Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
South African Jewish Communities
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2002-2004 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Revised: 21 January 2004
Cradock - Capital of the Cape Midlands
by Dennis Kahn © 2002
Cradock is one of more than one thousand rural settlements in South Africa where there is a Jewish presence. Guy Butler(1), a famous local son who spends his youth there, vividly describes the place and its personalities: "Cradock society demonstrated the hierarchy of conquest, the legacy of battles won and lost. On top were the whites, English and Afrikaner, and a few Jews and Syrians. There was a slow civil war between the first pair, which the Afrikaners were winning, but both sides were in substantial agreement about 'White supremacy'." His description also fits the period 1935-1960, two dates that coincide with my birth in and departure from the capital of the Midlands. This personal memory is open to correction and improvement; others are welcome to plaster in the gaps that occur over forty years.
The Jewish community settles in and around town late in the 19th century, reaches its apex about halfway through the 20th century, and then dwindles to one person by the end of the millennium. Settlers come mainly from the Baltic States to farm and speculate with cattle and sheep, and trade with the regional population. The town has about 10,000 inhabitants in 1940, which doubles to White 5,000, Coloured 6,000, Asian 35 and Black 12,000 in the next forty odd years. Less than 1% of the Whites are Jews. Their numbers are slightly boosted by young asthmatics and other children who stay with families or board at school for several years, to heal in the pure Karoo climate: dry, with hot summers and cold winters. A steady stream of Jewish commercial travelers calls regularly on their retail clients; they sell their wares and stay a few days at the Grand, Masonic or Victoria Hotel.
The period 1939-1945 passes without major upheaval in the community. Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants live in relative harmony. Butler reminds us of the prevailing mood: "If new ideas about the nature of space and time were slow to penetrate the popular mind of Cradock, new political ideas, or old ideas in new guises, found a distressingly fertile soil (…) The small communities of Jews, Syrians and Indians in Cradock had no business in Aryan South Africa: let them be sent back to Palestine, the Lebanon or Madras." Pinpricks that recall this period: Miss Froneman praises the virtues of Nazism to our primary school class; my one and only bare-fist fight at high school is due to anti-Semitism. Incidents of this kind remain exceptions, even though three-quarters of my classmates belong to the Dutch Reformed Church and sympathize with National Party beliefs. English friends leave when the Nat's come to power: the Moorcroft twins, Walker and Hyam go to prestigious church and private schools in the Eastern Cape.
The community builds its own synagogue on a double plot on Frere Street, prior to World War Two. The single storey building is symmetrically designed. The bimah is in the center of the auditorium, with the ladies gallery behind it and the men in front on either side of the elevated ark. The synagogue's executive board sits on a raised "box" to the right of the ark: the place reserved for the (absentee) rabbi. Both the decoration and the furnishings reflect the artistic taste of the Gentile society; only the bright maroon curtain with embroidered lions covering the ark's doors is visibly ornamental. A communal hall is built adjoining the Perl Garden to accommodate functions for the congregation in the 1950s. Both buildings are undistinguished, unlike the Sendingkerk and Congregational Church and two other fine buildings that have a staunch Jewish male presence, namely the Freemasons Lodge and Cradock Club Gate House.
A salaried reverend attends to religious services, Hebrew lessons and kosher food. A cantor is usually imported to conduct the high holidays, which attract visitors from surrounding villages without a minyan. The Friday evening synagogue service is held regularly, Saturday being a normal working (half) day for the orthodox and less observant alike. Sunday is a day of rest and socializing. The elders gather in their homes, go for walks, play bowls, or drive the family to nearby Lake Arthur Dam, or First and Second Krantz on the national road towards Grassridge. Children like to swim in the Sulphur Springs, visit Halesowen Guest Farm and climb Ou Kop. Typical home cooking consists of hot soup, braised meat, roasted potatoes and pumpkin, cold salad and fresh or stewed fruit. Recipes faithfully collected by the Union of Jewish Women or Women's Zionist League are prepared and served by dark hands; a kitchen staff that understands the secrets of Ashkenazi dishes is worth its weight in gold.
Jewish men and women keep a low profile in civic affairs. Strong commercial activity gives them a good standing in local society, but weak leadership lacks a collective capacity to influence the course of events. They approve of the United Party but no one is politically engaged or elected to the local council; few if any serves on a public committee, other than one associated with raising funds for Israel, charity and social service. Some serve their country during the War but names and ranks escape me. They listen to the SABC and subscribe to the Eastern Province Herald and Evening Post for national news, The Midland News and Karroo Farmer for local events, the Zionist Record or SA Jewish Chronicle for communal affairs. The Odeon and Metro screen their latest single and double features three times weekly, Town Hall offers an occasional concert, show or performance by hypnotist Max Colley. Every self-respecting home has a family portrait by Cradock's photographer William Lidbetter.
