Series - The Recollections of Dr Solly Jacobson Memoir Series

"The Recollections of Dr Solly Jacobson"

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The Recollections of Dr Solly Jacobson Memoir Series

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Solly begins his narrative with his birth in 1918 as the first child of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Lithuania with a meagre education and poor career prospects. Solly’s family struggled to establish a footing in South African society. The twists and turns in its fortunes and through the first half of Solly’s life are enlivened by over 200 complementary photographs and documents, which give his autobiographical account a rare immediacy. Readers are allowed to eavesdrop on intimate moments in Solly’s life. He offers enthralling pen portraits of relatives, some of them highly entertaining, but others are tragic. Several of the incidents that he describes with disarming frankness lay bare his own character flaws. Solly relates that, as a medical student in South Africa, he enjoyed the company of a galaxy of talented individuals, including the famous anthropologists, Professor Raymond Dart, who personally supervised his dissertation at the University of Witwatersrand; and Phillip Tobias, and the polymath George Findlay. He was also acquainted with the future Nobel laureate, Sidney Brenner, a fellow student at the Witwatersrand Medical School.

After graduation, Solly describes volunteering for army service and then going to London for four years to gain higher medical qualifications and specialisation in Psychiatry. Returning to South Africa, as he notes, he added neurology to his specialities, under the tutelage of that country’s most accomplished neurosurgeon, Roland Krynauw. Through the 1950s, he mixed in intellectual and political circles and became acquainted with colourful figures such as Sailor Malan, Joe Slovo, and Harry Bloom, the author of the successful South African musical, ‘King Kong’. His literary activities brought him into close contact with the country’s foremost writers and poets, and he includes intimate sketches of Herman Bosman, Nadine Gordimer, Uys Krige and Lionel Abrahams, among others.

Solly was highly sensitive to the institutionalised racism that permeated South Africa and squarely aligned himself with the opponents of Apartheid in all its forms. In these ‘Recollections’, he describes the horrendous conditions that existed in hospitals assigned to the non-white population, in which he began his medical career.

Throughout his narrative he expresses his repugnance for the colour bar that operated in South Africa and wonders why so few of his colleagues did not share his revulsion. It was the repressive fallout from the Sharpeville massacre orchestrated by the regime, including the arrest and indictment of close friends of Solly, that resolved him to move abroad, as he explains. Before he left for Britain, at which point he ends his narrative, he had one important duty to perform. In April 1960, an attempt was made on the life of the principal architect of Apartheid, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd by a South African businessman of English descent, David Pratt, Pratt had been a psychiatric patient of Solly. At the trial, as expert witness on behalf of the defence team, Solly persuaded the Court to allow Pratt to speak in his own defence and here he reliably reports Pratt’s address to the judge and jury for the first time, in which he castigates the Apartheid system.

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Unless otherwise stated the copyright of all material on the Jewish Digital Archive Project resides with the South African Jewish Museum.

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