Kimberley, South Africa


The Jewish Community of Upington, Gordonia – Northern Cape

Family StoriesFamily_Stories.html

Upington is a small but busy town on the Orange River, about 400 kms west and slightly north of Kimberley and a four-and-a-half-hour drive away. There was no rail link and it was very remote, nevertheless there was a flourishing Jewish Community there from the early 1890s, originally involved with trading, farming, and general dealer’s stores. (The area is now best known for its export-quality grapes, raisins and wines, which are cultivated on the rich flood plains of the Orange River.)

Some of the pioneer Jewish families in the area had many brothers come out from Latvia and Lithuania together such as Harry and Woolf Harris, the Nuricks, the Lenhoffs and the Hummels. There is a wonderful article in the Jewish Chronicle of London of 1896 about Harry Harris (who had ventured to these areas after being in Kimberley for a while – see his story on the Kimberley website Harris, Solomon & Harry) arranging a minyan and a torah scroll to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in this far-off place in that year.

Thriving Jewish Community of Upington

Marvin Cohen one of the Upington boys who came to High School in Kimberley writes: In my time in Upington, there was a thriving Jewish community with the largest general dealers, motor dealers and hoteliers and many smaller businesses and farming in the region. At its height in the 50s and 60s there were about 70 Jewish families with a synagogue and communal hall with Jewish doctors and many children living a happy, Jewish life.

Boarding school in Kimberley

As there was no English-speaking High school in Upington, many of the children came to Kimberley Boys High School and boarded at Francis Oats House. (Some went to Boarding School in Cape Town). During school holidays all the teenagers returned home and there was much social interaction, picnics by the river and dances with all the generations.

Marvin Cohen says his five years at KHS 1960- 1964 really were very special. He writes: David Huth was the first to go to KHS and all the rest followed. David was very friendly with Milton Jawno. From 1960 onwards Alan Huth, Allan Schatz, Simon Schatz, Mark Schatz, Richard Kurland, Steven Kurland, Norman Kurland, David Lenhoff, Marcel Lenhoff, Basil Hummel, Farrel Cohen and Marvin Cohen all attended KHS at different year levels.

I must also mention 2 De Aar boys who also attended KHS. Selwyn Herberg and Ernest Hodenberg who always joined us on the train which passed through De Aar en-route to Kimberley

That train trip was quite a journey!

We all gathered on the platform at the Upington station in the late afternoon each with our suitcase, a rug rolled up secured with a leather strap and usually a metal tuck box which more than likely had a combination lock. This tuck box contained essential extras to supplement the very "ordinary" food at FOH. Being hungry teenagers there was never enough food to satisfy our appetites.

Having slept overnight on the train we arrived in De Aar the next morning and had a six hour wait for the next train to Kimberley. Needless to say, there was lots of fun and games on the train as well as in De Aar. We always had a mixed grill breakfast in De Aar and the cafes were often scrambling to fill our orders for this meal so early in the morning. This journey took almost 24 hours.

One school holiday when rains had washed away the rail line Misha Lenhoff ( David and Marcel's Father) drove to Kimberley in a lorry and loaded us all up, only two in the front and the rest of us freezing in the back, all the way home.

Francis Oats House

The format of the meals at the hostel was as follows: Each table had 10 boys and after grace to keep order, the person who was head of each table would organise the division of certain food. With the meal each table received a quarter pound of butter and 10 slices of bread. The butter was divided into 10 portions and the cutting of this was rotated at each meal. The unfortunate person to get the last wedge of butter got the smallest piece. Lunches and dinners always ended off with the serving of a further 10 slices of bread and a jug of gravy to pour over the bread. This is where Tomato or Worcestershire sauce which we brought in our tuck boxes helped to give some flavour. A tin or two of jam was usually in our tuck box as the melon and ginger jam which was provided became very monotonous after a while.

