South Africa



JEWISH IMMIGRATION TO SOUTH AFRICA, 1880-1913                       Thanks to David Sandler


by Gustav Saron and Louis Hotz. Printed in 1955.



One of the greatest migratory movements in history took place during the thirty-four years, 1881-1914. Vast multitudes of people left the countries of Europe, especially of eastern and southern Europe, driven by political oppression, economic hardship, over-population or the spirit of adventure, to seek new homes in the United States of America, South America, Canada, and elsewhere in the British Empire. This immense movement of populations dramatically confronted the modern world with the problem of the ‘alien’: was he to be welcomed or repulsed, to be received as a blessing or a menace? The discussion continued for several decades, as one country after another introduced legislation against ‘undesirable’ immigrants; while simultaneously the aliens were producing significant changes in the countries which gave them asylum.


South Africa also received a large influx during this period. Indeed, this was the only period in its history when it had a substantial immigration. In 1875 its white population numbered only 328,000 whereas by 1911 it had become over 1,276,000. There are no accurate immigration statistics for the period (except for the years 1903-8) but it is clear that immigration played a major part in the growth of the population. Whereas it is estimated that in 1863, 900 persons landed at the Cape ports, and 1,200 ten years later, in 1883 the figure was 5,700, in 1893 it had grown to 12,800, while in 1903 (the first accurate figure) it had jumped to 71,005.


Indeed, the volume of immigration was so large between 1875 and 1911, that the relative increase of South Africa’s population during that period was higher even than that of the United States of America. In the latter the annual increase of population for 1880-1910 was 2.1 per cent, while in South Africa from 1875 to 1911 it was 3.9 per cent, although the average natural increase was only about 2 per cent. In absolutefigures, of course, South Africa’s growth through immigration was very small indeed compared with that of the United States, which in three decades, 1880-1910, admitted nearly 18,000,000 immigrants, of whom about 16,500,000 came from Europe.



There was also a significant contrast in the national composition of the immigrants to the two countries. America drew her newcomers from all the nations of Europe; South Africa drew hers mainly from Britain, with a relatively low proportion of immigrants from the European Continent. Why this was so might prove an interesting inquiry. Here it must suffice to note the fact and its consequence: that when the flow of Jews from eastern Europe began, they constituted quite a high proportion of all non-British foreigners to enter the South African territories.





The rise of new Jewish communities in many lands during the last decades of the 19th century, as a result of the great migratory movement from Europe, is a striking feature of the modern period, the full significance of which has not been evaluated. The outstanding example is the United States of America, where the Jewish population grew from 250,000 in 1880 to 5,500,000 in the mid 1950s, but the new communities of Canada, South Africa, Australia, South America, and, most recently, Israel, have each contributed distinctive chapters to the history of the Jewish people.


These communities have assumed greater importance since the catastrophe which destroyed the old-established Jewish communities of Europe under Nazism. They are today the physical as well as the spiritual and cultural heirs of the vanished Jews of Europe.


It would be a fascinating study to compare the specific ways in which each of these communities has become integrated into the country of its adoption while at the same time adapting the common Jewish heritage to the new environment. That study has still to be undertaken.





This may help to explain how South African Jewry has acquired the characteristics which distinguish it as a group. It has a world-wide reputation for liberality towards those of its co-religionists who are in need, and for staunch support of the Zionist movement. It is also recognised as a well-organised and relatively united community.


Being largely descendants of Lithuanian Jewry, South African Jews are a fairly homogeneous group, unlike those of the United States of America. They have inherited some of the qualities of the Litvaks - their warm-heartedness and generosity, their practical-mindedness, a strong feeling of Jewish solidarity, and a love of learning combined with a somewhat critical attitude to religious traditions, their religion being often more of the head than of the heart.


Enterprising and hard-working, they have been able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a new and developing country.


A second major influence upon South African Jewry came from England, both in religious matters, as many of the leading ministers and rabbis in South Africa have come from England, and generally through contact with Angle-Jewry’s life and institutions. This was to be expected as first the Cape and Natal, and later the whole of South Africa, have developed within the British Empire and Commonwealth, and South African life as a whole has been greatly influenced by British ways and institutions.


