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Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG

A Summary Of South African Research Activities

by Ann Rabinowitz © 2002


Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2002 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Updated: 25 August 2002


This is a summary of the types of activities that I have been undertaking or been involved in this past year and will continue into the coming year in terms of South African Jewish research:


For the past several years, I have been collecting materials for various communities throughout South Africa. My initial efforts were enhanced by my visit, in 1997, to the SA Friends of Beit Hatefutsoth Country Communities Project located at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBOD). The day I was there, they were actually working on the Bot River, the tiny dorp my family was from. Quite a coincidence! They were able to give me an article they had on file about Bot River that was part of a series on small communities. It gave the history of the place and the names of the families (approximately 5-7) who had lived there. This was only the tip of the iceberg for what they had available. Since then, the Project has taken all the information they have been gathering and their intention is to publish it in book form. Present plans are to raise money for this publication effort which will be quite costly.

Since then, I have produced a number of community profiles based on historical data, immigration and naturalization records, cemetery records, vital records, and other sources including those from individuals who have lived in the towns. A number of these profiles are now on the SA SIG web site. The profile for Simon’s Town was one of the most interesting as it required interaction with not only former residents, but the present Simon’s Town Museum. The Museum was most resourceful in locating materials and photographs for the piece and points to the effective use of local entities such as this for obtaining community data.

At the moment, I am working on De Aar and have had the generous assistance of Naomi Musiker, at the SAJBOD Archives, Veronica Belling at the Kaplan Centre in Cape Town as well as the Friedlander and Clouts families who were related to the founders of De Aar. In the case of De Aar where a specific Jewish family is the founder, the family archives and records are critical in delineating the development and growth of the community. The photographs from the family are most important as they provide a visual history of not only them and their accomplishments, but also the town itself.

During the past year, I have been in contact with individuals both in Zimbabwe and those who are formerly from Zimbabwe. It is hoped that since the community has been drastically reduced in size now that their knowledge will be formalized into some sort of database before it is lost. I am also working on various other towns and places that will be available next year. Researchers such as Barry Mann are planning South African community profiles for towns like Witbank. Other researchers are encouraged to create community profiles of places they either have records for or that they are from originally.



There are a number of sources for landsmanshaftn or other similar communal records in South Africa. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBOD) has a collection of landsmanshaftn records which have been microfilmed and are also available at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem. These records are quite valuable in terms of focusing on where our ancestors came from and how they carried these community institutions forward to their new homes in South Africa.

The photographic collection at the SAJBOD is a valuable adjunct to the landsmanshaftn records. This summer, with the assistance of Naomi Musiker, Archivist, and Barry Mann, formerly from Witbank, I was able to obtain a collection of thirty-three photographs originally from Rokiskis, Lithuania, and donated to the SAJBOD by Mrs. Ethel Schwartberg Aarons, a member of the Rokiskis landsmanshaftn. Barry scanned the photos, both front and back, and then put them on a CD.

Once the photographs were obtained, efforts have now been made to identify those who appear in the group shots. One person identified is Leiba-Leah Meirovitz, mother of Israel Chief Justice Aharon Barak.

Additionally, I have been working on obtaining photographs from De Aar, SA, from the same source. These will be used for a new De Aar section on the Communities area of the SA SIG web site.

Another landsmanshaftn resource is the organization Minute Book or other such records of the group. This year, the Minute Book for the Kupishok Benevolent Society in Cape Town was located and will now be translated from the Yiddish. Previously, the addressbook of the Chairman of the organization was obtained and that has been put into a database. Other such significant artifacts including community shul records such as pinkisim, etc., are certainly still in South Africa and are held by former landsmanshaftn members or officers, their spouses, or their children. Very often, too, these artifacts are now with family who moved away to Israel, Australia, Great Britain, America and the like.



One of the most overlooked resources for South African research are family artifacts, many of which I have been working with this past year. One of the types of artifacts I am referring to are Yiddish language letters from the 1950s and the 1960s. An example of this is the letters which the Thal family had in their possession. They were a family originally from Lithuania and then settled in Bellingham, WA, and they corresponded with individuals from the same shtetl and others in South Africa in their search for missing family members. When translated from the Yiddish, these letters and their responses provided a variety of names, contacts, and historical information otherwise unknown to researchers. Additional letters in Yiddish and Hebrew from other individuals have proven just as dramatic in their contents.

