Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
Jews on Commando
by D.Y. Saks ©2005
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2005 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 9 January 2005
Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, better-known for his stirring sermons and political outspokenness, was also a keen historian. His pet project during the late 1940s was to document the then little-known role of Jews in the Boer armed forces during the 1899-1902 War. As a result of his efforts, a flurry of articles appeared in both the Jewish and Afrikaans press and much valuable information, now housed in the Jewish Board of Deputies library, was painstakingly collected. Important work was also done in the field by Eric Rosenthal and Samuel Rochlin, two industrious chroniclers of South African Jewish history who began writing on the subject at least a decade before. The following article combines the original work of these pioneers with the author’s own updated research and is hopefully not the last word on the subject. The Boer fight for freedom was, after all, one of history’s most stirring independence struggles, and that Jews played a not insubstantial part in it is surely something to take pride in.
Reading the pioneering sketches of Jewish Boers today, one is struck by their swaggering yet at the same time almost over-eager tone, particularly those written by Rabbi Rabinowitz. The Jewish contribution to the Boer cause was certainly not insignificant, but one senses that the writers were trying a little too hard to make their point that Jews too fought bravely. This was no doubt partly a defensive reaction to the stereotype of the weak and cowardly Jew, as well as to counter perceptions in the antisemitic milieu of South Africa at the time that Jewish loyalty was suspect. The fact that most of the research was conducted in the late 1940s, however, suggests that there were deeper, and more sombre, reasons. The traumatic half decade preceding this had underlined in the most terrible way the desperate helplessness of the Jewish people in the face of those bent on destroying them. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jewish soldiers had shared in the final Allied victory and the Israelis were even then in the process of winning the first war conducted by an exclusively Jewish army for nearly two millennia. It is is perhaps understandable, therefore, why Jewish militarism should have been a fashionable subject at this time.
The Jewish Boers
The exact number of Jews who served on the Boer side will never be known, but it is likely that around 250 fought in the commandos (including at least a dozen medical personnel) and perhaps another fifty served in a reserve capacity, for example in the various town guards and in the POW camps (as it happens, at least two Jews were amongst those guarding Winston Churchill). A dozen or so were killed in action and three died of disease in captivity.
Most of the Jews who fought for the Boers did so no more and no less willingly than the ordinary burghers did. All burghers were conscripted and those Jews who had citizenship rights were commandeered along with everyone else. There were nevertheless a number who served out of choice, about a dozen of these being included amongst the 2100 European volunteers who came out to fight on the Boer side. Leopold Lewe was one such volunteer. Born into a wealthy family in Kovno, he was a lieutenant in the Russian cavalry when he and two fellow officers decided to desert in order to enlist in the Boer forces. Lewe took part in various guerilla operations, including holding up ammunition trains. After the war, he made his fortune as a diamond dealer and settled in Cape Town 1. There is also a whimsical reference to foreign Jews in the diary of William Watson, a civilian trapped in Ladysmith during the siege. Watson, wondering why the town was being shelled on a Sunday, attributed it to ‘the Prussian Jews who are working the Boer guns and [who] don’t recognise the Christian day of rest’
2. The only German Jew in the staatsartillerie, as it happens, was Jacob Arnhold and he was unlikely to be handling a Long Tom by himself, not least because he was 5’2” and each shell weighed 45kg.
Antipathy to British imperialism was occasionally a motive for Jews joining the Boers. Nathan Kasrils, grandfather of the current Deputy Defence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, was hotly opposed to British imperialism in general and to Cecil Rhodes in particular. He evidently fought on the Boer side at some stage as his nephew, Joel Tobias, recalled seeing a certificate to him from General de la Rey describing him as a ‘sharpshooter and spy’ (‘skerpskutter en spioen’). Interestingly, Kasrils was also at some stage a member of the Kimberley Mounted Rifles. Although it is not known if this was during the war or not, it does raise the intriguing possibility that he served in the regiment as a Boer agent 3. Another implacable anti-imperialist was one Rabinowitz who after the war returned to Russia rather than live under the British flag 4.
The majority of Jewish Boers were of Lithuanian origin and the bulk of the remainder were Dutch and German. Only a handful, including the Baumann brothers Herbert and Otto of Bloemfontein, had actually been born in one of the Boer republics. The high proportion of Dutch Jews was the result of President Kruger encouraging Hollanders to settle in the ZAR during the 1890s, partly in order to staff his civil service. Few actively identified as Jews, with the result that Bloemfontein pioneer Sophie Leviseur dismissively referred to them as ‘Jews who would not own up” 5.
