Graaff Reinet, South Africa


Tribute To Smouse


From Rose’s                     December, 2017 (No 288)                     ROUND-UP

A privately-published monthly newsletter mainly covering snippets of Karoo history  *  Copyright: Rose Willis *



Graaff-Reinet’s Jewish population was always small. It fluctuated with the prosperity of the village, but among the Jews who settled there were some who played major roles in South African history. Isaac Baumann (who became one of the first mayors of Bloemfontein in 1849) was the first Jew to arrive in Graaff-Reinet. He came from Hesse-Cassel in Germany in1837 and, once he had settled,  he opened a trading store.  Two years later he was joined by relatives,  Joseph Baumann and his wife, Rosa.  By 1854 his brothers Jacob and Louis had arrived and soon they were joined by another brother, August, and his wife Bertha, who arrived in 1862 and remained in Graaff-Reinet for almost 30 years. Among prominent family members were Dr Emil Baumann, an authority on child care, who became a Member of Parliament in 1933 and Richard, who established the law firm, Baumann & Gilfillan in Johannesburg in 1902. The Mosenthal brothers, Adolph and Joseph, also from Hesse-Cassel, came to South Africa in about 1842 and they also percolated to Graaff-Reinet where they set up their mercantile business. In time it had a network of enterprises spanning almost the entire Eastern Cape/Karoo.  To staff these businesses and help then run their empire efficiently they brought out scores of family members and friends. Among them were the Lilienfeld, Hanau, Hotfa, Alsberg, Nathan and Weinthal families. Edward Nathan served as mayor of Graaff-Reinet from 1862 to 1865; Emil Nathan became a prominent lawyer in Johannesburg and a member of the House of Assembly in 1910 and Dr Manfred Nathan became an Income Tax Court judge. He was also the author of several works on South African law and history and served as president of the Jewish Board of Deputies in 1906. Leo Weinthal became a well-known writer and journalist. He founded the Pretoria News in 1898. The Mosenthal’s also brought a Pole, Phoebus Caro, to Graaff-Reinet in 1856 after he survived a shipwreck.


Among other Jewish pioneers of the 1850s and 1860s were the Benjamin brothers – Joseph and Michael Henry, who was elected to the Cape House of Assembly in 1864. Then came Maurice and Louis Joseph, Hermann Wertheim and a man called Rothschild. The town’s Hebrew congregation, the third to be established in South Africa was founded around 1850.   Ground for a Jewish cemetery, now  one of the oldest cemeteries in South Africa, was granted by the governor, Sir George Grey and consecrated in 1858.  It was proclaimed a national monument in 1985, states the Jewish Digital Archives project. Over the years many Jewish settlers, came to the Karoo. Mostly they were from Germany and England, but only a few remained in the area because the region suffered through depression, war and droughts. The Jewish population of Graaff-Reinet dwindled and almost died out during the 1880s, but it was revived again between 1890 -1910 with a new wave of immigrants, mostly from Lithuania and Latvia,  where anti-Semitism was rife. Among those who came from Lithuania were the Balkind, Brett, Levy, Lipschitz and Michelson families. From Latvia came the Nurick, Rubens and Suttner families; the Herbsteins came from Rumania (Moritz Herbstein was the first chairman of the local Zionist Association, founded in the late 1890s and soon Graaff-Reinet became the centre of Jewish and Zionist life. His son, Mr Justice Joseph Herbstein was a judge of the Supreme Court in Cape Town from 1947 to 1963); the Gruss family came from Austria; the Bregers from Galicia; and John Ruben from England. The numbers of Jews in this part of the Karoo were boosted at the turn of the century by Boer War when refugees from the then Transvaal poured into the region, but once again, in time, poor economic prospects forced many Jews to leave Graaff-Reinet.


As sheep and goat farming increased in the Graaff-Reinet area so did wool and mohair production. The town’s most prosperous early years were from 1850 to 1860. During this time two Jewish doctors arrived as well as some traders, merchants and shopkeepers, including a butcher, furniture dealer, garage and bottle store owners, Hoteliers, a cinema proprietor, accountant, solicitor and town engineer, soon joined the ranks. The Rosenthal’s trading stores led to the rise of Jewish peddlers. Known as ‘smouse’, they popped up across the Karoo and a monument honouring them was erected in Graaff-Reinet in 1989.  Others Jews to arrive in the Karoo included the Solomon, Raphael and Horwitz families. Harry Solomon became a member of the first Transvaal Legislative Council in 1903 and president of the Jewish Board of Deputies in 1904;  Frank Horwitz was a town councilor for 25 years and  twice elected mayor of Graaff-Reinet; and Sylvia Raphael was an Israeli Intelligence agent who served 22 months in a Norwegian jail in 1974 for her role in the murder of a suspected Black September terrorists.  Community records indicate that there were 37 Jewish families in Graaff-Reinet in 1875. The highest recorded number of Jews in this town was 82 in 1904.

With thanks to Rose Willis for allowing us to use extracts from her newsletter