Another time, a man was walking a cross a field near our house. A neighbor of mine, he was just a kid, had a rottweiler, and the rottweiler started to attack the man. The man started running away and while he was running his hat fell. He was so terrified that he didn't turn back. That's how few rights people had—he was too afraid to come back and get his hat. And he was beautifully dressed. And the kid, who was white obviously, laughed and said something that was typically racist.
I started taking pictures when I was nine. I built my first darkroom that same year. Some of the first photographs I ever took, were when I was riding a bus and saw a black man on the bus being beaten by policemen. I was terrified because I knew I was doing something wrong. But I took the pictures anyway.
And there were countless events like this. Hundreds and hundreds of them. You were continuously being bombarded with the truth about apartheid. You were insulated from information but you weren't insulated from what you saw. It is impossible to insulate people from a culture when they are living within that culture. There was always an undercurrent to what you were told, always something underlying the news media, and the way people talked. I was very angry. These events would happen, and then you would watch the news, and you would see these white politicians on television talking about how great things were. Then, in school, you were taught history in which all the whites were great. They were lying. And to be Jewish within that, especially in the context of the Jews having emigrated there because of the holocaust, was a terrible contradiction. It is a very angering thing to be lied to like that at that age. I never understood why, for example, in the fifteen years that she took care of us, not once did I see where Elizabeth lived.
But then, the laws of apartheid happened to affect me directly.
My father was at that time a very prominent architect in South Africa, perhaps the most prominent architect of the southern hemisphere. As it became clear to some that antiapartheid forces were not diminished by military suppression, there was a scramble among the white middle and upper class to transfer money to foreign accounts, basically to save it for a rainy day if the economy collapsed. But the government became terrified that the economy would collapse because everyone was shipping their money overseas. So they instituted a freeze on the foreign exchange. If you tried to send money out of the country you were thrown in jail.
Around that time, my uncle was indicted for money transfers overseas. Shortly after that, my father went away on business. First he was gone for a few weeks. Then he was away on business for six months. I didn't know anything about what was happening. Then one day I went to school and someone handed me a newspaper. The headline read “Another Abramson Flees the Country.” So I went home and when I got there my mother was sitting at the dining room table with a lawyer. She told me that we were leaving the country in a few weeks. It was very sudden.
We sold the house and packed everything up and moved to America. One afternoon, I came home and they had put our dogs to sleep. They did this without telling us, to protect us, I think, but of course it didn't work. It was still very painful. Ironically, my father had only transferred about $3,000, which was really nothing. Nothing to start a life with. The government froze all of his assets and closed his accounts. So, having been one of the most prominent architects, he had to borrow money from a friend and start all over again.
During those three weeks something else happened that profoundly affected me, which was that Elizabeth, who was our maid, got sick and died. We had no idea what happened to her, but people thought it was possible the gardener had poisoned her. One afternoon, she pulled me into the hallway. She was holding an old empty coffee can. She held it out to me and it was half full of her own blood. She was bleeding from her gums. She had just opened her mouth over the can and all of this blood poured out. >continued