Many Kimberley families were so very hospitable to the hostel boys

The Jawno's, the Klein's, Dubowitz, Selman and Averbach families who had sons in similar years played host to some of us. The Kurland boys and myself were extremely fortunate that Benny and Sadie David were overwhelmingly hospitable and welcoming. We only saw Gerald on rare occasions, Eric and Roger were more our contemporaries. How the David's coped with us all says much of their hospitality and friendship. They included us not only on Yom Tovim or shabbat nights or weekends but also to their family the Hotz's - Shelly and Pam, sometimes outings to Riverton. Nothing was too much for them. 22 Carrington Road was our home away from home.

On Saturday mornings the Jewish boarders were required to go to shul. Some snuck out to go to town but not me! I was the only Cohen usually and Mr Gus Haberfeld was the Levi so my absence would always be noted. All the boys always attended shul when there was a Barmitzvah. Besides the kiddush delights the friendly barman usually stationed at the entrance to the hall was a very good source of ginger squares. (brandy and ginger ale)

Here is a list of where we are all today:

David and Alan Huth Cape Town

Farrel Cohen Cape Town

Richard Kurland Sydney, Australia

Steven Kurland London

Norman Kurland Florida USA

Simon Schatz Philadelphia USA

Mark Schatz Melbourne, Australia

Marvin Cohen Melbourne, Australia

David Lenhoff Perth, Australia

Marcel Lenhoff Melbourne, Australia

Selwyn Herberg Melbourne, Australia

Basil Hummel, Ernest Hodenberg and Allan Schatz have since passed away.

In the picture of children with Rabbi and Mrs Werner taken in the early 60s – sent to us by Beverly Solsky (née Buirski) in the back row are: Basil Hummel, David Lenhoff and Steven Kurland.

You can see it here:

Marvin sent this wonderful more recent picture below of four Upington KHS boys in Australia. The photo was taken in 2018 at the wedding of Marcel Lenhoff's son Justin.

L to R: David Lenhoff , Mark Schatz , Marcel Lenhoff, Marvin Cohen.

Marvin Cohen and his family

Regarding my own family, Marvin writes, my maternal Grandfather Clarence Robinson, born in Lithuania, went to Upington in 1909 after finishing school in Dublin. He started as a butcher, and later farmed cattle and sheep. In Upington he met my grandmother Fanny Brower, whose family were from Goldingen in Courland, Latvia, and went to Upington because other Goldingen families – Brenners and Nuricks were there already. They were married in 1916 and my mother Sylvia and 3 siblings were born in Upington.

Clarence Robinson was a passionate sportsman. He had a passion for rugby, was a good cricketer and an amateur boxer in his day – but is remembered as the one who started the playing of Rugby in the whole area round Upington. Marvin sent a wonderful article about his grandfather Clarence from the SA Jewish Times of April 1978 which we attach here somehow. Here we read of his civic achievements. He served on the hospital Board for over 20 years. He became a town councillor in 1920 remaining so for 32 years. He was deputy mayor twice and the first Jewish mayor of Upington. It has been said that the growth of Upington both as a town and a sports centre was greatly due to his foresight and leadership. For 12 years he was the President of the Hebrew Congregation and the article writer who knew him well said he merits a full book for his Civic activities and his leadership on the sports field, in communal affairs as a farmer, businessman and leading Jewish personality.

Marvin continues, My Father who was from Tulbach had qualified as a doctor in Liverpool. He went to do a locum in Kuruman for his older brother Morris, and while there, various travelling salesmen mentioned that the Upington Jewish Community needed a Jewish doctor. He subsequently set up practice there where he met my mother (Sylvia Robinson). They were married in Upington in 1940. (Amongst the congratulatory telegrams received was one from Sam Jawno). I was born in Upington as were my older sister and younger brother. 

My father, Dr Abe Cohen over the years had numerous Jewish partners in the practice, mostly young family members who on qualifying came to Upington for some years before deciding to specialise and move away.

