In June 1942 news started percolating into the West that gas was being used to kill the Jews sent to "the East". The Board of Deputies declared Sunday 22nd November 1942 a national day of intercession with special prayer services at all synagogues. Jews were asked to observe the day as one of solemn prayer and “to refrain from sporting and festive activities”. Many churches sent messages of sympathy, including the Scriba of the Cape Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church who wrote that “as individual persons and Christians, we can assure that we deeply sympathise with people who are suffering, and that we pray for them in their sorrow”.[i]
The following week the Jewish Agency in Palestine published information that left no room for doubt. The Nazis were carrying out “a policy of extermination more relentless and inhuman than anything the world has ever seen.” The Jews were being murdered “by the most satanic means the deranged mind of men can devise.” The tragedy was so great that there “were no tears to mourn this dire catastrophe; its magnitude is beyond all weeping”.[ii]
A National Day of Mourning was arranged on 29th December 1942 with a call from the Board for all Jewish shops and businesses to close. The Memorial Committee asked them to hold a combined service with the Gardens Shul[iii] and give everybody the opportunity after the service to attend the mass meeting in the Cape Town City Hall which was addressed by Adv. Morris Alexander M.P., Rev JG du Plessis of the Dutch Reformed Church, Anglican Archbishop Dr JR Derbyshire, Mayor W James and Gardens Shul’s Prof Rabbi Israel Abrahams who said that two million souls each one created in the image of G-d, had been destroyed from this earth.
Who would have imagined that the number would be three times as horrific, that a country regarded as the height of civilization and culture hid a heart of absolute brutality and cruelty? Who would have imagined that 96% of the Lithuanian Jewish population would be murdered - their families and friends?
Dr JR Darbyshire, Archbishop of Cape Town, speaking at the City Hall, Day of Mourning, 29th December 1942
A further Day of Mourning was held on 7th December 1943. Once more synagogue services were followed by a mass meeting in the Cape Town City Hall.[iv] Even some non-Jewish businesses closed in sympathy.[v]
SA Jewish Chronicle, 24.12.1942 Rosh Hashanah appeal, SA Jewish Chronicle September 1947
Then, in 1944 came the news of Auschwitz, a hell too hellish to believe. Another mass meeting was organised on 23rd April 1944, this time to commemorate the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A third day of mourning and fasting in memory of the massacred Jews was held throughout the world on 5th March 1945.[vi] The Beth Din debated the decision taken by the Palestinian and US rabbinates to have a week of mourning ending in a fast day, settling on just a day of mourning and fasting in memory of the massacred Jews of Europe. Offices were closed, no one went to public entertainment, synagogue services were held and special gatherings were arranged for children and the Board of Deputies prepared a manifesto which they sent to the United Nations.[vii]
“The cruel and unspeakable Holocaust has overtaken our people in Europe,” wrote the G&SPHC’s Rabbi Newman.[viii] “Many tears and prayers were offered within the walls of our synagogue in relation to that horrible episode.” Later paying tribute to the late King Frederick of Denmark in the presence of the Danish Consul and the chairman of the Danish Society he gave an outstanding sermon about the rescue of Danish Jews (25.1.1972).
It is just as well that the Beth Din had refused to have a week of mourning as the G&SPHC had arranged for the induction of their new minister which took place the previous day, Sunday 4th March, at 4 p.m. President AM Jackson wrote that for five years the congregation had been spiritually neglected until Rabbi AT Shrock was appointed on 21.9.1944. Dr. Abe Tobie Shrock had been awarded the first South African scholarship for the Jewish Ministry at Jews’ College in London, had been the principal Jewish chaplain to the South African Defence Force, had served as the rabbi at the United Hebrew Congregation (Yeoville, Johannesburg) and Acting Head of the Department of Hebrew at the University of Witwatersrand. It is relevant to point out the synagogue had chosen to appoint someone who had the reputation of being the most liberal rabbi in the country and it was at the Yeoville Synagogue that Chief Rabbi Landau had tried out his “moderate reforms.”[ix] Invitations had already been sent out to Rabbis Kirzner and Mirvish, all Jewish congregations and ministers in the peninsula, gentile ministers and Members of Parliament, with 750 booklets printed.
