TWO CENTENARIES FOR NAIROBI
By Ivor Davis (Former Rosh Kahila or president of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation.)
Two centenaries will soon be marked in Nairobi - the 100th anniversary of its Jewish community and the British offer to Theodor Herzl of a Jewish "homeland" in the Uasin Gishu ranching area, 200 miles north of the Kenyan capital.
Called the "Uganda Plan" because it was then located in the neighbouring British protectorate - now it's part of Kenya - the offer was a well meant gesture "for the amelioration of the position of the Jewish race" following a horrifying Russian pogrom in Kishinev in which 49 Jew were killed and 500 wounded.
Herzl considered Uganda as a "stepping stone" en route to Palestine along with other potential areas for Jewish autonomy and refuge - El-Arish in Sinai, in Cyprus, Mesopotamia (today's Iraq, no less), in Argentina, Mozambique and the Belgian Congo.
British settlers in Kenya were up in arms at the very thought of a Jewish homeland in the colony. Their leader, Lord Delamere, sent a cable to The Times - "Feeling here very strong against introduction of alien Jews…flood of people of that class sure to lead to trouble with the natives, jealous of their rights…Englishmen here appeal public opinion against the arbitrary proceeding and consequent swamping bright future of country".
A Congregation minister, the late Rev. Julius Carlebach documented the British offer in his book The Jews of Nairobi, 1903-1962. He described a public meeting in Nairobi, the largest of white men that had been held till then, which unanimously resolved against locating " alien Jews in our midst and are prepared to resist the same by all means in our power."
Herzl suffered much heartache and controversy over the Uganda plan and many believe this was the main factor which lead to his ill health and early death, at 44, in 1904. The Russian Jews at those Zionist conferences in Switzerland were outraged that any land, other than Palestine, could be considered and they won the argument.
The British offer in Uganda was finally rejected at the seventh Zionist Congress in Basel in 1905.
Daniel Gavron, discussing whether the Uganda Plan, had it succeeded, might have provided a welcome haven for Jews escaping from the Nazi Holocaust, writing in Ha'aretz, described the plan as "probably the most intriguing 'might have been' in modern Jewish history".
However, the publicity surrounding the British offer to the Zionists in those Edwardian times encouraged a trickle of Jews in pogrom-infested eastern Europe to venture to East Africa to discover "Vas ertzach dorten?" ("What's going on there?")
Among them was Abraham Block, from Lithuania, who first came to South Africa and then took ship in 1903 from Cape Town to Mombasa on the Kenya coast and, according to Erol Trzebinski's The Kenya Pioneers, brought with him two Basuto ponies, sacks of potatoes, linseed, peas and beans, a gold watch, a change of clothes and some cash.
He bought a farm and despite a two-year drought, made a profit growing oats and potatoes, but the outburst of anti-Semitism among his fellow settlers against "the threatened Jewish invasion" almost caused him to seek new pastures. Lord Delamere, who led the anti-Jewish clamour, ironically persuaded Block to stay.
He bought Nairobi's Norfolk hotel in 1927, culminating in a prosperous tourism empire which later included the celebrated Treetops hotel "up country" where Princess Elizabeth, in 1952, learned of her father's death and her own accession as Queen.
Block was one of the founders of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation who built their first synagogue in 1912 - the present Shul was completed in 1956. Shortly after I migrated to Nairobi from Britain in the fifties, I recall a splendid Shubbos evening meal at the home of his sister, "Auntie" Lilly Haller. Block was there and so was another old Jewish pioneer, Joseph Darevsky, who opened the very first shop in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
A veritable Yiddishe Mama was Rachel Szlapak whose family suffered Polish
anti-Semitism before World War II, which was a blessing in disguise. This persuaded them to leave Poland well before the Nazis arrived, and they reached Kenya where her husband, Abraham, started off as a farmhand and became a hotel owner.
Rachel once recalled for me how, as a young mother in Poland, she was travelling by train with her two small sons, Maurice and Charles, and she found herself struggling with an anti-Semite who wanted to throw Maurice out of the door, remarking: "Well, it will be one Jew less." Needless to add, Rachel held on to Maurice firmly and the youngster grew up to become one of Britain's leading renal surgeons.
This story made the London Jewish Chronicle under the headline - Kenya's Yiddishe Mama.
Charles Szlapak is also a leading Nairobi hotelier and for a dozen years was Rosh Kehila, the name given to the Congregation's president. The present Rosh Kehila, who will preside over the community's Centenary celebrations this week-end (Oct. 22-24), is a dynamic woman GP, Dr. Vera Somen, whose uncle, the late Issy Somen, was a past Rosh Kehila and served as Mayor of Nairobi from 1957-59.
As Hon. Israeli Consul in colonial times - Independence came in 1963 - Issy played a major role in creating good Kenya - Israel relations maintained till today.
When she was foreign minister, Israel's Golda Meir opened a social workers school at Machakos, near Nairobi. Help was given later by Israeli specialists who treated eye diseases in rural areas.
In 1976 - coinciding with American Independence Day, July 4th - an Israeli night-time military operation rescued over 100 PLO hijacked Jewish hostages, who were detained at Entebbe airport on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria. This episode, which electrified the world, overjoyed we Nairobi Jews in neighbouring Kenya. President Idi Amin, who misruled Uganda and who had taunted the hostages, was made to look even more ridiculous.
Because of Kenya's good relations with the Jewish state, despite the general diplomatic break post-1973 Yom Kippur war, the Israeli planes, carrying troops and freed hostages, were allowed to refuel at Nairobi airport on their way home.
Kenya's Attorney General at the time, Charles Njonjo, a consistent friend of Israel, played a major role in Kenya's co-operation with Israel during Operation Entebbe.
A moving demonstration of Israel's friendship with Kenya happened in 1998, following the cynical destruction by Arab terrorists of the U.S. embassy which was then located in Nairobi's commercial centre. The terrorists must have known that thousands of Kenyans would be milling around on a working day. Some 280 Kenyans lost their lives and over 5,000 wounded, some maimed and blinded for life.
Within hours of the disaster, Israel few into Kenya a 25-strong team of rescue workers with sniffer dogs who played the major role in rescuing survivors from the debris.
Nairobi always had a small Jewish community with an influx of world war refugees, reaching a peak of some 170 families in 1957. Today, there are 163 adults and 86 children. In recent years, several Israelis arrived as engineers, builders and consultants. An Israeli who became an active community worker and Rosh Kehila is Vaizman Aharoni. Another ex-Rosh Kehila is Dr. David Silverstein, an American cardiologist.
Israel's Project Arivim sends Shalichim, a husband and wife team who provide spiritual leadership, conduct Shabbat and Yomtov services and teach the children.
Nairobi has a very lovely synagogue in exquisite gardens near the city centre which in recent years was embellished with striking stained glass windows. The Shul always draws numerous Jewish tourists in Kenya who are made welcome.
A group of Israelis arrived in Kenya in 1947, but they had no choice. They were Irgun prisoners the British brought from Palestine, who were detained at Gilgil, 75 miles north of Nairobi…and they escaped. By the time they found their way back across Africa to Palestine, the State of Israel had been created.