Despite being a small proportion of the town’s population, the Jewish community has always been prominent in Port Elizabeth mainly due to their business and commercial acumen, but they also played a prominent role in civic affairs.
It is fair to say that everybody either had a Jewish school mate, friend, or neighbour. In the case of the McCleland’s it was the Siesel’s who had escaped from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s. Arriving in Port Elizabeth with nothing but a suitcase, Mr Siesel opened a trading operation catering for the black population. The Siesel’s were our neighbours across the road in Mowbray Street, Newton Park.
Main picture: Western Road Synagogue used primarily by Jews of German and British extraction
Even though there were apparently about 18 Jews among the founding settlers of 1820, exactly when Port Elizabeth acquired its first Jewish residents cannot be ascertained. According to Saul Issroff in an article entitled Colonial Port Jews, “ Among the members of Willson’s party of settlers, who sailed in the Belle Alliance and reached the Bay in May, 1820, were four Jewish families comprising eighteen persons, including John Norton, Philip Simons (38), Morris Sloman (33), and the Norden brothers – Benjamin, Joshua Davis, Marcus, Samuel and Harry. Maurice Garcia was another settler of Jewish descent.” What Issroff neglects to state is that as official settlers they were allocated farms in the Zuurveld and never settled in Port Elizabeth per se. As few possessed farming skills, aptitude or even a desire to farm, ultimately most would drift away and settle in the urban areas such as Port Elizabeth or Grahamstown as the Nordens initially did.
Issroff notes that “a distinguishing feature of the early Jewish settlers in the area (1820–40) was, in the main, their family and trading connections, primarily with Germany and England. “
Without a synagogue, those Jews in Port Elizabeth did practice their religion but is was adhered to within the privacy of their homes. In an era during which religion was paramount, and the convictions arising from them were a measure of one’s fellow human beings, Issroff concludes that “There was no pressure on them to convert. Some of the families seem to have been at ease in both Christian and Jewish circles, and several of the more prominent figures contributed financially to both groups. There appears to have been little discrimination against Jews in the Cape until the influx of Eastern European Jews towards the end of the 19th Century, when attempts were made to limit this immigration.”
In the early years, Jews in Port Elizabeth were active in Queen Street, close to the port, anticipating the likely direction of the development of the town. A congregation was first formed in 1855, with the hire of a small room opposite the St George’s church.
The Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation was formally constituted two years later in 1857 and a temporary synagogue, seating sixty, was set up in North End. The first Rosh Hashanah services were held there, with many Jews coming from country areas.
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. In September 1862, 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.
Creation of permanent synagogues
The use of this house was clearly an interim solution as the Congregation was determined to establish a proper synagogue in Port Elizabeth. As yet another temporary measure, the Congregation rented the Diocesan Grammar School on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road as their next synagogue in 1865. The only plausible reason for making yet another interim move rather than waiting for the completion of a proper synagogue, must have been due to the fact that the bulk of their members resided on the Hill and not in North End.
The first Jewish marriage in Port Elizabeth was that of Deborah Moss, shipwrecked stepdaughter of Saul Solomon, a trader from St Helena and later Member of the Cape Parliament, to Joseph Phillips (witnessed by Joseph Hess). A M Jackson, who arrived in 1859, was appointed marriage officer. He also secured land for a Jewish cemetery, still used today.
By 1864 the growing community, mainly from England and Germany, supported the petition for self-government and put forward Julius Mosenthal to stand for a vacancy in the Cape Legislative Assembly. Nathaniel Adler was the French Consul and the dentist Ernest Moss became the first to use anaesthetics in the town. In 1869, after lengthy correspondence with the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Dr N M Adler, Rev. Samuel Rappaport of Portsmouth was appointed minister. He held the post for 25 years, serving communities in other parts of the Cape, Natal and the Orange Free State. Rev. David Wasserzug succeeded him.
Meanwhile property had been acquired in Western Road and on the 17th April 1876, the foundation stone of the Western Road Synagogue was laid by the President of the Hebrew congregation, A.M. Jackson. The architect was J.T. Cook who envisaged a domed building based upon the Berlin Synagogue. It was consecrated on the 2nd September 1877. In 1918, a Hebrew school opened in Albany Road and in March 1958 the Western Road Synagogue was demolished as the Glendinningvale Synagogue had been built to replace it.
In 1875, Port Elizabeth’ s Eastern Star noted that “the educated Jews and Germans. have been of inestimable advantage not only to the social life, but to the commerce and business, of Port Elizabeth, they are open-hearted and openhanded. Seven of the 38 members of the Port Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce in 1871 were Jewish films“.
