The Jewish links to South Africa are said to have originated with the Portuguese voyages of exploration around the Cape in 1452. Jews were involved in these early voyages as mapmakers, navigators and sailors.
In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck led the first permanent settlement of Dutch colonists under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company. With his group were Samuel Jacobson and David Hijlbron, the earliest recorded Jews.
The Dutch East India Company controlled the Cape from 1652 – 1795 and only permitted Protestant Christians to reside at the Cape despite the significant number of Jewish shareholders in the company. Due to this, Jacobson and Hijlbron were baptized Christians on December 25, 1669, with records of these baptisms found in the registers of the Dutch Reformed Church. This was in contrast to the Dutch West India Company, which sent two hundred Jews to colonize Brazil in 1642.
Colorful characters such as the soldier Isaac Moses, known as “old Moses the Moneychanger” and Joseph Suasso de Lima of Amsterdam, who started the first Dutch newspaper in SA, arrived. Nathaniel Isaacs, an early explorer of Natal who befriended the famous Zulu chief, Chaka, was a Jew. Early British families include De Pass, who played a major part in the establishment of the shipping, sugar and fishing industries. Saul Solomon founded the English press in Cape Town.
Increased religious freedom, permitted under the short lived Batavian Republic in 1803, continued after the British took control in 1806. In 1820, the British government gave assisted passage and land grants to people willing to settle in the wilds of the Cape Colony. The first group of settlers was known as the 1820 settlers. Early British Jewish immigration occurred with about sixteen Jews arriving amongst the 1820 Settlers. This included the Norden and Norton families who played a significant role in the early development of the Cape Colony. In the 1860′s, other European Jews started to arrive from Germany and Holland.
By 1880, there were about 4,000 Jews in South Africa. It is estimated that more than half of these were brought out from Hesse-Cassel, Germany, by the Mosenthal family, who developed extensive trading operations in the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and Natal.
From 1880, Jewish immigration increased rapidly. The pogroms (1881-1884) and other catastrophes – droughts, floods, deportation and fires, particularly in Kovno Gubernia, the Russian province with Kovno ( Kaunas now) were major factors in the emigration. The choice of South Africa was determined by special circumstances and not, on the whole by the attractions it offered to the general run of settlers who were not refugees. There was strong potential for success – in particular with the discovery of the diamond fields in Kimberley in 1869 and the goldfields in the Transvaal in 1886.
Sammy Marks, from Neustadt, Suwalki Gubernia (province), is regarded as the pioneer of Lithuanian emigration – he became a friend of President Paul Kruger and was highly successful as an industrialist. Barney Barnato, London born, was a partner of Cecil John Rhodes in the formation of the De Beers Diamond Company (later control passing to the German Jewish family of Ernest Oppenheimer with the assistance of the Rothschilds).
Over 47,000 Jews were enumerated in the first nationwide census of 1911. Most of these were Lithuanian (Litvaks) from the then provinces of Kovno, Vilna (Lithuania), Courland (Latvia), Northern Suwalki (East Prussia and later Poland) and Minsk, Grodno, Vitebsk, Mogilev (Belarus).
As an undeveloped country, South Africa offered opportunities to early immigrants that were far better than anything they could have had in Eastern Europe. The travelling hawker or “smous” became an institution in the remote rural areas. Many settled in small towns as shopkeepers and tradesmen. A number of very efficient entrepreneurial farmers were founders of the wool industry, ostrich feather industry and the citrus industry.
The Contemporary Community
The distinctive characteristics of this community as compared to other new world communities are:
The predominance of Litvaks (Jews from Lithuania, Latvia and portions of Belarus), hence the unusually homogenous composition of the community.
The very strong influence of Zionism in the South African community.
The amalgam of Anglo-Jewish form and Lithuanian spirit which characterizes the institutions, both lay and religious of the community. The Jewish day school movement is a powerful educational presence and its pupils consistently get excellent scholastic results.
The distinctive situation where Jews had formed part of a privileged minority dominating a multiracial society. This has also led to Jews becoming prominent in the anti-apartheid and liberation movements.
In the past 30 years, there has been a large emigration of Jews to the USA, Canada, Australia, Britain and Israel. Political and economic change has led to an influx of Zimbaweans, Israelis and Russian Jews.
At various times attempts were made to limit the influx of Jews, e.g., in 1903, by excludion on the grounds that Yiddish was not a European language. This was successfully countered in the Cape Legislative Assembly.
Jewish immigrants came by ship with the major port of entry being at Cape Town (a small number entered at Port Elizabeth and Durban). The major waves of migration occurred from 1895 onwards. Shipping agents, Knie and Co. and Spiro and Co., had subagents in shtetls (small towns) who accepted bookings for passage to South Africa.
Embarking initially at the port of Libau (Latvia), a good proportion of the Jews were transported on small cargo boats under rudimentary conditions to England. A much smaller number passed through Hamburg or Bremen.
Upon arriving in England, many came first to Grimsby or London and were taken to the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter (PJTS) in Leman Street in the East End of London.
