Kimberley, South Africa


Borkum, Philip & Ella (nee Heydenreich)

Philip and Ella Borkum (née Heydenreich)

Contribution from his granddaughter, Lorna Levy (née Borkum), Cape Town January, 2020

Lorna writes: Although I myself have never lived in Kimberley, my father David Borkum, was born there on 8 August 1902. His brit is noted in the Shul register as 15 August 1902. At the time the Borkum family lived in Fergusson Lane, Kimberley.

His father, my paternal grandfather, Philip Borkum was born in Riga in January 1861. His wife was Ella (Heydenreich b 1868 in Mitau, also in Latvia). They married in Riga where he was a hatmaker and where the first three of their five children were born.

My grandmother, Ella (née Heydenreich) was keen to join other members of her family who had already settled in Kimberley where records show that her eldest brother, Hermann Heydenreich was a general dealer. Their parents, my paternal great-grandparents, Celena and Samuel Heydrenreich were also in Kimberley. Samuel died in 1897 and Celena in 1907. They are both buried in the old Kimberley cemetery in Stead Street. So, the family have strong roots in Kimberley.

Philip and Ella Borkum arrived in Kimberley in about 1898 where their next two children (including my father, the youngest) were born.  It was a fortuitous time to be a new settler to South Africa as the country opened up with the discovery of its immense mineral wealth and a cheap labour system. This enabled that generation of the Heydenreich brothers and sisters to become very wealthy and integrated into the fabric of the country. 

This was sadly not the case for my grandparents Ella and Philip Borkum. Philip who seems to have been the only member of his family to have come to South Africa, became a travelling salesman or smous – as many did to start on the commercial ladder.  But before he could progress, disaster struck.

This picture above, is not of Philip Borkum but it shows a typical smous outfit. A small cart packed to the hilt, six donkeys outspanned by the coloured servant and the boss sitting on a folding stool reading the paper.

I knew that my grandfather had died young but assumed this to have been of natural causes. He was never spoken of nor were there any images of him available. I was aware that my grandmother had battled on her own as a widow at times but strangely no one referred to Philip Borkum.

It was only when I got a copy of my great aunt, Anna Hoffman’s written history called   The Heydenreich Saga during the 1970s, that I discovered that my grandfather had a ‘tragic death’ but no details were given. Through prodding I eventually established that the tragedy meant a murder. I put this aside at the time because there were no further details at hand. 

When I relocated to Cape Town after having lived in London for many years, I decided to investigate this in the State Archives. It was there, in Cape Town, that I found the records of the trial of the two culprits for the murder of my grandfather – the smous from Kimberley Philip Borkum.  He was murdered near de Aar in 1906, aged 45 when he was on his selling travels. It appears that his two assistants, a young white man and a coloured stock carer that he had recently employed for the journey, strangled him and absconded with his money and some clothes. They were soon apprehended, charged and eventually executed. 

After the murder of her husband, Ella Borkum went to England with her five children and lived with her cousin Alexander Bernstein in Ilford for two or three years. She returned to South Africa, married again and lived for some years in Vrede, in the Orange Free State.

My father David Borkum (known as Dink) the youngest in the family, thus left Kimberley in about 1907 at the age of 5 for England. After returning to South Africa and finishing school in Pietermaritzburg, he studied law at Wits. He practised as an attorney in Johannesburg where he died on 28 August 1981 aged 79.

My mother Gertrude Borkum, née Jankelowitz, was born in Cape Town in May 1908. While she had trained as a piano teacher, she lived most of her life as a housewife in Johannesburg. She died in London on 28 June 1993.

Her parents, my maternal grandparents, the Jankelovitzes were from Plungyan in Lithuania and had no connection with Kimberley. They originally lived in Cape Town where grandfather Yehuda Leib Jankelowitz’s naturalisation papers referred to him as a ‘general dealer.’  Later in Johannesburg where they spent most of their lives with their four children, he was a ‘shechite’ and a Torah scholar. My grandmother, Chaie Riva Jankelowitz was maternal grandfather’s second wife. He died in 1936 and she in 1953 and they are buried in Brixton Cemetery.  

I was David and Gertrude Borkum’s only child, born in Johannesburg in 1937.  I did a BA (Wits) and a B.Ed (Middlesex University, London). I married Leon Levy in Johannesburg on 1 May 1962.  As activists in the struggle against apartheid, we were forcibly exiled from South Africa in 1963 and lived in London until we decided to retire to Cape Town in 1997.

Leon is a retired labour relations consultant. Our daughter Emma Mary Levy was born in London in 1968. She is a labour Law Consultant and she and her family now also live in Cape Town.

Lorna Levy has written an excellent book on Philip Borkum and his murder – The Hidden Life of a Smous, (published by, Kaplan Centre publications, UCT, 2017) in which she discusses the life of a smous, Borkum’s murder and the ensuing court case with relevant documents, including a most interesting executor’s inventory of  the liquidation and distribution for the account of the late Philip Borkum which gives a list of the very extensive array of goods that he carried.