.  It started in 1915 when Tsar Nicholas II expelled Shavel’s entire Jewish community as reprisal for Russian losses at the hands of German troops advancing on the Eastern Front[1]; in 1941 it was almost permanently obliterated when 8,000 Jews were killed by the Germans.[2]

In a conversation I had with my mother in 1997, she described Rose as the ‘youngest of 16 children from Lithuania.  She came from a rich family who sent her to South Africa to get married.’  I have tempered this anecdote with the knowledge that Mom often reinterpreted the facts and that while the diagnosis of dementia was still to come, it is possible my mother’s memory was already playing tricks when we had this chat. The public record shows that Rose was one of three children, which is likely to be closer to the truth.  I recall only ever hearing about two of Rose’ siblings: an older sister Charlotta, who also emigrated to South Africa, and a brother Gabriel whose last known whereabouts was a ship bound for America.  My middle name is a nod to his existence.

If there was one thing Harry would have been impressed with on meeting Rose, it was her height: she was close to six feet tall and, in the family photo I have, she towers over him.  A combination of genes and good diet, no doubt.  I know that she was a competent cook because my mother never tired of telling me about the potato salad recipe Rose gave her, having assumed that boiling the spuds first was understood.

All I know is that they married in Johannesburg.  Assuming that Harry met Rose after he emerged from gaol and that theirs wasn’t a shotgun wedding, there is an approximate eighteen-month window during which the marriage could have taken place.  If at such time Family Search adds civil registration records for Johannesburg that extend beyond 1900, I may find out the precise details.

Of course, deep in the bowels of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs is a copy of Harry and Rose’ marriage certificate.  This has proved as easy to retrieve as it is to remove gold bullion from Fort Knox.  Every now and again I have notions of driving to the South African Embassy in Canberra and starting the process anew.  Then I remind myself how a researcher in South Africa spent 12 months doing just that and got nowhere.  I remember my brother-in-law’s frustrated attempts to procure  a vault copy of his birth certificate.  I continue to read about the experiences of others who have run into the brick wall that calls itself Home Affairs.  And I satisfy myself that Rose and Harry said ‘I do’ in a synagogue somewhere in Johannesburg between 1904 and 1906.

The wedding photo did not survive my parents’ move.  I wouldn’t mind having it now.

[1]              Many returned in the 1920s.

[2]              http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/shavli/shavli1.html