Kimberley, South Africa


Chonin, Edel

From a Shtetl in Lithuania to the Diamond City in South Africa

The Life of Edel Chonin

(written by Leon Chonin – July 2018)

While reading the book Shtetl by Eva Hoffman, I was so inspired by the resemblance of this historical analysis of the Jews in Eastern Europe with my father’s own life that I thought it may be fitting to reinforce its content by presenting the courageous story of my own father.

Edel Chonin (whose original Yiddish name was “Idel ben Eliezer” Halevi) was born in Utyan now known as Utena in Lithuania in 1912 to Eliezer Grob and Sora Liba Chonnin. They had two children Edel and his sister but unfortunately I don’t have any recollection of her first names. Eliezer Grob was a tailor and a religious man.  His wife Sora had a brother Sam who subsequently emigrated to Kimberley, South Africa.

In the book Shtetl a vivid tale is told of the barbaric treatment of the Jews by the Russian Cossacks who kidnapped Jewish men and children to force them into the army. They would target the poor and the tailors. My grandfather Eliezer was a victim of these marauding thugs when he was forcibly taken from his family when my father was a young boy. He was never seen again and was probably killed either by these Cossacks for refusing to enlist and fight or could have succumbed to his ill treatment.  Edel attended cheder as this was the only form of education available to the young Jewish children and like his father became a tailor as there were few other opportunities for the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. They lived in a typical wooden home and were barely able to survive. They only spoke Yiddish at home but were able to read and write in Hebrew. My father did learn how to play the mandolin and sing the popular Yiddish songs.

Sora’s brother left Lithuania with his two daughters Dinah and Sadi for Kimberley in South Africa but on landing in Cape Town the authorities were not able to understand their Yiddish pronunciation of their last name hence they spelled Chonnin as Cohen which was the name he used for the rest of his life. Strangely Sam was of the Cohen religious group hence Chonnin was most probably a Yiddish derivative of the Hebrew name Cohen. The letter “CH” in Yiddish should also be pronounced with a very guttural tone as in German or Afrikaans sounding more like a rough “G” but there is no equivalent in the English language.

When my father turned seventeen my grandmother, Sora encouraged him to leave Utyan for Kimberley in South Africa where her brother had settled. She was concerned about his safety from the Cossacks and the poverty they lived in with little if no opportunity to improve on their quality of life. Her daughter had married but I have no recollection of whether she lived with her mother but in all likelihood this was the practice among the poor Jews in Utyan.  

Edel, a young boy of only seventeen, left his mother and sister with his clothes and about fifty British pounds and travelled from Utyan by train to board the Toledo for Cape Town and again by train to Kimberley in the Northern Cape. Because he wished to avoid being identified with his father’s name for fear as well of being conscripted into their Cossack’s army, he adopted his mother’s name when travelling to South Africa. On his arrival he too experienced problems with his last name of Chonnin but instead of spelling it in the same way as his uncle, Sam they spelled it as “Chonin” which was the name we have all inherited since his arrival in South Africa in September 1929. His courage and fortitude should always be remembered by his family because he could not speak English but only Yiddish and had to now survive in a foreign country with no friends only an uncle and two first cousins. Edel taught himself to read and write English and in order to improve his knowledge would often read encyclopedias. Given the opportunity my father could have been a highly educated man but instead in order to survive with limited financial resources he had to continue with his trade. Every month he would send his mother a bank draft in order to help her survive in the shtetl.

Before the outbreak of World War II, his sister and her husband fled from Utyan into Russia before the German armies invaded Poland and Lithuania. However my father was never able to make contact with her again. Notwithstanding his appeal to the International Red Cross for assistance she could not be traced and it was believed that as illegal immigrants in Russia they may have been sent to a Siberian concentration camp where she and her husband may have died because of their cruel treatment. His mother was left alone in Utyan and he never actually found out what had happened to her because communication during the war was almost non-existent. It is my prayer that perhaps one-day I might find out what happened to his family. Edel lost his father, his mother and his sister to the abuse and cruelty shown to the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Sam had opened a general dealer business in Beaconsfield but was not able to employ his nephew hence my father only option was to continue with his trade as a tailor. He opened his first tailor shop near the location of Klein Bros very close to the Big Hole. With very little capital he could not afford to pay for accommodation and was allowed to live with his cousin, Sadi Oshry who was now married to Israel Oshry who farmed in the Taung’s area. Sadi had two sons Alfie and Bernie.

Sam’s other daughter Dinah married Mike Jocum from the Beaufort West area and he was encouraged by his brother-in-law, Israel Oshry to enter the farming business when he purchased land in the Reivilo district in the northern Cape. Mike and Dinah had four children, Laurie, Maisy, Mildred and Cyril.

My father was fortunate to meet the Weinstein family who invited him into their home almost like a member of their family. They were observant Jews from Poland and followed the same religious practices as my father had been taught in his homeland. Edel own family were not at all observant hence he appreciated being invited every Shabbat to their dinner table. He was able to converse with them in Yiddish his mother tongue and Lipi was also a tailor. Lipi became a father figure to Edel who would also lead the services at the Grinna shul. It was inevitable that my father married one of Lipi’s daughters, Geheli (Chaya). However my mother insisted that Edel should expand out of his tailoring and encouraged him to buy Willie Kanushefsky’s outfitting business, called Kenny’s when Willie sold the business before joining the army to serve in World War II.

While the outfitting business provided them with a living to take care of their three children, it did not allow them any extra savings to provide for their children’s higher education. They relocated Kenny’s further along DuToitspan Road and then decided to purchase Astra Outfitters on the Market Square from the Cohen family. My mother ran the one business and my dad the other. However the declining volume of trade from Kenny’s forced them to close it and concentrate on Astra Outfitters which was more geared to the Black market. Edel throughout this time continued with his tailoring.  

The most traumatic experience my father encountered after leaving his mother in Utyan was with the landlord of the building on the Market Square. The adjacent motor spares business wanted to expand and the landlord was reluctant to renew the lease of the outfitting business. There was no alternate premises that would meet the needs of my parents outfitting business and it would have meant the end of their livelihood without the landlord agreeing to an extension. It was only with the intervention of Rabbi Werner that the landlord agreed to a limited extension. The stress of this incident took its toll on my father and he passed away in May 1976 at the age of 63 years.

Although I too faced emigration my experience cannot be compared to my father who had no knowledge of the country he was going to, could not speak the language and had no financial resources to rely on for support. But just like him I too had to leave my mother all alone in South Africa. The Nazis with the support of some of the Lithuanians massacred most of the Jewish population of Utyan and had my father remained in that shtetl he surely would not have survived. Because of his bravery to leave his close family at such a young age he was blessed to leave a legacy of three children regretfully one is deceased, eight grandchildren and ten great grandchildren. I shall always be proud of his accomplishments and will forever cherish his memory.  

Front Row: Edel Chonin, Leon Chonin, Geheli (Chaya) Chonin, Sadi Oshry, Israel (Issy Oshry). Hannah Weinstein

Back Row: Joyce Kopelowitz (nee Weinstein) Geheli sister, Lipi Weinstein