Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
South African Jewish Communities
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2002 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 1 October 2002
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE FRANKFORT JEWISH COMMUNITY
by Julius Kopelowitz © 2002
Rehovot, Israel. April 2002
I was born in 1928, son of Max and Becky, who married each other in Johannesburg in 1926 and then lived in Frankfort for some 35 years, Max having arrived there from Pokroy, Lithuania, as a youth, via Heilbron, some 15 years earlier. My mother, Becky, born Malamed, was brought to South Africa from Kupishok, Lithuania, around 1906, aged two. Her father served, i.a. as gabai of the Ponevez shul, Doornfontein, Johannesburg (later demolished to make way for the Harrow Road thoroughfare). My parents were stalwarts of the Frankfort Jewish community, my father handling also the Chevra Kadisha requirements, whilst my mother was known to keep a hospitable, strictly kosher home.
The author standing outside the Frankfort Synagogue,
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Like myself, my elder sister, Ethel Berkal, as well as my younger sister the late Minnie Glajchen and my brother, Norman, were all born in Johannesburg but grew up in Frankfort, where we matriculated. The writer married Millicent Segal of Johannesburg in 1958 and the family made aliyah in 1961. These recollections stem from my personal experiences, observations and information gathered over the years (memory lapses, if any, excepted and regretted).
Frankfort, in the maize lands of the north-eastern Free State, was laid out in 1886 and called after the name of its surveyor, Dr. Ellenberger, who hailed from Frankfort-am-Maine. I was also taught at the local school that Frankfort lay in the heart of a region originally known as "Riemland" (Leatherland) because of the abundant hides of the game roaming there. and subsequently livestock. This region included towns such as Heilbron, Vrede and Reitz (the writer recalls as a child, in the early 1930’s, accompanying a delegation of Frankfort Jews to the inauguration of the new Reitz Synagogue, under the the incumbency of Reverend Davidovitz, whose son Abe later became S.A.A. Manager in Israel).
Little wonder then that some of the earliest Jews on the scene were livestock speculators and produce dealers, buying and selling hides, wool, butter, fowls, eggs, etc. Some of my earliest memories of life in Frankfort are of these colorful characters and their blunt speech - in more than one language, Yiddish predominating for uncomplimentary retorts. Names come to the fore, such as Notte Goodman and his nephew Harry Goodman, also my late uncle Nathan Kopelowitz (known as "Oom Kappie") and his elder cousin Ben-Zion Kopelowitz (who later also welcomed my late father, Max, and subsequently his younger brother, Israel, to Frankfort). There was also a steady flow of itinerants, whether from neighboring towns or making seasonal appearances from further afield. I recall, among others, names such as Daikliker, Sher, Lotzof and others. With the depression of the early 1930’s, the produce market collapsed and some of these pioneers left to seek greener pastures.
It was a phenomenon of the platteland towns in the O.F.S. and elsewhere, that they became settled and developed in the early 20th century, after the Boer War, and more so after Union in 1910. The Jews played a central role in the process. Thus the writer recalls that in the early 1930’s virtually all of the shops in Frankfort were owned and run by Jews - many of these shops had been built by or for Jews, and likewise their houses. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the Jewish stores were uniformly closed - notices to this effect having been prominently displayed in advance, and in those early years the town came to a virtual standstill on such holy days.
At its peak, in the 1930’s, the Frankfort Jewish community numbered some 20 to 25 families, including several farmers in the district, fortified by a sprinkling of single men, living in the town or on the surrounding farms or commuting between them. Like in other country communities, as the Jewish children grew up so their parents felt the need to gravitate to the larger centers, and just as the communities had mushroomed overnight, so they, Frankfort among them, began to decline in the mid-1930’s and markedly so during and after World War II.
Frankfort Synagogue, August 1968. The synagogue was demolished a few years later.
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The Frankfort Hebrew congregation was established in 1911/1912, flourished until the mid-1930’s and thereafter declined as aforementioned until no Jews remained and the synagogue was sold and demolished in the early 1970’s. The shul, a stone building was a former church, adapted and consecrated to serve the congregation. A back room served as the cheder and boardroom.