On the Battlefield
A handful of reminiscences, usually second hand, flesh out a little the role Jewish burghers played in the actual fighting. Most Jewish Free Staters fought in the Western sector, centering around the siege of Kimberley, in the early months of the war, amongst them Herbert and Otto Baumann and Jeannot [John] Weinberg. Bertha Sieradzki wrote about how Weinberg, her brother, was one of the ‘seven brave Bloemfontein boys’ who according to the local newspaper defended a kopjie against an entire regiment at the battle of Modder River 6. Weinberg seems to have been one of the few Free Staters not to have run away in this part of the battle, but was disarmingly modest about his citation. “I doubt if we deserved this notice because according to my view that wasn’t exactly a heroic deed on our part but rather stupidity because if a cavalry regiment had suddenly stormed in they would have taken us prisoner” he wrote to his father a few days later 7.
The Modder River battle (31 October 1899) provided a shock foretaste of trench warfare as the Boers, concealed behind the river bank, brought the British advance to a chaotic standstill for most of the day. The British eventually succeeded in finding a weak point on the far right of the Boer lines (where Weinberg was stationed) and thus scored a tactical victory. Eleven days later, however, the elite Highland Brigade suffered a crushing defeat before the trenches of Magersfontein, losing over two hundred killed and nearly four times as many wounded. Weinberg took part in this battle and his letter of 17 December describes the grim aftermath of the struggle:
“On Wednesday and Thursday morning there were still 116 bodies lying on the field. General Cronje asked the English General if we should bury them or if they would bury them themselves. Only then the ambulances came and covered the corpses with sand because the holes were so shallow that the feet of some stuck out. The stench is terrible and thousands of vultures are flying about”.
Weinberg shows a surprising degree of sympathy for the ordinary British soldier:
“It is really terrible how the English military are being treated. The soldiers who are here are now afraid of attacking us, but as soon as there are a few thousand new soldiers who haven’t been involved in fighting yet they are sent to the front of the battlefield” 8.
Veld-Kornett Herbert Baumann, a member of one of Bloemfontein’s pioneering Jewish families, also fought in the Kimberley sector and was captured by the 16th Lancers at Paardeberg soon after the relief of the city. He was lucky to be taken prisoner in the end as the over-excited horsemen tried repeatedly to skewer him (he parried most of their thrusts with his saddle-bag but was nevertheless wounded) and had to be called off by their commanding officer 9. His younger brother and fellow Veld-Kornett Otto was captured in the same locality two days later.
On the Natal front, the 60 year-old Pretorian Harry Spanier, a former American citizen and a naturalized burgher of the ZAR, became the first Jew to lose his life fighting for the Boers. Spanier was killed in the British raid on Surprise Hill outside Ladysmith on 12 December 1899, a clash described in detail by Deneys Reitz who was in the thick of it 10. President Kruger attended Spanier’s funeral in Pretoria and is said to have declared “Ag barmhartige G-d, selfs Abraham se kinders het ons in ons nood help veg” 11. Spanier seems to have been the only Jewish Boer fatality not to have been buried in a mass grave, although there is some evidence that a Dutch Jew named Van Nierop might be buried separately in the old Potchefstroom Jewish cemetery.
A number of Jews took part in the great Boer victory at Colenso (15/12/1899), probably the most one-sided battle of the war. Young Sascha Schmahman was one of the sharpshooters on the northern side of the Tugela who forced the British to abandon ten of their guns. “We Boers felt sorry for them as we picked them off” Schmahman recalled 12. Ruben Pastolsky of the Boksburg Commando and Charles Perl had a warmer time of it. Perl was wounded and Pastolsky’s horse was shot under him no more than 100 yards away from where Lieutenant Freddie Roberts was killed trying to save the British guns. He was able to capture a British mule but in attempting to reach the river got bogged down in quicksand and was only rescued after nightfall 13. Pastolsky and Perl were lucky to escape with their lives, unlike Jacob Schorr. Also a member of the Boksburg Commando, Schorr was one of only nine Boer fatalities that day 14. Colenso was followed by an unsuccessful Boer attempt to storm the Platrand (or Wagon Hill/Caesar’s Camp), a sprawling flat-topped ridge overlooking Ladysmith.
The name “R Sonnenberg” appears on the memorial to the Boer dead on that occasion and more than likely denotes another Jewish burgher since ‘Sonnenberg’ does not seem to be even an occasional Afrikaans surname.