The Shelter inmates received assistance in the form of board, lodging, medical treatment and travel advice was given by the Shelter. In one year alone, from November, 1902, 3,600 out of 4,500 Shelter inmates went on the Union Castle Line to the Cape. In 1902, the fare was £10.10.0 (ten guineas) – more than the fare to America (For a more detailed discussion of these and shipping records see the article by Prof A Newman SHEMOT Vol. 1:3 1993).
Emigration Records from Great Britain
Ships’ Passenger Lists at the Public Records Office, Kew, London, are stored under reference BT 26 Passenger Lists, Inwards, 1878-1888 and 1890-1960, these lists give the names of all passengers arriving in the United Kingdom where the ship’s voyage began at a port outside Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.
Names of passengers who boarded these ships at European ports and disembarked in the UK are included in the lists. Passenger lists for ships whose voyages both began and ended within Europe (including the UK and the Mediterranean Sea ) are not included.
BT 27 Passenger Lists, Outwards, 1890-1960, give the names of all passengers leaving the UK where the ship’s eventual destination was a port outside Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. Passenger lists for ships whose voyages both began and ended within Europe (including the UK and the Mediterranean Sea ) are not included.
The Cape Town Archives also houses immigration records of Jewish people which are held in the CCP collections.
The Johannesburg Jewish Helping Hand and Burial Society (Chevra Kadisha). The majority of Jews have been buried in large cities. Johannesburg probably accounts for over 75% of all burials. The earliest record is that of Albert Rosetenstein in May 1887. Burials commenced in 1887 for Braamfontein cemetery, Brixton in 1914 and West Park in 1942).
Specific information about individuals or communities may often be obtained from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
Synagogues and communal records include:
Marriages: Marriage authorization certificates and copy Ketubot marriage certificates) and ‘Gets’ (religious divorce)
Orthodox : The Office of the Chief Rabbi can give copies of marriage and divorce certificates. (United Hebrew Congregation). The vast majority of Jews in South Africa are Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazim. These are Jews descended from the medieval Jewish communities of the Rhineland. Many later migrated, largely eastward, forming communities in Germany, Poland, Austria, Eastern Europe and elsewhere between the 10th and 19th centuries. There is also a strong Lubavich (Chabad branch of Hasidic Judaism founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi ) movement and smaller Sephardi (Sephardim are those Jews associated with the Iberian peninsula and whose traditional language is Ladino.The name comes from Sepharad, a Biblical location that may have been Sardes, but identified by later Jews as the Iberian Peninsula (and southern France). In the vernacular of modern-day Israel , Sephardi has also come to be used as an umbrella term for any Jewish person who is not Ashkenaz) and Masorti congregations. There are 48 Orthodox Religious groups listed in Johannesburg.
Reform communities keep separate records (United Progressive Jewish Congregation of Johannesburg). Many Jews remain with a strong identity but outside the religious net. Intermarriage is very common, but emigration is the main limiting factor to population growth. (Reform Judaism affirms the central tenets of Judaism – God, Torah and Israel – even as it acknowledges the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices. All human beings are created in the image of God, and that we are God’s partners in improving the world. Tikkun olam – repairing the world – is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as we strive to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people).
South African Online Jewish Genealogy
The Southern Africa SIG (special interest group) was founded in 1998.The SIG publishes a quarterly newsletter. General information about the SA Community and genealogical research is on
The SA-SIG has an electronic discussion group with a free subscription on JewishGen WebForm Centre for Jewish Migration & Genealogy Studies
Our intention is to create a comprehensive database of records and information relating to Jewish immigration to South Africa.
The thinking behind the inception of the Jewish Migration and Genealogy Project is twofold:
to map the entire history of Jewish migration to South Africa with the aim of providing authoritative and definitive data for the Discovery Centre at the South African Jewish Museum (SAJM).
To integrate the genealogical data in multi-disciplinary research initiatives under the auspices of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre at the University of Cape Town.
The primary aim of the project is to research the estimated 15,000 core families who migrated to Southern Africa between 1850-1950 from England, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus.
In broad terms, the research will focus on the locations where the families originated, patterns of migration to South Africa, where families first settled, communities they established, growth of families, and subsequent movements and emigration. As such, aspects such as passenger arrival lists, naturalization lists, community records, records of marriages, births and deaths, family trees, etc., will be looked at.
The centre is under the umbrella of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town and will also have a public access section located at the South African Jewish Museum.
South African Jewish Rootsweb
South African Jewish Museum South Africa Jewish History Virtual Tour
S. A. Special Interest Group for Jewish Genealogy
Jewishgen – Jewish genealogy main site
Witbank Jewish Genealogy site
Jewish South Africa – the South African Jewish community on the Web. Beyachad South Africa Board of Deputies
African Jewish Congress
Telfed – the website for the Southern African Jewish Community in Israel
Notable Personalities, Civic affairs, charities:
Dr Henry Gluckman
Sir Raymond Hoffenberg Philip V. Tobias
Sir Anthony Sher
Commerce and Industry
Esreal Lazarus – potato king
Motion Pictures- Schlezinger
Sir Mark Wienberg
Acknowledgements and Source: Saul Isroff
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