Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
South African Jewish Genealogical Research
Part I – South African Resources in America
by Ann Rabinowitz © 2003
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2003 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 26 December 2003
Attribution: On-line edition published from Dorot, The Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York, Volume 24, Number 1-2, Fall-Winter 2002-2003, Pages 15-17, with permission of the editor, and the author Ann Rabinowitz.
As the Research Coordinator of the South Africa SIG, I am asked, many times, how to locate primary or secondary resources for South African Jewish research outside South Africa. This is due, in part, to an increasing number of South Africans who have settled in the U.S. and want to research their families, and to Americans who have found that they have a South African family connection.
My first suggestion to researchers is to go to the South Africa SIG web-site on JewishGen, which has an enormous amount of InfoFiles, databases and tools for beginning genealogical studies. In addition, a second tremendous resource for locating existing materials on South African Jewry is the book Bibliography of South African Jewry by Veronica Belling, Librarian, Jewish Studies Collection, University of Cape Town, published in Cape Town by Jewish Publications-South Africa, Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies and Research, University of Cape Town, 1997. This can be found at the New York Public Library and YIVO among other locations.
While much of the pertinent material on South Africa is either located in South Africa or held in a limited number of private hands, there are, at least, three major repositories in the U.S. that presently have holdings and one Internet resource worth mentioning:
Mormon Family History Centers (throughout the U.S.) – The Centers have access, upon request, to various microfilmed records for the Jewish community in South Africa for specific time periods. These records include such areas as emigration and immigration, applications for naturalization (Cape Colony only), death certificates, estate/probate documentation (death notices, wills, and liquidation/distribution accounts), and other miscellaneous records such as birth, marriage and death records for particular areas as well as City Directories for certain years.
In 1997, when I visited the Gardens Shul in Cape Town, SA, I found that the Mormons had microfilmed the records. With the cooperation and permission of Ben Resnick, head of the Chevra Kadisha, I took notes on what records and years were covered in the Gardens Shul material and copied the first record for each book which I then put into a database.
This database is now on the SA-SIG web-site. Further information on this and other South African Jewish records held by the Mormons is available through the work of Roy Ogus, SA-SIG American Coordinator, and can be found on the SA-SIG web site as well.
University of Texas, Austin, TX – The University has the largest collection of South African Jewish material in the U.S., both in belles lettres and periodicals, according to Nathan Snyder, Judaica Librarian and collection bibliographer. The collection is housed in the Perry-Castan eda Library (PCL) and can be accessed by going to the site.
The materials were made available through the efforts of Prof. Seth Wolitz, Marie and Edwin Gale Chair of Judaic Studies, who obtained the donation of material in 1996 and 1999 from Prof. Joseph Sherman, University of the Witwatersrand, now Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
The collection, dealing with periodicals as well as manuscripts and papers, covers much that has never been published before either in Yiddish or translated into English. The periodicals are a magnificent collection that includes Der Afrikaaner Yiddisher Zeitung, Dorem Africa and the English-language Jewish Affairs.
South African Yiddish authors, many of whom where born in Lithuania, are included in the University collection: M. Ben Moshe, Nathan Berger, H. (Haiman) Erlikh, Richard Feldman, Morris Hoffman, N. Levinski, Hyman Polsky, Wolf Rybkov, Chaim Sachs, Levi Shalit, J. M. Sherman, Hersh Shishler, Mendl Tabatzkin, David Wilkin and David E. Wolpe. In addition, the unpublished papers and manuscripts of poet David Fram and short story writer Samuel Leibowitz can be found in the Rare Books Section of the the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection of the Library.
While these particular authors may not be familiar to you, their family names may be and could provide clues to further family research, especially as the material includes where the families were from originally and possibly other genealogically significant details. An example of how you may find exciting surprises in this material is the file for Samuel Leibowitz (1912-1976), who was born in Panevezys, Lithuania, and lived in Johannesburg. Using the online address for the Leibowitz material (see above), I checked through the items listed in his file. There I found a reference to a letter he wrote in 1943 to my relative Leslie Yodaiken, a well-known Irish Jewish poet and writer. I was then able to send away to the Library and obtain a copy of the letter.
What are the chances that I would find any connection to my Irish family in a South African Yiddish author’s file located in a Latin American Collection at the University of Texas? So, don't be hesitant about looking through such resources even though you don’t expect to find anything. You may be surprised at what you do find.
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY – There are now a number of South African items available that are complementary to YIVO’s Lithuanian holdings. This connection is due to the large number of Lithuanian Jews who went to South Africa. The initial portion of this South African collection that I have donated to YIVO includes three quite rare and hard to come by resources:
The 1929 South African Jewish Year Book, edited by Morris De Saxe and associate editor I.M. Goodman, Johannesburg: South African Jewish Historical Society, 1929.