Marcus Sack’s war came to an end at Spioenkop, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, where he was captured. Joel Charles Duveen was in the thick of the fighting on the northern crest. He is reputed to have saved his commandant’s life, despite having run out of bullets, by throwing his empty rifle to his shoulder and shouting “If you shoot him, I’ll shoot you!” when a British officer was taking aim (the officer allegedly dropped his weapon on the spot) 15. Duveen could not have known it at the time, but he was fighting against his close friend Frank Sylvester, who had enlisted on the British side. Sylvester was killed in the battle 16. Lieutenant Blumendal, like Duveen a Dutch Jew, was one of those directing the fire of the Boer artillery, a crucial factor in the eventual Boer success.
Spioenkop was followed shortly afterwards by the battle of Vaalkrans, Buller’s third unsuccessful attempt to breach the Boer lines. The low sprawling ridge overlooking the Tugela was subjected to what might have been the most intense artillery bombardment in history during the battle and the section of the Johannesburg Commando that occupied it suffered heavy casualties. A Dutch Jew, Leo de Wolff, was one of 34 Boers killed.
During the two-year guerilla campaign, most of the Jewish Boers were captured, in the case of Joel Duveen, Jakkals Segal and David Lewis Cohen after being wounded. Cohen’s ankle was smashed by a bullet during an attack on a British camp on 17 September 1901. The skirmish took place near Cradock during General Smuts’ famous invasion of the Cape. Cohen’s wound turned gangrenous and he had to be left behind. Deneys Reitz, who fought alongside him, commented that apart from being a brave man Cohen must have been ‘a bit of a wag’ since when asked by the officer who captured him why he, as a Jew and an Uitlander, was fighting for the Boers he replied that he was fighting for the Franchise 17.
Four Jews are mentioned in the memoirs of R W Schikkerling, which deal mostly with the guerilla phases of the war. They are the above-mentioned Joel Duveen, Nicholas Kaplan (about whom more later), [Joseph] “Zwarenstein” and one “Lazarus” 18. Joseph Zwarenstein, the third of the three Zwarenstein brothers to be made a POW during the guerilla war, was captured at Bloedrivier in the Eastern Transvaal on 29 September 1901 when his commando was ambushed by Walter Kitchener 19. His brothers Simon and Jacob were captured on 12 May and 8 September 1900 respectively and sent to St Helena (where Simon was chess champion).
Joel Duveen, who had immigrated along with many of his compatriots to the Transvaal during the 1890s, was noted for his reckless gallantry. Harm Oost, later to become a prominent Afrikaner nationalist leader and MP, fought alongside him in the early months of the war (before Oost’s capture at Pieter’s Hill) and vividly remembered the outstanding bravery he displayed, including the incident at Spioenkop mentioned above 20. Schikkerling met up with him and his party in the Eastern Transvaal early in May 1901, noting in his diary that there seemed to be “many such vagrant, mercurial bodies on the highveld” 21. Duveen was eventually captured late in 1901 after being wounded in the stomach during an attack on a blockhouse near Potgietersrus in the Northern Transvaal.
The initials of the Lazarus Schikkerling mentions are unknown, but according to J J Wolf, a gentile oudstryder from Pietersburg, a Lazarus who was always known as ‘Bennie’ (after a wealthy Johannesburg businessman) fought in General Ben Viljoen’s commando, as did Nicholas Kaplan and Schikkerling himself 22.
Three Jews are recorded as having been killed in the guerilla phase. They were Commandant Isaac Herman, near Colesburg in 1901, Herman Lindenberg from Klerksdorp during an attack on a blockhouse outside Kimberley and F Goldman, who was one of the 56 Vryheid burghers killed by the Zulus at Holkrans near the end of the war. Jewish bittereindes were largely spared the ordeal of having wives and children interned, often with such tragic consequences, in the British concentration camps, mainly because comparatively few of them had been living on farms at the time of the war and because only a handful seem to have been married.
Occasionally, it happened that Jewish soldiers on opposing sides came into direct contact with each other in the heat of battle. An anonymous British Jew related how he had heard an enemy command being given in Yiddish as he and his fellow Tommies were storming a Boer position. The same soldier also told of helping capture a Jewish Boer who recited the Shma as he was being knocked down and disarmed 23. P H Lazarus, another Jew who fought for the British, later recounted how Solly Schultz, a member of General de la Rey’s commando, had saved his life following his capture at the battle of Tweebosch. The Boers suspected that Lazarus, who was Intelligence Officer in Methuen’s force, was a burgher and would have shot him had Schultz not intervened and informed them that he had been born in England 24.
