Kimberley, South Africa


Harris, Solomon & Harry

Solomon and Harry Harris

Written by Sidney Mirvish, Ph.D.
Omaha, Nebraska 68132, U.S.A. 

To read more about the extended and significant Harris family in Cape Town written by Sidney Mirvis in go to


      My father told me that "several men of the family," presumably Harry and his older brother Solomon, went from Poland to Manchester in England, where they had an uncle, whose name (according to Celile Raphaely) was something like Hanson.  Celie also thought that a member of the Hanson family preceded Solomon and Harry to South Africa, but we have no evidence for this view.  The stay in England would have been from about 1877 to 1882 if they came to South Africa in 1882 (see below) and is mentioned in Harry's obituary in the Cape Times newspaper.  If Solomon and Harry left Poland in 1877, they were then 15 and 24 years old.  Solomon must have returned to Poland at intervals, probably at Yomtovim (Jewish holidays), because his children were born in Poland between 1875 and 1882.  From Manchester, Harry and Solomon went peddling [were peddlers or did "shmose" with a hard second s (Yiddish)].  The uncle sent them wandering by foot through the farms around Manchester bearing trays of cheap jewellery and watches supported by straps around their necks, and told them to return by each Friday afternoon.  If they did not come back by the beginning of Shabbat and spend a proper Shabbat with him, the uncle said, he did not want to see them again! (from my father) 

      Probably in England, Harry and Solomon changed their surnames from Ospezin to Harris, possibly because Ospezin sounded too foreign and ‘Harry Harris’ sounded nice.  After perhaps 18 months of shmosing (peddling) and, presumably, learning English, Solomon and Harry Harris left for South Africa in about 1885.  Diamonds were discovered on a bank of the Orangae River in 1867 and soon after that the ‘chimneys’ of blue diamond-bearing rock (the solidified material in the vents of extinct volcanos) were discoered in Kimberley.  The early leaders of the diamond industry in Kimberley wre Cecil Rhodes, who first went from England to South Africa in 1870, and Barney Barnato, a Cockney Jew who emigrated to South Africa in 1873.  A desire to emulate these pioneers was presumably the reason why the Harris brothers chose to go to Kimberley in South Africa.

      When the S.A. Woollen Mills was finally closed, Neville Gottlieb found an old safe there.  This contained a document signed by the British governor of the Cape Colony and Bechuanaland, Sir George Robert Robinson, granting Harry Harris citizenship in his territory of Bechuanaland.  The document was dated 1895.  Swartmodder was close to Bechuanaland (now Botswana).  Robinson is mentioned in the Cecil Rhodes biography that aired on U.S. Public Television in 1998 as a toady of Rhodes.   

      In later years, the family kept in close touch with the Polish relatives who remained behind.  There were old pictures and postcards of frequent return visits to Europe by Harry Harris and others of the family to see their family, among whom Mendel Ospezin was often mentioned.  During these visits, they several times visited Carlsbad, the watering place in Czechoslovakia just south of Poland, and we still have souvenir deep blue and deep red glasses, ashtrays and sweet-dishes inscribed "Carlsbad" from that period.  I read in one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's books that the Chassidic families from Poland who could afford it used to go to Carlsbad for holidays, so it was natural for the wealthy South African relatives to go there.   Gwynne Robins told me that on a quite recent visit to Carlsbad, some of her family (the Shrire family of Cape Town) found that they still sold exactly the same types of porcelain souvenirs that her and our families had bought 100 years earlier.   


      Solomon and Harry Harris went initially to Kimberley and nearby Griqualand West in the Northern Cape Province.  My father thought the date was 1880 and he mentions this date in his obituary of Harry Harris published in the Cape Times, but we have no independent evidence for this date and it was probably several years later because Solomon’s daughter Bella was born around 1882 – see above – and it seems unlikely that Solomon would wait ten years for his family to emigrate, which happened in and just after 1890.

      Griqualand West was the family centre from 1990 for at least 10 years.  When I was a small boy, my grandfather Harry told me an illicit diamond buying (IDB) story while I was swinging on one of the two very large green iron gates at the bottom of the driveway of Myrtle Lodge.8  De Beers owned the principal diamond mines in Kimberley and of course watched the miners very carefully when they left the mine each day, in case the workers stole any of the diamonds that they had dug up.  All people leaving Kimberley apparently were searched to ensure that they did not take any illicit diamonds.  It was and still is illegal in South Africa to possess uncut diamonds that do not have documents to prove where they came from.  At any rate, if one wanted to smuggle diamonds out of Kimberley, my grandfather told me, one could put them in dug-out holes in the outside edges of the wooden rims of ox-wagon wheels.  These wheels were made by knocking together the wooden rim around the radial spokes.  An iron rim was then heated in a furnace to expand it and was placed around the wooden rim.  When the iron rim cooled, it contracted and held the wheel together.  If the diamonds in the wooden rim were protected from the heat, they would be safe and never be detected when the owner left Kimberley.  Later, they could be safely recovered!9 

      In 1890 Miriam, a daughter of Solomon, won some money in a lottery in Poland.  She gave the money to her brother Woolfie (then 17 years old), who used the money to go to Kimberley.  He travelled steerage class, but a kind ship’s doctor let him stay part of the time in a hospital room.  He arrived in Cape Town with sixpence in his pocket (an orange then cost one penny).  Within a year, Solomon sent money to bring the rest of his family to Kimberley (from Celie Raphaely).  Julian had a photo of Solomon and his wife Celia Harris dated 18/1/09.   I have a small framed photo of Solomon and Woolfie taken about 1890 at the Kimberley Photographic Studio, with Solomon seated and Woolfie standing behind him, both dressed in suits buttoned high up the front, above which are striped ties and a wing-tipped shirt collar.  Both men are wearing small bowler hats.  Solomon has a beard and Woolfie is clean-shaven or is too young to shave.  I have other family pictures, mostly taken in Kimberley, one of which shows Solomon and Celia and their five children, with the men and boys wearing bowler hats and the women wearing dresses reaching up to the neck and down to the ankles and wrists, with very narrow waists.  Other photos include one of Celia Harris seated at a fancy desk, taken by B. Harvey of Du Toit's Pan Road, Kimberley; one of Miriam Harris as a teenager taken by J.E. Middlebrook of Kimberley; one of Miriam as an adolescent taken by L. Zoner of Lodz, our only picture from before the family left Poland; and a cute picture of Miriam and her sister Bella as teenagers wearing long dresses (Miriam's reaches the ground), with each girl carrying a parasol.  It appears that Celia Harris and her children stayed in Kimberley for about five years and then those members of the family who were not working at Swartmodder moved to Cape Town,.  We know this because they bought Myrtle Lodge in 1895.