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Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG

What Was - The Early Part Of The Last Century
In South Africa

by Manfred Schwartz
© 2000


Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2004 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 28 October 2004


This is a stroll down memory lane where I have presented a picture of the past which so many young people are completely unaware of today.
Although there were no ghettos in South Africa, and we Jews as a result were not compelled to reside therein, for many and varied reasons, Jews still clung to the ghetto mentality. They resided in predominately Jewish areas, and in the main kept to themselves, most of their activities being self centred.
It is difficult to remember the time when one lived within walking distance of the synagogue, not like now when one sees the vast number of vehicles IN FRONT of the shuls or temples, because many Jews now live so far from their Houses of Prayer, that they cannot and will not attend services if they are unable to drive there with the minimum of inconvenience.
How many remember when it was unheard of to have an organ or any other method of canned and played music in a shul? We have always been a musical race and loved music, so a choir was permitted and welcomed. The only singing was provided by the cantor or chazan. One even was wont to compare a good cantor to a great opera singer, or vice versa, when we remarked how well he sang and exclaimed ‘what chazanossis’ The well known Richard Tucker was a chazan before he turned to opera. Al Jolson was the son of a cantor, how his talent originated from an inborn soul that felt the urge to praise the Almighty, but was redirected to a wider audience with the same reverence, but with other lyrics.
Remember when the majority of Jews were doctors and dentists and studied at Edinburgh, Dublin or Zurich universities. The legal fraternity and pharmacists too were Jews. So were most of the tradesmen and small shopkeepers, wholesalers and industrialists, not to forget the large number of livestock speculators and farmers. These farmers were in the main very good too. They brought about innovations and successfully managed to produce enormous tonnage of every agricultural, horticultural and animal product from ostrich feathers to wool and beef were to be found throughout the entire Union of South Africa. Particularly. Jankel B. Lurie of Tweespruit, the Potato King in the latter years of the 1920’s, and Esreal Lazarus, the Mielie King.
The occasional cross cultural association would be experienced in the area of sports, then later on a certain amount of limited fraternisation took place when Jews entered public life and joined business, scientific and professional federations, chambers and organizations.
In spite of various restraints, Jews did participate in and contribute to the wellbeing of their communities where they found themselves to be.
Merchant princes, kings of industry, entrepreneurial emperors, medical, academic and scientific giants, arts, culture, as well as in entertainment, all made their mark.
Considering the amazing aspect of Jews straight out of the ghettos of Europe who on being emancipated, managed in a very short few years to reach such heights of worldly culture, fashion, industrial, agricultural and professional proficiencies as well as a lifestyle.
How many people of less than say sixty years of age, can remember the ‘Greeners’ , who were brought out by their family members who had preceded them, to work for them. Being Greenhorns they were paid a pittance plus board and lodging. Most of these newcomers learned fast, very fast, and soon broke away to open up their own businesses. The determination, ambition, resilience and wish to succeed now that they were unfettered, as was the case in Der Heim, the ‘old country’ has been the driving force of Jews everywhere and always. It is difficult to recall the scene of the early decades of the 1900’s where people could rise from virtual serfdom in Eastern Europe to complete freedom and opportunity in a country such as Sunny South Africa. A new country and its strange people and its customs, a land where one can exist nay, live, without restrictions or limitations!
With the earned experience to survive, over many millennia, enabled Jews to adapt and succeed. They managed to adapt so readily from abject poverty and penury, in houses which were nothing but broken down shacks which were drafty, leaking, freezing cold entrapments from which there was little or no chance of bettering oneself.
To further project the immigrant on to the mine concession store with its Cafer-et-nik and eating house, which provided hot meals to the blacks employed on the gold mines, on to small shops in the European areas of the towns and cities. A sort of ‘’Sarah-Sybil-Sylvia-Shirley-Sheila-Sheena’’ type of progression or advancement.
With the dire necessity to uplift their children to standards higher than theirs required them to strive and stint and to save to provide a university education, where possible, and so to enjoy greater opportunities Throughout the ages there have always been a small percentage of very wealthy men and families with dynasties being created, eg Rothchilds, and the Iraqi Jews such as Sassoons, Kadoories, Saatchis etc
How adaptable a race they are! In every country can the Jew by appearance, if hardly at all, be differentiated from the locals such as in India, Malaysia and to remnants in China, et al. Can this be due to intermarriage or conversion or is it climatic evolution, in which case it would work very slowly?
