Kimberley, South Africa

 
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Kretzmar, Noel



The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery

A true story as told by Trevor Toube


I am not sure exactly which year this happened, but it must have been about 1950.


One evening, two strangers appeared for prayers in the beautiful Victorian synagogue in Kimberley, South Africa. In small communities such as this was at the time, visitors are always welcomed – and subjected to extensive quizzing to find out who they are, where they have come from, to whom they are related, and why they are there. In this case, though, there was a problem: neither man spoke English (nor Afrikaans!)


It just so happened that the rabbi had a part-time job teaching French at the local Technical College, and that was the language these strangers spoke. They asked the rabbi where they could get kosher food, so he invited them to dine with his family in the Shul House, his home, a large bungalow with the typical Kimberley corrugated iron roof, situated right next to the synagogue.


Over the meal, the guests explained that they had come to Kimberley to buy some really good diamonds. Now, although the city was still one of the major centres of diamond mining in the world, and the headquarters of the De Beers Company was in the town, there was by then only one firm of diamond cutters left in Kimberley. The rabbi undertook to take them over and introduce them to the Rosenstrauchs the following morning.


[Rosenstrauch Brothers firm was run by the twin brothers, Henry and Adolf, born in Kimberley in1929. The business had been founded by their father, who had come to South Africa some time in the 1920s, but had subsequently been persuaded to return to his native Belgium. When the Nazis invaded Belgium, as his wife, Gladys told my mother, “We ran, with just the clothes we stood up in.” (These clothes appear to have included two fur coats!) They also filled their pockets with diamonds, and lived on the proceeds of their sale.]


The next day the rabbi collected the two strangers and drove over to the diamond-cutting works. There Henry showed them what he had in stock and the visitors selected a few stones of high quality and considerable value. Now, one would not of course be carrying around large sums in cash on the off-chance of finding suitable gems for purchase, and clearly a cheque with no backing would not do. In such cases, there is a clear procedure. The diamonds are folded into a special ‘diamond paper’ and placed in a stout envelope. Both parties to the sale examine the seal carefully and both sellers and purchasers sign across the seal. The buyers can then go away to raise the required money, secure in the knowledge that the stones cannot be exchanged for any others. And that was what was done.


That night, just as the rabbi was about to doze off, he suddenly had a thought. Had he – or had he not – noticed that while examining the seal on the envelope, one of the visitors substituting for the envelope an identical one he’d removed from the breast pocket of his jacket? The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that an exchange had in fact taken place. What should he do?


He got out of bed and telephoned the Rosenstrauchs. Now, there was a problem: at this time, phonecalls went via an operator at the exchange, so he could not say too much in case the operator happened to overhear his comments. He explained that he needed to speak to them about that morning’s events and arranged to meet them at the cutting works.


When they got there, the brothers opened the safe and took out the envelope. They felt it with their hands and noted the there were the expected number of hard objects within. But they could not, of course, open the envelope to check, because, if the diamonds were in fact inside, when the buyers came back to collect them, they might legitimately suspect that the gems had been replaced by inferior stones and a valuable sale would have been lost.


There was, however, a possible solution. Diamonds are made of pure carbon, and carbon is a light element (Atomic Number 6), which means that they are essentially transparent to clinical X-rays, whereas stones are opaque to X-rays, so all that was required was an X-ray of the envelope and the answer would be known.


X-ray? Hospital!! The Chief Surgeon of Kimberley Hospital was Noel Kretzmar, one of the rabbi’s prominent congregants [and a near neighbour of mine; his daughter, Geraldine (Auerbach) was the founder of the Jewish Music Institute in London]. So off they went to rouse Noel from his bed. Once they had explained their dilemma, Noel was very sympathetic – but explained that the X-ray Department at the hospital was closed at night so that nothing could be done until morning.


Then he remembered: his brother, Dr Julius Kretzmar, had a small X-ray apparatus at his consulting rooms in DuToitspan Road. He phoned Julius. Cautiously (in case the operator was listening in to this phonecall between two of the prominent medical men of the city), he said, “Julius, I have someone here and I suspect he may have some stones. May we meet you at your rooms so I can take an X-ray” – and off they all went!


At Julius’s consulting rooms in ‘Pan Road they found the doctor waiting for them, with the machine already switched on and warming up. He was expecting … someone with a suspected kidney stone? – gall stones? – certainly not a brown envelope! The situation was explained to him, the X-ray was duly taken and the film developed.


And it showed several dark shadows! The envelope contained pebbles, not diamonds. The seal was torn open and the truth confirmed.


At once the police were informed. A watch was placed on all ports and airports to intercept the perpetrators. It was all in vain. They had already left the country.


Some years later, one of the men was arrested in South America and deported to France, where he was wanted for some similar crime. Henry was flown to Paris to see if he could identify him – at the expense of the South African Police if it was in fact one of the thieves, but if not the Rosenstrauchs would have to pay. The identification was positive ….  but no diamonds were ever recovered.


A true story as told by Trevor Toube

Noel Kretzmar was born in 1899 in Birzh Lithuania. He grew up in Malmesbury South Africa from 1903, and came to Kimberley after qualifying as a doctor in Edinburgh and started practice here in January 1926. He married Beryl Bergman of Kimberley in 1935. Their two children are Theodore, born 1936 and Geraldine born 1940.  After 63 years of continuous practice he left Kimberley aged 90, to live in Johannesburg after Beryl died 1989. This opened a new and exciting chapter in his life in Johannesburg that lasted until he died suddenly in 1998 at nearly 100 years old.


Read the full story of his life compiled by his daughter Geraldine Auerbach. In London, in 2019, that includes

Chapter 1: Birzh, Lithuania, 1899 – 1903                                                      

Chapter 2: Malmesbury, 1903 – 1919                                                           

Chapter 3: Edinburgh, 1919 – 1925                                                               

Chapter 4: A Batchelor in Kimberley 1926 – 1935                                      

Chapter 5: Marriage to Beryl Bergman 1935 – 1989                                  

Chapter 6: Noel’s Medical Career in Kimberley 1926 – 1989                   

Chapter 7: Family life in Kimberley 1936 – 1957                                        

Chapter 8: The Children grow up and Leave Kimberley 1957                  

Chapter 9: After the Children Left home in Kimberley                              

Chapter 10: After Beryl, Johannesburg 1989 – 1998                                 

Chapter 11: Holidays in Cape Town 1989 – 1998                                      

Message to his grandchildren and future generations                             

Epilogue                                                                                                             

Some comments                                                                                              


Open PDF Noel_Kretzmar_Story.pdf


You can also read other stories about Noel Kretzmar


The text of a presentation Noel Kretzmar gave to the Historical Medical Society of Edinburgh in April 1974 on the History of Medicine on the Diamond Fields. It was published in their journal. Read here

What Anna Cvi (now Teper) writes about Dr Kretzmar and his help to their family in Kimberley. Here

Letters from Noel’s father Tevye (Tobias) Kretzmar, in Cape Town to his wife Taube in Lithuania, 1900 - 1903. This includes a description of Jewish life in Birzh and the Kretzmar’s life in Malmesbury, Cape. Read here

Obituary from the South African Medical Journal Forum see below

The Diamond Robbery story that involves Noel. See at the bottom of this page.