Aug 2005 Journal

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Memoir of a subversive broadcaster (book review)

Peter Fraenkel
I B Tauris, hardback, 2.49 pp., £24.50

Here, you may groan, is yet another of the many autobiographies written in recent years by ageing Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. You would be right and you would be wrong. It is indeed such a book, but Peter Fraenkel's history is unusual in that he and his family emigrated in 1939 from Breslau to Northern Rhodesia, where he forged a successful career, first as a journalist and later as an Assistant Broadcasting Officer in the Central African Broadcasting Service. Fraenkel was thus given the opportunity of using his undoubted skills as a broadcaster to help in the education of black people, using new methods of mass education. These memoirs end in 1957, the year in which he left Africa to make a home in Britain. This is regrettable - perhaps another volume is in the pipeline? - for his life at Reuters and later as Controller of European Services at the BBC should make for very interesting reading.

This book is exclusively concerned with the history of his family in Germany and his childhood years there, followed by a lively account of life in Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia). Anyone keen on dates will have to work hard to uncover them. For example, even the year of his birth - 1926 - has to be deduced from his age at the time of Kristallnacht. It would seem that his sojourn in Northern Rhodesia came to an end in 1957, a few years after the country was refashioned by the British government as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland - a big mistake, Fraenkel thinks, and one that wasn't undone until much later when the independent state of Zambia was created. His love affair with Africa came to an end, and he felt impelled to leave, because of his 'dislike of racist politics in this bastion of white privilege'. The violence that became commonplace was officially blamed on the district commissioners and on broadcasts by the Central African Broadcasting Service for 'giving the natives ideas' - which didn't exactly let him off the hook. And so Fraenkel decided that the time had come for him to leave a country in which he had sunk deep roots. It had proved to be 'no fixed abode'.

Early chapters deal with his family. His father, having studied law, became a civil servant, a somewhat unusual profession for a Jew and, like many other German Jews, he had served the Kaiser in the First World War. (He was, in fact, retrospectively decorated with the Iron Cross for heroism under enemy fire.) The family were not particularly religious, but 'remaining Jewish was a matter of honour'. They were comfortably off: emigration, when it finally came, was with 12 large wooden cases and travel to South Africa was by first class. Kristallnacht provided the impetus, and Fraenkel describes touchingly 'how we became Jews' as the result of Nazi persecution. It was only then that his father accepted his wife's pleadings to emigrate, and they were given the choice between Swaziland and Northern Rhodesia, having received visas for both. Northern Rhodesia won because it was deemed to be a wealthier country.

Peter Fraenkel's account of the 20 years in Northern Rhodesia is absorbing. Once in Lusaka, his father and a friend opened Rhodesian Dry Cleaners, which proved to be a successful venture. Fraenkel was sent to Lusaka Boys' school - all white, of course - which, despite its name, took in a minority of girls. For him it was a tough initiation as one of the first of the new immigrant children, with a poor mastery of English. 'Joed? Not another bleedy Yid', his classmates exclaimed. The young Fraenkel soon became aware of the degrading way black people were treated in the community and it made him want to work for their betterment.

Being sent to boarding school in Bulawayo proved, unexpectedly, to be a great success. Although not a sportsman, Fraenkel diplomatically went in for rugby and middle-distance running and, although conspicuously unsuccessful, proved that he 'had guts'. Outside school, thanks to a friendship with two girls, he developed an interest in left-wing politics. Having been rejected for a scholarship (even before sitting the examination), he was offered an interest-free loan by the government which, supplemented by a grant by some local Jews, enabled him to study English and history at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. There he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement. On graduating, he returned to Northern Rhodesia, but not before he was selected to join a team of debaters to tour some English universities. In Oxford it fell to him (he drew the short straw) to defend apartheid policies, a debate in which Jeremy Thorpe and Robin Day took part on the other side. 'I did my best. My side lost, but by a far narrower margin than anticipated.' The subsequent approach by a South African public relations officer, offering him employment, was dismissed.

After working for some time as an accounts clerk in the office of the registrar of co-operative societies, Fraenkel found a job at the Lusaka broadcasting station, and there are riveting chapters on his activities as a somewhat subversive broadcaster, working together with like-minded whites and Blacks. Their programmes, making use of Bemba proverbs, soap opera and other ways of getting through to a largely illiterate audience, were designed to educate, and in this they were eventually successful. He was one of the reporters who accompanied Clement Attlee and his wife on a visit to a 'typical' African village. 'I suppose it will be a model village with handpicked government stooges', said an accompanying British journalist. 'You are not in the Soviet Union', was Fraenkel's reply. It turned out alright, with the chief entirely unscripted, and the account of this meeting is both amusing and instructive.

The book is written in a very lively manner and there are countless anecdotes, many of them in direct speech. I expect Fraenkel used a certain amount of poetic licence, but it makes the book very accessible. I recommend it strongly.
Leslie Baruch Brent

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