In a mere matter of one lifetime the changes that have occurred probably exceed and encompass everything else that took place in the preceding nineteen hundred years or more.
From just looking at the moon, now man has been able to travel through space and walk on it. Planetary exploration and probes have become routine realities, once depicted in books thought to be the product of a wild imagination. Were those science fiction writers gifted with powers of clairvoyance?
Better than almost having the Cow jump over the Moon, the Russians managed to send a dog into orbit. What progress from animal propelled transport on earth to transporting an animal with the help of chemical propellants into outer space, from 1890 to 1957, all in less than the biblical three score and ten years.
The revolution in communications, from the Penny Post letters to faster wireless Morse Code messages onto the present instantaneous electronic transmission methods, is mind-boggling. The forked stick and primitive runner superseded by e-mail, is another feather in man's cap, who missed the opportunity in using all these feathers for man to fly, similar to the Arabic Flying Carpet, or Pegasus or Icarus of ancient Greece.
Using the source of a river to drive a water wheel to drive the rollers to grind wheat into flour and maize into meal, brought a mill to Jammers Drift, near Harrismith in the Orange Free State. This tiny 'factory' is lost and forgotten when compared with the modern computer controlled manufacturing techniques universally employed in industry now days.
How many people remember that there was the Harris Waverley Blanket Factory at Harrismith as far back as the early 1920’s? The place was named after Sir Harry Smith, not after Mr S. Harris of blanket fame. Being on the border of Basutoland the large hinterland must have been a lucrative market for Basuto Blankets for a local industry. How many people remember that Phillip Frame was recruited to come out from Rumania to the Harris Mill - how he became the largest weaving and textile manufacturer in Africa.
Most people do not even know of the period when the butchery, generally Jewish owned, delivered blocks of ice for use in the little ice chests, those beautifully made wooden cabinets lined with cork for insulation and sheets of flat galvanised iron sheets, which assisted in keeping food relatively fresh, prior to the general availability and use of fridges, let alone deep freezers.
How the walk-in cooler room with shelves on the two sides and rear wall, would be cool enough to preserve the perishable foods therein for a couple of days. Basically a timber frame to which bird netting was nailed on both sides, and the space filled with klinkers. On the roof a galvanised shallow perforated water trough which allowed the water to percolate down the walls wetting the klinkers. Provided there was a slight breeze the evaporating moisture would cool the inside of the structure.
Not to forget the coal merchant supplying bags of coal to householders for their coal fired stoves which made the large kitchen so warm and hospitable (in the cold winters) and the slow combustion hot water systems. But if the shutters had blown open the wording visible would now read COAL OFF----- ORDER ICE whereas the shutters when closed, would read;-





The easier installed wood burning geyser for the bathroom was really the height of luxury, no need to fetch hot water from the kitchen. Remember when the family took turns at using the galvanised iron bath, specially carried into the kitchen, near the source of hot water? A very long way off from the present solar heaters and electric hot water geysers.
In order of age, the youngest first to the oldest, would have a bath, naturally the children would be in bed and asleep by the time the parents bathed. No need to emphasise that bath night was a weekly not daily event. The old joke about van der Merwe who boasted that he takes a bath once in the Summer and not quite as frequently in the Winter.
Public transport from the horse drawn trams to the internal combustion engine to clanging electric trams, to the silent trolley buses. Initially motor buses used petrol, then belching pungent exhaust fumes emitted by the power paraffin engines came next, just prior to crude oil and then on to diesel which is still universally used for heavy vehicles.
The need to cut the pollution caused by the fossil fuels and emission of toxic gases forces the world to concentrate naturally on electric vehicles. As the lead acid battery in its present form is uneconomic, cumbersome and not practical, scientists are looking at a readily and cheap alternative source such as converting water (H20) to extract the hydrogen component.
Petrol was 22 pence per gallon the equivalent of 4 cents a litre and was supplied in two gallon cans, paraffin in four gallon tins. The petrol companies delivered their products in little one tonner lorries, as compared with the juggernauts required today.