In I877 this small congregation sent £150 to the Anglo-Jewish Association for ‘distressed co religionists’ in Turkey. During the Anglo-Boer War, a Refugee Relief Committee was formed to assist Jewish refugees who had come from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. A number of the refugees felt they were badly treated and exploited by the community, and letters of complaint were sent to the Jewish Chronicle (London). At this time funds were also collected for relief of distress in Russia and Romania.
The Glendinningvale Synagogue was constructed during the late 1950s. Due to the declining Jewish population in Port Elizabeth, now estimated to be no more than 450 from a peak of 2500 in the 1980s, this synagogue became surplus to requirements. In light of this development, the Synagogue was sold in 2005 and converted into flats called Chatham House. The change of use clearly had a huge impact on the appearance of the building, but some elements of the original are still visible.
According to Ivor Markman in his article, Jewish Settlers Played a Role, there are believed to have been at least 16 Jewish settlers who came out with the 1820 Settlers.
This is presumably how the well-known Jewish surnames in the Eastern Cape such as Hyman, Osler, Norden, Davis, Goldswain, Goodman, Jackson, Jacobs, Lasky, Oxley, Palmer, Porter and Richardson arose. Like many of the other immigrants, most of the Jewish settlers struggled with farming and returned to their previous occupations in the larger villages.
In the early years, the source of Jewish settlers was predominantly England and Germany. It was two German Jews whose contribution to the development of farming in the Eastern Province was immeasurable. Collectively they were instrumental in making Port Elizabeth the largest export port in the Cape within twenty years of the arrival of the 1820 settlers, despite Port Elizabeth lacking a harbour. Essentially the Dutch farmer operated on a subsistence basis producing sufficient for his family. Those who cultivated for sale defined their market as the Cape. First it was Maximillian Thalwitzer who imported the famous merino sheep into the country. Then along came the Mosenthal brothers, Adolph and Joseph, who, in 1852, were instrumental 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. Not only did they develop the export market, but they provided the farmers with loans, advise, training and the wherewithal to become partners in the supply chain.
In its heyday, the Mosenthal’s business was one of the largest in Port Elizabeth. Both my maternal grandfather and my mother were employed by the Mosenthals as wool sorter and typist, respectively. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, these astute businessmen followed the nascent opportunities by moving into the diamond business as the wool business stagnated as did their erstwhile base, Port Elizabeth.
It was another Jew, this time from England, Benjamin Norden, who played a leading role in the construction of the first jetty.
In his informative article, Jewish Settlers Played a Role, Ivor Markman provides a summary of the achievements of the Jews in Port Elizabeth as follows:
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 the Mosenthals 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 17 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.
Ministers in Port Elizabeth were: Samuel Rappaport 1873–94, Jacob Philips 1897–1912, and Abraham Levy 1912–54 (with a short break).
Pogroms and immigration
It was now that the origin of the Jewish immigrants would switch to Eastern Europe 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 country.
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. Most of these rural towns still have their Jewish cemetery but no Jewish residents.
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 arrival of ‘Russian’ Jews, mainly from Lithuania and Latvia in the 1890s, increased the size of the community (although it probably never rose above 3000 souls). As a percentage of the SA Jewish population, Pott Elizabeth Jewry averaged 2.4% in the period 1936-1980). They did not integrate easily with the Anglo and German-origin Jews and eventually built their own synagogue .
On 12th December 1912, Orthodox Jews in Port Elizabeth, mainly originating from Eastern Europe, first obtained their own Synagogue when the newly completed synagogue in Raleigh Street, Richmond Hill, was consecrated by Chief Rabbi Dr Juda Leo Landau on the 11th of the month. This community, consisting of more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, had first worshipped in a house in Hartman Street, Richmond Hill from 1908. This fine Art Nouveau building, designed by Orlando Middleton, was declared a National Monument in 1987 and is today maintained as a museum of local Jewish history.
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 their 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.
Apart from Hyman Henry Salomon being mayor from 1873–75, other Jews also made their mark as well. Max Gumpert served as major in 1900 and Solly Rubin in 1972–3, but the most prominent was Adolph Schauder who was a Councillor for 43 years and mayor for four years from 1940 to 1944.
Numerous sources claim that Jeremiah Goldswain was of Jewish extraction. Prof George Goldswain rebuts this assertion and claims that his 1820 ancestor, Jeremiah, was not Jewish. According to his mother Pauline’s book on Jeremiah, to set the record straight after the Settlers TV serial made him out to be a bumbling idiot when, for example, he dropped his future wife in the surf when they first landed at PE: “The family name was originally, many centuries before, Goodson. Over the years by pronunciation and spelling was changed from Goodson to Godsen, Godswen, Goodswein, Goolswain and today Goldswain.” [The Settler named Jeremiah, privately published 1983, p ix]
Colonial Port Jews: The Jews of Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape by Saul Issrof (SA-SAG, Vol 15, Issue 1, April 2017) Article, Jewish Settlers Played a Role, Ivor Markman
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)