“Jewish life in the S A Country Communities – Volume III” – May 2008
Beth Hatefutsoth: guardians of South Africa’s Jewish history


South African Jewry’s longest running, historical research project celebrated another milestone last Wednesday with the launch of Volume Three of Jewish Life in the SA Country Communities at Beyachad. This instalment, of a projected series of five, covers the Southern and Eastern Cape regions, and focuses on seventy towns (with reference to relevant neighbouring localities) where there was a significant Jewish presence. Like its predecessors, it was entirely researched, written and prepared for publication by the professional staff and volunteers of the SA Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth (the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv), headed by project co-convenors Adrienne Kollenberg and Rose Norwich.

The book is of particular interest as, amongst other things, it chronicles the history of the first Jews - overwhelmingly of English and German origin - to settle in South Africa and the first faltering steps they took to establish their small and scattered community on a formal basis.

Norwich said that the book had had a long gestation period and was the result of many years’ work by a great number of people. It had been dedicated to the memory of the late Phyllis Jowell, her fellow co-convenor and a much-loved member of the project team until her untimely passing in August 2006. She paid tribute to the professional staff and volunteers who had worked on the project for so long and shown such dedication, and also thanked members of the project who had assisted, both financially and in coming forward with new information. The next volume, covering the Free State and Natal regions, was already well in progress. One of the main tasks still awaiting the team was to make the vast body of information thus far gathered (only a small percentage of which it was possible to publish in book form) available on the Internet.

SAJBD Associate Director David Saks, who brought greetings on behalf of his organisation, praised the SAFBH for the important contribution they had made to South African Jewish historiography. While many people, amongst them historians, journalists and genealogists, had made use of the SAJBD’s archives over the years, he said, none had “so thoroughly plumbed the depths of those historical treasures, nor put them to better use”, as had the SAFBH team.

The keynote speaker was Saul Issroff, a former South African who has become a leading figure in Jewish genealogical research since relocating to the UK (including founding the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain). He began by describing the country communities’ project as being, in terms of scope and depth, “unique both in terms of SA Jewish history and in terms of Diaspora communities”.

Issroff then gave a brief overview of the pioneering role played in the Eastern and Southern Cape, both in Jewish and general affairs, of such early Jewish settlers as the Norden and Mosenthal families. He went on to describe the impact of the far larger East European influx later in the century, illustrating this with the experiences and memories of members of his own family, who lived for a time in such little-known Eastern Cape hamlets as Hankey and Milton. Despite the isolation and largely primitive living conditions, he suggested, it had in many ways been an idyllic time.

Issroff concluded with the hope that the histories of the Jewish communities of the larger urban centres, such as Port Elizabeth, East London, Kimberley and Bloemfontein, would also in due course be written up.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, Spiritual Leader to the Country Communities, spoke about his personal experiences in working with Jews still living in the country communities. It was always deeply inspiring, he said, to see the sacrifices people were prepared to make to maintain Jewish life in their localities, despite their isolation and small numbers. He said that Jews did not live in their history but through their history, which was what made such initiatives as the country communities research project so valuable.

Co-convenor Adrienne Kollenberg gave the closing remarks and thanks, in particular singling out Norwich for her total commitment to making the project as accurate and interesting as possible.

Copies of this volume are available from:

TEL: 00 27 11 645 2598
EMAIL: museum@beyachad.co.za