Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
The story of
Nehemia Dov Hoffman (1860-1928)
by Gita Gordon © 2002
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2002 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
This page URL: http://www.jewishgen.org/SAfrica/NDHoffman.htm
Date: 27 November 2002
The Rabbis tell us that there is no room in our philosophy
for the word 'co-incidence.' Everything that occurs happens for a
reason. However, the action we take as a result of any happening, lies
within our realm.
We were in South Africa recently, visiting friends, when the
talk moved to the subject of 'collecting,' particularly old books of
Our host suddenly left the room and came back with an old
book, tattered, but obviously much read, much cared for, because the
binding showed evidence of being repaired with brown sticky paper.
"This was found on a rubbish heap nearby. A small boy was passing and he
knew I collected old books. He brought it to me and I paid him for it.
I`m so pleased with it. I'm writing a thesis on the early years of the
Jews in South Africa. This was written by Nehemia Dov Hoffman. He
brought the first Hebrew printing press to South Africa. He was the
first publisher of Hebrew and Yiddish books, and he was the editor of
Yiddish newspapers here. There is very little of his original work left."
So we all looked at the book and the title was Sefer
Hazichranot and it was a book of memoirs, divided into three parts,
the author's life in Europe and America and South Africa. The American
section was written in Hebrew and the rest in Yiddish.
The next day we packed our bags and left for the second part of our
holiday, a visit to my sister in Johannesburg. One day while she was
shopping she left us at the local library. There was a table filled with
old books for sale and I went to the table, with the intention of
finding something to read on the long journey back home.Among the old
covers one stood out, bright red, looking quite new. I picked it up and
read. Biography of Nehemia Dov Hoffman, Founder of the Jewish Press in
South Africa. Its first Editor and Printer. By Joseph Abraham Poliva. I
bought the slim volume and looking inside saw that the book was
dedicated to the memory of Miriam Kopilis who had been born in Austria
and died in Johannesburg. The book had been published in 1968 and the
author's preface gave his address as Holon in Israel.
Returning to Israel, I managed to speak to the author`s son, still
living in Holon. He told me about his father, and how he came to write
the book, and that is a story in itself. However, to my disappointment,
he was in no way related to Hoffman. I was hoping that the book had been
written by one of Hoffman's descendants, so that I could find out what
had become of this family, but in this quest I have been unsuccessful.
Now, a week after coming home, after seeing to all the mundane tasks
that such travel brings with it, I am once again at leisure and have had
time to read the small red book.
This is the story of a man of intellect and action. Nehemia Dov Hoffman
was born in 1860 in Gavra, near Kovno.
His father was Reb Zeev Woolf, described as "an enlightened Jew, a
cultured person, well read and wise." His mother was "an old-fashioned,
wise and very religious Jewess."
Hoffman began cheder at the age of five. By the time he was seven he was
at a cheder in another town, boarding out, traveling home for Shabbat.
He changed cheders again at age nine when his parents moved to the town
of Erzvelick. His teacher was now Reb Simcha Bunim Sharp, who besides
introducing him tho the Talmud, starting with Bavah Kamma, also taught
him how to write in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.
At the age of ten he went to a government school in the
morning and cheder all afternoon. After his Barmitzvah a new teacher,
Rav Shraga Feivel arrived in town and, besides the study of gemorra with
his new teacher, Hoffman together with his father, began to read books
of Hebrew Literature. So, "... a new world opened up for the young
Hoffman, a world of poetry, imagination, the love and longing for the land
of Israel ... "
Within a year of his barmitzvah, the family moved once
again, this time to Birz, in the district of Kovno near Ponevez. Here
the young boy continued to study with different teachers, finishing his
time of learning with Mr. Zoznitz, who taught him not only standard
works such as the Rambam, but also astronomy, and other branches of
sciences as well as the work of Spinoza.
The education of this young man meant he was familiar with religious
work as well as Hebrew literature and the latest knowledge of the
He began his work as a writer during his years of study with a
description of his home town, Birz, and this was published in the
journal Halvanon. When he was seventeen he completed a book of
scientific articles that he had translated from Russian and German
journals, Otzar Hanechmad(Desirable Treasure). This was printed by
the publisher Matz, who also gave him his first job, that of
By the age of nineteen three further articles had been published, this
time by Michael Levy Radkinson, who published three journals, two in
Hebrew and one in Yiddish, and who subsequently employed him in his
By the time Hoffman was twenty four, he had been published regularly in
many different journals, had a number of books published and with money
in his pocket he returned to his family in Neustadt-Sugind, married and
started a bookshop, though this was mainly run by his wife and he
continues to write and be published.
By age twenty five he had a reputation beyond the borders of the
continent and he was invited to America and there he worked as a sub
editor for the Yiddshse Gazetten. Nine months later he returned to his
family, bringing with him 400 rubles, a considerable sum in those days.