Making Their Mark
A number of the 250 or so Jews who served in the Boer forces gained the lasting admiration of their Afrikaner comrades. Nicholas David Kaplan, a Russian army veteran, was one of these. “Nou ja, hy het wel soos a bondel wasgoed op n perd gesit” commented F Zeiler, who fought alongside him, more than half a century later, “maar waar verstand nodig was om die Engelse te uitoorle, was Kaplan se plan altyd van die bestes. Hy het baie maal vir ons die treinspoor gelaai, en waar hy die skoot geplant het, was die ontploffing ook n seker ding” 25. Zeiler also mentioned that one of Kaplan’s specialities was blowing up blockhouses, something confirmed by R W Schikkerling in his war memoir Commando Courageous. ‘Kaplan was a Jew and he was no coward” Schikkerling wrote with unconscious irony, “Among other daring enterprises, he once crept up to a blockhouse with two bombs slung around his neck in a saddle wallet” 26. Schikkerling also noted that Kaplan, “with the true instinct of his race”, acted as a bookmaker when the commando entertained themselves by staging horse racing events. Kaplan was one of a handful of Jews still fighting when the war ended. It is a pity, not to mention curious, that unlike with other Boer Jewish veterans, nothing seems to be known about what happened to him thereafter 27.
Chaim David Judelewitz, a 24 year-old former Slabodka Yeshiva bochur, fought in the major battles on the western (Kimberley) front and played a leading role in the little-known Prieska rebellion. Small in stature, he was an excellent horseman and marksman and was soon promoted to the rank of veld-kornett. During the siege of Kimberley, he won kudos for single-handedly capturing seven Scottish troops bringing in a watercart. Later, he was one of the few Boers to escape from Cronje’s laager just before its surrender to Lord Roberts. Judelewitz, instead of retiring to the Transvaal as most Boers were doing, moved to the Prieska area where a rebellion against British rule was underway. After the revolt was put down, he took charge of a small band of diehards who continued to raid and plunder. His group was known as the ‘Judelewitz party’ and himself as the ‘Russian rebel’. In May 1900, his camp on what is now Cannon Island in the Orange River near Keimoes was surprised by a large British force and in the ensuing bombardment, Judelewitz was killed 28.
Joseph ‘Jakkals’ Segal, only sixteen when the war broke out, became a noted scout in General de Wet’s forces. His best-known feat was to swim the Orange River when it was in spate to bring vital reinforcements to his commando after they looked like being trapped by a large British force 29. De Wet afterwards wrote a certificate for Segal, saying that he had known him well and that he had ‘performed his duty as a burgher faithfully and bravely’ 30. After the war, Segal became a successful farmer in Smithfield and maintained close links with General Hertzog even after the latter became Prime Minister. In the 1920s, when The Friend reported that Hertzog had made an antisemitic speech blaming Jewish financiers for Afrikaner suffering, Segal immediately drove to Bloemfontein to confront him about it and obtained an apology, albeit a private one 31. On another occasion, Segal attended a meeting of the Greyshirts in Smithfield. A big, imposing man, he is said to have stood up and stated “Ek is Jakkals wie vir die Boere geveg het”, which caused the meeting to disperse soon afterwards 32. Segal’s father Abraham and uncle Moses also fought on the Boer side. All three were captured, Joseph after being wounded in what might have been the war’s final engagement two weeks before the final surrender (16 May 1902). ‘Jakkals’ Segal is usually mentioned together with Wolf Jacobson, another well-known Jewish scout and spy in Hertzog’s commando. Jacobson was a bittereinde and saw out the war without being captured.
Life in the POW Camps
Over eighty Jews are listed as having been captured during the war and the majority of those were held in POW camps, some in Cape Town and Natal and the remainder in Ceylon (14), St Helena (9), Bermuda (7) and India (7). Three Jews, Simon Gettleson, ‘Sunday’ (possible ‘Sender’ or ‘Zundel’) Davidson and E Cohen, died in captivity. Gettleson left a number of painted seashells, made during his last days on Ceylon, and these are now housed, in the Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein.
Like their Afrikaner fellow inmates, Jews adjusted as best they could to the boredom of camp life. Herbert Baumann busied himself on St Helena compiling a scrap album of photographs, autographs, letters received by prisoners, military passes and copies of the prisoners’ own camp newspaper. Unhappily he contracted an eye disease during this time which ultimately blinded him.
John Weinberg had only himself to blame for landing up on Ceylon. He had been captured and then released after the fall of Bloemfontein, but was rearrested and sent to the Green Point POW camp in Cape Town for being cheeky to British officers. He then, together with several others, made an unsuccessful bid for freedom, using feigned night-time visits to the camp latrines to try to dig a tunnel under the barbed wire fence. One of the party turned traitor, giving the game away in return for his own release and Weinberg soon afterwards found himself on a ship to Ceylon. He remained there for about a year, giving French lessons and receiving lessons in bookkeeping in return before his father, who had since moved to Germany, managed to negotiate his release 33.
