Running From South Africa

In “My Race,” a Jewish athlete describes what it was like to grow up amid apartheid.

03/29/2011
Staff Writer
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After her grandchildren — twin girls — were born 12 years ago and she became a grandmother for the first time, Lorraine Abramson started thinking about her own, long-gone grandparents.

Growing up in South Africa during the heart of the apartheid era, Abramson, a prominent amateur athlete and member of a Jewish (i.e., white) family, knew three of her grandparents, who had grown up in Eastern Europe in a time of open anti-Semitism.

They had led entirely different lives than she did.

But she never had asked her grandparents about their lives, about why they had migrated, about how they had changed through the years, about what they had thought about their lives. “I wish I had asked them more questions.”

She wanted her granddaughters to know about her life, to answer the questions they might have one day.

So she decided to write a book about her life. “I didn’t want my granddaughters to have the same regrets I did.”

It took Abramson — who moved to the United States with her American-born husband in 1968, lived for several years in Long Island, and moved about a decade ago to Midtown Manhattan — more than a decade to complete and bring to publication her memoir, “My Race: A Jewish Girl Growing Up Under Apartheid in South Africa” (DBM Press). First came the death of her parents (both within a few months of each other in 2002), the compilation of her memories (she sat down at a computer one day and typed out everything she could think of), the actual writing (that took five years) and the finding of a publisher (a small press in Virginia she found at a New York book fair).

In “My Race,” a dual reference to her ethnic background and her status as a world-class sprinter, Abramson (nee Lotzof), 65, tells several stories: of her grandparents living in and leaving the Old Country, of growing up as a politically aware child in a kosher house on a farm three hours from Johannesburg, of coping with life as a privileged white person under apartheid while quietly despising the racist system, of becoming a national figure and near Olympian, of falling in love and moving to the U.S., of raising a family and making a new life here, of returning to her grandparents’ shtetls.

Maybe, she says, she may take her children on a similar return-to-roots trip.

“Sometimes I feel as though I’d like to take my children and grandchildren for a visit to show them where I grew up,” she writes. “And sometimes I don’t want to go back at all.”

The years after apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 have brought dozens of books about the country’s culture and politics. Hers, Abramson says, sitting in the living room of her Manhattan apartment, brings a unique perspective, of a sprinter who rose to the top of her sport but was kept from competing at the Olympics because of an apartheid-induced international ban, of a Jew who had religious freedom but faced the beneath-the-surface anti-Semitism of her Afrikaner neighbors and schoolmates, of a white who recognized the brutal inequalities of apartheid but did not fight them.

“I’m not an activist,” she says, just a trace of her South African accent still evident. She was, as she describes in her book, a typical product of her era, a white girl brought up in a household with a black servant, taught to respect authority, educated to believe that a black government would mean “a bloodbath” for the white minority.

In “My Race,” Abramson tells of a conversation she had with a Jewish friend who shared her opposition toward apartheid.

“Anyone who opposes this government has three choices,” Abramson’s friend told her.

“Yes, I know what the choices are,” Abramson said. “Speaking out against the government and going to jail … keeping quiet and just living our lives … leaving the country.”

The first two choices were out for Abramson. Although she admired the people like Parliament member Helen Suzman, who fought as a lone voice against apartheid, and the radical Jews who played a disproportionate part in the white resistance to the system, her character was not confrontational.

“The worst crime of a totalitarian state,” she writes, “is that it forces its citizens into complicity.” Staying in her homeland and remaining a silent accomplice in the crimes of apartheid, benefiting from the persecution of blacks, also was not an option. It was eating away at her. “This was not the country I wanted to bring my children up in.”

She would leave South Africa … “someday.”

First came running.

From the day she discovered at age 5 — when she beat a bunch of older boys in a barefoot, 60-yard-dash down a deserted, dirt road — that she had a God-given gift of speed, she trained hard and rose to the top of her sport. She was a national champion, a winner of nine Maccabiah medals, a 1968 finalist in the Helms Award competition as the top athlete in the entire continent.

But, Abramson says, as much as she enjoyed her athletic success, sprinting gave her more than awards. It earned her, she says, “a sense of acceptance in that racial society.” A sports hero, she did not suffer from the anti-Semitic comments that her brother had. “I was accepted as a Jew by the racist apartheid system.”

And running gave her a type of freedom.

“Every day I had to live my life by following the strict laws of apartheid and the strict rules of my boarding school,” she writes. “but when I was running, I was in my own world. It allowed me to tune into myself, and I was free and in control.”

In “My Race,” Abramson is critically honest about her own failings and compromises, about her own country and her own family.

“I’m very honest with my opinions,” she says.

Her athletic success was, serendipitously, her ticket out of South Africa. At the 1965 Maccabiah Games, she met Richard Abramson, a swimmer on the U.S. team. They fell in love, courted long distance, married in South Africa in 1968, and moved to the U.S., with Richard serving in the Air Force.

After Richard left the service, he entered the wealth management field; the couple lived for a few years in Boston, where Abramson taught in an elementary school before her two children were born. Then they moved to Long Island; Abramson devoted her time to philanthropy.

“I grew up witnessing injustice and oppression and was not allowed to say or do anything about it,” she writes. “Now I am able to reach out to those less fortunate.

The couple has been active in several Jewish organizations, including AIPAC and the National Council of Jewish Women; recently Abramson received the Sidney Perlman Lifetime Achievement Award from UJA-Federation of New York.

The Abramsons’ apartment reflects her dual identities — shelves of African mementoes, notably carved wooden napkin holders; alongside, shelves of Jewish items, books and menorahs.

While sharing her life’s story, Abramson pulls out one of her most treasured possessions — a suitcase crammed with artifacts she brought back from a 2001 family trip to her grandparents’ hometowns in Latvia and Lithuania.

In one village, traveling with her father and husband and three other relatives, she stumbled upon a deserted synagogue, its door swinging open, which apparently had not been entered for half a century or more, the village’s Jewish community a victim of the Third Reich.

In the unheated building, dark and dusty and dank, the Jewish visitors discovered prayer books, tefillin bags and Torah covers strewn about. As Abramson describes in her book, they gathered many of the items, bringing them back here to Jewish ownership; they are objects of great interest at the many speeches she has given since “My Race” came out.

On the way back to the U.S., they told a local rabbi about the decrepit synagogue; he promised to take care of it.

Abramson and her husband have traveled several times to Israel and to South Africa.

She says it is hard to believe that the South Africa of her youth has become the South Africa of today. During their last visit to her homeland, three years ago, the Abramsons went to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which, with old tapes, newspaper headlines and exhibition items like an anti-personnel vehicle used to quell protests, depicts what life, and death, was like for generations of South Africans.

She is glad, she says, that “the South Africa I knew is [now] a museum” and not a political reality. She is glad, she says, that children born after the demise of the system know it only as history. She is glad, she says, that she came to the U.S., her “first real taste of a free society.”

Long retired from running, she is still trim. She plays golf and tennis, and takes brisk walks several times a week in nearby Central Park.

“This is my gym,” she says.

Her granddaughters, who live in Westchester, are “intrigued” by her autobiography, Abramson says.

One, after reading the book, asked what oppression is. “My Race” uses that term often in describing the evils of apartheid.

Abramson was delighted, she says, that a bat mitzvah-age girl growing up in this country had no firsthand knowledge of oppression. “My family left Eastern Europe because they were oppressed. When I was 12, I knew what oppression was.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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