Revealing, not only in their content, but also in their style of writing, these letters give more than a hint of the education and cultural background of the correspondents. In the coming year, I will be continuing to collect more of these letters from various sources to expand my knowledge of South African families and their lives.

Additionally, these letters point out that friends or neighbors appear to know just as much about a family as the family members themselves. Imagine, if you will, living next door to a family for ten to twenty years or more. There has to be some osmosis of the history of the neighboring family and their relatives. The neighbors' knowledge then may be just as valuable as asking an elderly relative of the family for information.

A prime example of this is my contact with a descendant of a Shona tribeswoman who wished to locate information on his Jewish grandfather. His grandfather came to Bulawayo in what is now Zimbabwe in the 1930s. Contact with descendants of the grandfather's employers and other people in Bulawayo who knew his grandmother and mother have elicited needed information. While the gentleman has not been able to locate his grandfather's family yet, he hopes to do so eventually. In the meantime, the historical information that has been developed on the treatment of children of mixed parentage and the efforts towards their education has been very enlightening. I will try and provide a piece on this aspect of South African life in the very near future.

Another example of “neighborly” closeness or propinquity is my inquiry for information on the Kaplan family from Cape Town (not Mendel Kaplan). As a result of my inquiry, I was able to obtain quite good data on this particular family from Paul Cheifitz because his mother had been a friend of the family. In addition, she was able to identify the family members from a photograph I had.

Another aspect of this is locating families through their neighbors. I have been able to find branches of particular families due to knowledge of their whereabouts from their former or present neighbors. This is particularly true of those that have moved to Australia from South Africa as they seem to have moved nearby to their family, former neighbors and friends. In some cases, the individuals have been neighbors with people that they did not realize were not only from the same places in South Africa, but were from the same shtetls in Europe and, in some cases, were actual family members.

Many families from South Africa may have documents from Europe that provide tidbits of factual data that will assist in locating even further information on the origins of the family. Many times these documents are overlooked, as they will be written in a foreign language. Now, with the advent of JewishGen and their View Mate service, these documents can be posted on JewishGen and deciphered rather quickly. My own experience is that I posted a photograph and it was identified the next day.

A new source for these family documents other than the family itself is to be found on, 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 under topics such as Judaica, Lithuania, 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 He was able to obtain a letter from his grandfather's bookstore in Vilnius, Lithuania, to a rabbi in Cape Town.

Other sources for family data are the Afrikaans language histories or articles about Jewish families or towns where they lived. An example of this type of material is a manuscript made available to me about De Aar dealing with the Friedlander family. The South Africa SIG will have to start to maintain the capability to utilize the skills of Afrikaans-speaking members to either skim through these materials to determine what they contain or to do translations of them. Perhaps coordination with other South African Genealogical groups with this expertise will be in order.

Another resource is the autobiographical genre with family autobiographical notebooks, letters, books, family trees and the like, as part of this group. In the last several years, I have been collecting a number of these materials that were written in South Africa by individuals born in Lithuania and in some cases in Belarus. Written late in life, many of these vignettes of "der heim" are touching tributes to a life destroyed by the Holocaust. They provide us with a vivid picture of what was.

The strength to be gained from these is shown in the continuation of these stories as the families moved from the shtetls of Europe to the dorps of South Africa. The reconstruction of life in a European context in the large cities such as Johannesburg or Vredehoek and elsewhere in Cape Town and the dorps such as Oudtshoorn, Witbank or Bot River is a valuable lesson of how our ancestors transferred their legacy to their descendants, yet assimilated into the South African mainstream.

One of the things I have started to do is collect family trees and put them into Family Tree Maker software. While these trees relate specifically to families who have settled in certain places in South Africa, the concept can be used to advantage by any researcher interested in keeping track their family.

Also, my searches this year in the English language South African Jewish periodicals such as the "SA Zionist Record" and the "Jewish Chronicle" have provided surprising results. Not only are the stories of great interest and chockfull of information, but the adverts accompanying the stories are just as helpful.

