Jewish settlers played a role
Perhaps because of their small numbers, not much is known about the early Jewish settlers who came to Port Elizabeth but it is believed at least 16 came out with the 1820 British settlers, lured to this land by the same dream of a better life, writes Ivor
JEWISH settlers who arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1820 had much the same introduction to their new land as those they arrived with – they were dumped on open land, given a tent and a piece of land to farm.
And so the Jewish surnames Hyman, Osler, Norden, Davis, Goldswain, Goodman, Jackson, Jacobs, Lasky, Oxley, Palmer, Porter and Richardson, now well known in Port Elizabeth, became ingrained in the fabric of what is now a melting pot of cultures and religions.
Most of the Jewish settlers struggled with f arming and returned to their previous occupations in the larger villages.
Most of the early Jewish settlers were from Britain and Germany, and though few in numbers, they contributed greatly to the development of Port Elizabeth.
The now famous merino sheep was first imported into the country by a German Jew, Maximilian Thalwitzer, while an English Jew, Benjamin Norden, played a leading role in the construction of the first jetty.
Two other German Jews, Adolph and Joseph Mosenthal, were instrumental in 1852, in setting up a wool-trading network between merino farmers in the Eastern Cape and European consumers, as well as exporting hides and skins, providing many jobs in the process. Adolph travelled to Turkey in 1856 and introduced Angora goats to the country.
And while Jews in Port Elizabeth worked hard, they also ensured their religion was adhered to within the privacy of their homes.
As the Jewish community grew, the first marriage officer, Albert Jackson, later president of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation (PEHC), arrived and took up residence in 1859. Three years later, 42 years after the arrival of the British settlers, the PEHC was founded.
Within weeks, a house in Queen’s Street was fitted out as a synagogue with an ark and “bima” (reading table) and seating for 60 congregants arranged, just in time for the Jewish New Year celebrations on September 25, 1862.
Three years later the Diocesan Grammar School at the top of Whites Road was taken over and served as the synagogue.
In 1873, there were 20 Jewish families in Port Elizabeth who were, according to the London Jewish Chronicle, “chiefly Germans of the higher class, merchants in a very extensive way of business, for this place is considered the ‘London of South Africa’”.
A prominent merchant, August Hirsch, worked for Mosethals but in 1876 opened his own company Hirsch, Loubser and Co.
He was a member of the Harbour Board and the Chamber of Commerce and lived in a house called “Hillside” in Bird Street, which later became part of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
His wife Kate was the president of the Victoria Memorial Home.
His son, John Gauntlett Hirsch, was born in Port Elizabeth and joined his father’s business.
He built and lived in the magnificent house “Harland” in Annerley Terrace in 1910, which later became the Maritime Club.
An ardent sportsman, he was a member of the first Springbok rugby team to tour England in both the 1906/7 and 1910 tours.
He also represented Eastern Province at cricket and golf and asked for his ashes to be spread on the PECC pitch after his death.
Alfred Edmund Marks (1879 – 1920) ran the local auction house for many years.
His wife, Lilian, taught braille, and was instrumental in the advancement of the sign language in South Africa.
She was a member of the school board and sat on the library committee, the Victoria Home, and was a member of the Ladies Benevolent Society.
In 1874 there were two more Jews who did their community proud.
Simeon Jacobs was appointed “attorney-general of the colony” and Hyman Henry Solomon became the first Jewish mayor.
The Chronicle wrote “He is the first Jewish mayor in the colony where there has been, and still exists, a certain amount of prejudice against the Jews”.
Solomon served a second term as mayor and Jacobs was offered the position of Diamond Fields Judge – but declined.
A short while later the first minister, the Reverend S Rapaport, was “imported” to serve the community.
On April 17 1876, Jackson laid the foundation stone of the new Western Road Synagogue. The building was demolished in March 1958, after the congregation moved to the new Glendinningvale Synagogue.
As a result of the pogroms in Russia/Lithuania between 1881 and 1884, Jewish immigration to South Africa increased dramatically and today they constitute the vast majority of South African Jews.
Opportunities in an emerging South Africa were far superior to anything refugees could have found in Eastern Europe.
The diamond and gold discoveries in 1886 attracted an estimated 40 000 Lithuanian Jews (known as Litvaks) to the countr y.
Many Jewish refugees settled in rural towns and opened small shops or hotels, utilised their skills as tradesmen, became “smouse” (travelling hawkers), while a small number founded the ostrich feather and citrus industries.
Jews were not always welcomed and an unsuccessful attempt was made to limit their numbers into the country by declaring, in 1903, that Yiddish, which was their home language, was not a European language.
The Quota Act of 1930 was introduced to restrict the number of Jews entering the country by making “assimilability” a reason to reject admission.
More restrictions were introduced with the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and pro-Nazi sympathies, with the result that only 3 600 Jewish immigrants were allowed into the country between 1933 and 1936 and during World War 2 it was estimated that less than 500 were allowed into the country.
HISTORIC BUILDING NO MORE: Adolph Mosenthal & Co’s headquarters building which used to stand on the side of the Market Square, near the City Hall. This magnificent building, opened on February 5 1905, was demolished in 1974-75 to make way for the...
JEWISH PIONEERS MUSEUM: The old Raleigh Street Synagogue was opened in 1912 by Chief Rabbi Dr Juda Leo Landau. It is today the Jewish Pioneers Museum PHOTOGRAPH: IVOR MARKMAN