"Mitzvah Mission" leads to forgotten Zambian Jewish cemetery



A "mitzvah mission" inspired by an ageing German-Jewish refugee's wish to replace the missing tombstone on his mother-in-law's grave has led to the unexpected discovery of a hitherto almost forgotten Jewish cemetery in the north-eastern Zambian town of Mufulira. The story began in late 1999, when Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft Spiritual Leader to the Country Communities, was officiating at a bar mitzvah in Umtentweni on the South Coast of Kwazulu Natal. Amongst those helping to make up a minyan for the occasion was 89-year-old David Messerer, who was out from Israel visiting his daughter, Miriam Dawe. 
At the festive meal following the shul service, Messerer told Rabbi Silberhaft that he had lived in Mufulira, on the copperbelt of what was then known as Northern Rhodesia, having arrived there from Frankfort, Germany, in 1939. He had lived there until 1982, and was the last Jew to leave, eventually making aliyah after a short stay in South Africa. Since his leaving, he had heard that the headstone of his late mother-in-law, Sarah Mohrer, had reportedly been stolen and that he would very much like to have a new headstone erected before his life on this earth came to an end.
Rabbi Silberhaft told Messerer that while he had known of the existence of a synagogue in Mufulira, which Messerer himself together and Barry Epstein had built in 1948, he had never heard of there being a Jewish cemetery there. Messerer then drew a map showing where the cemetery could be found. All this information Rabbi Silberhaft sent to Michael Galaun, President of the Zambian Jewish Community in Lusaka, with a request that he try to locate the cemetery before the Rabbi's next visit to the country.
In 2005, following much research, a row of twelve Jewish graves was found, totally overgrown and surrounded by non-Jewish graves. Gus Liebowitz of Kitwe and Dennis Figov of Luanshya had the area cleared in time for Rabbi Silberhaft's visit, in his other capacity of Spiritual Leader to the African Jewish Congress, in May 2006.
Sarah Mohrer's grave was located, and the headstone was indeed found to be missing. In July, while he was in Israel, Rabbi Silberhaft met with Messerer to inform him of the discovery. Messerer gave him a photograph of the original headstone and asked that a new one made and erected.
At the end of last month Rabbi Silberhaft, bringing with him a new headstone made in South Africa, travelled again to Mufulira to carry out Messerer's request. With him was Gerald Kollenberg, a member of a prominent Jewish family once active in commerce in the area. Once there, they were met by Dennis and Maureen Figov and Gus Liebowitz. Mohrer's new headstone was set flat in a bed of concrete next to the grave of her late husband, Markus Mohrer, with Rabbi Silberhaft reciting the relevant chapters of Tehillim associated with the setting of a gravestone.  
The mission occasioned two other important discoveries. During the visit, a visit was paid to Kitwe, where Kollenberg's parents once owned a hotel and butchery. While touring the Kitwe Jewish cemetery, Kollenberg came across the grave of his uncle, David Kollenberg, who until now had been thought to have been buried in Cape Town. Then, as the group were leaving the cemetery, Rabbi Silberhaft noticed a piece of white stone protruding from what at first glance seemed to be an unmarked grave. Further investigation and digging uncovered the headstone of Max Melamed, who passed away in 1971. The headstone was dug up and, like Sara Mohrer's new stone, relaid in a bed of concrete.