In 1884, while Hoffman was writing in Neustadt, for Hamelitz, he told
of the extensive emigration to South Africa that was taking place from
the towns and villages of Lituania. From Neustadt itself "200 souls had left during the past year and the majority went to South
Africa …. 200 of our brethren live in Cape Town and Kimberley and the
majority have prospered in their affairs and become wealthy and
"Last summer ten emigrants returned to our town. These migrants gave
me mighty and exciting news about South Africa, that it is a land
blessed and happy, where nature bestows upon its inhabitants its
bounties with a generous hand and with great and generous abundance.
There is no discrimination between a Hebrew and a Christian. Every
man attends to his labours diligently and finds a reward for his toil."
(from The Jews in S.A., by Saron and Hotz, 1955)
Neustadt is the town that Sammy Marks left in 1868 and returned to, not
too many years later, as a millionaire, leaving large sums of money with his
father to distribute for charitable purposes. Some historians quote
the starting point for the emigration to South Africa the effect of the
visits of Sammy Marks, and the continuing stream of immigration, to the
writing of just such articles in the local press. Maybe, the South
African Jews, have these two men to thank for their comfortable and
happy lives in that country.
Perhaps these stories had some influence on the writer of the tales,
because in 1889, at the age of twenty-nine when his brother-in-law
advised him to come to South
Africa. Hoffman traveled there alone , his family following shortly.
Now here was a man of culture and vision, who had made a name for
himself in his own country and in America. He came to a land full of
opportunity, yet many years later he was to write "... In years later I realized
the mistake I had made by leaving America. I
am sure that if I had stayed in that free and blessed country I would
have progressed like many other journalists of my school. I should not
have spent most of my life in need, under pressure and in a difficult
fight for my existence.
"I shall be always sorry for the big mistake I made in exchanging the
beautiful bright America, for the devastated wastes of dark Africa. I
will always feel responsible for having made my family suffer with me,
but it is now too late."
During those years in South Africa Hoffman published the first Jewish
weekly, Der Afrikaner Israeli, but it folded after six months. He
tried peddling, he opened a general store in a place called Hottentots
Cliff, near Ceres.
He moved to Cape Town where for five years he published a Yiddish weekly
Haor, and subsequently, together with Isaac Stone as his partner, a
weekly periodical. Der Yiddisher Herald. His partner returned to
England and with new partners he tried again, but failed. He started
again on his own publishing a weekly periodical, Die Yidisshe Folkszeitung,
but this failed after six months, and finally a monthly
Yiddish periodical, Der Afrikaner, that ran for five years.
The last words in the book, Sefer Hazichranot are these words,
and hopeful: "One day, when a historian writes South African Jewish history, I hope
that historian will not miss my name, and will remember to place me at
the top amongst the first Jewish pioneers of the Press in this country;
as the first Yiddish printer, and the first Yiddish editor, as the
founder of the Jewish Press; first in time,; first on top, and this will
be my reward."
Perhaps the time has come to look once again at the work of this man.
History is a strange thing, it depends so much on who writes it. One
mistaken impression, or deliberate distortion, made for some wordly
purpose, can enter into the history books as oft repeated myths and
become embedded there, as truth and historical accuracy.
The work of this man, hidden, but still available if searched for
diligently, can provide a true and accurate picture of an age long gone.
The detailed cameos he writes of those days and times can be found
no-where else. Look at this extract written for his readers in Europe in
1891: "The farmers in South Africa generally respect Jews very much and exalt
them above all the nations under the sun. When a Jew comes to
these farmers they receive him with great hospitality.
They immediately outspan his horses, then the Jewish guest is
called inside, is honoured, given food and drink and a place to spend
the night without payment. The snakes of anti-Semitism have not laid
their poisonous eggs in this country."
We are separated by a great time span, yet I feel a strange
affinity for this man and his family, and their suffering and hardship,
whilst others about them achieved great wealth. I would like to bring
him to the forefront of history, where I feel he belongs. I feel there
is a need, for his work to be found and translated, and published, and
so be available to all who seek the true history of those far off days.
Who knows, maybe in time, the wish to be known, to be thought about and
admired, may still come to Nehemia Dov Hoffman.
Editor's notes on N.D. Hoffman:
In 1996 Jewish Publications - South Africa, The Kaplan Centre for Jewish
Studies and research, University of Cape Town, published a translation in English
from the Yiddish Book of Memoirs, N.D. Hoffman. Reminiscences of South
Click here for a brief excerpt from N.D. Hoffman's Book of Memoirs.
Contemporary observations on the social environment of South Africa in
the early Twentieth Century. Being the collected Articles on all matters
Jewish and Judaism in S.A., by N. Hoffman. Collected in the book The
Jews of South Africa published in 1916. The translation is by Lilian
Dubb and Sheila Bartunsky, ISBN: 0-7992-17727.
From the Encyclopedia Judaica circa 1941-3:
Born near Kovno 1860, d C.T. 1928.
First book Otzar Nehmad (Desirable Treasure), a collection of essays
on scientific subjects, translations from German and Russian Journals,
Vilna 1877, and his second book, Hanosea (The Traveller) in 1883.
