A living archive for South African Jewry

Kathrine Garrun looks at the role that community archives — including digital archives — play in telling the story of South African Jewish life 

By Kathrine Garrun (First published by Dafkadotcom, 12 January 2023)

On Sunday, 18 April 2021, a devastating fire on Table Mountain spread rapidly to the University of Cape Town (UCT), and soon ignited the roof of the historic Jagger Reading Room, engulfing the treasured African Studies Library. 

The fire resulted in irreparable loss of historical collections. Although also situated on upper campus of UCT, and perilously close to the flames, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, and its archival store, was untouched by the fire.

​Such a loss would have been unimaginable. Our collections — personal papers, congregational and organisational records, oral histories, and photographic materials — tell the story of South African Jewish life. They not only connect South African Jews to their past but are crucial repositories for any future research on the community and South African Jewry. 

A community of collectors

​Though much smaller than it once was, the South African Jewish community remains highly organised and vibrant. This is evident too in the community’s commitment to preserving its history.

Very many families have preserved personal family records, documents, photographs and other memories, be it in family films, photographs or even in holding onto their great-grandparent’s ship tickets to South Africa.

​This simple act of keeping family mementos is one of the many ways we as a community have maintained a close connection to our collective past.

Retaining documents and other historical paper materials from our forebearers, of course, is not unique to the South African Jewish community; many communities see the importance of keeping family documents and heirlooms. In my experience, as the Jewish studies archivist, however, there is something distinct in collecting for a group of people who have witnessed so much historical upheaval. Evident from the volume of collections held in our archive, experiences such as displacement, persecution, migration and varying degrees of acceptance in new lands, has led communities like ours to hold onto these concrete memories of the past. It is unsurprising that such an unsettled and unsure existence would result in commitment to preserve one’s history. 

The role of archives: memory and history

At the Kaplan Centre’s 2020 online conference, Jews in South Africa: New directions in research, Prof. Gideon Shimoni suggested that there is often a disjuncture between what historians know and write about, and the community’s “collective memory” — that being how we, as a community, remember our history.  

Archives, like the Kaplan Centre’s, allow us to engage with that which has been remembered but also all that which has been forgotten. The Kaplan Centre’s archive, for example, holds a series of some 400 interviews conducted with first-generation Jewish immigrants to South Africa, many of whom with memories of life in Lithuania and of South Africa in the first decades of the 20th century. Their experiences, today distant in time and largely forgotten, are now preserved as digital recordings and transcriptions. 

Similarly, our digital archive holds multiple first-person interviews conducted with men and women who, in various ways and to varying degrees, participated in the anti-apartheid struggle. Listening to these accounts we are presented with insights that can sometimes push against mainstream communal narratives regarding the extent to which Jewish individuals and groups participated in the struggle against apartheid. 

A Jewish living archive

The Jewish Living Archive (JLA) combines the paper archive of the Kaplan Centre — collected since the 1980s — with digital historical documentation assembled by the South African Jewish Museum. 

​The Kaplan Centre currently holds around 200 collections of Jewish communal and congregational records as well as a plethora of personal papers. Essential materials we collect include minute books, annual reports, birth, death and marriage registers, academic writings, newspaper clippings, photographs and correspondence, to name but some. The focus of our archive concerns South African Jewry from 1880 to the present day. 

Our digital archive is largely dedicated to preserving family collections. Here we preserve and publicly display digital copies of family photographs, films and text documents such as letters, certificates and memoirs.

Although the JLA collects material relating to Jewish South African history, it also acts as a lens through which to view many universal topics of interest such as migration, displacement, identity, religion, business, arts, culture, academic, medicine etc. 

Challenges and conclusion 

As evidenced by the scale of destruction wrought by the UCT fire, paper as a medium is vulnerable and always at risk. Although digitisation is one solution, it can be a complicated process that demands time, expertise and resources that are not always available.

The work of an archivist revolves around sensitivity. Often when primary source materials were generated, it was not known that someday they would be made available for public consumption. Personal correspondence, photographs, and films contain private thoughts and experiences. This may make them all the more important for historical research, but it also requests protection and consideration. This is especially so with Jewish history, which has occurred around much historical turmoil. The current climate has seen renewed instances of antisemitism and I am constantly mindful of how we present our digital archival collections. Part of my job is to make people aware of what it means to share personal family materials online. Our archives are primarily for research and community engagement, and as far as is possible we have systems in place to prevent abuse and oversharing.

Holding the title of Jewish studies archivist has given me the rare opportunity to develop an insight into our history by being able to access ‘the voices’ of many generations past. This could be in listening to interviews that were recorded before I was born, to reading letters sent across the globe before my father was even born. This is a position of responsibility and my aim is to bring to light these materials so that others — be they academics, community members or the broader public — are able to access these historical experiences.

Kathrine Garrun is an archivist and researcher with a keen interest in open access knowledges systems and digital cultural preservation in the global south.

The University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies www.kaplancentre.uct.ac.za

• Published in the February 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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  1. […] These forty years have produced a colourful record of the social and communal history of the Cape Town Jewish community, and a window onto our changing world. The Gitlin Library and the CJC office each houses a set of bound volumes of all print editions of the CJC; and work is currently underway to include digital copies of these to the The Jewish Living Archive (see page 22 or click here).  […]


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