Kimberley, South Africa


Compiled by Geraldine Auerbach MBE, London, April 2020

The First Synagogue Building consecrated in 1876 for the

Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation

In 1875 work began on the first synagogue building. The site was in Dutoitspan Road roughly where Cecil John Rhodes statue now stands. The site had been given by the London and South African Exploration Company a syndicate of the old Hopetown Company headed by Henry Webb, Edgar Hurley and Jews, Louis Hond, and the Lillienfeld bothers. The company was a major owner of Diamondiferous property in Kimberley including the Bultfontein and Dutoitspan Mines, later taken over by De Beers Consolidated Mines in the amalgamation of all the mines by 1888. (See my story of Alfred Beit, on the website under pioneers for the exciting story of Alfred Beit, Rhodes Barney Barnato and the amalgamation process:

The Cornerstone for this first synagogue was laid with all due ceremony on 23 August 1875 by Mrs C Sonnenberg, wife of the first president of the congregation. The event was attended by many Christian friends amongst them civic dignitaries such as Sir Henry Barkly (Governor of the Cape Colony) and Sir Richard Southey (Administrator of the Diamond Fields). Rev Albu performed the consecration in 1876.

The building, like all buildings in the town was a simple wood and corrugated iron structure designed to hold 250 people. When it was consecrated on 17 September 1876, it was already too small. (There were about 1400 Jewish souls in Kimberley by then, 600 of them adult males.) 

The First Minister:  Rev Berthold Albu

1875 – 1878   Rev Berthold Albu was installed as the first spiritual leader of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation in the run-up to the opening of the first purpose-built synagogue. He served for the next three years and was the minister who consecrated the first synagogue in 1876.  (He was probably related to the South African mining magnates Sir George and Leopold Albu. The Albu brothers did well and sold out to De Beers and then made good on the Rand Goldfields – but that is another story. Margaret Albu, grand-daughter of Reverend Albu, was a concert pianist. In 1931 she married John Logie Baird, inventor and developer of the world's first television system.)

The Second Minister: Rev Meyer Mendelssohn, served 1878 - 1884

Rev Meyer Mendelssohn was the second properly ordained minister to serve the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation. He served in the first synagogue building from 1878 to 1884. He was chosen to come to Kimberley by the then Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Dr Adler, to replace Rev Albu.

Mendelssohn was born in 1833. He was distantly related to the composer and the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn. He had arrived in Britain from Germany in 1850 at the age of 17. After completing his rabbinic studies in 1855, he became the minister of Exeter Hebrew Congregation at the age of 22. (where he remained for the next 23 years).

Rev Mendelssohn was chosen by the then Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Dr Adler, to replace Rev Albu in Kimberley. He arrived in Kimberley in 1878 and immediately made a terrific impact on the community.

He served in Kimberley for six years until he retired from the ministry in 1884, Although he returned from time to time until his death in 1889, for example after the untimely death after only one year, of his successor Rev Ornstein. As well as his duties as a minister, Rev Mendelssohn took an active part in civic affairs on the Library Board and School Board.

Rev Mendelssohn’s son, Sidney (or Sydney) Mendelssohn

Sidney (or Sydney as he sometimes styled himself) was the eldest son of Rev Mendelsohn, who was the minister to the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation in Kimberley from 1878-1884. He came to South Africa – and to Kimberley in about 1880 while his father was the Minister there. He entered the diamond trade in which he prospered. He became a director of the Bultfontein Mining Company, of which he was later chairman, until it was taken over by De Beers Consolidated Mines.

Sydney Mendelssohn was a very cultured man. He was involved in many of Kimberley’s cultural activities. He was one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the Musical, Literary and Debating Society which was formed in November 1885. He was particularly interested in Africana and as such he was an outstanding contributor to South African literature.