Early pioneers and prominent in the community already in the first decades of the 20th century, were members of the Segal family, Abraham Isaac and Faiga Segal, and their children: Morris, later Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha in Johannesburg, his brother Raphael, an attorney in Frankfort, and another brother, Barnet. Morris served as Mayor of Frankfort in the early 1930’s and ran a large general dealer’s business. The entrance gate to a recreation park laid out on the banks of the Wilge River, with tennis courts and bowling green bore the inscription "The Morris Segal Gate" (since removed). Bowling remained the favorite, if not the only sport indulged in by the local Jews, along with swimming in the Wilge River.
In the writer’s time the late Max Bennie ably served as chairman of the congregation until his death in 1954. Treasurer in this period was Abe Wolman, a pharmacist and optician, and the secretary was Phillip Rabinowitz, a store owner, in partnership with his brothers. In its declining years the remnant of the congregation was held together by Israel Rabinowitz (no relation) and his wife Lily, née Molk from Heilbron.
Perhaps the pride of the shops in Frankfort, a large departmental store called "Harding and Parker" was run by Charlie Moses and later his son Guy (both somewhat aloof from community affairs). Frankfort boasted two hotels, the Frankfort Hotel built at the end of the 19th century, and later came the Central Hotel. As successive Jewish owners/managers of the former, one recalls the names Cohen, Lieberman and Gillman, and as owner/manager of the Central, the name Lipman. The two hotels served as an attraction for commercial travelers, who were in no hurry to depart, having regard to the entertainment of nightly card games offered them by some of the local Jewish residents.
Besides the names mentioned above, the following residents and their families are recalled (very roughly in the order of their date of arrival in, or departure from, Frankfort):
- The Shrog family (a daughter, Minnie, born in Frankfort 1920, married Louis Gecelter and they now live in Israel).
- Malkin, Moshe and family - baker and general dealer, the latter business subsequently taken over and run first by the Abrahamson family, and later the Mittel family (a son Willie, later settled in Israel).
- Lazarus, Mr. and Mrs. Eliezer - jeweler and watchmaker.
- Cohen Family, tailor, left in the early 1930’s.
- Dr. Rose and family - family doctor in the early 1930’s.
- Goodman, Harry and family - cattle speculator. (They later moved to Bloemfontein).
- The Bernsteins - a family of farmers, as were Bernstein’s sons- in-law, Frank and Isaac Gross.
- Kopelowitz, Ben-Zion - produce merchant in the 1920’s, cousin of the writer’s father.
- The Schiffman, Fineberg and Carklin families - successively ran the bottle store in the writer’s time.
- Cohen family - men’s outfitters, this business later taken over by -
- Mervis, Abe and family - men’s outfitters.
- Kopelowitz, Israel and family, general dealer (younger brother of the writer’s father), later Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
- Malamed, Nathan and family, men’s outfitters (younger brother of the writer’s mother), later Cape Town..
- Kantor family - a son, Sam, was in the local Town Clerk’s employ and later ran a bakery in Bethlehem.
- Hellerman family, father and son - general dealers, solitary Hasidim in the community.
- Niselow, Dave and family - butcher (brother of Mrs. Bregin, below).
- Bregin Family - produce dealers and founders of the "Frankfort Cold Storage" for the sale of refrigerated kosher slaughtered poultry.
- Lipschitz and Lourie (the latter from Vredefort) - partners in a filling station business.
- Gross, Sam and Louis, sons of Frank and Katie Gross. Louis left Frankfort and Sam ran a general dealer’s and later a car dealer’s business in Frankfort. He served as Deputy Major of Frankfort and after moving to Vereeniging, became mayor there. Sam dignified the dying stages of the Frankfort Hebrew Congregation, helped to negotiate the sale of the shul, and has seen to the upkeep of the now rarely frequented Jewish cemetery, the last Jews buried there having been members of the Bernstein and Gross families.
Among the bachelors or widowers (sometimes presumed, like in the sad case of one Itzikson, whose wife and children were caught up in Lithuania in the events of World War II and the holocaust), one may also mention names such as Binjomin Zive, Notte Goodman, Nathan Kopelowitz and members of the Bernstein and Gross families.
