From Lithuania to South Africa – a ringside vista from Tel Aviv down memory lane
By Dr. Gail Lustig
If anyone should be telling this story it should be my late father, Donny Loon, who passed away on the 16th January 2011 in Israel. It is the kind of story he liked hearing, reading, telling and retelling!
My first taste of his storytelling was when I was in my teens and he was hospitalized in a nursing home for a collapsed vertebral disc. It had been caused by Brucellosis contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk while doing a house call at a patient`s farm. He wrote a riveting short story which he read to me during a visit, telling me it had been written “by the priest next to him in the room!”
This story has taken decades to tell and was written in the days of lockdown in Tel Aviv , while going through some photo albums and discovering two old black and white photographs that aroused my curiosity more than usual.
Their story begins in Ponevezh, Lithuania where my grandfather, David Loon, and most of his five brothers, Arthur, George, Lazar, Issy and Maurice and one sister, Hetty, were born. David was born with clubfeet; proving a serious handicap in his motor development. The congenital problem for which he was teased endlessly might have spurred him on to take up boxing which was popular amongst the Jewish youth of Lithuania. He excelled at the sport and before long he was given the nick-name of “Siki” after a French-Senegalese light heavyweight boxer and world champion in the early part of the last century.
The Loon brothers were close; they enjoyed life, were social creatures, and supported one another in many ways. The family connection was always particularly important to them and their children developed close ties. David took time to teach his son Donny the punches and rules of boxing and although he never formally took up the sport, he certainly had a good knowledge of it.
In the early 1950s, Donny left the family and settled in Cape Town with Rita his young wife – my mother – who had grown up in the southern most city in Africa. He set up a general practice and soon became one of the popular young doctors in Bellville; where he treated people from every background and walk of life.
Donny hankered after his childhood environment with its warm atmosphere and exciting prospects, and a spirit that filled him with hope. He hadn`t taken to Cape Town, the city of his wife`s family. He was irritated by the soft, white sea sand that got in between his toes. He did not like biting on chicken pieces coated with sand on Muizenberg beach where he sat on a beach-chair with a towel over his legs while his family dived into the warm waves of the Indian Ocean.
It was perfectly natural, that as soon as circumstances permitted, he would pack his Chevrolet and head northwards on the National Road with his young family to visit his parents and cousins in Johannesburg. And so in August, after a brief stopover in Beaufort West, Donny forged ahead, hour after hour along the lonely road until they reached Magaliesburg, near Johannesburg. The family had been booked in at the Moon Hotel, a modest holiday venue.
How thrilling it must have been to discover that the Moon Hotel had been chosen as the training base for the young Australian boxing champion, Jimmy Carruthers, an Australian bantamweight champion who was in his early twenties and had come to fight the South African World Champion, Vic Toweel in November 1952. This would be the first time since 1908 that an Australian would be fighting for a world title. Toweel, of Lebanese roots, was the first South African to hold a world title.
Within a few hours of settling into the hotel, it was completely natural that Donny and Jimmy meet, and an instant rapport developed between them. He learnt that Jimmy was one of eight children born to an English wharf worker in Sydney who had developed boxing skills at an early age. Jimmy was friendly, a little lonely, with an open personality and although devoted to a tight and demanding schedule for training, enjoyed Donny`s lighthearted and warm interest in him, his stories and jokes and knowledge of boxing.
He and his trainer shared some pleasant hours talking to Donny and Rita who loved a laugh and the fact that her baby had taken to the boxer who clearly had a way with children.
Before long, Donny found himself drawn into the pending fight between Toweel and Jimmy. It was clear to him that Jimmy had a great chance of beating the favourite but he didn`t seem to have a clear plan of how to go about it. Toweel was defending the title for the fourth time. He had won 200 bouts before turning professional, and now, on home territory, it seemed that everything was in his favour. What was apparent was that Vic was slow to get started in the ring whereas Jimmy was quick and agile with a machine -gun like hand speed.
Within no time, Donny realized that the way to go about beating Toweel, was to move like lightning, straight after the bell, pull as many punches as possible, thus surprising his opponent and hoping for a knockout.
He proposed his plan to Carruthers` trainer, teaching him how to use the stopwatch he had with him (a useful instrument in a doctor`s medical bag), in the training programme, timing Jimmy`s responses and reaction time. And so it happened that every morning for the next week, just as the sun rose, Donny would get up early, secretly meet Jimmy in the training ring, before Toweel`s team appeared. Over and over he would demonstrate to Jimmy how to improve his performance straight after the bell, until he literally reacted within a split second.
A ‘Fist’ful Of Pounds
Of course the Loon uncles and cousins were in on the story and immediately understood that if luck were on their side, it might be the perfect opportunity to back the underdog and score a personal small betting victory.
Before the match, we returned to Cape Town. Donny continued with his routine and but for the photos, Jimmy Carruthers faded from his mind.
Before long it was the 15th of November. Everyone in South Africa who enjoyed competitive sport, crowded around the radios to listen to the match. The Loon brothers and Donny, by now, loyal supporters of Jimmy, were in on the excitement on opposite sides of South Africa.
And of course you`ve guessed it!
The bell was sounded; Carruthers pounced on Toweel, and in just on 2 minutes 19 seconds and 110 accurate punches, knocked Vic Toweel out to become the new light bantam weight champion of the world!!
The tactic of moving like lightning after the bell sounded, had worked like a charm.
And today, while tidying my photos, I came across these two, which in their naiveté, reveal so much!
Jimmy Carruthers gave up competitive boxing in 1954 at a young age, having made enough money to settle down, marry and run his pub in Sydney, Australia. In one article I read on him, he was described as a unionist and a proponent of world peace!
And that`s when I really understood what had bought the two men, Donny and Jimmy together – hardly the ability to knock out, but rather to change the world in a very different way. Each dreamt of world peace; it would unite them forever and more important be passed down in the image of a chubby baby secure and fearless on the knees of a champion boxer – me!
About the writer:
Gail Loon-Lustig, born in Cape Town, lived in Bellville. After completing Medical School, Gail made Aliya in 1976 and runs a Home Care Unit in greater Tel Aviv area. Inspired to “give back to society”, she counsels young doctors and health workers and has guided the teaching of ‘home care’ at her alma mater UCT. Gail has volunteered at Telfed and the South African retirement home Beth Protea where for many years she focusses on medical issues of the residents. Interested in many different aspects of life, especially those that involve her family.