Sydney Mendelssohn later became chairman of New Vaal River Diamonds which worked alluvial fields along a double bend in the river, some 40 miles North West Kimberley past Barkly West. The company laid out a mining township on land it owned in 1902 and called it Sydney-on-Vaal, named after Sydney Mendelssohn. 

Always a great collector of bibliography and Africana, Sidney Mendelssohn established a public library at Sydney-on-Vaal.  It is said in 2020 on a visit South Africa type website, that although a little run-down, (some say a ghost town), Sydney-on-Vaal in the Northern Cape, still epitomises turn-of-the-century colonial elegance and offers some wonderful Victorian style architecture to admire. (can anyone verify this?) A gravel road winds through old diamond digging areas before crossing the Vaal River and entering the private village. Despite its small size, Sydney on Vaal consists really of a general dealer, garage, municipal buildings and a church, the small village offers a few attractions – such as the Mendelssohn Library - really?  

A recent visitor to the township who got the key to the Mendelssohn Library in Sydney-on-Vaal and found it in disarray and completely neglected. She said: ‘The library at Sydney was fantastic many books 1st edition. A few years ago, I went to Sydney & obtained the key for the library, heart-breaking to see things on the floor, books with newspaper clipping & records of diamond sales. I don’t know what happened to them, enjoyed reading the names of diamond sales, recognised many of the names, when returning the key I told them how disappointed I was at the state of the library, they said they had no idea what was going to happen to it’.

Sydney Mendelssohn Bibliography

Sydney Mendelssohn accumulated a massive and impressive personal of collection South African books and articles. He organised a great catalogue of his collection which was published in two volumes in 1910 (see below left)

The title is South African Bibliography, (Being the Catalogue Raisonné of the Mendelssohn Library of Works relating to South Africa, including Full Titles of the Books, with Synoptical, Biographical, Critical and Bibliographical Notes on the Volumes and their Authors). This is still a treasured item selling for high prices in antique booksellers.

The caption of the picture above says: Sydney Mendelssohn, the well-known bibliographer once lived in this community, and this fine building houses the precious library which he gave to the town.

The person who posted this picture on the ‘Kimberley calls and recalls’ history site says: ‘The Library at Sydney-on-Vaal, broke my heart the last time I was there, some books & scrapbooks of newspaper articles on the floor including the book from the diamond buyer who recorded every sale’.

You will be relieved to know – specially after reading the experiences related above at the Library at Sydney-on-Vaal – that his enormous personal collection of Africana books and paintings was bequeathed by him to the South African nation, together with a large sum of money to be used to acquire further volumes.

This collection is now housed in the Mendelssohn Library in the South African Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. It was opened in 1922

Memorial Mural in the Foyer of the Kimberley shul

In the foyer of the Memorial Road Synagogue in Kimberley is a beautiful brass and enamelled mural memorial tablet, commemorating the memory of 114 members of the Jewish faith who fell serving the British in the Anglo-Boer War. This was commissioned and Presented by Sidney Mendelssohn

In filial and loving memory of his father Rev. M Mendelssohn and also his daughter Ruby’ who was drowned when the Drummond Castle sank in 1896*.

These are the ‘three arches’ we see in so many of the wedding pictures taken on the steps outside the front door of the of the synagogue. 

Compiled by Geraldine Auerbach MBE, London, April 2020.

*Those interested to know the details of how the Drummond Castle met its terrible fate – read on:

