The loss of a community

Wandering through a couple of old cemeteries in the area recently I came across separate sections were the headstones bore Jewish names. I thought about my village and how many Jewish residents there where and I soon realized a once thriving community that was spread across the Eastern Free State is no more. I started to look for research material on the subject and here is what I came up with.

Non-protestants and Jews where initially denied the right to settle in the Cape during the rule of the Dutch East India company (1652-1795). The extension of religious tolerance by the Batavian republic and its entrenchment by the British in 1806 allowed a handful of Jews, mainly of English, Dutch and German origin to settle in the Cape and beyond. However these men and women would not have been the first Jewish people to be associated with Africa. Jewish slaves where used in Pharaohs Egypt and many a sailor that looked for a safe passage to the east via the Cape of Storms where of Jewish heritage. Among the initial immigrants to South African shores was a young adventurer call Nathaniel Isaacs who made contact with Shaka and Dingaan.

In 1841 a Jewish community was formally established in Cape Town, this was the mother congregation of South African Jewery. The community comprised mainly of merchants and through their trading activities accelerated the transition from subsistence to a cash economy. While the discovery of diamonds in the 1860’s only attracted a few Jewish fortune hunters, they played a significant role in the rapid expansion of this industry among the most successful would be Flamboyant Londoner Barney Barnarto, Lithuanian Sammy Marks and Hamburg born Alfred-Beit. The death of the Tsar followed by pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe saw an influx of Jewish Immigrants in to South Africa with many gyrating towards the countryside, either to the dorps or to isolated locations along busy transport routes. Some crossed the countryside as smouse (itinerant peddlers), where devout Boer farmers who regarded them as the “people of the book” received them warmly. These entrepreneurs were significant agents of the commercial revolution that transformed the South African countryside in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They acted as intermediates between the dorps and the producers, both black and white. Jewish storekeepers and smouse bought wool, maize and skins from Boer landowners and black sharecroppers and then sent them to urban markets and wholesalers. In turn the Jewish country stores met the growing needs of these emergent rural consumers.

Many Jews in South Africa embraced the Afrikaans community that they did business in and this is evident that during the Boer war of 1899 – 1902 a number of Jews fought alongside the commandos against the British, while a larger number it must be said served with the British forces. I came across a newspaper article recently regards the erecting of a memorial to the Jews that died while fighting during the Boer war. Of the 13 that died 9 were killed in action 3 died in the POW camps and one was killed accidentally by his own forces , this came about due to his being hard of hearing and he did not hear the sentry demand him give the password, he was subsequently shot. It would seem that a one Harry Spanier was the first Boer Jewish fatality.

Why is it then that once vibrant communities of traders and businessmen in the platteland disappeared from the scene? Well my theory is that like other Plattelanders the attraction of the cities became too much to ignore especially during the depression years and with the exodus of people from the villages and dorps the very lifeblood of the Jewish traders and businessmen ebbed away. The Jewish community understood that they needed to move to were the business was and with that once strong Jewish communities just faded away.

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