Ramsgate Literary Festival: The Postmaster’s Mistress

Ruth Fifield, author of The Postmaster's Mistress

Ruth Fifield, author of The Postmaster’s Mistress

A PASSION for history and the need to tell the story of legendary Port Edward resident, Elena Jennings, led Ruth Fifield to pen her inaugural book, The Postmaster’s Mistress, published by Partridge Publishing.

The book, which took eight years to complete, tells the fascinating story of how a Dutch girl, of Jewish extraction, was forced to leave her home in the Second World War, was interred by Italian fascists, and then met and married a South African soldier.

“They settled on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal and made an invaluable contribution to the development of their new community, as so many ex-servicemen, whose steel had been tempered in the fire of the Second World War, were given the opportunity to do,” says the author on the cover blurb.

Born in Johannesburg, Fifield is now a happy South Coast resident and teaches English at Port Shepstone High School.

Speaking at the inaugural Ramsgate Literary Festival at the Whale Deck in the South Coast village, she said: “Writing this book was an enriching experience for me but it also brought home the relevance of recording local history. And I think that recording local history in a world experiencing unprecedented change becomes even more important.

“We have to get children interested in family history … when they are older some young people do get interested but sometimes it is too late. We need to write our history down. If we don’t then the efforts of earlier residents can be overlooked. We need to take pride in what is ours.”

Fifield believes there is a hunger for ‘real stories about real people, doing the best they can with what they have’.

With her own book, she says the journey began with a phone call to a woman who was described as a ‘fund of local history’.

“Having an interest in local history and Port Edward in particular, I wanted to meet Elena,” Fifield added, “… but one can’t simply phone someone and say, ‘Please share your stories with me’.  When a young friend was looking for someone to interview for a school history project, I grabbed this as a pretext to contact Elena.

“We spent many afternoons piecing together her history. It quickly became apparent that there was much more to her story than just a record of local goings-on. She introduced me to a cast of fascinating characters, events and places which I found compelling. Above all was her enduring love affair with her husband, George.

“Her story also provided an insight into the contribution made to South Africa after the Second World War by new European immigrants.”

Born between the two World Wars, Elana van Praag, was 20 years old when, in 1940, she and her family were declared civilian internees by the Italian Fascists.

Banished from their home in Genoa, they left behind their work in helping Jews to escape Europe. This well-connected Dutch family of Jewish heritage, who counted Albert Einstein’s family amongst their intimates, also lost their privileged existence when her father, Barend, was stripped of his beloved shipping business.

The Van Praags found refuge in Florence, but even there continued to reach out to hard-pressed civilians suffering under the lash of fascism and Nazism.

Later, when the Allied forces arrived in Florence the family found themselves catapulted into new associations and useful roles. This sociable family attracted men from the British, American and South African forces and thus Elena met and fell in love with her South African captain, George, and then settle in a new country after the war.

“Writing this book lifted me to a magical place,” Fifield said. “I believe real stories can underscore our spiritual, psychological and emotional connectedness.”

The Postmaster’s Mistress by Ruth Fifield is available in both softcover and eBook. Contact Ramsgate Stationers & Booksellers, 4 South Coast Mall, Beach Road, Shelly Beach, 4265 or phone 039 315 0213 for more information. Alternatively log onto www.partridgepublishing.com/africa

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