The population explosion necessitates these enormous goods delivery vehicles, which clutter the roads. In 1930 the entire world population was, wait for it! - one thousand million, while in the little Union of South Africa the total figure was five million souls, as compared with about forty five million at the end of the twentieth century.
The latest world figure for 2001 is in the region of almost 7000 million, a seven fold increase over a period of 70 years.
Brown sugar, (Government Sugar) rather syrupy, less refined, sweeter and healthier cost 2 cents a kilo, rather than the white granulated and much more expensive product which was about 5 cents a kilo. In those years most people were poor, but relatively happy.
Remember when grapes were not of the seedless kind. Bulls Eyes a sugary eye shaped sugary and sticky confection when warm, and which could be bought for two a penny. Pasella (bonus or gift) sweets were handed out to customers, and gate openers, those coloured barber striped long rod of sugary candy rolled in paper, at a half penny a piece. Motorists would hand out to the rural children who opened the multitude of farm gates on all the country roads. Rice was not pre cooked, nor were convenience foods even thought of or long lasting milk or frozen vegetables dreamed of.
In spite of the level of poverty everyone was basically honest, the crime rate was low. Petty crime was about the only type experienced. Here and there a serious case ( an armed robbery and or a murder) would come before the High Court. Other serious crimes involving rape, high jacking, bank robberies, fraud and corruption were contemplated but seldom if ever executed.
The general dealer stores would have an employee weighing out into a plain brown paper bag every commodity which today is prepacked by the manufacturers in the fancy expensive eye catching packaging options eg cartons, packets, bags or jars. In those days scales were used to determine the weight, whereas now mass is the so called 'correct' term. We do not refer to the weight of a commodity, no, it is the mass of the item. The legislators confused the fact that weight was used where gravity would be involved, whereas mass is the term to indicate where weightlessness would be a contributing factor eg on the moon, thus the same object would have the same mass as on earth, but there it would be about a seventh of the weight it is here on earth.
Instant coffee was a liquid coffee extract, which only wealthy people could afford and use and buy. One named was Bantam Coffee Extract in 2 ounce sealed tins. Not the instant convenience food/beverage the present hurried lifestyle requires and demands.
The junk foods and ready prepared meals etc are a boon to the busy and lazy person, but not the ideal for the best of the nation's health.
In those far off days there was plenty of time to savour life and enable the family to communicate and relate the daily events. Presumably this is what is now known as 'bonding'. Time was generously and lovingly donated to prepare meals, to be eaten in a leisurely manner by the entire family at a dining table.
The original steam roller, was indeed propelled by just that - 'steam'. The various more progressive municipalities (like in Bloemfontein in the 1920's) used steam driven lorries, the Sentinel make was the most popular, other smaller councils and village management boards had to depend on the two ox drawn scotch carts.
In the larger municipalities the Parks Departments generally had Clydesdales or Percherons, those handsome stately looking patient draft horses gave a serene, timeless and permanent aspect to the tapestry of the daily workaday scene.
The more lowly and meaner type of transport was done by mule wagons and ox carts. Not to forget the cocopans on their light rails where large quantities of material had to be moved. No front end loaders or bulldozers then. Trenches were manually dug by gangs of chanting labourers who were thus able to measure their output rhythmically. It was only that backactors (a type of trench digging machine where the bucket is at the rear as well as the front of the machine) and trench diggers came into the picture so much later.
The breweries used heavy draft horses to pull the drays, with the pyramid like stacking of the barrels or kegs. It was draft beer that was dispensed in the public bars (pubs), bottles arrived much later on the scene, to be followed by tine cans and then the lightweight aluminium cans.
Who remembers when the Bottle Stores bottled wine and certain other liquor and were legally required and compelled to paste a label on the bottle to show who and where the bottling was done and sold.
How the bakeries had to place a label on each and every loaf they produced specifying the grade of bread and type of flour used as well as the name of the bakery.
How there was an electric bell on a long cable in each room of the house. While in the kitchen area there would be a glass fronted board with windows behind which was a number to respond to the room whereat the bell would be rung. In this way the servants could be summoned and go to the room where attention was required.
‘Noblesse oblige' was the order of the day. People knew their place, and did not try to ascend the social ladder, Jack was NOT as good as his Master.
When a special Transport Department was established to ensure that a special licence (exemption certificate) was required if a commercial traveller used his car to carry anything except private unpaid passengers, such as samples for display or if a commercial concern delivered goods to their customers.
