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 on the Port Elizabeth City Council.
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 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
Even though there were apparently 16 Jews among the founding settlers of 1820, exactly when Port Elizabeth acquired its first Jewish residents cannot be ascertained. Without a synagogue, those Jews in Port Elizabeth did practice their religion but is 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. 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.
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 and in March 1958 was demolished as the Glendinningvale Synagogue had been built to replace it.
On 12th December 1912, Orthodox Jews in Port Elizabeth 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 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, in spite of 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 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 of Port Elizabeth were: Samuel Rapoport 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 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.
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.
Prof George Goldswain, says 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, for example, when 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]
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)