The Drummond Castle left Cape Town for London via Delagoa Bay, Natal and Las Palmas on May 28th, 1896, with 143 passengers and 103 crew under command of Capt. W. W. Pierce. On the night of June 16th she was off Ushant (Ouessant) (a French island at the south-western end of the English Channel, which marks the north-westernmost point of metropolitan France). It belongs to Brittany) This was within one day´s steaming of home. The sea was calm but visibility was poor. The strong currents converging on the island of Molene, off Ushant (Ouessant), make the locality one of the most dangerous in the world for navigators, and the extent to which the Drummond Castle was pulled eastwards by the tide was apparently not realised. Between 10 and 11 o´clock that evening the liner was sighted by the steamship Werfa, the first officer of which noted that she was off her course and heading for a dangerous coast. The vessels were about a quarter of a mile apart at the time and soon afterwards the Drummond Castle was lost to view. Shortly before 11 p.m., still steaming at 12 knots, she struck a reef of rocks known as the Pierres Vertes, at the south entrance to the Fronveur Sound. The captain believed the vessel to be driven firmly on the rocks, and although the boats were made ready they were not lowered. The Chief Engineer released steam from the boilers to prevent an explosion, but all efforts to keep the ship afloat were useless and she foundered within four minutes of striking. The drowned numbered 243, of whom Capt. Pierce, his officers and crew accounted for 101, and the passengers for 142. The three saved were Mr. Charles Marquandt, a first class passenger, Quartermaster Wood and Seaman Godbolt, all rescued by Breton fishermen. The main cargo was 1,943 bales of wool, skins, hides and horns, weighing 450 tons the rest was 250 tons of coal  

This picture above appeared in the London Illustrated News at the time

A Board of Trade wreck inquiry was held in July 1896 in Westminister.[1] The inquiry concluded that the loss was due to "careless or unskillful navigation".[5]



The Ship Sank Like a Huge Body of Lead After Striking on the Rocks.

BREST, June lit.—A representative of the United Press obtained an interview yesterday with the two members of the sunken Drummond Castle who were picked up. One of the men is a seaman named Oodbolt, belonging in Yarmouth, and the other, Wood, a native of London, was the quartermaster of the Drummond Castle. The men agree in the statement that the night of June 16th, when the steamer was lost, was a fine night, though there was a slight fog. Captain Price was on the bridge at the time the ship struck and Lieutenant Brown was forward. The adult passengers were all on deck and only the children were sleeping.

Suddenly there was heard beneath the vessel a prolonged scraping, and this was followed by a ghastly silence. The ship filled rapidly and sank like a huge body of lead. The survivors said they could not remember exactly what did happen when the ship went down. Godbolt succeeded in grasping a door panel and a plank, and Wood also caught a loose plank as it was washed past him. For a long time after the ship went down despairing cries for help, to which response was Iimpossible, filled the air. The cries gradually ceased and there was a grewsome silence.

Each man believed himself to be the sole survivor of the ill-fated ship, and felt in constant fear of being washed off the panel or plank under him. Ultimately Wood saw Godbolt and swam to him. The two men remained together thereafter, and were tossed by the waves for ten hours, frequently being torn by the force of the waves from the rough plank and panel raft, which they would fortunately succeed in regaining. At 9 o'clock in the morning of June 17th some fishermen in boats espied them and rescued them, landing them at Le Conquet.

Besides the passenger, Marquandt, who was picked up at Ushant, it is not probable that a single one of the passengers was saved. The passengers on board the Drummond Castle were mostly women and children, including the family of a tea planter, eighteen in number, who were returning home from South Africa.

The keeper of the Ushant Light(house) witnessed the disaster. When he first saw the vessel, he was surprised that a large steamer should enter the sinuous and rocky Fromveur Passage, which separates the Ushant and Molone group of islands. It is the general belief that the ship entered the passage by mistake. It is believed that the true cause of the disaster will never be known.

As soon as the steamer struck the passengers rushed to the upper deck, and here were enacted some terrible scenes. Strong men forgot their manhood and struggled for possession of the few life buoys that were fastened about the deck.

According to the statements of the survivors, the women were the most self-possessed persons on board. With the steamer settling rapidly under them and death staring them in the face, the mothers did not forget their children, hut rushed below to awaken them and to make futile efforts to save them.

BODIES WASHED ASHORE. BREST. June 19. A number of bodies of the victims of the Drummond Castle have been washed ashore at Ushant. Some of the corpses, those of men, are entirely nude.


Mendelssohn, Rev Meyer and his son
Sidney Mendelssohn