Surrounding the town of Frankfort were isolated points of settlement, home to a solitary Jewish family or two. These ranged from hamlets like Villiers, where there were the Rubin brothers and a shopkeeper called Cohen, and a place called Tweeling, where there were the Cooper brothers and someone called Malamed - to mere trading posts like Tafelkop and Roadside, respectively occupied for a short spell in the 1930’s by a Fried (Yudke) family, and someone called Kaminetzky. How these new immigrant Jews, some traditional, got along in such splendid isolation, is a story in itself and perhaps explains the urgent beckoning, for example, of the outsize letters KAMINETZKY painted on the corrugated iron roof of the solitary building in Roadside at that time.
A feature of the small country communities was the Kolbo (all-rounder) spiritual mentor-ba-al tefillah, shochet and melamed, and if so equipped sometimes also sofer-stam (scribe) and even mohel They earned a pittance and in Frankfort, in later years, the cold storage kosher slaughtering offered a welcome income supplement, but was a rigorous assignment which may have contributed to the comparatively short-lived incumbencies. The spiritual leader incumbent immediately prior to my rebbe, Reverend Miller, was Reverend Lessem, and for short periods of time, also surrounding Reverend Miller’s incumbency, Frankfort was served by Rabbi Chigier, who later resettled in Israel where he became a senior legal advisor to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Reverend Miller officiated until 1941, when he moved to Cape Town. Thereafter Frankfort was treated to a procession of spiritual mentors, serving for comparatively short periods, among them - Rev. Sinai, Rev. Bak, Rev. Gertner (moved to Brakpan), Rev. Borowitz, Rev. Rachman, with even shorter caretaker stops by individuals named Stein (Hebrew teacher), Shatz and others. Rev. Kamber came from Johannesburg to tide me over my barmitzvah, and 18 months later Rev. Abramovitz likewise came from Marquard (O.F.S.) to do the same for my brother, Norman. In the 1960’s organized congregational life could no longer be sustained and in the early 1970’s the synagogue was sold and demolished, the sifre torah being handed to the Klerksdorp Hebrew congregation.
As in most country communities, the Jews in Frankfort, certainly the younger generation, were bilingual and more. The local school had what was known as the parallel, rather than dual, medium of instruction. Subjects like history, science and mathematics, were taught first in Afrikaans with repetition in English, whilst English and Afrikaans had higher and lower levels, the Jewish children invariably opting for the English version. Not merely bilingual, but quadrilingual they were - arba kanfot - four-cornered Jews, linguistically if not ritually speaking. Thus Afrikaans was the language of daily discourse; English was used at home, and for communication with the outside world and its culture, Jewish and general; Yiddish was used for cheder instruction and as a bridge to Hebrew, sometimes also as a means of communication between the adults themselves, or between them and the younger generation; Hebrew was the medium for praying, studying traditional texts, and keeping in touch with Zionism and the resurgent drive for Jewish statehood. There was a measure of kinship between Yiddish and Afrikaans, and most of the congregation’s spiritual mentors, fresh from Lithuania, managed to make themselves understood to the gentiles in this language. A smattering of African languages, predominantly Sotho and Zulu was wielded by some of the Jews, and many blacks had more than a smattering of Yiddish. Thus, baker Malkin’s right-hand man and prize kitke producer, a black nicknamed Feivel (if memory holds true) spoke Yiddish like a Litvak and when Malkin left Frankfort, Feivel went to work for Niselow, the butcher, serving Jewish customers kosher meat, alongside non-kosher meat, though with separate chopping block and knives for the kosher meat, an arrangement frowned upon by the rabbinical authorities.
In the writer’s time the community was apparently too small to sustain any organized Zionist, cultural or charitable societies, or even a youth movement, but it did warmly receive visiting speakers and on Jewish holy days, when called to the Torah, individuals contributed to a wide range of general Jewish causes, charitable and other, and these sums were duly collected by the congregational secretary and passed on to their proper destination.
