EXODUS TO AFRICA
By Adam Yamey
This is to tell potential readers what my latest book Exodus to Africa is all about.
Prior to the British taking over the Cape Peninsula in about 1800, Jews were not permitted to live there by the Dutch East India Company that had been governing the region for several centuries. Some Jews, who converted to Christianity, did set foot in what is now ‘South Africa’, but unconverted Jews did not. The arrival of the first openly practising Jewish settlers followed close on the heels of the commencement of British rule.
At first, there was a small trickle of Jewish settlers, almost all of them from Great Britain and the German states. A few arrived from St Helena. With the arrival of the Mosenthal brothers from Kassel, the flow began to increase. The Mosenthals and their Jewish associates began setting up a chain of trading stores, which effectively began to make the remote interior of the Cape Colony begin to prosper. All of this activity began before diamonds (in about 1868) and gold (in about 1880) put South Africa (i.e. the territories that united after 1910) amongst the economically significant countries in the world. Before the discovery of these precious commodities and the opening of the Suez Canal, The Cape was little more than a place, like the tiny island of St Helena, where ships stopped to pick up water and supplies whilst they travelled between Europe and Asia. It was not a place that attracted many immigrants, Jewish or otherwise, from Europe. The USA was the most favoured destination for those seeking a better life. The diamond and gold ‘industries’ that began in the latter half of the 19th century changed this. South Africa became attractive to immigrants including the Jews. The trickle of Jews from Europe to South Africa began to become an exodus (especially from Tsarist Lithuania). At the beginning of the 19th century, there were a handful of Jews in southern Africa. By the 1930s, as many as one in twenty ‘white’ people was Jewish.
My book, Exodus to Africa, takes a fresh look at the reasons Jews chose to travel to South Africa; how they got there; what they did when they arrived; what they and their descendants did to affect the history of the country; how they helped to oppose racial inequality (apartheid and its antecedents).
The first of my relatives to arrive in South Africa was Heinrich Bergmann from Bavaria. He disembarked at Cape Town in 1849. The last of them, my father’s cousin Hendrik Jami, who arrived 100 years later. Between these two dates, many members of both of my parents’ families migrated from Europe to South Africa. Their diverse experiences cover many aspects of Jewish life in the country. Using many of their stories to illustrate these, I have attempted to produce a history of the Jews in the south of Africa. The stories are told against the ever changing historical background of the troubled country where they chose to settle. My book is based on a multitude of sources, both previously unpublished primary material (documentary and from interviews) and also published secondary documentation.
Here are a few of the ‘protagonists’, whose tales are unfolded in my book:
Heinrich Bergmann (1830-1866), an early settler typical of the Jewish man who joined the Mosenthal Brothers. His life took a surprising turn.
Jakob Seligmann (1846-1906), from Bavaria, was a ‘founding father’ of a small town in the Orange Free State. He fell afoul of the law and fled from Africa.
Sigmund Seligmann (1856-1939), also from Bavaria, started as an employee in the Cape Colony, and then began his own successful trading business before retiring to Germany in the late 1890s.
Franz Joseph Ginsberg (1862-1936), from a part of Prussia that is now Poland, began life in South Africa as a photographer. Soon, he became an industrialist, and then first an influential local politician, and later a national one. In 1927, he was elected a Senator in the Parliament of united South Africa.
Gustav Ginsberg (1872-1922), Franz’s brother, a dentist, who suffered from the effects of the vagaries of first the 2nd Boer War and then later the First World War. His sons became well-known in the arts, both in South Africa and the USA.
Iwan Bloch (1886-1931), from Baden-Württemberg, who began working as a shop assistant in Zurich, and ended up the Mayor of a town in South Africa.
Joseph Halperin (1870- c. 1949) sailed to South Africa with his wife and three children. Ran a bakery and then a dairy in Cape Town before retiring to enjoy the successes of his children who had advanced up the ‘social ladder’.
Solomon Yamey (1883-1931) left his shtetl in Tsarist Lithuania and became a wandering pedlar (‘smous’) in the Cape before owning his own successful store in an Afrikaans speaking town near Cape Town.
By the time that John Katzin (1866-1931), who was born in Tsarist Lithuania, arrived in South Africa he had already lived in Amsterdam and London. In South Africa, he made a fortune in the laundry business. Some of his children became noted in wider world of public work and literature.
Henry Polak (1882-1959), [seated left in the picture above] a lawyer with London, became one of MK (later the ‘Mahatma’) Gandhi’s close associates in South Africa.
David Kitson (1919-2010) was one of the brave people with Jewish roots who actively supported the struggle against apartheid. His cousins the Budlenders, of Lithuanian and Polish Jewish extraction, risked arrest and worse because of their brave stand against the iniquities of racial oppression in South Africa.
There is no doubt that though a small proportion of the European population of South Africa, the
Jewish people played a disproportionately large role in the development and history of its country
from 1800 onwards. Freed from the repression and hostility that they faced in the countries where
they were born, they flourished in a country that was no stranger to oppression. Exodus to Africa explores all of this and much more.
Exodus to Africa is NOW available on KINDLE:
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