Running for her life: S. African recalls life as athlete and Jew

Running for her life: S. African recalls life as athlete and Jew

Lorraine Lotzof Abramson receives the Gold Medal at the 1965 Maccabi Games. Photo courtesy Lorraine Lotzof Abramson
Lorraine Lotzof Abramson receives the Gold Medal at the 1965 Maccabi Games. Photo courtesy Lorraine Lotzof Abramson

At the 1973 Maccabi Games, Lorraine Lotzof Abramson won a silver and a bronze medal as a runner with the United States’ team. That was nowhere near her spectacular success the previous time she’d competed — in 1965 — but the event carried a new pleasure: It was her first time representing her new country, a place with a relatively even playing field.

In 1965, she had been a member of the South African team. The wide-eyed 19-year-old won gold medals in three racing events — 100, 200, and 400 meters— and she was the toast of the games. She also met her future husband, U.S. swimmer Richard Abramson. But, like so much in her life, the joy was tainted by her return to South Africa’s tangled racial politics.

Abramson describes that complex mesh in her autobiography, My Race: A Jewish Girl Growing Up Under Apartheid in South Africa. As a fellow Jewish South African, I found it as fascinating for the achingly familiar descriptions of small-town life and boarding school discipline as for the utterly unfamiliar part: what it feels like to explode like a rocket out of the starting blocks, not breathing till one’s rib cage breaks the finishing tape.

She had missed the 1969 games, her first after marrying and coming to live in the U.S. She was chosen for the American team, but found out she was pregnant shortly thereafter and withdrew. The 1973 selection came as a thrill for the 27-year-old, but she missed her husband and son and knew it would be the last time she tasted that thrill of competition.

“Running had been in my blood and in my soul; it was the essence of my very being,” she writes.

There was also another ache: seeing her old team, in their green and gold jackets, just like the one she had in her closet back home. She says, “I was relieved that there was no South African woman in my races for me to compete against!”

South Africa was always that mixed experience for her, “a fool’s paradise.” Summing it up, she intertwines the three elements of her identity — as an athlete, a Jew, and a white South African — into a braid, or what we South Africans call a “plait.”

It’s her first book and there are times when that intermingling is strained, but even that has a certain accuracy. Much as we benefited from the system slanted so heavily in our favor, if you had any kind of conscience life, life there felt off-kilter.

The Olympic Games were never an option for Abramson, though she was named South African Woman Athlete of the Year in 1968 and was one of three finalists for the Helms Award as top athlete from the continent of Africa. South Africa had been banned from international competition, and much as that exclusion hurt, she agreed that a team selected under the prevailing conditions would not be representative.

Abramson spells out the particular bind that faced Jews in South Africa. They came from the same countries as those in the United States and in the same waves of emigration, driven by pogroms and poverty. Like Americans in the South but many times worse, they found themselves on the oppressors’ side, safely sheltered from the exploitation and misery black people faced.

Some Jews reveled in it. Some were appalled and fought the system. A few went to jail or were deported for that opposition. But most complied with the laws despite their disgust, afraid of suffering or harming their families. Abramson’s father was all for keeping the peace; her mother was acutely aware of the injustice and convinced it would bring violent reprisal. She wanted to emigrate but her husband refused until many years later. He had fled once in his life — from Latvia — and didn’t want to go through that disruption again.

Despite their neighbors’ ignorance about Judaism, her family encountered little anti-Semitism. In fact, it was regarded as lucky to have the Jode take part in prayers for rain – just as it was regarded as lucky to have a Jew on a national team, the Springboks. Not quite as welcome was the guy who invited her in her teens to have sex with him because that was also regarded as good luck.

She also describes with vivid immediacy the thrill she got from running, from the first time as a five-year-old running barefoot up the dusty street when she beat the bigger boys who promptly accused her of cheating through to her victorious 1965 Maccabi experience, and that final meet in 1973, as a proud member of the American team.

Abramson repeatedly touches on the racism around her, but most of her focus is on family love in a sun-drenched land and on a youth highlighted by a pretty extraordinary talent. Her descriptions are well paced and evocative. The final chapters deal with her parents’ eventual immigration to the United States, to be close to her and her brother Selwyn, and to their grandchildren, and a stunning trip back to her father’s childhood home of Ludza.

Her narration has a compelling momentum unusual from a novice writer, and in a way that chapter feels extraneous, but it also serves to close the circle. It takes her back to the family’s roots, to the reminder of another brand of inhumanity, and the mixed blessing of the haven found in South Africa, and finally to the security of life in America.

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