Weinberg wrote numerous letters to his parents in Bloemfontein during his time in captivity. They provide a detailed description of POW life and include occasional references to the difficulties involved in maintaining any kind of Jewish identity. While still in Cape Town, Weinberg recorded his regret at being without Matzah during the forthcoming Passover 34. He repeated this sentiment a year later, remarking ruefully that he was “becoming a regular Heathen, all the cause of the British” 35. He wished his father a “Prosperous New Year” in October 1900 but confessed that he had not fasted since he had not known the date of the festival 36.
Another problem that Weinberg had was that, very much against his will, he was classified as a Russian because of his place of birth and moved to a new POW camp at Ragama with the other foregners. He claimed that the Germans, Hollanders, Irish Americans and others there were “with few exceptions, a most disreputable lot” and it was his ill fortune that he now had to mix with them after carefully avoiding their society since his arrival. All his friends had been Afrikaners 37.
Weinberg was a high-spirited and intelligent young man, but the prolonged spell in captivity inevitably took its toll. His letters reflect his homesickness, regret at a year of his life wasted in idleness and frustration at the way the war was dragging on, the last tinged, perhaps, with a certain pride at the way the Boers were continuing to give the British a hard time in spite of the hopeless odds against them.
Imprisonment had its lighter side. Marcus Sack, a 19 year-old Greylingstad burgher who had been captured at Spioenkop (and who took pride in his name ‘die mak Joodjie’ or ‘the gentle little Jew’ 38), told of a number of boxing matches that took place on Ceylon, one being between Jim Holloway, South African lightweight boxing champion, and a Jewish former lightweight boxing champion of Australia, whose name he said was Arthur “Tollie” Kinsman 39. Sack was evidently a little confused as there is no record of an “Arthur Kinsman” having been on Ceylon and the correct name of the former Australian champion was “Artie Tully”. There was, however, an “Arthur Kingsman” on Ceylon (POW #3249, of the Irish Commando) and Artie Tully was probably Joseph Tully (#11434), the only Boer prisoner on Ceylon with that surname. Sack evidently combined the two Arthurs into “Arthur ‘Tollie’ Kinsman”, an understandable error given the passage of time. This does not inevitably cast doubt on his assertion that Tully was Jewish although further research would be needed to establish that fact beyond doubt. Tully immigrated to the Transvaal after the discovery of gold there and joined the republican forces as a volunteer.
Marcus Sack had other reasons to remember captivity. A common item in South African museums are carvings and paintings made by Boer POWS, but he was exceptional in that the long patient hours he spent fashioning ornaments from whatever materials came to hand later became the basis of a lifelong career in the toy business 40.
Isadore Golding, another St Helena inmate who had been captured after the relief of Mafeking, described the solidarity which existed between the Jewish prisoners (who often spoke Yiddish amongst themselves) and how to some extent they maintained their Jewish identity. All Jewish prisoners on the island fasted on Yom Kippur and for the Pesach of 1901, cases of matzot, kichelach and other delicacies arrived for the Jewish troops in the camp. These were sent by the Reverend Alfred Bender in Cape Town after he had received a letter from Golding’s Commandant, Sarel Eloff. Eloff, incidently, was a grandson of Paul Kruger 41.
Those Boers who fought right up to the final surrender, long after it became apparent that their cause was lost, were known as ‘bittereindes’. Jews still under arms at the end included Nicholas Kaplan, Wolf Jacobson and Joubert Marks, the latter a veteran of the battle of Doornkop where Dr Jameson was defeated in 1895. Marks became permanently attached to Commandant George Brand under General Hertzog’s commando and reached the rank of lieutenant adjutant. Afterwards he settled in Ladybrand, where he made an irregular living as a speculator. Distanced from the Jewish community, he always asserted that there was ‘never a better and kindlier man than Regter’ (the name by which Hertzog was known during the war) 42.
