The development of large ocean-going passenger ships during the 19th century freed the way for emigration from Eastern Europe. Initially this emigration was to England or America, but it seems that in the last decade of that century emigration from Kvedarna was predominantly to South Africa.  A large scale emigration of Jews from Kovno and northwestern Lithuania (Kovno guberniya) commenced in 1893, and rose to a peak in 1896. It tailed off after October 1899, when the Anglo-Boer War started (a number of Litvaks actually returned to Lithuania during the war), but peaked again in 1902-3, after the war had ended.  This resulted in what was virtually a transplantation of a large section of the Jewish population from northwestern Lithuania to South Africa, a movement that had no parallel elsewhere.  The result is that today descendants of most Litvaks, no matter where they live, can trace links to South African families.

The Hamburg-America Line

In previous years, and in other areas, the predominant movement was to America; the voyage was shorter and the fares were cheaper.  The most active shipping line was the Hamburg-American Line, which operated from Hamburg, and which actively  solicited customers from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, employing emigration agents to sell passages, and advertising in the Yiddish and Hebrew press.  As its name indicates, it offered passages mainly to the American continent. 

But after the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1870, and even more so after the gold rush to the Transvaal that started in 1886, there was some demand for shipping passages to South Africa.   The advertisement for the Hamburg-American Line pictured above appeared in the Hamelitz newspaper on 7 August 1882.  It shows that in addition to its normal destinations in The United States and Canada, this shipping line was now also offering passages to "Transvaal".   (Complete lists of all persons who travelled from the port of Hamburg are available from the State Archive in Hamburg.    Lists from 1850-1934 are available from the library of the LDS).  But its ships left from Hamburg, which was not as accessible to Kvedarna as the comparatively nearby Courland port of Libau (Liepaja).


Libau and the Castle Line

Those leaving Kvedarna usually made their way, mostly secretly if they were evading the draft, to Libau, from where they obtained a passage to England on a cargo ship.  Oneof the lines operating out of Libau was the Wilson Line of Hull, who offered passages direct to London. 

Then in the late 1880's another shipping company started marketing passages to South Africa.  Two English-based shipping companies, that owned the Castle fleet and the Union fleet respectively and shared the mail contract to the cape Colony which required weekly mail deliveries, were seeking human cargo.  They had built large ocean-going liners for the South African route, and each ad a vessel sailing every two weeks.  They had originally carried Cornish tin-miners to the new diamond diggings in South Africa, but when the need for these dried up, they had to find replacement passenger cargo.  Until they merged in 1900, they were in sharp rivalry with one another, and Donald Currie, the owner of first the Castle line and later of the merged Union-Castle company, saw the potential of Eastern European Jews as potential customers.  He realised that most of them lived in great poverty, and were attracted by stories of the riches to be found in Africa.  He realised that Libau was a more accessible port of departure for Lithuanian Jews than Hamburg, and made arrangements to trasport them from there to London.  And now he also appointed agents in Eastern Europe to sell passages to the Jews there,  and also advertised in the local newspapers.   The advertisement reproduced below, which appeared in the Hamelitz newspaper on 19 June 1895, shows that the Castle Line  offered cheap passages  "to Cape Town, Johannesburg and all places in Africa", as well as Kosher food.  Departures would be  from 

Libau by passenger ship to England, and from there to Africa on the mailboats of the Castle Line.  There were at least two vessels sailing from Libau every week (when the weather permitted).  The shipping line mostly used by the Jewish emigrants from Libau was that of Knie Falk and Company, mentioned in the text of the advertisment. 

This marketing exercise was a great success, and led to the large increase in emigration from this part of Lithuania to South Africa referred to above.  The shipping agents were active in Kovno and in the areas around Kvedarna, and hundreds left from Kvedarna and the surrounding villages.  Many of the people who left were from the younger generation, who had the added incentive of wanting to escape conscription into the Russian army.  This meant that the communities were not  emptied out;  substantial numbers remained, but often one member of a family would go, with the idea of  later helping  a brother, a cousin or a nephew to make the move. 

The Poor Jews Temporary Shelter in London

Many, though not all, of these emigrants were accommodated for a few nights while en route at the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter in London, their stay being subsidized by the shipping line that would take them on to South Africa.   The voyage to Cape Town took about 19 days.  An interesting description of what these voyages were like is given in an article by  Gwynn Shrire (1)

The Shelter was opened in 1895, and was originally at 19 Church Lane, Whitechapel, in the London East End.  It maintained registers of all who passed through it.  Thirteen main Registers and five Supplementary Registers covering the period from 29 May 1896 to1 August 1914 have survived (save for that covering the period from June 1905 to November 1907), and the names that appear therein can be searched on a data base prepared under the supervision of Prof. Aubrey Newman of the University of Leicester, who has written many articles on the subject. (2)   Click here to see an  example of an entry in the Shelter database.

Shipping Manifests, listing passengers sailing from England are stored at the  Public Records Office at Kew.  These give the names, ages, occupations and sex of all the pasengers on the particular vessel, but unfortunately these have not been indexed, so unless one knows the name of the ship on which the passenger sailed, and the date of sailing, finding a name on a passenger manifest may be difficult.. These details  can in some cases be found from the entries in the Shelter registers, which sometimes also give the name of the ship on which the person concerned travelled to England. 

   (1)  Gwynn Schrire , In the Belly of the Whale: The Journey to South Africa 1880-1910, Jewish Affairs (Organ of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies) Winter 1994

  (2)  Prof Aubrey Newman , The Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter, JewishGen Infofile;  Lithuania on the Veldt, Avotaynu (1997) Vol XIII, No 3, p.19;  The Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter, (1993) Shemot (Publication of the Jewish Genealogical Soc of Great Britain) Vol.1. 3, p.29. 

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