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Where did the insult 'Peruvian Jew' come from


Mother and father
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Well, my father was a shoemaker and not a well-educated man; he couldn't read or write at all, I mean, till the day he died. He had a great aptitude for languages and so he learnt and spoke two African languages: Afrikaans…

[Q] But he couldn't read or write?

Could not read or write. My mother taught herself to read and write, so she was the only one who could speak English. In fact, when my father finally had to get naturalised, because, you know, none of this… we had to get a lawyer to get the forms filled out because he couldn't read or write, so that was the… that was his background.

[Q] Was he a book… was he a shoemaker till the end of his life?

Yes, yes, right till the very end, he went on working till he was over 80; wouldn't give it up. Everybody said, 'It's ridiculous', but he still had his little shop and went on doing this because… one of the people who felt that if you stopped work, you... you might as well just stop living.

[Q] What did he feel about your science?

Well, he… you know, he didn't understand it, but he could understand why I was doing it; let's put it this way… and of course my mother never forgave me for not becoming a specialist – you know a doctor – but... but of course never tried to stop me basically. Well, I suppose they couldn't have done it anyway. So that was…

[Q] Did your mother ever work?

No, my mother was always at home, you know, and looked after… looked after this… looked after the family and of course from a completely different… I mean, all that I… I can remember was, you know the great… the stories I used to hear about what it was like to be in Russia between, say, 1914 and 1922 – whenever she got out, you know – and there's these terrible stories of their… of this town which there were, you know, Red Latvians and White Latvians and Red Russians and White Russians; it exchanged hands almost every time. And the story I do remember being told as a young child was a story of one being sent to get bread and standing in line and finally getting half a loaf of bread, but by the time this… this child had walked home with this bread, had… by taking a little bit, had eaten the entire loaf, and the family waiting for this bread got nothing; it was empty. But, you know, one learnt about food being made with potato peelings but… and of course to… to hear all of this in… in Germiston; things that were going on was like getting news from an alien planet. I mean, first of all there was never any snow, so the concept of what was it like to live through a really hard north, northern winter, this just had no connection with us, so… and I think the kind of picture that you draw of the world from stories or from what you read is so false that, you know, one… one can never grasp it when one sees it in reality again that one's image of it was so wrong.

[Q] Were they religious?

My mother was fairly orthodox; my father was a total agnostic. He didn't… he didn't practice anything and was against it all. My mother was of course… practised everything, and of course for a long time we had my grandmother living with us who spoke no English and spoke Russian and Yiddish only. So I learnt as a child to speak some Russian, because it was quite interesting. One always knew that when the parents and the grandmother spoke Russian, this was something they didn't want us to hear, so it became very important to try and find out what it was. So it was that kind of background.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Germiston, South Africa, Russia, Russian Civil War

Duration: 4 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008