The complacency of these assimilated Anglo-German Jews was abruptly shattered with the exodus from Eastern Europe of more religiously observant Jews. Their exodus from an autocratic brutal leader, a Tsar, not a Pharaoh, began after they read in a special supplement to a Jewish newspaper Rassviet a statement authorised by the Russian Minister of the Interior, Count Ignatyev, that said: “The Western Frontier is open for the Jews... and the Jews have taken ample advantage of this right and their emigration has in no way been hampered”.[i] From 1881 a steadily increasing trickle of Jewish immigrants arrived in South Africa all hopeful for a Golden South Africa. One new immigrant wrote:

“We had strange fancies about South Africa. For most of us, living as we were in dire poverty and squalor, it was a fantastic world where the streets were paved with gold and we would live in marble halls with magnificent candelabra, dining at tables laden with viands of the most appetising variety and taste.”[ii]

It is estimated that 40,000 Jews arrived in the Cape between 1880 and 1914 and a further 30,000 between 1910 and 1948[iii]. Most of these came from Lithuania, two thirds of these from the Kovno area, towns like Kovno, Ponevez, Shavli, Rakishok, Poswohl and Shadowa with the rest from Vilna, Grodno, Vitebsk, Courland and Minsk. A few others came from outside the Litvak area, like Lodz, Warsaw and Odessa.

At the docks in front of their boat. (Shmuel Nakoff, the writer's great-uncle, is the short man in centre.) With acknowledgements, South African Jewish Museum

At the docks in front of their boat. (Shmuel Nakoff, the writer's great-uncle, is the short man in centre.) With acknowledgements, South African Jewish Museum

What was the reason for this exodus? What was the push sufficient to persuade people to make the sacrifices necessary to save to buy tickets, uproot themselves and go on a long journey to the other end of the world, away from the security of their homeland, their synagogues and their support systems? Although often cited as being persecution, pogroms and conscription, these were not the major reasons for emigration. A likelier reason is their economic circumstances. The Tsar’s Palen Commission reported in 1886 that “There are approximately 650 discriminatory laws against the Jews in our code. About 90% of the entire Jewish population is an insecure mass living in poverty and misery.” [iv]

The country in Eastern Europe with the highest emigration rate was not antisemitic Russia with its 650 discriminatory laws and carefully planned pogroms. It was Galicia where the Jews were emancipated and there were virtually no pogroms. The Ukraine was the centre of the pogroms but Ukraine had a low emigration rate before the First World War. Pogroms did not push the Ukrainian Jews to leave; emancipation did not keep the Galizianers at home[v]. There were very few pogroms in Lithuania yet Lithuania had a very high emigration rate[vi]. Julius Brutzkus (future Minister for Jewish Affairs, Independent Republic of Lithuania) 1921) reported that:

“In 1911 two-thirds of the Jewish population of Lithuania earned their living by serving as hewers of wood and drawers of water’, coachmen, brick makers, and other servile capacities. Poverty was endemic, sanitary conditions extremely primitive. More than one third of the Jews depended on charity; money forwarded by relatives provided some with their sole income .”[vii]

Conditions in Poland were much the same. The brother of their Cantor Philip Badash, Cantor Max Badash[viii] recalled that:

“When I was a youngster, we lived in a five-storey apartment with a courtyard and no lift. Downstairs in the cellars, where the walls were wet, lived poor Jews. We used to go and visit them on Fridays to bring them food. Everybody sent a kitka and some food for them. I remember seeing a man in a corner bending by candle light over a pair of shoes. In another corner was a big bag on which were three children with pale faces. Their faces were white. They got no vitamins in their diet. What did they live on? Potatoes the whole year! They couldn’t go out because it was too cold. But they were not isolated cases – there were thousands like this! The poverty of the Jewish masses in Poland was something unbelievable!”

It was the pervasive poverty of the shtetls, not the persecution, pogroms and conscription that was the major push factor. Despite pogroms, Jews could make a living in the Ukraine. In Galicia they could not. Lithuania had three times as many unskilled labourers, skilled workers and cottage industrialists than were needed to meet the population’s needs. From 1808, when Jewish and governmental records became available, some 45% of the Jewish labour force was unemployed and more than 35% of Jewish families in the Pale appealed to Jewish welfare institutions for assistance at least once.[ix]

There was thus a strong incentive to leave Eastern Europe to move to a place that offered better economic opportunities. More than three million Jews crossed the borders, of whom about 80% went to America, 7% to Western Europe, the balance to Palestine, South Africa, Canada, Australia and Argentina.[x]

These immigrants came from deeply religious communities with an identity tied up with upholding respect for Torah study, kashrut, kosher food and mikvahs, with community pressures ensuring conformity to those religious standards. Not for them co-religionists consisting of two classes – those who attended ‘shool’ and those who did not. Furthermore, there was no pressure to conform to an outside world whose lack of education and way of life held no attraction and whose antisemitism ensured religious cohesiveness within the Jewish minority living amongst them,

The new immigrants settled mainly in District Six, Woodstock and areas close to the city. Many found it easier to find work outside the city, in the small country villages and farming areas which were economically undeveloped and Jewish communities began to spring up all over South Africa. Most of these immigrants were skilled artisans, mainly tailors, shoemakers and carpenters although there were also builders, clerks, butchers, caterers, watchmakers, engineers, bakers, tobacconists, barbers, tinsmiths, brass founders, harness makers, waterproof makers, locksmiths, glaziers, printers, portmanteau makers, brush makers, mattress makers, soap makers and photographers. Despite the popular misconception, they were not all hawkers, or smouse. A random sample of 50 East European Jews in 1903, collected by a government official who wanted to show how undesirable these immigrants were, revealed that 46% were shopkeepers, 32% were artisans and 8% were hawkers. These new immigrants with their skills were to have considerable impact on the South African economy at a time when it was a poorly developed colony relying on Great Britain for most of its merchandise and over the years they have made a great contribution to the development of textiles, fashion, food processing, cinema, furniture, glass, chain stores and food chains in South Africa.[xi]

These were the people who, with their children, were to establish the Sea Point congregation.

[i] Quoted in Gershater, C, “From Lithuania to South Africa”, IN Saron, G and Hotz, L. The Jews In South Africa: A History, (Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1955, 65


[ii] Levin, M. From Vilna to Johannesburg, (Beacon, Johannesburg, 1965), 51


[iii] Saron, G. “Jewish Immigration 1880-1913” IN Saron, and Hotz, op cit.,100. The numbers leaving each year were not consistent and depended on both internal and external factors. Emigration slackened after the end of 1882 with the change of administration in Russia but continued with lessened volume during the rest of the 1880s. There was a second peak in the 1890s beginning with rumours of new anti-Jewish measures in the spring of 1890 and intensifying in March 1891 after further expulsions. There was a further peak in emigration in 1896 when further economic restrictions were announced. Another upward trend began in 1899. Lipman, VD A Century of Social Service: 1859-1959: The Jewish Board of Guardians, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1959), 78. This ended with the outbreak of the South African War. Emigration peaked again in 1902 after the War, slowing with the introduction of the Cape Immigration Restriction Act of 1902 and ceasing during the 1914 – 1918 War. The arrival of Eastern European Jews was prohibited by the 1930 Quota Act and that of German Jewish immigrants by the 1937 Alien’s Act.


[iv] Dubnow, S, History of the Jews from the Congress of Vienna to the Emergence of Hitler, Vol. 5, (London, 1973); Greenbaum, Masha, The Jews of Lithuania: A history of a remarkable community 1316 – 1945, Gefen Jerusalem,192


[v] Gartner, LP, The Great Jewish Migration 1881-1914: Myths and Realities, Kaplan Centre Papers, Cape Town, 23.5.1984, 4


[vi] “Nevertheless all the evidence is that in Lithuania and its immediate neighbourhood there were no Cossack attacks and no pogroms as we would understand them.” Newman, Aubrey, “Trains and Shelters and Ships”, paper presented to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, April 2000, Gartner, 3. Gershater points out that the province of Lithuania was free from pogroms and the governor, Totleben, strictly maintained law and order in his area. “From Lithuania to South Africa” in Saron, and Hotz, 67


[vii] Greenbaum, Masha, op cit, 200

[viii] Cantor Max Badash, interviewed by author, July 2006


[ix] Greenbaum, 166


[x] Gartner, 5


[xi] Schrire, Gwynne, From Eastern Europe to South Africa: Memories of an Epic Journey 1880 – 1937, Gitlin Library (2008)