Jewish life in South Africa represents, indeed, a unique blend, resulting from the interaction of Litvak and English elements with the emergent South African way of life. Naturally, among the South African-born descendants of the immigrants the older traditions have grown weaker. The South African Jew of today is not only taller, more broad-shouldered and more open-air-minded than his forebears, but he exhibits many of the psychological characteristics of his fellow South Africans.


Like the rest of the Cape population in the nineteenth century the Jewish community was under English influence and for years English Jews exercised great influence on the affairs of the community. Because one of their members had business connections with Germany the founders of the first Hebrew congregation in Cape Town wrote to that country for their synagogue vestments, but the Code of Laws and Regulations of the congregation provided that the forms of prayer and custom were to be those of the Great Synagogue of London. The Judaism of the English Jews was of a stronger fabric than that of their German or Dutch co-religionists, and long after they were outnumbered by the influx from Eastern Europe the influence of English Jews continued to be felt in communal life, particularly in its organisational forms. Yet it is doubtful whether the devotion of the comparatively few enthusiasts from England could have withstood the impact of non-Jewish surroundings in a new land without the subsequent reinforcement from Eastern Europe.


If immigration of Jews to South Africa had ceased in 1860 little might have remained of the few early and lively communities and congregations in South Africa. Indeed, today there are hardly any Jewish descendants left of the men who founded the first Hebrew congregation, established in 1841.


The great turning point in Jewish communal life was the arrival in the eighteen eighties of the new stream of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Apart from being more numerous, these new immigrants represented a purely Jewish movement, entirely unconnected with any general stream of immigration to South Africa[1]. Their immigration to South Africa was stimulated by events in Russian Jewry at the time, and their choice of southern Africa as their future home was determined by special circumstances and not, on the whole, by the attractions which it offered to the general run of immigrants and settlers. For the most part they left the land of their birth as refugees from Tsarist persecution and oppression.


Between 1881 and 1914 close on 3,000,000 Jews migrated from Eastern Europe to overseas countries. The vast majority went to North America, while smaller numbers sought refuge elsewhere.






Despite the hardships of life in Lithuania the very thought of breaking the bonds of family and community was to them a major tragedy. Contrary to popular belief, these Jews of Lithuania were not a ‘wandering race’. They hoped to spend a few years in South Africa, save up sufficient for their rehabilitation at home, and go back to the village for which they had a nostalgic longing. In the end, however, the lure of Africa was too strong for many. They went back to South Africa and took their families with them.


In common with the rest of the immigrant population during the diamond- and gold-rush period, but probably to a far lesser extent, there were occasionally black sheep among the Lithuanian Jews, men who forgot their families at home and who succumbed to the temptations of a new gold-crazy land. The destitute families of these would often be brought out by friendly and good-hearted landsleit.


The first to go were always the menfolk. With the exception of a few, whose success was often greatly magnified in the imagination of the public, the majority had to struggle for a long time before they were in a position to provide for family life. Contrary to established Jewish traditions, the ‘old bachelor’, who stayed single because he could not afford to bring unto himself a bride from Lithuania, became a usual figure in South African Jewish life. As late as 1904 the proportion of males to females among Jews in South Africa was 25,864 males to 12,237 females, or 2 to 1. Single men would go back to find a bride, and sometimes a bride would be sent out to a South African immigrant whom she had not met before.


It would be no exaggeration to say that almost the entire migration of the three decades, 1881-1910, was one big family affair. An attempt has been made in this essay to answer the question: What made Lithuanian Jews go to South Africa? In the final analysis, and outweighing all the factors enumerated above, it was the strong family ties existing between the closely compact Lithuanian community that brought the majority to the country. Wives and children, in the case of married men; parents and brothers, in the case of single men, had first priority. After that came married brothers, and sisters with their families, and all kinds of in-laws.