Few Boerejode remained as passionately committed to the cause of the late Republics as Johannes Stephanus Jacobus Arnhold, known as ‘President Kruger se Jood’, and whose forenames had been adopted in honour of the great Afrikaner leader to whom he was devoted. Arnhold served in the Staatsartillerie before his capture at Kestrolhoogte, Wakkerstroom. After the war, he became secretary to the Transvaal and Militaire Bond of the old ZAR, was briefly interned (he claimed) for refusing to fight against the rebels during the 1914 Afrikaner uprising and ministered to the legendary General Christiaan de Wet in his last days. De Wet, according to Arnhold, called him ‘Kleine Christiaanie’ and on his deathbed said to him ‘When you marry, marry seven Boer women and plant good Afrikaans trees, not onkruid [weeds]’ 43. Rabbi Rabinowitz, who interviewed Arnhold in 1948, found that his anger at the ‘verraiers’ [traitors] amongst the Boers who had switched sides during the war remained as fierce as ever. Touchingly, this thoroughly Afrikanerised Jew remained unmistakeably Jewish as well, frequently breaking into Yiddish (“Ich bin a verlorener lamed-vavnick” he remarked at one point 44) and pointing out that he still kept his tallis and tefillin. He had never taken General de Wet’s advice, ruefully attributing his unmarried status to the fact that he never had the money to pay the shadchan let alone satisfy the bride. Arnhold was living as a poor white in Wonderboom, Pretoria, existing on his oudstryder’s pension and the charity of his Afrikaner friends, when Rabinowitz interviewed him. He had been sent to the Pretoria Home for Aged Jews but had fled after three days and retained a terror of being sent back. For this reason, he brought a strapping young Afrikaner bodyguard to the interview just in case the Rabbi had any ideas about dragging him off again 45.
Joel Duveen was another bittereinde. He died of blackwater fever in 1904 and is said to have refused to lie on the bed of a local English shopkeeper in his last hours because he did not want to die in an Englishman’s bed.
Attitudes towards Jews in the Boer Forces
Clearly, Jewish-Afrikaner relations were very good during the war. In none of the reminiscences of Jewish war veterans is there reference to their having at any stage been the butt of anti-Semitic behaviour. The Russian volunteers in the Boer forces were evidently another matter. A detachment of these volunteers was formed under Lieutenant Ganetsky, but it made a point of excluding what it called the ‘Russian Border Israelites’ 46. Jews nevertheless regarded the Russians as their compatriots (it should be remembered that they themselves were relative newcomers in South Africa) and went out of their way to assist them. Y. E. Augustus, the only Russian volunteer who left a memoir of this time, commented on this generosity but at the same time would not even refer to the Jews who fought alongside him by name. All Jews were just ‘a Jew’ or ‘the Jew’ 47.
Anti-Jewish feeling amongst Afrikaners was by no means entirely lacking. There is a surprisingly nasty anecdote, obviously apocryphal, in Christiaan de Wet’s memoir Three Year’s War, which described ‘an amusing incident’ that allegedly occurred during the storming of Tchrengula Hill by the Boers (30 October 1899). As De Wet described it:
“A Jew came up to a burgher who was lying behind a stone on a piece of ground where boulders were scarce.
‘Sell me that stone for half-a-crown’ whined the Jew.
‘Loop!’ the Boer cried, ‘I want it myself'’
‘I will give you fifteen shillings,’ insisted the Jew.
Although the Boer had never before possessed anything that had risen in value with such surprising rapidity, at that moment he was anything but ready to drive a bargain with the Jew and without any hesitation he entirely declined to do business.” 48
Interestingly Harm Oost, in his correspondence with Rabbi Rabinowitz, recounted essentially the same story, which had probably done the rounds in the Boer camp as army anecdotes invariably do. In his (far less offensive) rendition, an old Jewish man, who had not been quick enough in finding the right cover and had only a small stone to hide his head behind, shouted to his nearest neighbour “Gert, how much for die klip?”.
Less amusing was the alleged shooting in cold blood of the young Joseph Rabie, a Jew serving in the Western Province Mounted Rifles, by General Manie Maritz. The incident took place at Rietfontein near Calvinia (North-West Cape) in late 1901, where Maritz was conducting guerilla operations. Rabie is indeed listed as having been killed while on patrol at this time and in this locality. It was said that Maritz walked up to him while he was guarding a wagon and, with the words ‘Joodjie, wat maak jy hier?’, put his revolver against his head and pulled the trigger 49. That Maritz had time to make his remark before shooting, and moreover that he knew that Rabie was Jewish, strongly suggests that the latter was an unarmed prisoner when he was shot. While atrocity stories abound in wartime, given Maritz’s known penchant for brutality and his virulent antisemitism 50, this story may well be true.