My parents decided to move to Cape Town in 1964 at which stage my sister was already in Cape Town and my brother and I at school in Kimberley.

My father’s nephew by marriage Leon Movsowitz continued the Upington practice for some years.

I hope this gives you some idea of what Jewish life was like in Upington. Congrats. to you and Leon and all contributors for this great Kimberley project.

Regards, Marvin Cohen

David Lenhoff’s memories

David Lenhoff, who was also a boarder at KHS for 7 years, from 1960 to 67 along with other Upington boys Basil Hummel and Steven Kurland writes: Hi Geraldine, My grandfather, Abraham Lenhoff, had a farm just outside Upington in the north-western Cape province which he farmed from early in the 20th century until 1944 when he passed away.

Because my father and his two brothers were up north fighting Hitler's war at the time, there was no one left capable of managing the farm and it was then sold. By that time, my father was an observer/navigator in RAF Bomber Command and his two brothers were with the South African Defence Forces in Italy. Fortunately, all three of them survived the war.

Additionally, my father had a sister, Sylvia, whose husband owned a farm about 60 miles outside of Upington towards the border with what was then South West Africa, now Namibia. My uncle died in 1960 but my aunt continued running the farm with the assistance of one of her sons until approximately the mid-70s when she moved to Cape Town and the farm was sold.

By the way, all three of my aunt’s sons went to boarding school at Kimberley Boys High. They were Alan, Simon and Mark Schatz. Alan has passed away, Simon lives in Philadelphia in the US and Mark lives in Melbourne. I get to see Mark fairly often as I visit Melbourne (where my brother Marcel Lenhoff, who is also a KHS alumnus lives) approximately three times a year.

So that, in a nutshell, is a potted version of my family’s connection with farming in the north-western Cape and Kimberley Boys High School. Kind regards to you and Leon, David Lenhoff

To read more about the remarkable Jewish Community of Upington, Marvin included the link to the extensive kehilalinks website for the town which is a work in progress by Braemie Lenhoff.

(The town was originally called Olijvenhoutsdrift ('Olive wood drift'), due to the abundance of olive wood trees in the area, but later renamed after Sir Thomas Upington, Attorney-General and then Prime Minister of the Cape Province. It originated as a mission station established in 1871 and run by Reverend Christiaan Schröder.)

Leon Chonin joined in the Upington conversation saying:

Hi Geraldine,

I am quite impressed with the Upington story and thought that I could share with you a bit about Basil Hummel. He is part of my wife's uncle Felix Mendelsohn family and he was at university with me also pursuing a career as a Chartered Accountant. His son and my daughter were at primary school together and Basil’s wife Edith and my wife were in the same car pool schlepping the kids to King David Primary in Sandton. Basil I recall was a few years younger than me so I don't remember too much about his school days, but I do know that he was also a boarder at Francis Oats Hostel. I think that he was also one of the few Upington boys who attended cheidar classes but like most of the boarders did not participate in the Habonim movement. I am not sure what his parent’s business activity was in Upington but I am sure that Marvin may be able to shed some light on that. I believe that Basil might have passed away a few years ago but maybe Marvin or David could confirm that as well.

Kind regards, Leon

To which Marvin replied

Dear Geraldine and Leon

I am enjoying our conversations about Kimberley and then subsequently the Upington connection. Firstly regarding Basil Hummel he is in the photo of Rabbi and Mrs Werner and Jewish children supplied to you by Beverly Solsky (Burski) back row 3rd from the left.

Leon you mention your wife is part of the Felix Mendelsohn family. Is this the Felix that had Mendelsohn's Jewellers in Cape Town? If so, what was your wife's maiden name as Felix M from Cape Town son Frank lived in Upington after marrying Elma Blum whose father was one of the founders of K Lenhoff and Co. The very successful general dealer store in Upington. My wife Lois's father was related to Felix M the jeweller and two of his Grandchildren live in Melbourne.

Here is the article from the South African Jewish Times April 1978