Contributed to Hebrew and Yiddish journals. Lived for a while in New York
city, on the staff of the Jewish Gazette. Came to S.A. in 1889, pioneer of
the Jewish Press. Imported type of Hebrew alphabet, 1890 first Yiddish
Journal, Der Afrikaner Israelit. Another one, HaOr, in C.T., and according
to his own statement was responsible for thirteen different journals,
one of which, Kinnereth, was in Hebrew. But none of his publications
gained the support of the public. In 1916 he
published in Yiddish an illustrated volume on the Jews of S.A., and in
1920 Das Sudafrikanscher Jahrbuch, also illustrated.
YIDDISH LITERATURE IN SOUTH AFRICA p115-7
From Nathan Berger, Chapters in South African History. Kayor:
JEWS DID NOT EMIGRATE to South Africa in significant numbers before the
second half of the nineteenth century. The earliest Jewish settlers were
mainly from England or Germany. While a few Jews of Eastern European
origin whose mother tongue was Yiddish arrived in the 1870's in the Cape
Colony, it was not until after the Russian pogroms of the early 1880's
that Lithuanian Jews began to stream to South Africa, attracted by tales
of freedom and prosperity. To meet their needs a Yiddish
press arose during the quarter of a century before World War I and a
Yiddish literature began to flourish soon thereafter. The earliest
pioneer of Yiddish journalism was Nehemiah Dov Baer Hoffmann (1857 or
1860-1928), who founded the short-lived Der Afrikaner Israelite in 1890.
When this weekly ceased publication, he successively launched four other
weeklies and a monthly. His book of memoirs, Sefer Hazichranot (1916),
was the first Yiddish book printed in South Africa and ushered in the
most productive period of Yiddish literature in this southern outpost.
Hoffmann was a picturesque, talented personality. Hoffmann's first
books were in Hebrew. When Golomb and the Vilna publisher Matz suggested
to him that he try his skill at writing story booklets in Yiddish for
the less sophisticated readers, he completed about twenty such booklets
in a few months. These followed the tradition established by Isaac 'Meir
Dick and Shomer, the most popular narrators of the early 1880's, and
bore sensational titles such as Life in a Harem, Poisoned Love,
Innocently Convicted, To the Gallows. In 1882 he was engaged by the
Hebrew editor Haim Zelig Slonimsky to write for the Warsaw journal
Hatzfira. Three years later Kasriel Zvi Sarasohn brought him to New York
to work for the Yiddish weekly Die Yiedishe Gazetn and the newly founded
first Yiddish daily, Tageblatt. After nine months in the United States,
however, longing for his wife and children caused him to return to
Europe. In 1886 he was called upon to edit the Hebrew weekly Hamagid.
When the Jews of his native Lithuania began to emigrate to South Africa,
he too was persuaded by his brother-in-law Barnett Millin to exchange
Czarist Russia for a freer life in Capetown. But when he arrived there
in 1889, he at first experienced the hardships to which most Jewish
immigrants were subjected. Unacquainted with the language of the Boers,
he yet took to peddling among them, travelling from farm to farm with
horse and wagon. Despite Millin's encouragement, he was singularly
unsuccessful. In 1890, Hoffmann brought over the first Hebrew-Yiddish
type to South Africa and was thus able to print the first Yiddish
weekly, Der Afrikaner Israelit. While this periodical
lasted only half a year, his second weekly, Ha-Or, lasted from April 11,
1895 to July 5, 1897 and his third weekly, Der Yiedisher Herold, an
additional two years. His fourth weekly venture was Der Afrikaner
Telegraph, 1898 to 1892; his fifth venture was the weekly Yiedishe
Folkszeitung, which suspended publication after only two months in 1905;
his final venture was the monthly Der Afrikaner, from January 1909 to
In his articles and, above all, in his book of memoirs,
Hoffmann gave a colorful picture of the pioneering generation of
Lithuanian Jews in South Africa. In his Sefer Hazichranot, whenever he
refers to a friend or acquaintance and these included outstanding
personalities on three continents - he adds a biographic sketch and a
subjective evaluation. His facts are not always accurate, but his pen
portraits are vivid and illuminating. He writes with great facility in a
popular but somewhat archaic style and retains the interest of his
readers, despite a moralizing tendency which constantly interrupts his narration of events in his own
life and in the life of others.
David Goldblatt (1866-1945), who was co-editor and co-owner with
Hoffmann of Der Afrikaner Telegraph, was another early pioneer of South
African Yiddish journalism and a most ardent champion of the Yiddish
language and literature. He had grown up in Radom, Poland, and had
lived in Warsaw, Berlin and London, before emigrating to South Africa.
In London he had mingled in the circles of the Russian revolutionary
writer Prince Peter Kropotkin, the English socialist idealist William
Morris and the Yiddish poet Moritz Vinchevsky. In the British capital he
acquired his first journalistic experience as a writer for the Yiddish
organ Der Arbeiter-Freind. In 1898, Goldblatt arrived in Cape Town and
was invited by Hoffmann to write for Ha-Or, the only existing Yiddish
weekly. The following year he founded the first Yiddish daily, Der
Kriegstaphet. It appeared from
October 16 to December 13, 1899. Each issue consisted of a single page
and brought reports of the Boer War, an editorial and news of interest