After the War
Little was heard about the Jewish war veterans, few of whom played much of a role in Jewish communal affairs, after the war. By the time Rabbi Rabinowitz began his research, most had already died. A number married Afrikaans women (Marcus Sack’s wife converted). Sadly, a rift grew between Jews and Afrikaners in the bitter aftermath of the Boer defeat, in no small measure because antisemitism became a persistent theme in Afrikaner political discourse for nearly half a century. The movement of Jews out of the platteland to the cities also brought about an increased distance between the two peoples.
It would be wrong to end on this negative note, however. The reminiscences of Jewish pioneers in South Africa consistently demonstrate the friendly relationship that existed between Jews and Afrikaners before the 1899-1902 War, and as the example of men like Joubert Marks and Jacob Arnhold showed, the loyalty of Boer Jewish veterans to the Afrikaner cause remained constant, despite the subsequent emergence of antisemitic elements amongst sections of the Afrikaner population.
Jakkals Segal, who never shied away from confronting antisemitism in later life, remained a committed Boer to the end.
“Ek wil a boodskap gee aan my mede-Afrikaners,” he said in an interview shortly before his death, “Ek is na Suid Afrika as 'n kind gekom, en ek altyd die land lief gehad asof ek hier self gebore is. Ek het gevoel dat ek my man moet staan en, as dit nodig is, my lewe gee, vir die ou Vrystaat. Ek kan alleen hoop en bid dat die Afrikaner volk dieselfde beginsels van vryheid vir iedereen sonder verskil van ras en van oorsprong sal aanvaar soos dit in die ou Republiek die geval was. Die outydse Afrikaners het geweet wat regverdigheid was. Hul was die sout van die aarde.” 51.
It is nice to record that Segal’s old commander General Hertzog, then Prime Minister, warmly acknowledged the extent of the Jewish contribution to the Boer cause. Speaking at a banquet in Johannesburg on 4 July 1929, he declared that Jews, like the Afrikaners, were “deeply imbued with the spirit of South African nationalism”. During the war, he continued, “among the most faithful and most trusted men on commando, there was almost everywhere to be found a Jew in the ranks of the Afrikaners” 52.
Click on the number at the left to return to the referring text.
1 Rosenthal E, River of Diamonds, Cape Town, 1960, pp93-5, pp105-109.
2 The Siege Diary of William Watson (Ladysmith Historical Society, 1989), p9.
3 Letter from Joel Tobias to Ronnie Kasrils (copy in BD archives). My thanks to Mr Kasrils for making this available to me.
4 Board of Deputies 124A, Jews in Boer war: Annotated nominal role by Rabbi L I Rabinowitz.
5 SAJBD, 103 Sophie Leviseur.
6 Reminiscences of Bertha Sieradzki, sister of Johnnes Weinberg, 1960 (copy in files of S A Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth).
7 Letter to father, 10/12/1899 (SAJBD 124A - translated from German by Dr F. Auerbach).
8 Letter to father, 17/12/1899 ibid.
9 Interview with Herbert Baumann, 19/8/1952 in SAJBD 103A Baumann, Herbert.
10 Reitz, D, Commando.
11 Van Gelderen R, 'Memories of a Boer War Veteran' in Jewish Affairs, May 1943 ("Oh merciful G-d, even Abraham's children are helping us fight in our time of need".
12 Notes from interview with S Schmahman, April 1943.
13 Letter to Rabbi L I Rabinowitz from J Pastoll, brother of Ruben Pastolsky, 5/5/1950. J Pastoll and his father Joseph also fought in the Boksburg Commando.
14 Eight Boers were killed and one drowned as against over 1100 British casualties, including about 150 killed. Schorr is included in Rabinowitz's list, although apart from his name there is no evidence that he was Jewish. The absence of any Schorrs on the list of Boer POWS (numbering over 30 000) shows that it is clearly not an Afrikaans name.
15 Rabinowitz L I, 'Joel Charles Duveen: Another Jewish Hero of the Boer War' in Jewish Guild Annual, September, 1952.
16 Schikkerling, p196.
17 Reitz, D, Commando, A Boer Journal of the Boer War, London, Faber 1929 p234.
18 Schikkerling W R, Commando Courageous - A Boer's Diary (Johannesburg, 1964), pp163, 167, 196, 338.
19 See Schikkerling, pp268-70 for a full description of this incident.
20 For more on Duveen, see my article 'Three Boerejode on Commando' in Jewish Affairs, and Rabinowitz, L I, 'Joel Charles Duveen: Another Jewish Hero of the Boer War' in Jewish Guild Annual, Sept 1952.
21 Schikkerling, p196. The group are described as train-wreckers, something Mauritz Dommisse, a comrade of Duveen and also a Jew, confirmed in his correspondence with Rabbi Rabinowitz. See previous footnote.
