Prospects, community building and antisemitism for Wellington’s Jewish immigrants

Wellington Diemersfontein Guest House, Wellington Shul and Rabbi’s House; and Wellington Independent Friendly Society Hall

by Gwynne Robins

A town 72km from Cape Town, on the banks of a river (the Krommerivier) in an agricultural centre growing deciduous fruit, wine and table grapes, and making brandy and whisky, was bound to be a magnet for Eastern European Jews, who were used to being the economic link between farmer and market. So it is not surprising that there was already a sizeable community by the 1890s with the Friedman, Garb, Israelson, Kaminer, Katzeff, Kesler, Saacks and Van Gelderen families.

Many served in the South African War and 11 of them attended a Jewish thanksgiving ceremony to celebrate the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902 — Corporal Herman, Lance Corporal Canin and Privates Becker, Cohen, I and C Goldstein, Jaffe, Jesner, Kowarski, Selinksy and Watner.

The Wellington Jews were sufficiently aware of the importance of history to preserve their minute books from 1902 to the late 1920s, so we have the minutes of their first meeting chaired by Mr Boas in Mr I Garb’s home in 1902 to discuss forming a congregation. They agreed to rent two rooms — one to be used for the forthcoming high Holy Day services, the other as an office, with the Wellington Zionist Society sharing the office costs (Mr Boas was its president). They drafted rules, bought chairs and furniture, agreed to charge 2/6d (two shillings and sixpence, around R200 in today’s terms) monthly for membership and elected Charles Goldstein president. The following year, with a donation from the Paarl Congregation, they bought land for a synagogue with Mr Boas chairing a building committee. Mr B Swartz built an ark and they bought a Sefer Torah for £12/10s (12 pounds and ten shillings, around R20,000 in today’s terms). In 1903, they asked the Council for land for a cemetery and until this was finally granted in 1906, they used the Paarl Cemetery.

There was a recession after the end of the South African War when the British troops left and the Witwatersrand refugees returned home, and it took time before they could afford to build a synagogue. In the meantime, when they outgrew the room, they hired the Friendly Society Hall from 1916 — the Independent Friendly Society was formed in 1894 as a community service organisation. Some of their neighbours were not friendly and would throw stones on the roof while they were praying inside or would put dead birds outside.

This unfriendly behaviour hastened their decision to go ahead and build a synagogue of their own and Isaiah Goldstein, a well-to-do mineral water manufacturer, laid the foundation stone on 24 August 1921. At that time, the community consisted of 50-60 families who paid membership fees ranging from 7/6d to one guinea per month (between R220 and R620 in today’s terms).

The synagogue which seated 80 in the men’s section was opened with a ceremony the following year. It would be difficult to throw stones onto its roof. The Cape SAJBD has in its collection the synagogue door latch key made in America presented on that occasion with an inscription, “Wellington Heb Cong, presented 23 August 1922.”

David Michalowsky donated a chandelier and the bimah was provided by the Jewish Ladies Benevolent Society which held annual balls to raise money, which they also used to pay for land on which to construct a Jewish Communal Hall (1924) and to bring down the overdraft. The synagogue and rabbi’s house was on the corner of Milner and Jan van Riebeeck Streets.

Unfriendly behaviour continued as jealousy at the success of Jews in this predominantly Afrikaans town increased. In 1925, the Town Council refused to grant a liquor license to a Jew or anyone not of European descent. The late 1920s and early 1930s were difficult years economically with a worldwide depression, soaring unemployment and widespread poverty leading to what was called a “Poor White problem”, particularly in rural areas — with Jews as convenient scapegoats.

In 1934, the antisemitic Greyshirt movement held a meeting in the Wellington Town Hall and it provided the Wellington Economic Press with material for an article on “Luther and the Jewish evil” as well as an extract from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In 1935, the Gentile Protection League held a meeting in Wellington and formed a Wellington branch to protect the Christian people. There was also an active Wellington Afrikaner Broederbond to protect the Afrikaans people, and although only two of its members were also members of the antisemitic Ossewabrandwag (OB), after a debate, they agreed that the whole branch should support the OB.

Research into the minutes of the Wellington Afrikaner Broederbond, 1937-1994, shows much hostility to its Jewish citizens. The researcher Johan Zaaiman remarks that before 1937, Jews dominated the local economy and this tendency became more marked after 1937 when there was an influx of Jewish people who had fled Nazi Germany. As the 1937 Aliens Act stopped the immigration of German Jews, and although only about 6,500 found refuge in South Africa, Wellington is unlikely to have had such an influx. Rather, the comments seem to indicate Zaaiman’s own bias.

