Who We Are
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 (SAZF) 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 project relies entirely on the generosity of those individuals and trusts in South Africa and abroad who recognise the importance of preserving this unique history. It is hoped that readers of this website will be inspired to give generously to enable the completion of the final book in this very special series on Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities. Without your assistance, future generations will be unaware of the fascinating story of the Jewish contribution to the growth of the entire country.
If your family and/or friends ever lived in a country town in South Africa, please contact us with any information and photographs you may have.
If your family and/or friends ever lived in a small town in South Africa, we would be delighted if you contacted us with any information you may have on its Jewish inhabitants. We are especially interested in photographs, even ones that are less than perfectly preserved. Assistance of this kind from the public allows us to trace and include every Jewish person who lived in a particular town or its satellites. Omissions are obviously regrettable, and we always strive to avoid them.
In 1981 a joint project in the form of an exhibition documenting the Jews who lived in the large towns in South Africa was undertaken by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the South African Zionist Federation and the Beth Hatefutsoth Museum (or Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, Israel, where the exhibition was first shown.
The project was a resounding success, and as a result a South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth was established in Johannesburg under the chairmanship of David Ellman. The new organisation’s first function was to bring the exhibition to South Africa; in 1985 it was flown courtesy of South African Airways to Johannesburg , where it was shown at the Sandton Sun Hotel. The exhibition also travelled to Cape Town and Durban, and was received with great enthusiasm in all three venues.
In 1989, a letter arrived for the SAJBD from Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv, requesting funding and assistance with information on the many South African country towns that did not feature in their database. Funds were not available for work of this magnitude, and nothing could be done at the time to develop the voluminous but disparate records available into a coherent body of knowledge.
Among those Jews who had immigrated to South Africa and landed up in the small towns or dorps from 1880 onwards, many were Lithuanians and in 1992 a group of South African Jews went to Lithuania in search of their Jewish roots. Sadly, the travellers found very little evidence of what had once been thriving Jewish communities.
Fortuitously, the travellers included committee members of the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth (SAFBH), who were only too well aware that hardly any Jews, and even fewer Jewish communities, remained in the country towns of South Africa. Their keen realisation of a patchy Jewish history over several generations and on two separate continents encouraged them to take on the task of recording, for the Museum in Israel and for posterity, the history of Jewish life and achievement in the country areas of South Africa.
This project is now in its twenty-eigth year and has captured information in a database of more than 1 550 centres where Jews once lived. This includes many smaller centres that are satellites of the nearest rural town.
From this vast database has emerged a series of volumes on Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities. Six have been published and one more are still in development.
South African Jewry is primarily of East European origin. However, the first Jews to arrive (not counting the few individuals of Jewish descent who arrived during the Dutch East India Company between1652 and 1700 and were legally prohibited from practising their religion) were mainly of British or German origin. In general, in towns established before 1880, the first Jews were mostly from Britain and Germany.
The series Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities covers the history of Jewish immigration to this country from the early 1800s.
In 1820 Britain sent several thousand settlers to the Cape to help the Cape government complete and defend the eastern frontier against the neighbouring Xhosa peoples, and to support the existing English-speaking population in the area. Among these settlers were a group of 18 Jews who had gone to Britain to escape the economic hardship, conscription into the Tzar’s army, pogroms and antisemitism plaguing life in Eastern Europe at the time.
The fact that there were relatively few British and German Jews, and because they tended to assimilate more easily into the small white colonial community than their East European counterparts who arrived later, the laying down of a recognisable organised Jewish life was seldom possible during the first three-quarters of the 19th century. There were, however, exceptions. For instance, there were properly functioning Jewish communities in Grahamstown and Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape before 1880. Generally, formally constituted Jewish communities, started in a house or with a shul and a burial ground, with the later addition of the usual array of Zionist, charitable and cultural organisations which came about with the great East European immigration of the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
In the final decades of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century, the South African Jewish community leapt from a mere 4 000 in 1880 to just under 50 000 on the eve of World War I. It seemed as if most of the new arrivals were from Lithuania, (then a province of Tzarist Russia), but the SA Jewish Yearbook of 1929 shows that in fact a far higher proportion came from Poland and Russia proper, as well as from Latvia (another Russian Baltic province).
This immigration was part of a much broader movement of East European Jews to the West. They departed primarily to the United States, but also to Britain, whose Jewish community increased substantially during this period. It was from Britain that many Jewish immigrants opted for South Africa, thereby ushering in the ‘golden age’ of Jewish life in the rural communities. This period lasted from just before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 to just after World War II.
In terms of numbers, most communities peaked in the late 1930s and began steadily shrinking after that. As early as 1950, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies recognised the necessity of establishing a department to cater for the Jewish-related needs of the growing number of formerly viable country communities that were falling on hard times. The department continues to function today.
On the whole, Jewish settlers knew little or nothing of the conditions they were to encounter. They could not speak the local languages and most left behind families they never saw again. However, they rarely forgot their Jewish roots. They formed communities and congregations, established places in which to hold religious services, and often even built synagogues in the villages or towns where they lived.
One wishes to guard against idealising their largely vanished lifestyle, since many of them faced grave hardship, especially in the harsher regions and in the early years of their arrival. Nevertheless, life in the South African country communities is generally viewed as a time of safety and peace, when families slept with their doors and windows open. Country life bred the warmth of country ways, and farm life and hospitality played a pivotal role in country living. The relationships that the Jewish community formed were deep and lasting, and Jews developed the ability to integrate with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
More than a few Jewish settlers became prominent in their towns or further afield, and their contribution to South Africa is clearly acknowledged in Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities. Nevertheless, the series is by no means only about them: it also acknowledges each Jewish soul who kept up his or her faith and Yiddishkeit under these isolated and trying conditions, as a hero to be remembered.
This fascinating story, covering different regions of South Africa, has been extracted from records preserved in the archives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and of the South African Zionist Federation, and from many other sources. Interviews and photographs add another dimension to the story, and have helped to bring this particular aspect of Jewish history to life.