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MY LOST CAMELOT

When John F. Kennedy, Jr. was tragically killed in the Piper Saratoga single engine 
plane he was flying, I reacted the same way as I did when Princess Diana died in a 
Paris tunnel in a senseless car accident. I watched television coverage of the 
respective events around the clock, and bought and read all the magazines and 
newspapers I could find on the subject.


My husband, an American born, was interested and saddened by the two tragic 
losses, but didn’t react in the same way I did. He thought the media coverage was

overdone and that the press was too intrusive on the private grief of the Kennedy

and Bessette families. I disagreed with him in that I was grateful for all the media

coverage because it brought me closer to the center of grief so that I could mourn

along with the family members and people who were on the scene.


As a former British subject, I felt close to the Diana tragedy. I identified with her 
pain and the struggle of her alienation from the royal family, as she was forced to 
participate in a constricting lifestyle. Then in an instant, it was all tragically over, 
when she was far too young.

When I was thirteen years old, I left South Africa and immigrated to the United 
States with my parents and two sisters.  I experienced the sudden and irreplaceable 
loss of my family, culture and heritage.  The tragic deaths of Princess Diana and 
JFK, Jr. evoked feelings of agony within me that began in my adolescence and took 
thirty long years to work through. I had the precious gift of time not afforded to 
Princess Diana or JFK Jr. Neither was this gift of time allotted to Kennedy’s wife 
Carolyn and her sister, Lauren, who both died on the plane with him.


In an attempt to make sense of the monumental changes in my life I became a 
writer, since the act of putting words on paper is a tangible and focused way to 
unravel the threads of one’s experience and in sharing them with others, one 
creates a sense of validation and comfort.


When I arrived in New York in 1966, I was a white Jewish child of the South African 
Apartheid era. I was suddenly thrust into an American society that was experiencing 
the political upheavals of the sixties the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and 
his brother Robert, black freedom marches and the subsequent assassination of Dr. 
Martin Luther King, Jr. There was a moratorium in my high school against the 
Vietnam War, riots on college campuses across the country, and students at Kent 
State University being beaten to death by police during a riot.


Teenagers were rebelling in schools and bucking parental and teachers’ authority. 
I had come out of an all-girls high school in Johannesburg where we wore navy 
blue uniforms replete with white panama hats. Adherence to rules and respect for 
authority were ingrained into us with corporal punishment that was meted out 
liberally by our teachers who were heeded and obeyed without question.

Education was spoonfed to us out of textbooks and intelligence was measured

by our ability to regurgitate facts accurately. Creativity was seldom nurtured and

intellectual curiosity was stifled.


Being suddenly thrust into a world of flower children and hippies sitting in class 
with their feet on the desks, answering our teachers in a disrespectful manner, was 
more than I, as a pristine, over-protected young girl, could endure. In South Africa we

had been sheltered from the news. We didn’t have television this was a direct ploy by 
the government to keep us uninformed and cut off from the rest of the world. I was 
completely unaware of the Sharpeville massacre in which blacks were gunned 
down by police for trying to change the racist system of being forced to carry a pass 
wherever they went. This historic event took place a mere twenty miles from my 
home.


The Sharpeville massacre was the pivotal reason that my father and thousands of 
other whites fled South Africa. They foresaw the coming holocaust and wanted to 
take their families out of the country and into safer environments which were 
culturally and intellectually free. I was not informed of the massacre because 
children of my generation were to be “seen and not heard.” We never discussed 
anything of importanc especially not political issues. My parents visited the 
United States in 1965 and a few months after returning, told us children that my

father, a physician, had accepted a position in the New Rochelle Hospital, in

Westchester County, New York.

 

We left our home a stately mansion on an acre of beautiful gardens, fruit orchard 
and swimming pool only two streets away from where Nelson Mandela now lives in 
his presidential palace. In an instant, it was all gone and we were living in a small house in Eastchester, in two feet of snow away from the sunny skies of South Africa, 
where we often didn’t wear a coat in the four months of a usually mild winter.
Then, my favorite uncle died the only person in my life who had nurtured my 
creativity and questioning mind. He was the same uncle who flew to London
when we emigrated from South Africa, met our ship at the Southampton Dock, and 
spent a week with us in England before we sailed to New York and our new life.


My parents took my four-year old sister, Jennifer, and “jumped a plane” to South 
Africa. Throughout the decades following I would become familiar with this term in 
reference to grief and the burial of relatives who were twelve thousand miles 
away.  I was left alone for a week with my fifteen-year old sister, Wendy, in our

little house on Hilburn Road in Eastchester. I had no one else with whom to grieve,

and I remember telling a girl in my class that my uncle had died. She was, like me,

only thirteen years old, and her “I’m sorry” didn’t register positively with me.


I remember to this day, standing in the hallway of Eastchester Junior High,
with students rushing by me to get to their classes. After my schoolmate who had 
never known my uncle or what he meant to me or the great loss in my life. . . had 
said, “I’m sorry” vacantly as any thirteen year old acquaintance would be expected to, I 
remember a sudden feeling of dizzyness in my head, and a queasy, pressure in my 
stomach. How could one mourn amongst strangers? Without a funeral and the 
traditional Jewish week of shiva, there could be no sense of sharing of grief or 
closure.


Through the decades I missed family Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. I would 
be forty-six before I finally had the experience of standing over an open grave the 
grave of my husband’s grandmother. As I peered into the open chasm and watched 
her coffin being expertly lowered in, I felt a sense not of sadness, but rather of 
healing for all the graves of my grandparents, aunts and uncles that I will never 
see.   


We had our own Camelot in Johannesburg. My fondest memories are of beaches 
and swimming pools and beautiful gardens. These were all shared by our close-knit 
family that was torn apart by multiple emigrations to the United States, Canada, Israel,

Australia, England, and other countries. Many of my family are still in South Africa.

When the tragedies befell Princess Diana and JFK, Jr., it brought back all the 
heartache and memories of my lost youth, family and heritage. My youngest sister 
Jennifer, spent four years at Brown University with JFK, Jr. She was in his 
graduating class in 1983. As he reached the end of the processional line, I watched 
as John F. Kennedy, Jr. doffed his cap, only a few feet away from where I was 
standing. During the week following his death, JFK, Jr.’s life was splashed across 
the television screen on a daily basis.  Every time I saw him marching in his Brown 
graduation ceremony, I caught a few seconds of my sister and her roommate 
walking behind him.  As I focused my eyes on the crowd of bystanders, I saw my own 
mother standing behind Jackie Onassis, to her left.


When I saw my sister and mother walking and standing alongside American history 
and knowing that I was also on the scene that day I realized that after all these 
years my family had finally become woven into the fabric of American society.
                                                   
Copyright 1999 by Gillian Lynn Katz
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.