The railways made deliveries from the stations or goods yards by mule drawn wagons, followed by motorised three wheelers known as 'cobs', and progressed to larger and heavier trucks and 'rigs' Now the speedier door to door couriers service has superseded the public transport in the main.
The country towns and villages eventually converted to tractors and trailers. In London one of the leading tobacconists continued to deliver, in their original single horse drawn trap with liveried servants for effect, some of their products to the selected clubs and retail outlets as an advertisement. More to emphasise their century old and traditional appeal to the carriage trade, consisting of nobility and other gentry and wealthy upper classes.
In the early 1930s a Mr Perilly, in Johannesburg near the Carlton Hotel, with his two daughters started making cigarettes virtually by hand and produced a superior article. His method of marketing ‘Perilly’s No 1 and later ‘Carlton’ cigarettes was door to door except that he only sold to the stock brokers and other discerning financial and professional people in the financial area centred in the vicinity of Hollard Street.
At the back of every house ran a lane shared by the neighbour behind to enable the night soil wagon to traverse and facilitate the collecting of the sewage buckets. Eventually conservation tanks displaced the soil cart system until such time as the main reticulation sewage system could be universally installed. Certain tribes throughout Southern and Central Africa were not averse to this ‘night soil’ type of work eg the Baku and Langa, but were despised by other clans.
Some residents kept cows in their yards and used these lanes to drive their cattle to and from the town common each morning and evening.
Tradesmen and deliverymen used these lanes, to gain access to properties. These became known as the tradesman’s entrance. No servants were tolerated through the front gate or access to the front of the house. They were only allowed entry through the rear of the property and to use the back door.
Most of the living rooms and many bedrooms had large fireplaces, and upcountry inland houses would have a fire made and ready to be lit in the rooms to keep the winter cold at bay.
When the majority of lower cost houses were known as Wood and Iron. They were the forerunner to what is now called prefabricated. An entire side would be constructed in the joinery shop of the Timber and Building Suppliers Company. The 3’’x2’’ timber beams generally of Oregan, Baltic or Ponderosa Pine would be nailed onto a frame of say 10 feet high and 20 feet long, cladded with ‘imported’ corrugated heavy galvanised sheets. Little SA pine would be used and ordinary Deal Planks would be used in very cheap furniture and packing or tomato boxes. The SA timber was usually warped and in short lengths. The imported timber being grown in countries with cold winters caused the trees to grow higher and harder.
The substantially built Klinker Brick houses had walls as wide as 24 inches thick, with ceilings 12 foot high. The standard of work by an artisan who generally was a craftsman too, was faultless. No shoddy work was ever tolerated, each man served a strict full term period of apprenticeship under a qualified proud artisan. Whereas the bricklayer could accurately lay up to 2000 bricks a day, the so called bricklayer of today might deliver at the maximum, 400 bricks in an eight hour day, with a sub standard level of workmanship. The pride of workmanship is no longer aimed for or even achieved. Standards certainly have fallen to dismal depths in most industries and factories where manual work is undertaken.
Only after the first world war did the ordinary citizen become town /city dwellers, now good enough to work in the factories, to produce the munitions and other hardware needed to fight and win a war . Conscription saw to it that all men were called up to fight in so many foreign lands, that they broadened their outlook and learnt so much of other customs and attitudes. Even earlier - at the time of the Industrial Revolution, mass production brought increased leisure which allowed increases in spectator sports, less elitism in sports, and greater accessibility.
A favourite song towards the end of the First World War summed it all up – ‘How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen gaye Paree.’
People were no longer country bumpkins, the Second World War had suddenly made them sophisticated and worldly, and to keep the home fires burning, factories were established to manufacture everything needed, and people who ran the factories now became the middle class.
In most country towns the pupils walked to school while some lucky ones from the smallholdings and farms went on horseback or donkeys, and also in carts drawn by those beasts of burden. The animals were outspanned and then reinspanned (harnessed) after school for the return journey home. These were the small town and village schools or on the outskirts of the larger towns.
Who still can remember when it took twenty one days, and then later eleven days to sail from Cape Town to Southampton on the Union Castle Liners. What about air travel, spending four days with overnight stops, up through Africa from Palmietfontein Airdrome south of Johannesburg to London. The double decker blue British Airways buses used to ferry passengers to and from the terminal.
