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Monday, 2 April 2012

A worthy great grandfather

Franz Ginsberg and the ITO

Has the world forgotten the massacres in Kieff in 1880, 1881, and 1882, …, or in Kischinieff and Gomel in 1903? In Kieff the houses of Jews were fired and pillaged. The children were torn from their mother’s breasts and dashed to pieces before their eyes. Four hundred souls were destroyed in two days. … Then at the massacre at Kischinieff last year the young Jewish girls were outraged before the eyes of their parents. One frantic woman tore herself from her captors and rushed to her daughter’s rescue, but a blow from the butt of a soldier’s rifle scattered her brains. The Pristav and the Politzmaister, with police and soldiery, looked on at the slaughter.”  Thus wrote the author Carl Joubert in 1905, after having lived for nine years in the Russian Empire.

Ginsberg Township on the edge of King Williams Town was
  named in honour of  the author's great grandfather Franz Ginsberg

Reports of atrocities such as those reported by Joubert in 1905 were frequently published in South African newspapers including those which my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) perused at his breakfast table in King Williams Town. Having left Beuthen in Prussia for British Kaffraria in 1880, he was by 1905 not only a prosperous industrialist and the Mayor of King Williams Town, but also a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Cape Colony. The reports of the massacres filled him with concern for the fate of his co-religionists who had not been as fortunate as him to have been able to have found new home in a country where the Jew was held in as high a regard as the gentile. Maybe, it was such a consideration that led him to take a leading role in the South African branch of short-lived Jewish Territorial Organisation (‘ITO’).


In 1903, the British Government, sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in Russia and other parts of the east of Europe, offered the Zionist Congress territory in British East Africa as a national home and country of refuge for the persecuted Jews. This scheme known as the “British Uganda Programme” captured the imagination and approval of the writer and Zionist activist Israel Zangwill (1864-1926). At the Sixth Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1903, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the father of Zionism, proposed accepting the British offer. He had recently visited Russia and seen for himself the plight of the Jews there, and this had impressed on him the urgency of finding a refuge for them. The Russian Zionists were not enthusiastic: they were prepared to consider only Palestine as the homeland for the Jews. A vote was held. However, following a vote a majority of the delegates at the Congress favoured sending an expedition to examine the territory offered by the British.  A year later, Herzl died. 

At the Seventh Congress, held again in Basel, held shortly after Herzl’s death, the delegates learnt that Uganda was unsuitable for settlement because of the wild animals there and also because it was considered that the native Maasai would be too hostile to have as neighbours. They then voted to consider that the only place that could be considered as a National Home for the Jews was Palestine. No other place would be acceptable.

This decision caused a group of mainly Western Jewish delegates led by Israel Zangwill to lose patience with, and to leave the Zionist movement and to form a breakaway organisation, the ITO. Its objective was to seek an ‘empty’ territory anywhere in the world which could become a safe refuge for the persecuted Jews.  

The ITO in South Africa

In July 1905, the First South African Zionist Congress was held in Johannesburg. One of its resolutions was to instruct the South African delegates who would be attending the forthcoming Seventh Zionist Congress to support the granting of power to consider any offer made by any government of a suitable piece of land on which an autonomous Jewish colony could be established. The ITO whose formation followed the Seventh Congress found favour with many Jews - Zionists and others - in South Africa. Soon after the congress held in Johannesburg, branches of the ITO began to be opened all over South Africa.

One of these opened in Cape Town. It was actively supported by leading Jews such as the Reverend AP Bender (1863-1937) and also by leading gentiles such as the novelist Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) and her brother the politician and former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, WP Schreiner (1857-1919). Olive addressed a meeting of the ITO in 1906 with the words: “I would welcome the exiled Russian Jew to South Africa, not merely with pity, but with a feeling of pride that any member of that great, much-suffering people, to whom the world owes so great a debt, should find a home and refuge among us; and with the certainty that however broken, crushed and dwarfed he might appear to be  by the long ages of suffering and wrong which have passed over him, he would recuperate and rise…”  Schreiner’s words were prophetic: many Jews from Eastern Europe did come to South Africa where they did indeed “recuperate and rise”. Amongst the great and good who heard these words at the meeting held in the Cape of Good Hope Hall on the 6th of July was my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg.