A few months ago, I noticed an article in a 1918 issue of the "Jewish Chronicle" that dealt with a man named M. Pinchas Rutenberg who had been arrested in Russia. Thinking that this information might be of interest to someone researching that family, I then posted it on JewishGen. From that small beginning, I did further research on him and received hordes of responses about this person who turned out to have been a revolutionary, a member of the Kerensky government and who had survived his imprisonment. He eventually went to Palestine where he became the founder of the electric power industry and a prominent personality in the development of the Jewish State. In addition, I was able to determine that branches of Rutenberg’s family had settled in South Africa.

In addition, the adverts which were the economic basis for the survival of the Jewish periodicals, are an interesting resource to utilize when looking for certain businesses in order to locate families or for placing them in a certain timeframe. They also provide insight into the types of businesses that Jews were involved in during the time period of the periodical. The adverts gave a distinct flavor for the type of lifestyle items that Jews used such as cigarettes, etc.



Two to three years ago, I started a shipping database that was made available in the Resource Room at the London IAJGS conference in 2001. The database contained, as a start, the names of all ships from specific shipping lines that came from the Baltic to Great Britain and then those that left Great Britain for South Africa. The sources of these ships' names were the records of the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter, made available by Prof. Aubrey Newman and also the Kaplan Centre, and numerous books about maritime shipping and shipping lines.

The database contained the following shipping lines: Allan Line, DFDS Line, non-DFDS Line, Union-Castle Line, Baltic America Line, Russian American Line, Russian Volunteer Fleet, Thomas Wilson Sons & Co., Ltd., Russian NW Steamship Co., Ltd., and the Russian East Asiatic Steamship Co. This database was intended for placement on the South Africa JewishGen database area, but it will be put on the SA SIG web site instead.

Further research into other sources of shipping related to South Africa will be undertaken by Prof. Aubrey Newman and other such researchers. They will utilize the Cape Chamber of Commerce ship arrival/departure records in the near future. Unfortunately, these records are not ship's manifests and therefore do not provide passenger names.

Quite a few years ago now, I did research on the 1924-1929 SA arrival registers. I was able to get a hard copy of the registers through the assistance of Debby Myers of Cape Town. You can see the initial research for the first five hundred plus records out of a total of 16,000 which is on the SA SIG web site. I have continued adding records at a very slow pace due to other commitments and have been unable to finish this by myself. A few months ago, Debby Myers advised me, that she is heading a renewed project to complete the entire 1924-1929 group of records from the registers.

Where possible, due to the time it is taking to computerize these records, I have made copies available for researchers to use by depositing them in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJC) in Israel and YIVO in New York.

In addition, I had spent some time in 1997 with the Morris Alexander Papers at the Kaplan Centre and have since then put the results of my notes on immigration cases on the SA SIG web site this year. The immigration cases are a most interesting aspect of this area of South African Jewish research. More has to be done to follow-up on the cases I have in my database and with developing additional sources for this type of information such as might be found in the SA National Archives.

A new project spearheaded by Prof. Aubrey Newman is using another valuable shipping resource - the passenger manifests located in the Public Record Office in Kew, England (known as the PRO). The object of creating this new database of South African Jewish arrivals derived from the passenger manifests in the PRO, is part of the newly organized SA Jewish Migration and Genealogy Centre in Cape Town. Up to this juncture, these manifests have been virtually unavailable due to their fragile condition and lack of proper cataloguing. The small team Prof. Newman is heading includes Debbie Beavis, Graham Smith and Dr. Saul Issroff.

In regard to the 1903-1907 Naturalization database that I put on the SA SIG web site, I have still not completed the last five hundred or so records. This, I hope to do in the near future. Whilst this is a wonderful resource, it does not contain all naturalizations from this period by any means. If the information that can be obtained from the SA National Archives on-line can be combined with my register, there might be a more complete database available.

As you can imagine, any of these aforementioned databases sometimes take years to complete as they depend primarily on volunteer assistance.



One of the most important additions to SA research has been the recent capability to do on-line searches of the SA National Archives. When using the Archival data in combination with other existing resources such as the IAJGS Cemetery Database, the Mormon Family History Center South African vital or estate records, and the various databases on the SA SIG web site, it is possible to create an entire family and trace its history in South Africa.