On a more personal note, schooling starts with tri-lingual lessons from Joan Butler (sister of Guy) and Chrissie van Heerden in the Bree Street Kindergarten located between the Methodist and Anglican churches, and from Reverend Musikant in his Voortrekker Street house. The system continues into primary school, where we also learn about the seasons for marbles, kennetjie, and silkworms. When our bodies and minds ripen we are separated from the most attractive subject of all: the opposite sex. High school education for males is at Boys' High, for females at Rocklands GHS and Convent. The joy of learning for boys consists of morning classes, afternoon sport and daily threats of corporal punishment. Ignorance and disobedience are corrected with kweper-lat/quince canes, crafted into works of art. The art form consists of three to six cuts on the buttocks; flesh wounds take a few days to heal, mental anguish penetrates deeper and leaves scars. Only one teacher corrects by friendly persuasion: a retired school principal named Rosenow spares the rod and spoils the child by reading to him from the New Testament. Friday mornings are reserved for army cadet practice, when we are drilled into uniformity. For extra-mural activity we belong to the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements, then to Habonim that starts in 1949 and thereafter struggles to keep going in the face of more worldly distractions.
There are about thirty-five families, at least one hundred men, women and children when I matriculate in 1951. The following list gives most of their occupations and surnames, including boarders during the whole 25-year period:
Bioscope-owner || Treisman |
|Farmer || Adler, Goldblatt, Levenstein, Perl, Thal, Touwz|
|Hotelier || Abrahams, Goldberg|
|Optician || Bergman|
|Piano teacher || Janie Zamkov-Gluckman, Eve Allschwang|
|Reverend || Averbach, Gad, Musikant, Shapiro|
|Shop-owner || Berkowitz, Bricker, Edelson, Gordon, Kahn(s), Levenstein, Levitan, Lurie, Sandler, Sutner, Thal, Zamkov|
|Speculator || Levenstein, Perl, Allschwang|
|School boarder || Josie Breger, Heather Capon; Gisha Horowitz, Iris Platzky, Rose Porter, Goldie Sher; Stephen Abro, Arnold Gochin, Isaac Kerbel, Ivor Kotzen, Norman Meyer, Howard Segal, Basil Sklar|
|Tailor || Gluckman|
A dominant feature of the community is the Bergman-Kahn-Perl clan. Allowing for a bit of elasticity in the definition of a generation, kinship is shared between forty to fifty persons. Their genealogy is a mixture of intermarriage, surname changes and characteristics. For example, in my pedigree: Maternal grandfather Joseph Bergman marries his sisters daughter Lena Perl. Paternal and maternal grandmothers Mina Kahn and Lena Perl are first cousins. Perl is originally spelt Piel in Tryskiai, Lithuania; Perls also take the surnames Berman and Berger. Bergman is originally Gochin in Papile, Lithuania; one Gochin becomes Gordon. Kahn is a German surname, although the family comes from Riga and Jelgava, Latvia; the origin is unknown, and we are not kohanim. The clan lives within walking distance of one another on three streets: Hospital, Naested and Victoria. Five Kahn brothers, their mother, wives and sixteen children form the nucleus of an impacted group in the community. The elders discuss private business and family matters in Yiddish, address their children in English, customers in Afrikaans and blacks in Xhosa. Husbands and wives work together in business, as a rule. My father and two uncles are the exception: their jointly owned shop is out of bounds for the three wives, who thus have only a domestic role to play. Almost the only distraction from work is an annual summer holiday, spent at clan headquarters in Port Elizabeth with branches from Grahamstown, King William's Town and Uitenhage in attendance.
This overview must contain a reference to our extended family. Mita, Poppy and Rachel Booysen live in Michausdal coloured location. The three sisters work permanently for three Kahn families; Rachel and her niece Coba are with us. They faithfully serve my parents and nurture my sisters and I for twenty-five years. Even when father dies and mother leaves Cradock, the bond between us remains intact. Several families experience the same relationship with their employees.
Cradock's regional importance is sufficient to hold its Jewish population until 1960. While some offspring are in business with their parents, others start to leave the confines of the family and the community. The site that bears lasting witness to a Jewish presence is the local cemetery. Although the shul no longer exists and the cheder tahara is being used to sleep and cook in by bergies, the quality of the graves is good. This is due to the dedication of Samuel Bergman, who attended to graveyards both here and in surrounding towns, in cooperation with the S.A. Jewish Board of Deputies. His son Cedric now has a key to the burial ground along the Great Fish River; he is the sole survivor of our original community.
1.. Karoo Morning, Guy Butler, An Autobiography (1918-35), David Philip, 1977.