At first the emigrants consisted mainly of members of the lower middle class, traders and workmen. The workmen were independent artisans rather than industrialised wage-earners. It is possible that this was one of the reasons why fewer Polish Jews than Lithuanians were drawn to South Africa. The Polish emigrant, coming from a more industrialised country where he was used to factory life, was more readily absorbed by the garment industry of England, or was drawn to the rising industry of New York, where there were many openings.






When cholera swept over parts of north-western Russia in 1868, followed the next year by a famine in the provinces of Kovno and Suvalki, many Jews fled to the neighbouring German cities of Memel, Koenigsberg, and Stettin, and thence to overseas countries, particularly North America. Between 1868 and 1880, 30 000 Russian Jews, including many from Lithuanian towns and villages, landed in North America.


It was at this stage, during the 1860s, that individual Lithuanian Jews began to find their way to South Africa. Some of them may have had contact with German Jews who were connected with South Africa. The majority, however, came to South Africa after having been stranded in England because of some difficulty about their passage to the United States of America, or after having lived as immigrants in England, where they had had an opportunity to ‘discover’ Africa and the possibilities it offered to the immigrant. There were others who had originally gone to America and failed to make a living there, and later went to South Africa where they were often referred to as ‘American Jews’.


Louis Herrman in A History of the Jews of South Africa asserts that before 1880 there were barely half a dozen Yiddish-speaking Jews to be found in ‘such records as there are of Jewish communal activity’. He adds that before 1870 ‘not one is to be found’. It can safely be accepted however, that there were a number, though they probably escaped notice because the Yiddish-speaking Jew of the time was not likely to take an active part in the affairs of the anglicized congregations. Moreover, strange as it may seem, formal affiliation to congregations was not a part of his tradition. The Lithuanian synagogue did not have a formal system of membership. Again, those who had stopped in England on their way to South Africa often adopted English-sounding names and were, therefore, not recognised as Yiddish-speaking.


Significantly, it is the Suvalki Province of Lithuania that crops up when we trace early eastern European immigrants, both in the United States of America and in South Africa. Abe Cahan, who arrived in New York in 1882 and who was a shrewd observer of Jewish life, says: ‘When I came to New York Suvalki Jews were the majority of the population on the East Side. Wherever you went you met Jews from Suvalki and from adjoining towns.’ Similarly, N D Hoffman, describing his visit to Kimberley in 1890, says that he had met ‘a certain Yitzchak, son of Judah Leib, known as Z Weis’ who was born in Suvalki and had left his home for South Africa twenty years earlier (ie 1870). A correspondence writing from South Africa to Hamelitz in 1893 said that ‘not infrequently it is possible to meet here some of our brethren who came from Russia and have been here for half a jubilee’. This gives us the date of 1868.


Most important of all, Samuel Marks, who later achieved fame in and beyond South Africa, as a counsellor of Kruger and as a mining and industrial magnate, came from the Suvalki Province and arrived in the Cape in 1868. His birthplace was the little town of Neustadt-Sugind, close to the Prussian border. His parents were simple and God-fearing people, his father eking out a living as an itinerant tailor among the Lithuanian peasants. He emigrated to England in the sixties, and after a stay of some years in that country came to the Cape, where he was a pedlar in jewellery, and then made his way to the Kimberley diamond-fields. There were Lithuanian Jews in South Africa before the arrival of Samuel Marks, but it is he who is regarded by many as the pioneer of Lithuanian Jewish migration to South Africa. His success had a notable effect on the trend of Lithuanian Jewry to South Africa.


The number of eastern European Jews who came to South Africa grew in the seventies, so that by 1879 there was a boarding establishment in Cape Town, Raphael’s Boarding House, where all the guests were Yiddish-speaking, and all came from Russia. There were also Yiddish-speaking groups scattered in other parts of the country.


Few though they were, we find in the story of these pioneers the answer to the question, frequently asked: How did it happen that Lithuanian Jews went to South Africa? Lithuania was a small and compact community; contacts with the outside world were infrequent. A letter bearing a foreign stamp was, therefore , a great event, and within the community news travelled fast. The letter would be discussed in the market-place, at the communal bath-house, and in the house of prayer. Itinerant preachers would spread the tale far and wide. Reports about Samuel Marks and his successes soon became known to relatives and friends in neighbouring towns. At first the thought of following in the footsteps of the early immigrants was merely wishful, but with the mass exodus of the eighties, when large numbers began to go overseas, South Africa was, so to speak, ‘on the map’.