In 1942, Woolworths’ founder, German-born Max Sonnenberg, bought the Diemersfontein fruit farm in Wellington as a family retreat and this might be the source of Zaaiman’s belief, as Sonnenberg campaigned heavily to resettle several thousand German Jews in South Africa in the 1930s. Diemersfontein has remained in the Sonnenberg family and became a top wine farm under his grandson David, with the house serving as a guest house situated in magnificent gardens.

In 1941, the Wellington Hebrew Congregation became affiliated to the SAJBD which was actively fighting antisemitism. In 1942, the house adjoining the synagogue was purchased for the rabbi and in 1945, another property was acquired to convert into a communal hall and Hebrew School.

After the war in 1946, the Broederbond decided that it was clear that Jews were running a growing number of local businesses and they should open an Afrikaner cooperative to counter it — one was opened without the Broederbond’s involvement.

What were the Jews running? In 1947, Jews owned eight farms, two shoe factories, a blanket factory, a fertiliser factory, dried fruit, canning and dehydrating plants. David Michalowsky ran the Railway Hotel and Isaac Weintraub the Commercial Hotel and, earlier, the Zilbergs had run the Masonic Hotel. Jews were also hawkers, general dealers, shopkeepers, jewellers, butchers, barbers, bakers, outfitters, doctors, attorneys, etc.

In 1953, the SAJBD held a regional conference in Wellington with representatives from Worcester and Paarl attending. Antisemitism went into decline after the war, with Afrikaner Nationalism now triumphant and the council elected Philip Sarembock as mayor from 1957 to 1960, and again from 1975 to 1978.

By 1966, the community was becoming concerned by their declining numbers and no new residents had moved into the town. Six years later, they celebrated their golden anniversary with a mincha service where Rabbi Lapin from Cape Town giving a sermon, and they approached the Cape SAJBD to increase its subsidy from R50 to R60 a month, as their expenditure exceeded their income. In 1977, the Cape SAJBD held a meeting in Worcester attended by delegates from Wellington to promote closer cooperation because of declining numbers living in the country communities.

Three years later, only 45 Jews remained in Wellington. The synagogue was closed in 1982, most of the remaining nine Jewish families in the town joined the Paarl congregation. The synagogue was sold to the Apostolic Church and the front now incorporates both the Magen David and a cross. The proceeds of the sale went to communal organisations, the Sefer Torah to Herzlia school and a Havdalah bessamin box to the Milnerton Synagogue.

By 2002, there were only three Jewish families left in Wellington. The upkeep of the cemetery was always a concern, and in the 1960s they appealed to former members for contributions. It is presently maintained by the municipality. Unfortunately, antisemitism is still alive and well in Wellington, and in December 2018 most of the 63 graves in the Jewish Cemetery had been damaged, many of the tombstones were broken in half, and some had been smashed into even smaller fragments.

“It’s greatly upsetting, especially if it’s your family member’s final resting place”, Cape SAJBD Executive Director Stuart Diamond said.

The Board together with members from Paarl and Wellington met with local government to discuss the repair work, and the fundraising that would be needed. They owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Kaufman and other members of the Paarl Jewish Community who have put a great deal of time and energy into the Wellington Cemetery restoration project.

According to Mark Kaufman, the new fence had been cut and stolen, people entered the Tahara house through the roof and ransacked the building, stealing a toilet and the beautiful wooden doors at the back. The Drakenstein Local Municipality has agreed to erect a boundary wall at the cemetery after the attack.

The Board of Deputies has now ensured that the tombstones, instead of being laid upright, have been placed at a slight angle in a bed of concrete, minimising chances of vandalism in the future. Mr Diamond has learnt that the tradition of putting headstones upright was brought from Eastern Europe, as flat stones would be covered by snow. The Cape SAJBD has also created a cemetery vandalism WhatsApp group together with the Community Security Organisation (CSO).

Much of the information in this article comes from Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities, Volume II, researched by the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth and Johan Zaaiman’s The local role of a Wellington Afrikaner Broederbond branch, 1937-1994, Historia vol.55 n.2, published in Durban in November 2010.

The Country Communities subcommittee of the Cape SAJBD looks after the cemeteries of the defunct country communities. For queries, contact stuart@ctjc.co.za

Wellington Synagogue door latch key

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website: www.capesajbd.org, Instagram, and Facebook page.

• Published in the print edition of the March/April Pesach 2021 issue. Download the March/April 2021 issue PDF here.

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