One of the most significant things to note, is that the Archives contains death or estate references for women that include, for the most part, their maiden names. This makes it possible to link the not only the correct wife with her spouse, but to locate further maternal on her family. I have been testing this for some time now with very good results.

Other valuable resources such as the photographic archives can also be accessed on-line. Research into additional areas available through the Archives is on-going to determine what types of data will be of value for South African Jewish research. There appear, at first glance, to be many such areas that hold great possibilities for further investigation.



Many times, South African researchers will be stumped as to where to locate sources for study in the U.S. Much of the material has been in private hands up to this point. However, there are, at least, three major places that presently have holdings:

  • Mormon Family History Centers (throughout the U.S.A.) - The Centers have access, upon request, to various microfilmed birth, marriage, death and estate records among other things for the Jewish community in South Africa for specific time periods. In 1997, when I was doing research on what records were available at the Gardens Shul, I found that all their records had been microfilmed by the Mormons. 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 which is now on the SA SIG web site. Further information on the Mormon resource for South African Jewish records is available on the South Africa SIG web site through the work of Roy Ogus.

  • 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 bibliographer of the collection. The collection was make 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 Witwatersrand, now Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

    The material 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 the "Afrikaaner Yiddisher Zeitung", "Dorem Africa" and "Jewish Affairs". Authors they have on hand include 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 there is material on poet David Fram and short story writer Samuel Leibowitz.

  • YIVO, New York, NY - There are now a number of South African items available that are complementary to YIVOs Lithuanian holdings. This is due to the large number of Lithuanian Jews that went to South Africa. The initial portion of this South African collection is the SA Jewish Year Books, SA arrival records and other things which I have donated in the last several years. It is hoped that others will donate their materials to YIVO to expand their holdings and make them available to both those living in the New York Metropolitan area and visitors to New York.

    It might be mentioned that, with the exception of the Mormon Family History Center, 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 plan to obtain periodical materials from the University of Texas in the coming year.



There are two databases that I have been working on for several years now and have not had the time to complete as yet. They are South African Rabbis, Chazans, and Other Religious Personnel and South African Jewish Women in "Who's Who" Listings.

The South African Rabbis, Chazans, and Other Religious Personnel database has information gleaned from the following resources:

  • "SA Jewish Year Books for 1929, 1945, 1965, 1967-68, and 1976-77"
  • A South African pre-numeratum listing
  • "The Book of Memoirs" by N.D. Hoffmann
  • "The Birth of a Community" by Rabbi Israel Abrahams
  • "The Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, A Centenary History, 1841-1941" by Dr. Louis Herrman.

These entries, from various sources, provide a distinct portrait of the leadership of the Jewish religious community and where they were from originally. While not a complete listing of all those who served in a religious capacity during the time period given, it is a valuable resource for basic research in the area. Additional sources will be added as time permits.

The South African Jewish Women in "Who's Who" database is compiled from a number of different sources such as:

  • The SA Jewish Year Book listings for 1929, 1945, 1965, 1967-68 and 1976-77
  • The "Women of South Africa - A Historical, Educational & Industrial Encyclopaedia and Social Directory of the Women of the Subcontinent," compiled and edited by Thos. H. Lewis in 1913
  • "The South African Women's Who's Who" which was published in 1945.

For the first time, the female leadership of the Jewish community is portrayed over a period of years and with them their children are listed including the married names of the female children where available. Prominent among these individuals are those who were the first in their fields of professional endeavor (such as law or medicine) as well as individuals who excelled in community service.



Much more research has to be done in the future in terms of South African sources. The cooperation and support of members of the South Africa SIG in either identifying these sources, developing information about various materials, and obtaining materials or donating them to the appropriate archives or institutional settings will do much to advance knowledge in the field.

My one primary research wish for the coming year is that repositories or institutional settings be formally developed for South African materials in Australia, Canada and Great Britain, and that the existing archives in America, Israel and South Africa be expanded. This will allow materials to be donated rather than thrown away or destroyed. In addition, I would like to see greater funding resources sought out so as to ensure that the appropriate staff and equipment are made available to properly run these repositories.



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