SA FRIENDS OF BETH HATEFUTSOTH
MAIN TOWNS FOR THE NEXT VOLUMES, SIX AND SEVEN.
Please contact me if your towns are listed here or your dorp is near one of these towns.
In front of the poster of my cousin, Phyllis Zinn Jowell z”l
With researchers Larna Bronstein and Elona Steinfeld
Some profiles of towns already covered in previous volumes
Witbank is a major coal mining centre in Mpumulanga situated 115 km east of Pretoria. The first coal deposits were discovered by a Jew called Woolf Harris in 1878. These became more important as the goldfields of the Witwatersrand developed and the country became industrialised. Other Jews arrived before 1896 and played an important role in the coal industry, in business and in civic life of the surrounding areas. The first minyan took place in 1905 and their first synagogue was built in 1913. Now only two Jews remain.
Pietersburg is situated in the Limpopo province 275 km north of Pretoria. In 1881 a new centre was laid out to serve Eersterling in the northern Transvaal where gold had been discovered. The town which developed was named Pietersburg in 1886 became a Municipality in 1903 and was the seat of the Transvaal Government. The Jews were inextricably linked to the growth of the town which became a major industrial, commercial and financial centre. The Zoutpansberg Hebrew Congregation was established in 1897 which included Pietersburg. In 1912 it became the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation which also served other neighbouring towns. A new synagogue was opened in 1953. But by 1960 the vibrant community began to decline. Only 13 Jews remain in the town.
The historic town of Stellenbosch in situated 48 km east of Cape Town. It is the second oldest town in South Africa and is famous for its educational institutions, historical monuments and old oak trees. The first Jewish settlers from Lithuania were there in 1885. In 1903 the community bought a house which they consecrated as the Stellenbosch Hebrew Congregation synagogue and used until 1920s. They built a small synagogue and a communal hall in 1932 and always had good relations with the Stellenbosch University and the people of the town. It remains a fully functioning congregation and community centre. The Jewish community of 19 families was instrumental in restoring the “Skuinshuis” complex in 1975. Over 200 years old, and the second dwelling in the town, it is the best known landmark in Stellenbosch. The façade was probably built in 1803 after a fire and bears the Historical Monuments Plaque. This remains a fully functioning congregation.
Springbok’s history goes to the time when Governor Simon Van der Stel discovered copper in the area of Namaqualand. The town lies on the main road to Namibia and was founded in 1862. Several of the earliest pioneers of the area were Jews but the first services were only held in 1911 and the congregation was founded in 1919. A synagogue was built in 1929 and served the congregation until it closed in 1972 when the Namaqualand Hebrew distributed and the building became the Joseph and Rebecca Jowell Museum depicting the life of the early Jewish and Afrikaner pioneers .
Graaff Reinet is the oldest town in the Eastern Cape Province and has many famous monuments. The 1820 settlers from England and Jewish immigrants, like the Mosenthals, from Germany, came to the region and helped to develop this part of the country. The Hebrew congregation was started in 1839. Business profited from merino sheep farming and the sale of ostrich feathers. The defunct congregation was revived in 1941 when Manfred Halberstad from Germany revived the services. He went on Aliyah in 1966 and the synagogue was sold in 1975. Today only two Jews remain. In order to pay tribute to the role the community had played in the development of the area, a monument to the Jewish smous was unveiled in 1989.
Hermanus lies 120 km south east of Cape Town. The first Jews from Lithuania arrived in c1880 and the congregation was founded in 1906. The local community is strengthened by the influx of holiday makers each summer. Unlike other communities, when it fell into a decline the congregation rejuvenated itself. After a lapse of 23 years a Rosh Hashanah services were held again in 1998. In 2006, after several meetings of the fully functioning community, the old synagogue was sold and a new building was completed using the proceeds of the sale. Hermanus was chosen by the late Chief Rabbi and Mrs Cyril Harris as their place of retirement and he passed away there in 2005.