By 1884 a correspondent[2] from the little Lithuanian town of Neustadt-Sugind, birthplace of Samuel Marks, writing to the Hebrew newspaper Hamelitz, was able to report that extensive emigration to South Africa was taking place from the towns and villages of Lithuania. He described how 2 000 people had left a dozen nearby towns for England and America, and added that from his own town - Neustadt-Sugind - 200 souls had left during the year and ‘the majority went to South Africa’. Half the inhabitants of his town, he said, had gone overseas adding that ‘200 of our brethren lived in Cape Town and Kimberley’ and that ‘the majority had prospered in their affairs and become wealthy and respected merchants’.


The writer was referring to people who went to South Africa before the eighties. For, even then, in 1884, there was already a number of co-religionists who had become back to their homes either on visits or for good from the fabulous South Africa. Many of them, he wrote, ‘returned to the land of their birth bringing with them sizeable fortunes. Last summer ten emigrants returned to our town from South Africa and all of them brought thousands upon thousands of sterling[3]. He went on to say, in the flowery Hebrew style of the day:


These migrants gave me mighty and exciting news about South Africa, that it is a land blessed and happy, where nature bestows upon its inhabitants its bounties with a generous hand, and with great and generous abundance. The traveller who comes from our land, tired and weary of the oppressor and of the vicissitudes of life that overcome him at every step, forgets here (in South Africa) his poverty, his squalor, his degradation and his humiliation. He breathes a new life, a life of freedom and liberty, a life of wealth and honour, because there is no discrimination between a Hebrew and a Christian. Every man attends to his labours diligently and finds a reward for his toil.


“Most of our brethren who come there by the skin of their teeth, naked as on the day of their birth, are being shown mercy by the existing Jewish settlers the moment they put their foot on the shores of Africa. With the help of this generosity they acquire a few pounds’ worth of goods and little trinkets and they begin to trudge round the towns and villages with their merchandise. The farmers who own the lands are by nature very human and love everybody. They are kind to these unfortunate people and buy their goods for the right price even if they do not require them.


After they save a little sum they turn from peddling on back to trading on a bigger scale, travelling in wagons drawn by ten oxen, from place to place and from village to village. They buy ostrich feathers, sheep and cattle, and earn bit money, because our brethren who are gifted in business matters succeed in their dealings and find reward in their affairs.


It is therefore no wonder that the emigration movement has increased to such an extent and that young men, and even people advanced in age, leave their homes every day and go far across the sea. As each one of them succeeds he afterwards brings the entire family - his brothers, his sisters, his wife and children who remained at home - and they establish a peaceful dwelling and end their days in happiness and affluence.”


The circulation of the Hebrew newspaper in which this report appeared was considerable, particularly in Lithuania, where the knowledge of Hebrew was widespread. This report has been quoted at length, because it was typical of many similar reports in the Hebrew press, written on the spot by Lithuanian immigrants.


[1] With the exception of a few Christians, mostly brought to South Africa by Jewish friends or neighbours, there was no immigration of non-Jewish Lithuanians into South Africa, as was the case in the United States of America.

[2]  The writer of the article from Neustadt-Sugind, Nehemia Dov B aer Hoffmann, was a fairly well-known Hebrew journalist in Lithuania. He emigrated in later years to the United States of America where he was associated with the Yiddish press and in 1889 arrived in South Africa and started the first Yiddish weekly, Der Afrikaner Israelit, in 1890. He was ‘the father of the Jewish press’ in this country and claimed to have been the first to import Hebrew type to South Africa. He also continued to act as correspondent to Hebrew newspapers in Russia and his reports are a valuable source of information for this period.

[3] The figure was obviously exaggerated and the editor of Hamelitz wisely inserted a question-mark after the words ‘thousands upon thousands’. In the popular imagination, the owner of a few hundred pounds in a country where the English shilling had enormous purchasing value was regarded as a millionaire.

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