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Pieter Dirk Uys on discovering his Jewish roots

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MOIRA SCHNEIDER

“I can’t spell the word,” he answers simply.

Uys was speaking to the SA Jewish Report on the eve of the launch of his book, The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now.

Uys has been a performer since his early childhood, from singing at weddings and in his father’s children’s choir and, he adds, “playing the piano very badly”.

Originally, he wanted to be a teacher and completed the first year of his degree, but a trip to Europe, “a life-changing experience”, put paid to those ambitions. “When I went back to my second year, I saw a very glamorous lady in the canteen with a beret and sunglasses and a long cigarette-holder and I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s quite nice!’ I said, ‘What do you do?’

“She said, ‘I’m an actress.’ So, I went with her to drama school, and then she said, ‘Why don’t you sign up?’, and I did!”

The book, he says, is about the small signposts in his life, of which this incident is but one.

The greatest denials in his history are the truths about his mother – her life remains shrouded in mystery. Uys did not know until after her suicide in 1969 that Helga Bassel was, in fact, Jewish, though he says he sensed it.

“I think it’s in your soul – your soul has fingerprints,” he surmises.

Her paternal grandfather was a rabbi in Hungary, and the accomplished pianist had left Nazi Germany in 1937 – accompanied by her Blüthner piano. “There was no discussion. When we were children, nobody said to us that six million people were murdered by the Nazis.

“It was only after I left school that I realised there was far more to it,” he recalls. But, still, he is tormented by the fact that he didn’t ask more questions, both of his mother growing up and of his father after her death.

“I know more about Sophia Loren’s family than my own,” he says wistfully, referring to a pen friendship that has spanned over 50 years.

All his mother spoke of was the “laughter, music, and happiness” of the Berlin of her youth. Even when her best friend from those days turned up at the Uys home in Pinelands with numbers tattooed on her wrist, there was no explanation.

“Is that a telephone number?” I asked. She laughed, and ruffled my blonde hair.

“Why don’t you call it, and see who answers?” My first hint of that concentration camp hell – with humour, writes Uys.

“There was no discussion about anything that would have terrified [his sister] Tessa and me,” he reflects.

One of the things his mother brought with her was the telephone book from 1936, he relates. “There was a hole in the cardboard cover where she had cut out the swastika.

“Tessie took it to London, and to this day, there are people who come and look up their families who were killed. But again, that wasn’t something we talked about when my mother was alive – it was just there,” he says.

Uys relates in the book how he loved going to his Jewish schoolfriends’ homes, how he loved the food, and fell in love with their mothers. His first female character, Nowell Fine, is in fact a composite of some of the 70s kugels.

“[Family friends] Charles and Lucy Kreitzer [like Uys’s parents] were musicians, and their children were our best friends – we loved them.

“They lived in Sea Point, and we used to love going there because the food was fantastic and there was just such fun! There was much more fun in Jewish families than in Afrikaans families – a lovely camaraderie which we found extremely exciting.”

In his book, Uys relates a particularly poignant incident when his sister, today an internationally renowned concert pianist, was being driven to a music eisteddfod. She had said to her mother that her best friend would win the medal.

“She’s so musical because she’s Jewish. Oh, I wish I was Jewish!” Tessa had said. “Ma just gave her little skew smile, and said nothing,” writes Uys.

“It was protection,” he now says, “of herself, but also of us. I was called names all my life. I was called a Nazi at school because I had a German mother, a Boer because I had an Afrikaans father, a moffie because I sang in a choir, so I think one tried to be very careful not to open oneself up to more.”

Did his mother’s denial of her roots and submerging them in a new life contribute to her bipolar disorder, I ask Uys. “Oh I’m sure,” he replies.

“Leaving your culture, your life… in the two years before her death, I think there were four of her friends that also committed suicide, friends who had left Germany. But I’m very careful not to speculate, I don’t want to put reasons to any action,” he adds cautiously.

Uys loves going back to Berlin, his mother’s birthplace, and he and Tessa both perform at the Jewish Museum there using his mom’s piano that found its way back several years ago.

“It’s been a wonderful journey of discovery and rediscovery and reinvention,” he reflects.

Uys performed in Tel Aviv in 1990 doing Nowell Fine. When I ask how the character was received in a different milieu, he shoots back, “They were all there in the audience!

“Now, when I travel, most of my kugel audiences are there, they’re not here anymore. The only kugels here are the black ones, who also sound like that,” says Uys, launching into a raucous nasal rendition of “Howzit doll?!”

•     Uys is staging a rerun of “When In Doubt Say Darling” at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from 27 November to 15 December.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. gilda hurwitz

    Nov 14, 2018 at 11:44 pm

    ‘When are you coming to visit us kugels in Sydney?

    Miss the old days.

    Pity that your Mother tried to hide her Jewish heritage.

    It makes me sad and one wonders how many like her there were. My parents were both survivors of concentration camps, and it never occurred to me that there were Jews who were ashamed of their roots’

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