Kimberley, South Africa


Mendel Apter and Fresh Lemons

Mendel Apter and Fresh Lemons

A Story about Mendel Apter in the Royal Navy by his friend and mentee Hector Kleinot.

‘Fresh lemons, only a pound each, OK five for four pounds then’

Time 1942; place Portsmouth or Liverpool or Southampton in a dockside pub frequented by local seamen and Royal Navy sailors on shore leave. It is Saturday night again at the Safari Steakhouse Kimberley. Zorba was absorbed as usual over his hot grill in the open plan kitchen, and socially participating in several conversations at the same time.

At our table Mendel was holding forth after a couple of whisky warmers, it being a cold winters night in 1966. Mendel was a small man, and like so many small men, he liked to throw his weight around. But he was not nasty, as so many small men could be. On the contrary he was kind-hearted and simpatico. Now commanding the floor, as was his wont, he was recounting for the umpteenth time, a tale of how he became the most popular Jewish petty officer in the Royal Navy.

We had settled in Kimberley in 1963, mainly because of the opportunity Mendel gave me then to work for him. But I had not heard this story before. So, it was being told mostly for my ears.

About 1940, partly against his parent’s wishes, Mendel joined the Royal Navy in Simonstown (see the Royal Naval Base at Simonstown below) and soon found himself in Portsmouth. He was assigned to crew on a frigate doing convoy escort through the Mediterranean to Malta.

These were the dark days of the Second World War when Britain, yes still Great Britain, stood alone against the Hun. Many ships and brave men were lost.

Thus, more by attrition than by qualification and experience, Mendel was promoted to Petty Officer. He said that as a South African his shipmates accepted him, but once they found out he was a Jew there were some who liked to belittle such a shrimp of a fellow and a Jew to boot (sometimes literally).

Mendel was pretty tough, and several black eyes later, not all his, he won a place in the 40-man crew of his frigate. There was the usual card playing and ‘crown and anchor‘ gaming aboard the frigate during off duty periods. Mendel chose not to gamble. Once he had won his place it seemed natural for the crew to appoint their ‘pet Jew’, as their banker. He, along the way, had told them that he had a scheme to make them the richest sailors ever. Mendel’s chance to test his scheme came when the frigate docked at Malta for his first time. During the usual one day’s turnaround leave he bought one hundred lemons for a pound.

‘Very clever’, said his mates, ’Do you think we also don't know that lemons are worth a pound each at home. Trouble is that by the time we get back there they shrivel and dry. No one will buy them’ ‘Yes’, answered Mendel, ‘but you fellows are not students of history, and you never heard about how Captain Cook and later Nelson carried lemons all around the world to keep the crews from getting scurvy There is a way to do it.’

Back on board with his lemons, Mendel prevailed on the frigate’s engineer to give him a couple of pounds of grease. Then coating each lemon in a thin coat of heavy grease he laid the lemons in an empty beer crate. Four weeks later after dodging U boats through the Bay of Biscay they docked in Portsmouth. The crate was opened, and the first lemon wiped clean in the presence of several sailors. To their amazement the lemon appeared as fresh as the day it was packed. With little ado the lemons were all cleaned and when ashore there was no trouble selling them in the local dockside pubs at a pound apiece. So quickly one pound became a hundred. In subsequent voyages several thousands of pounds were made in this way. 

There were some losses. Mendel was torpedoed twice, and in the somewhat flippant way he told it, loss of ship and life, seemed less important than loss of lemons. Yet there was a definite poignancy in the telling of the tale. He told of how the drowning crew was rescued by a passing ship of the same convoy they were supposed to be protecting. And occasionally of burning oil or a shark that got there first.

Then came the grisly titbit of Royal Navy tradition, older than Nelson and Drake, and invoking rituals of the Knights Nautoniers. They were the seafaring branch of the Knights Templar who guarded the sea routes to the Holy Land against the Arab Corsairs during the Crusades. These were the forerunners of the Royal Navy. He told of how a dead seaman was sewn into his hammock by the sailmaker with a cannonball behind his head. Of how in second world war times the sailmaker was replaced by a boatswain or other non-com, and how the cannonball became a twenty-pound shell. But the punch line was that the last stitch is always put through the dead man’s nasal septum, just in case he is not really dead. ‘Orrryezzz thart should quicken ‘im with a staaart’ His imitation of the Cornish seaman's accent, always good for a smile.

The lemons provided enough saving so that when Mendel arrived back in Kimberley in 1946, he bought a two door Packard with a dickey seat, which was the envy of his mates and the downfall of several local maidens. But that is another story.

Recently I read ‘The Kappilan of Malta’ by Nicolas Montserrat. It is a graphic description of the siege of Malta and the brave people who eventually lifted that siege. My old friend and mentor Mendel Apter, was one of these brave men and I never realised until only the other day, on reading that novel, what a brave man he really was. Sadly, Mendel, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in his early fifties.

Hector R Kleinot July 2000