Relations with the gentile whites were generally restrained and formally correct, and gentile attitudes ranged from the amicable to the tolerant, interspersed with sporadic anti-semitic gestures and utterances, the usual variety sometimes laced with doses of the vitriol spewed out by the Nazi propaganda machine before and during World War II. Those who matriculated in the Orange Free State during the years of World War II, will recall studying "The Merchant of Venice" as an English set work, and inevitably Jewish pupils were likened to and called Shylock. In Frankfort, this evil was effectively countered by the principal at that time, an Englishman called Alfred D. Hitchcock (no relation!), someone not entirely at ease with the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking population. As the higher level English teacher he would give a stirring rendering, in class, of Shylock’s impassioned plea - "Hath not a Jew eyes .... if you prick us do we not bleed......" There was no schooling on shabbat, but an examination sometimes coincided with a Jewish holiday, whereupon the Jewish parents uniformly decided that the children absent themselves. It is to the credit of the abovementioned principal that he allowed the examinees to take the exam at night, in the house of the rebbe who had earlier been entrusted with the examination paper and forsworn to secrecy until night time. This despite no entirely convincing answer given to his query as to why the Jewish parents claimed a dispensation for their children on grounds of a ritual they did not themselves observe!
Relations with the blacks were on a different level. The Jews generally found themselves forming part of the white "overlordship" with all it entailed, though they mostly displayed a more tolerant and benevolent attitude towards the blacks, particularly their domestic servants. Like Feivel, there were other blacks who could communicate in Yiddish, were familiar with heimishe cooking and Jewish customs and of course, acted as shabbes goy, both at home and in putting out the shul lights on shabbatot and chagim.
Finally one might mention the Wilge River in one or two other Jewish contexts. Thus the river was used for Tashlich, shaking out one’s sins on Rosh Hashana. Also the writer recalls the Jewish children picnicking on the river banks on Lag Ba’Omer, duly equipped with home-made bow and arrow. No doubt the Jews also gave ardent support to erection of the hydro-electric power station and welcomed the electricity generated by the river, already in the 1920’s, long before Escom arrived on the rural scene.
The Israeli Connection
In addition to the writer, now living in Rehovot, and anyone else mentioned in the body of the article, the following ex-Frankforters are known presently to be living in Israel:
Wolman Arthur, Raanana, Optician, son of Abe Wolman.
Borowitz Lionel, Nes Ziona, Scientist, son of Rev. Borowitz.
All information correcting and/or updating the above list will be welcomed.
The Jewish cemetery in Frankfort lies at the approach to the gentile burial grounds. No beit tahara was ever built and the tahara function was performed elsewhere. Below is a list of the graves recorded by the writer, from the tombstones (more or less in chronological order), on a visit to Frankfort in August, 2000. The cemetery was apparently consecrated shortly before the first burials as noted below:
Behrman, Elazar b. Ze’ev Yehezkel - Tishre, 1913 (1916)?;
Child, Saul b. Mordecai - September, 1915;
Rosenberg, Annie - September, 1915;
Schiffman, Sarah - October, 1918;
Behrman, Ze’ev Yechezkel b. Elazar - August, 1920;
Segal, Abraham Isaac - August, 1923;
Mankovitz, Sam - February, 1925;
Segal, Faiga - June, 1928;
Lessem, Seftel - November, 1932;
Kantor, Freda - June, 1937;
Moses, Nini - 1942;
Denton, Alexander Simon - December, 1942;
Hertzman, Bertha - July, 1952;
Bennie, Max - April, 1954;
Kopelowitz, Solomon Nathan - November 1962.
The particulars of the graves of late M. Schiffman, Max Fineberg and M. Carklin, z’l were unfortunately mislaid and hopefully will be retrieved and the list updated in due course. The three were the successive owners (over several decades) of the Frankfort Bottle Store.
The cemetery also includes the graves of ten members of the Bernstein and Gross families, including the grandparents, as well as parents of Sam Gross, his Uncle Isaac and other family members. In addition, the writer found four graves of members of the Isaac Gross family without tombstones.
The above count in 2000 showed a total of 27 graves, some without tombstones as aforementioned. In addition, a geniza grave was located in the cemetery.