Few if any children had the luxury of mum's taxi even in inclement weather. Very many families did not even have a car at all, let alone mom having her own vehicle.
Young children now demand and expect to have their own personal cell/mobile phone. Parents excuse this excess by reiterating their child's reasons to justify the need. If the child is detained at school, he/she can phone their mother to advise her of the alteration in plans regarding the lift home.
Some scholars whose fathers could afford to, gave their children bicycles. Sports teams depended on a father or two driving them to the away games, no school buses were even thought of in those far off days.
Those were the days when scholars attended schools, while students went to colleges and universities. Up until quite recently pupils were referred to as scholars, then as students but more recently they are now called learners. Reference is made to educators, no longer teachers.
Today we have all sorts of muddled and mixed meanings. Is this in order to satisfy the language usage purists who conveniently ignore customary and cultural behaviour, dress and actions?
In the past a woman’s place was considered to be in the home, whereas it is now seen that women are equal to men, and they do as well or a better job at anything they attempt. But the masculine form is somehow not tolerated for example managers, author, waiters, poets etc.
Furthermore any word containing the letters m-a-n has to be altered or ignored or omitted, to the ridiculous extend that w-o-m-a-n has to be prefixed to power; Is agement also corrupted? Or the suffix as in chair person but never chairlady.
Do and can people still remember the little family grocery store, or general dealer shop, the dignified millinery and haberdashery boutiques with patient and unhurried smartly dressed sales ladies. portraying neatly packed shelves and displaying luxury and high class imported goods for example gowns, gloves and other fashion goods for the fastidious buyers, who made their shopping an experience.
The fancy elaborate hat and dress boxes and tastefully designed packets, proudly carried by the well heeled lady customers or delivered for madame's convenience. Some of the very best stores would include a tea lounge with a Palm Court type of small orchestra to entertain the patrons and help them to relax with tea and the most enticing patisserie and cakes after their very tiring morning or afternoon shopping expedition.
One almost forgets when door to door bread and milk was delivered every morning in time for breakfast. Or that the butcher and fishmonger sent their orderman to ascertain the householders’ requirements for the day which would then be delivered a little later in the morning thus in time for luncheon or evening dinner.
Housewives made their own preserves and jams going to the bother and laboriously using a churn for special occasions only – to make ice cream. The farmer's wife in addition would make appetising farm butter as well as soap and candles.
The next level the tradesmen, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers butchers, water carriers, woodchoppers and so on, eked out a miserable subsistence.
Goodness only knows how the lowest stratum existed, with handouts from others who themselves were only slightly better off.
To my generation some of the customs and traditions and life styles which had been part of our grandfathers’ lives have become remnants of the past, gradually fading in our memories. So now that the younger generation have decided with the clarion call of ‘’OUR ROOTS’’ that while it is still possible, there is just a little time to save some of those memories of the past. They realise that the few remnants of my generation will soon fade away with their memories. With the help of the few dedicated people who have started an internet library of genealogical facts, these memories are now raised from a virtual and ephemeral state to one of permanent and a readily available source of information.
We generally cannot visualise the way of life experienced by the Jews in Russia and in that part of Eastern Europe. There was a handful of wealthy Jews, which makes one wonder how they managed to become ‘geweerining’, what with all the restrictions imposed on them.
In spite of this, Jews produced rabbis and scholars, as well as men of high intelligence with reasoning powers which seem unreal to our sophisticated ideas. The religious and legal thought processes, the well thought out brilliant decisions given by the Beth Din, so many thousands of years ago. Whence came this intrinsic knowledge? The explanations, the standard of justice, fair-mindedness, compassion, pity and deep-felt attitudes, animals to be treated with respect and care.
The Torah lays down the list of 613 Mitzvoth, how did man imbibe all this wisdom to be able to record it for posterity. Naturally it was G-d given, but the Jews have been able to nurture all this and continue to adhere and propagate these principles for the betterment of MAN in general.
Remember the old song - ‘Those were the Days’ - well we too thought, they’d never end! Or maybe like the other song which Maurice Chevalier sang -
‘I remember it well’ ----- So do I!
Manfred J. Schwartz © 2000.



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