King Williams Town.

The remains of Ginsberg's factory 
in King Williams Town, 2003

A month after the Zionists had assembled in Johannesburg, and a year before he attended the ITO meeting in Cape Town, my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg was elected to serve another term as Mayor of King Williams Town. In February 1906, he chaired a public meeting in King Williams Town about the ITO. It was the first time that this secularly-oriented man had presided at a specifically Jewish meeting. At this gathering a Mrs Auerbach spoke about the ITO. After she had given a lecture about the ITO, Ginsberg’s brother-in-law Siegfried Salamon (1870-1913) proposed: “That this meeting of the Jewish people and sympathizers of KWT is of the opinion that the only practical solution of the Jewish problem is the procuring of a colony upon an autonomy basis for those Jews, who cannot, or will not, remain in the land in which they at present live, and pledges itself to give moral and material support to the ITO”. This motion found favour with those attending the meeting.  A week later the local newspaper noted that both Ginsberg and Salomon had made sizeable contributions to the local Russian Jews Relief Fund.

On Tuesday, the 22nd May 1906, Franz Ginsberg left King Williams Town on the 6.42 pm train bound for Cape Town via Aliwal North, and Kimberley. He arrived at the capital in time for the opening of Parliament three days later. It was whilst he was taking part in Parliamentary debates that he attended the ITO meeting mentioned above.  Several months later, having returned to King Williams Town, Ginsberg attended a meeting the town’s own sympathisers of the ITO. This was held in mid-October at the Sons of England Hall.

Table Mountain, Cape Town

The meeting was chaired by Siegfried Salamon. Franz Ginsberg delivered a very eloquent address on the aims and object of the ITO. First, he pointed out the differences between the ITO and the Zionists. Whilst he was in sympathy with the Zionists, who preferred Palestine to any other country, for they regarded that to be due to the spiritual longing of the Jew for the Holy Land, he regarded the Territorial Scheme to be a more feasible and practical one. He continued his speech by saying that although the Jews in South Africa were in the main law-abiding and good, it was most important that they behaved even better than others in the country, so as to be able to dispel the prejudice and suspicion that existed in certain quarters against the Jews who happened to come from Russia. At the end of his speech, Ginsberg urged the necessity of forming a branch of the ITO in King Williams Town. Following this, about forty people enrolled to become members of the ITO. My great grandfather was elected president of the local branch, and Salomon, Vice-president. A week later, Ginsberg addressed a large meeting in East London in support of the objects of the ITO.

Shortly after the meeting held in East London, a branch of the ITO was opened in that port. However, after this Ginsberg seems to have had no more public involvement in the ITO. The most likely explanation of this is that by the end of 1906, interest in the ITO began to diminish rapidly amongst the Jews of South Africa .


Franz Ginsberg came to South Africa in 1880, aged sixteen. He came from a religious background. His father, the brilliant mathematician Dr Nathan Ginsberg (1840-1890) turned down the opportunity to take up a professorship at least two German universities because he felt unable to abandon Judaism and to be baptised, as was required of senior academics in those days. Instead, he helped found a Jewish school in Beuthen. Franz came to South Africa partly to make his fortune but also to escape the restrictions imposed on Jews in 19th century Germany.  Like many of the Jews who came from Germany to South Africa in that time, he felt that the way to become acceptable in the British-orientated society was to assimilate - to seem less foreign to his British neighbours. This included the suppression of outward manifestations of his inner religious beliefs. In this context, it is interesting that one of the very few public manifestations of his religion was his active involvement in the ITO - an organisation that attracted as many gentiles as it did Jews. Thus, he supported a Jewish cause without risking undue public exposure as a Jew. 

In all fairness, my great grandfather was a supporter of all the oppressed, regardless of their race, creed, or colour, and is still well remembered  and honoured (for example by the Steve Biko Foundation in King Williams Town) for his championship of the welfare of the black African. 

Monument to Steve Biko outside the house in Ginsberg Township
 (close to King Williams Town), where he lived under house arrest.