Vryheid is one of the oldest towns in Natal lying north of Durban. At the start of the Anglo-Boer war in 1899, Vryheid was occupied by British forces and was later incorporated into Natal. The earliest Jewish families, mostly from Eastern Europe settled in 1880 and were involved with the start of the town. Famous Jewish families like the Trens, Baranovs, Werners and Kantrowitches (later Kentrich) were amongst others who helped to start the congregation which was the first in Natal. The community peaked at 65 families in the 1950s and today no longer exists. A Memorial Trust was formed in 1987 and the records, the Sifrei Torah and remains of the synagogue building were placed in the Durban Jewish club where it still remains.
Umhlanga Rocks is situated on the seacoast north of Durban and was originally a sugar plantation. Most of the early Jews were there in 1890. It is a very popular seaside resort so that visitors and residents come and go. Chabad House was established in 1987 and has supplied a very adequate religious centre for Jews along the Natal coast. Recently a beautiful new Jewish Centre has been built consisting of a new synagogue and Rabbi, Jewish day school and nursery school.
Winburg is 116km north of Bloemfontein in the Free State. The first Jewish settlers arrived in 1870 from Germany and Eastern Europe. Several wellknown families settled there and members of the community fought on both sides in the Anglo-Boer War. The Winburg Congregation was started in 1900, the first Synagogue was built in 1922 and reached 120 persons in 1936. By 1951 only five families were left. When the synagogue closed in 1977 much of its furniture was sent to new Kempton Park synagogue near Johannesburg. Rabbi Casper sent one Sefer Torah to Israel.
Welkom is a new town established especially to serve the people, including many young Jewish families, who came to work in the new gold mines in the Free State. Before the discovery of gold in 1939, there were only a few Jews in the area. The Anglo American organisation created it as a model town with all facilities. The Odendalsrus-Welkom Hebrew committee was formed in 1955 and a synagogue/hall was built for services and functions for the approx. 330 Jews in the town. A minister was appointed in 1957. The first Sifrei Torah were borrowed from nearby congregations. Despite help from the SAJBD and other congregations the number of persons declined fast and today only four are left. In 1995 the synagogue/hall was sold and congregation closed.
South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth
The South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth (SAFBH) was established in Johannesburg under the chairmanship of David Ellman in 1982. This followed a very successful joint project in the form of an exhibition documenting the Jews who lived in the large towns in South Africa, undertaken by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the South African Zionist Federation and the then Beth Hatefutsoth Museum (or Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, Israel. The exhibition was first shown in Israel, and then in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.
Following requests for information for its database from the Museum of the Diaspora and also a trip to Eastern Europe by a group of South African Jews of Lithuanian origin which included members of SAFBH, the organisation began to focus on recording the history and accomplishments of Jewish communities and individuals in the country areas of South Africa.
This series of volumes on Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities covers the history of Jewish immigration to this country from as early as 1820 when a group of 18 Jews arrived with the 1820 Settlers. They came looking for a better life, either escaping economic hardship, conscription into the Tzar’s army, pogroms and antisemitism throughout Eastern Europe. They knew little or nothing of the conditions they were to encounter, many could not speak the local languages and most left behind families, some of whom they never saw again. The immigrants, however, never forgot their Jewish roots. They formed communities and congregations, found a location in which to hold services, and often even built synagogues in the little villages or towns where they lived.
From these humble beginnings the Jews of South Africa made a huge contribution to the growth of this country. They were pioneers in industry, science, medicine, farming, education and many other fields.
This fascinating story, at present covering five volumes based on different regions of South Africa, has been extracted from an extensive database captured over the past 20 years, from records preserved in the archives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and of the South African Zionist Federation, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT and from interviews among many other sources listed in the books.
Rose Norwich and Adrienne Kollenberg are the co-chairmen and project convenors of the organisation.
For Purchasing of books, the submission of material and donations to this project please contact Elona at email@example.com