Rising above the odds – and going on to find buried treasure

Review: Vivien Horler

Blood and Silver – a true story of survival and a son’s search for his family treasure, by Jan Glazewski (Tafelberg)

There are a number of singular features about Jan Glazewski, a man I’ve known for more than 40 years.

One is that he’s very clever, having become a professor at UCT. Another is that he has haemophilia, and over the years has been partly disabled by bleeds into his joints. Now in his 60s, he has had both knees replaced, as well as his right ankle and left elbow, while his left ankle has been fused.

There was a time though when he never thought he would reach his 60s. In the 1980s he acquired HIV in the UK in the 80s, thanks to a contaminated blood transfusion. He was told he probably had four years to live. He became the first HIV-positive person I knew.

Then there’s his family – he’s one of an enormous merged brood of 14 children, with three full siblings, eight step-siblings, and two half-siblings. At one stage his stepmother used to send a monthly letter to them all reminding everyone who had birthdays that month.

The other thing about his family – his birth family that is – is that after World War 2 broke out, they emigrated from Poland to South Africa via the Middle East. Glazewski’s grandfather owned an estate not far from present-day Lviv (now in Ukraine), which was a long way from the German border, but only 10km from the Russian border.

At first they felt relatively safe, but then in mid-September 1939 BBC news reported the Russians had mobilised and were preparing to invade Poland from the east. “Quick decisions had to be made,” Glazewski writes.

And they were. Glazewski’s father told him that within half an hour of hearing the news, most of the family were on the road. One thing they did before they left, though, was to bury the family silver on the edge of the forest.

Glazewski grew up with the story of the silver and always fantasised about one day retrieving it. It was apparently not vastly valuable, being mostly table settings, cutlery, serving dishes, and a few candelabra, but it turned out there was quite a lot of it.

About 50 years later and living in Cape Town, Glazewski’s father drew him a map of where the silver was buried. Once again Glazewski dreamed his dream of finding it.

Glazewski, known to the family by the Polish diminutive of Janek, was born in Paarl Hospital in 1953, and within days it was confirmed he had haemophilia.

Doctors at Paarl decided the baby should be circumcised, apparently over the objections of the parents, assuring them they knew how to treat the problem. They were wrong, and Janek needed his first emergency blood transfusions.

The story of how his blood condition has impinged on his life, not least his HIV diagnosis which led to his realisation he would never have children of his own, makes tragic yet fascinating reading.

At the time of his diagnosis in the mid-80s, there was none of the careful counseling of patients before and after being tested, and the announcement he was positive was made abruptly and cruelly.

Despite this, he prospered and succeeded in his career, contributing environmental clauses to both the Namibian and South African constitutions, and rising to being professor in the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at UCT. He is also the author of the leading textbook in the field, Environmental Law in South Africa.

And then, after he retired to McGregor with his wife Louise, the old dream of finding the silver came up.

And so he went to Ukraine in 2019 with his niece Layla – and after some adventures, found it. (This is not a spoiler – there are pictures of some of the pieces on the cover of the memoir, so we know from the start he was successful.)

The timing was fortunate: the following year came the international pandemic lockdown, and we all know what happened in Ukraine this year.

The description of how they found the treasure, how they were nearly swindled, the concern about taking around 30kg of silver out of Ukraine, make for exciting reading.

Glazewski’s is a remarkable tale of suffering, misfortune, tragedy, family devotion, depression, courage, good humour and luck. It’s also beautifully written. Life threw Jan Glazewski a lot of odds, but he’s beaten them. It’s an inspiring story.

  • Glazewski is speaking at a lunch hosted by the Cape Town Press Club at Kelvin Grove on November 11.



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