22 Letter to Rabbi L I Rabinowitz in SAJBD 208 Anglo-Boer War - Correspondence.
23 London Jewish Chronicle, 20/9/1901.
24 Letter to Rabbi Rabinowitz, 4/8/49 in SAJBD 208 Boer War.
25 "Joodse Stryder", 26/8/57, unidentified press clipping in SAJBD library (124 Kaplan Niklaas David). The translation is "He sat on a horse like a pile of laundrey, but when it came to the necessary canniness to outwit the English, Kaplan's plan was always the best. On numerous occasions, he mined the train tracks for us, and where he laid the charge, the explosion was assured".
26 Schikkerling R W, Commando Courageous - A Boer's Diary (Johannesburg, 1964), p338.
27 If any reader does have information, please inform the writer!
28 See Rabinowitz L I, "The Russian Rebel", lecture delivered 1949 (text in SAJBD Library, 124A).
29 Rosenthal E, 'Joodse Held van 1899-1902' in Pretoria Jewish Chronicle, July 1972.
30 A copy of this certificate is in the Board of Deputies library.
31 Heard from George Tobias, nephew of Joseph Segal, 11/11/98. Tobias actually remembers Segal leaving for Bloemfontein.
32 Undated notes from interview with Sid Sundy, a nephew of Joseph Segal. My thanks to Estelle Sher from the S A Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth for showing this to me.
33 Reminiscences of Bertha Sieradzki, sister of Johnnes Weinberg, 1960 (in files of S A Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth, "Phillipolis"). Weinberg's brothers, Max and Bernard, also fought on the Boer side.
34 Letter to parents, 10/4/1900 (SAJBD 124A).
35 Letter to father, 3/2/1901 ibid.
36 Letter to father, 25/10/1900 ibid.
37 Letter to mother, 31/12/1900 ibid.
38 Dagbreek en Sondagnuus, 29/11/1964.
39 Die Vaderland, 23/8/1954.
40 Dagbreek en Sondagnuus, 29/11/1964.
41 Golding I, 'Memories of an Oudstryder' in Jewish Affairs, January 1965.
42 SAJBD, 103A Boer War.
43 Rabinowitz L, 'President Kruger's Jood' in Jewish Affairs, October 1948, p26.
44 'I am a lost 36ther', a humorous reference to the Jewish tradition that there were in every generation 36 hidden Tzaddikim (righteous people) whose personal greatness went unnoticed by those around them.
45 Rabinowitz L, 'President Kruger's Jood', p27.
46 Cammack D, The Rand at War 1899-1902, The Witwatersrand and the Anglo-Boer War (London 1990), p55.
47 Davidson A, Filatova I, The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, Cape Town, 1998, p63. At least two Jews, Leiba Karnan and one Griunshtein evidently did find their way into the Russian Corps, notwithstanding this prejudice.
48 De Wet C R, Three Years War, London 1902, p23. Deputy Defence Minister Ronnie Kasrils shared the author's indignation over this outrageous anecdote! It is a fact that only the best and bravest of the Boers would engage in all-out attacks on enemy positions, and the likelood of a 'whining' coward, Jewish or otherwise, suddenly finding himself in the firing line are basically zero.
49 From tape recording of interview made with Max Rabie, brother of Joseph, circa. 1950. Max Rabie heard the story from four people he called 'Joffe, Mr Altschul, Oom Dawid Cohen and a fellow called Herman Danneman'. It is possible that this Cohen was the same David Lewis Cohen who accompanied General Smuts in his invasion of the Cape and is mentioned in Deney Reitz's book 'Commando'.
50 See Reitz, D, Commando, pp278-81 for Maritz's guerilla operations in the latter stages of the war. Maritz became a Nazi sympathiser and was convicted and fined during the 1930s for stirring up racial hatred against Jews. He died as a result of burns received in a car smash in 1940.
51 Rosenthal, E, "Jakkals" Vertel van die Vryheidsoorlog - Spioen van Hertzog en De Wet" (Cape Town, no publication details. MS in SAJBD, 124A). The translation reads "I wish to deliver a message to my fellow Afrikaners. I came to South Africa as a child and always loved the land as if I had actually been born there. I felt that I should do my duty by, and if necessary give my life for, the old Free State. I can only hope and pray that the Afrikaner people will promote those same principles of freedom for all regardless of questions of race or origin as was done in the old Republic. The old-time Afrikaners knew what was right. They were the salt of the earth."
52 Saron G, 'Boers, Uitlanders, Jews' in Saron G & Hotz L (eds), The Jews in South Africa: A History (Cape Town, 1955), p208.