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
Copies of this
volume are available from: