Kimberley, South Africa


Senderovitz, Raphael

(great grandfather of Gwynne Robins, nee Schrire)

Compiled by Gwynne Schrire, Cape Town, November 2015

My grandmother’s father Raphael Senderovitz had been a tea taster in Moscow. He was born in Kelm, Russia, on the German border, so near to Germany that the inhabitants used to slip across to Germany to do their shopping. 

 (I read later that it was common for people to say that they lived “near the border”, even when they did not do so, because  German Jews were regarded as having a high status – perhaps it was because the Kaiser’s subjects  had more freedom than those of the Tsar. I do not know whether Kelm is or is not near the border.) 

His surname was not actually Senderovitz, but Rodes, and he was born Raphael ben Velva, the son of Velva Rodes. In those days each family had to provide one son for the army. Their families clubbed together to pay a chap called Senderovitz to go to the army for them. As there was now a Senderovitz in the army, Raphael could safely be given the name Senderovitz instead of Rodes. (Another family who took the same name was the father of Dr Barry Sender who was also from Kelm, but was unrelated to them.) For rations in the army, Gran’s father told her, the soldiers were given a piece of raw meat which they would place under their saddles. The heat of their bodies riding on it would cook the meat.

In the early 1880s my great-grandfather, who had married Ite Chaie ## came to South Africa with his wife. He became a peddler hawking goods across the country. The farmers in the area lived on meat, no wheat for bread being grown at that period. He was very religious and one Pesach he existed on three pumpkins.
Diamonds had been discovered in volcanic pipes in Kimberley in 1874. This accelerated the diamond rush when thousands of penniless fortune seekers rushed to peg a claim, and a tent city grew up overnight around the rapidly growing diamond-rich holes. The diggers and their hangers-on needed food and supplies and Raphael Senderovitz decided that the diamond fields would be a good place to make a living. He settled in Beaconsfield, outside Kimberley, in the 1890s, rented a stand on Market Square and opened a shop and a mill. Gran said he would buy mealies and mill them into flour which he sold all around Kimberley and in the Transvaal. They lived in a house next to the mill and had a stable for the horses that delivered the flour. They also kept chickens and cows. His ability was so highly respected that the locals used to come to him at election time to ask him for whom to vote. I still have the engraved key given to my great grandfather when they opened a Talmud Torah in Kimberley around 1913.

One of his friends was Ernest Oppenheimer (later Sir Ernest, and founder of Anglo-American and head of De Beers) who was to be godfather to his first grandchild, my father, Louis in 1914. When his godson got married in 1941, my grandparents invited him to the wedding but got neither acknowledgment nor gift. But by that time Sir Ernest had put his Jewish antecedents far behind him and probably did not wish to be reminded of his early days. His second wife was a Catholic and the story goes that he offered the Kimberley Synagogue a large sum of money to remove the foundation stone that he had erected in the synagogue, but the offer was refused. We still have the Chinese vase he gave my grand parents as a wedding gift, but I am jumping ahead. 

I have some of his invoices still.

P.O.Box 23                                                                      Market Square
Telephone No. 163                                                            BEACONSFIELD, ………….19…..


Bought of         R.SENDEROVITZ & Co.,

Terms:  NETT CASH, 60 days. Interest at 8 per cent per annum will be charged on all overdue accounts.

Cousin Ralphie Robinson adds that when he was in the cadets he was a bugler. Ernest Oppenheimer’s eldest son went out hunting – many deer were shot, and so was he. There was uncertainty about whether it was an accident. Ralph was asked to blow the bugle at the funeral. Rev Isaacs refused to allow the bugle to be blown at the ceremony, despite offers of payment by Ernest, so Ralph blew the bugle standing on the street outside the cemetery.

My Grandmother, Sarah Neche Senderovitz , was born in Kimberley on 11 November 1893, the only one of seven to survive and one of the first Jewish children to be born there.. There was a whole row of little Senderovitz graves in the Jewish cemetery in Kimberley.

As a result, my Gran was very spoilt as a child, she was not allowed to cry and she was given whatever she wanted. She told us that her father was very prominent and was one of the first Jews to arrive at the diamond fields. She said he was the local draughts champion and people riding in donkey carts on their way to the gold fields would stopover in Kimberley to play with him– the meal and bed for the night were probably equally strong incentives. Her father told her that when she grew up she was to marry an edele man - an upright intelligent man. A chess player was a mark of an edele man.

Naturally my grandfather could play chess. 
She said she met all sorts of people and would stay up to listen to the visitor’s conversation about how things were back in der heim, and would make a nuisance of herself, The next day she would be too tired to wake up for school, so her mother would let her stay at home. She frequently missed school.
Gran’s father stands at the back, right, with his workers at the mill. 

When Gran was a little girl, she put her little finger in the safe door when her father went to get something. She said she did not cry but her father found that he could not close the door. He rushed her to the doctor carrying her on his shoulders with her broken finger in his mouth.

When the South African War broke out in 1899, Kimberley was besieged. The family decided to flee, and loaded their cart with possessions, The road was blocked with other refugees, and on the road they met up with relatives fleeing into Kimberley from the diamond diggings who were planning to stay with them, so they turned round and went back home with the relatives. When the shelling was bad, they lived in their basement, and survived on sacks of dried peas and beans from their shop. We still use as doorstops shells from Boer cannon that Gran said landed in their garden.  She said that Cecil John Rhodes used to ride past their house in 17 Carrington Road every day to review the troops. He was a poor horseman, and the children used to shout after him and he was too scared to turn round to shout back at them. At the Big Hole Open Air Museum one can see the stone that he used for mounting his horse. Gran also said the children used to run after the soldiers shouting “badges, badges”, and the soldiers used to tear them off their uniforms and give it to them and they used to swop them. She said that she was sorry that she had not kept them.
When the shelling was bad, Rhodes ordered all the women and children to go down the mines for safety. Her father refused to allow his wife and daughter to join the women and children sheltering in the mines as he did not want them to associate with the sort of women who would be there.

A woman used to come once a week to sew clothes for them. She fancied a beautiful dress she saw one lady wear to shul and, although a child, she nagged until they got the seamstress to make a similar one for her. She got what she wanted. When silver powder puffs on long chains were the rage, she got one. When silver visiting card cases were fashionable, she got one, as well as a two-sided hinged silver powder compact on a chain.

She went to school with the writer Sarah Gertrude Millin, who was a few years older than my Gran. Gran said she did not like her. Gran was not good at needlework, but she was taught to make lace, and learnt to make soap.

She became engaged to be married, but the engagement was broken off. (Many years later the villain met my Mother at a Zionist conference and asked her if Sara Neche Senderovitz was still as spoilt and as difficult)

My grandfather, Samuel Schrire, who had recently qualified as a lawyer at Jew’s College, London, England, had returned to Cape Town to join his family. He heard about the broken engagement, went straight up to Kimberley, to pledge his troth. They married on Sunday 29 Kislev, 18 December, 1913 in the Roeland Street Synagogue Cape Town with Morris Alexander and Rev Bender as the witnesses. They settled down together in Kimberley, living in her parents’ house. 
Samuel Schrire never practiced as a lawyer, instead he took over the running of his father-in-law Raphael Senderovitz’s big wholesale business. As a service, Indian and Chinese customers saw him after hours at his home for free legal advice.

My grandmother was not shy to remind him that he was benefitting from her money.	
My father, Yehuda Leib Schrire, was born in Kimberley on 29 September, 1914 and Gran said that when my father was born, every time they heard the baby crying her parents would come running to enquire what was wrong.

My Great-Grandfather, Raphael Senderovitz died on 27 September, 1918 at his home, 2 Market Square, Beaconsfield, Kimberley. Grandpa Sam was the executor of his will, and that of his mother-in-law, Ite Chaie Senderovitz, who died at Beaconsfield on 6 September 1924. 

Paul Cheifitz told me that in the archives he found a copy in Yiddish of my Great Grandfather Yehuda Leib Schrire's will in which he leaves his money to his children on condition that they went to live in Palestine, and that the will was contested. Paul said he would get me a copy. Aunt Cynthia disagreed vehemently- she had heard nothing about this, but this happened long before she was born. 

Raphael and Ite Chaie Senderovitz at least laid no such conditions. Their joint will (dated April 1918) bequeathed £10 000 to be invested for their grandchildren Louis and Wolfe, the surviving spouse was to enjoy the interest of the sum until death, thereafter the interest was to go to Sara and Samuel and Sara was to get the remainder of the estate. 