This is the inaugural volume in a series of twelve Year Books, the last being for the period 1976-1977, that provide a "Who's Who" section, historical vignettes of the Jewish community, and demographic details. The entries in the "Who's Who" section very often contain photographs of the individuals. The "Who's Who" entries have been put into a database on JewishGen which can be accessed at ##.
The Jew in South Africa: A record of what individual Jews are doing in various spheres of the country's life, edited by Rabbi Maurice Konvisser and Dora Sowden, Johannesburg: Century Publishing, 1945.
This volume contains very much the same type of "Who’s Who" information as the Year Books, but has greater focus on religious personalities and anecdotal data. Much of the material was obtained through direct interviews with the individuals. Many of the accompanying photographs depict the individuals in military uniform due to the proximity of the publication to the end of World War II. Like the 1929 Year Book, this volume can also be found in the JewishGen database at ##.
South African Jewish Board of Deputies Immigration Registers, 1924-1929.
The three unpublished registers covering the years 1924-1926, 1927-1928, and 1929 were the product of a South African Jewish Board of Deputies mandate. The originals are to be found in the Kaplan Centre Archives in Cape Town, SA, and photocopies are located in the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Archives in Johannesburg, SA, and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.
The registers are a critical means of determining where families may have originated in der heim and when and where they came to in South Africa. A photocopy of the unpublished registers will be available to researchers in early 2003 at YIVO. This resource can also be found in a sample database containing the first 500-plus records on the SA SIG web site. The three entire registers are in the process of being fully computerized and, according to project coordinator Debby Myers in Cape Town, they will be available online sometime in early 2003.
Additional resources that I will be donating to YIVO in the near future will relate to various "Who's Who" listings for South African Jewish women that will also be available in database format on the SA SIG web site.
YIVO also has copies of the South African weekly Yiddish newspaper Der Afrikaaner Yiddisher Zeitung, which was published in Johannesburg from 1942 to 1971. This publication has a fascinating series on shtetls from der heim. The series was first located by Ada Greenblatt and written up in Dorot, Pre-War Lithuanian Series in the Afrikaner Yidishe Tzeitung Summer 1996, p. 6.
The various articles provided me with much information about not only the shtetls, but the people who came to South Africa from the individual shtetls. The New York Public Library and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, also have this publication on microfilm, in addition to the previously mentioned University of Texas.
It is hoped that others will donate their materials to YIVO to expand their holdings and thereby make them available to both those living in the New York Metropolitan area and visitors to New York.
Ebay.com – A new source for South African documents is to be found on ebay.com, the international flea market on the Internet. Unfortunately, as people pass away, their personal documents are either thrown away or sold in yard sales, flea markets or at auction. With genealogical study now such a growing activity, these documents have become attractive items to purchase.
Regular perusing of the offerings on ebay.com under such topics as Judaica, Lithuania, South Africa, or other countries will bring up various items including school documents, passports, letters, and the like. An example of this is what Dr. Neil Rosenstein, formerly of Cape Town, found on ebay.com. He was able to obtain a letter from his grandfather’s bookstore in Vilnius, Lithuania, to Rabbi Nochum-Mendel Rabinowitz, in Cape Town. In addition, there have been cases where people have recognized that their expired South African passports have been put on ebay.com and they have had to retrieve them from possible sale.
With the exception of the Mormon Family History Centers, you may be able to obtain copies of materials or references from the above resources through the inter-library loan program at your local university or public library. In fact, I have requested materials from YIVO’s library at a small cost for the copying, and I plan to obtain periodical materials from the University of Texas in the coming year. Items for sale on ebay.com are accompanied sometimes by extensively documented material and very often photographs. These can be downloaded and copied on your own printer, if you aren’t interested in purchasing the actual item.
There are various other large repositories in the U.S., such as the Library of Congress and major universities, which have resources relating to South Africa’s literary, historical, economic, and political life, and they even have such early 20th-century periodicals as South Africa Magazine.
It is important to note that there are actual South African resources available in America and particularly copies of important primary or secondary documents. In the future, I am hoping that other documents will surface and be donated to the major repositories mentioned here or to other libraries or archives in areas where former South Africans have settled, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Diego, and South Florida. I would encourage any South Africans who have such materials to consider donations that will allow the preservation of these materials for use by other researchers.
Americans have wide access to the Internet and JewishGen and can obtain many other records relating to South Africa. These will be discussed in a future article: Part II - South African Internet Resources.
Ann Rabinowitz, a native of Manchester, England, has been involved in genealogical research since childhood. She is formerly the newsletter editor and a board member of the JGS of Greater Miami and is presently a member of the JGS of Palm Beach County. As the SA SIG research coordinator, she has produced numerous databases for South African resources that can be found on the SA SIG web site, including materials on South African shipping and immigration, naturalization, community profiles, and other related matters.