Samuel was to be executor. If Louis and Wolfe married Jewish brides, they were each to get  £5000  from that sum, if their executor considered them capable of using the money in a proper manner. Remarkable assets, considering that my tea-tasting Great Grand father Raphael had started thirty years previously as a peddler

Mr Grandmother (Sarah Senderovitz)’s cousin, Moshe Chone Robinson, also lived in Kimberley. He was the son of Feige Rivke (Rebecca) Epstein who married Joseph Isakowitz and had seven children. Feige was the sister closest in age to my Great Grandmother Ite Chaie Senderovitz,. Feige and her husband emigrated to America where she became Americanised into Fanny Isaacson, leaving Moshe behind in Europe staying with his aunt Ite Chaie until she and Raphael moved to South Africa.

Moshe (Morris) who now had nowhere to stay, set off for America to join his family. He ran out of money and stopped off in Ireland on the way where he worked in and then took over a business called Robinson. It was simpler to call himself Robinson than to re-licence the business, so Robinson he became. (The Schrires inherited the legend that the name Robinson belonged to a cart he owned.) He then sold the business, bought a ticket, went to America, met and married Fanny Fein in Philadelphia, invested in property in Chicago and came to South Africa to join his aunt and uncle as a bookkeeper for a butcher. Gran said Morris had a most beautiful handwriting. Later he owned a butcher shop in 2 Transvaal Road, Kimberley, opposite the police station and they lived in the house next door. 
They had three children, Abe Nathan, Ethel and Ralph.  When Ralph was about six he was cycling home from school when he got caught in the crossfire in an altercation between some police officers who had been caught sleeping on duty and a bullet glanced past Ralph’s head, nicking him - he still carries the scar. Fortunately there no real harm was done, but he was covered for head injuries until the age of 21. At the back of their yard they kept a menagerie of animals: - goats, monkeys, tortoise and chickens. They were poor and they took in boarders - one boarder worked on a farm and would give Ralph animals for his birthday – pigeons, a pair of owls. They had a pigeon cote and Ralph would let the birds out every evening for exercise. Ralph’s mother was a wonderful cook and Ralph would cycle sometimes quite far, delivering meals she had cooked on order.
Ralph remembered they would catch an electric tram on Wednesdays for the five miles journey to Beaconsfield to visit the Schrires. They would have tea on the stoep where there was a beautiful rocking horse. Ralph thought the height of luxury was to possess such an animal, but Gran would never allow him to touch it, only to look at it.
In 1926 the Schrires moved from Beaconsfield to a new house in Kimberley, 17 Carrington Road. It was, said Ralph, a very posh house in the posh part of town and stood opposite the house of a trade competitor, WB Humphries, MP for Kimberley and mayor, after whom the Kimberley Art Gallery was named. Ralph described the garden of the house as being like a zoo and he felt comforted by them because as a child he too had many animals. 

His cousin Sarah (my Grandmother) loved animals – preferred them to people she would say. In the yard were pigeons, ducks, a goat, a parrot, and what my father recalled as a bad-tempered monkey that would bite them. He said it might have been bad-tempered because it was kept chained up. Gran also kept a cow and would give her children the milk. My father hated the milk warm and foaming straight from the cow and would never drink cold milk.
In 1927 the Schrires wrote to the estate office of De Beers asking for a rent reduction as the private dwelling house had been removed, they had given up milling and the building used as a mill was now being used as a shed or lumber room. On the corner of the letter was written “gave up milling but carried on as grocers.”
The letterhead stated:
Wholesale Grocers Millers
General and Commission agents                        Market Square
Telephone 163                                                                          Beaconsfield……….19

We lived in Kimberley when I was a mall child, from 1949-1955 where my father was in practice as an ophthalmologist. One day, a visitor came to see him. He was an Afrikaans ophthalmologist who said he had decided to start practicing in Kimberley which was too small to h old two ophthalmologists. So he gave my father two options. Either to sell his practice to him and leave town, or stay, in which case the Afrikaans doctor would get the dominee to announce “Why go to a Jewish doctor now that there is an Afrikaans one’?” He also indicated that he would take away my father’s Railways appointment on the same grounds. So we sold him our house and the practice and moved to Cape Town.

My family was very friendly with Althea and Julius Kretzmar – whom I adored and would often visit in Wynberg when we all had moved to Cape Town, I used to bring Julius to the Senior’s groups I used to run to talk about his father’s letters from Cape Town in 1999 to his wife left in Lithuania, which my friend’s father translated for him.