No invitation however was sent to the newly established Cape Town Jewish Reformed Congregation, and its treasurer, Mr S Roy wrote to ask why it had not been invited. Ignoring the fact that invitations had been sent to gentile ministers, the G&SPHC committee replied that they had only invited members of the United Council of Hebrew Congregations. This was the beginning of the attempt by the Board of Jewish Education and Rabbi Abrahams to pretend that this congregation did not exist and to freeze them out of Jewish communal activities.[x]
Invitation to induction
Rabbi Abrahams agreed to conduct the induction service on condition that he alone would perform the ceremony. This was the first shot in a battle for primacy between the two rabbis that would end in much drama and unwanted publicity. The president J Schenkman attended to Rabbi Shrock’s investiture, there was a Prayer for the Royal family, addresses by both rabbis ending with the singing of Odon Olom (sic).
As Cantor Katzin thought he could only manage to get together a suitable choir if ladies were added, they asked the Gardens Synagogue for its choir.[xi] With Rabbi Shrock at its helm, however, the congregation started to try to assert its independence, even taking on the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Orthodox establishment as will be seen.
Back cover with picture of synagogue
Order of service
With a new spiritual leader, things began to move and considerable expansion took place. Rabbi Dr Shrock assumed office in March 1945 and took a personal lead not only with the congregation but also in the wider Cape Town. The Board of Deputies arranged for him to conduct a pastoral tour of South West Africa and as a result of his eloquent appeals the Jewish War Appeal benefitted greatly. Rabbi Shrock also initiated a useful and informative quarterly synagogue bulletin. The synagogue was filled to capacity for a V-Day service with an equally large attendance at the Victory Thanksgiving service on 19th August. Fifty years later Klaus Abt[xii] still recalled the sermons Rabbi Shrock gave during the latter years of World War 11.
No amount of international fast days improved the circumstances of the hundreds of thousands of Jews held in DP camps. Their blood-soaked villages had no appeal to them, they wanted to go to Palestine but Britain, that ruled it under a mandate from the League of Nations as a homeland for the Jews, would not allow them into that home. Seven months later the Cape Town branch of the Revisionist New Zionist Organisation organised a protest meeting in the Sea Point Town Hall to condemn Britain for failing to open Palestine for the Jewish survivors.[xiii]
President Philips in his 1945-1946 AGM report melodramatically remarked that the year under review had seen the destruction of the dark forces of evil, Armageddon, and with it travail and unbelievable suffering during the years of its reign had come to an end with the glorious victory of right and justice. But the return of Peace had revealed in all its stark nakedness the horrors, the bestiality and the cruelties perpetrated on their defenceless people by the enemy of mankind. Jewry had suffered grievously, the bloodstained hands of their biggest enemy in their long history of persecution caused death and destruction and untold suffering to millions of their fellow Jews, but they did not destroy the soul of Israel which would arise Phoenix like from the ashes to fulfil its ordained task. They could only hope and pray that after all their indescribable sufferings, compensation would be vouchsafed to them in the form of the restoration of their homeland, Eretz Israel. When this was granted to them - and it must and would – it would be realised that the sufferings of their people had not been in vain.
At the following AGM on 3.9.1946, the equally eloquent Philips bemoaned the lot of the remnants of Israel which had hardly changed for the better. Shattering blows had been administered to the very heart of Israel, the only hope of their people, the subject of their prayers and aspirations for countless generations. They could only hope for the amelioration of the present position. It was only appropriate to mention their sorrow for the millions of their brethren who suffered death and agonies in other parts of the world and to honour the memories of those of their boys who fell in the war, and he asked the meeting to rise in memory of the departed.
Philips then proceeded to praise their new rabbi who had carried out his duties with the usual dignity and zeal, his services were sought after and his lectures among the gentiles were popular. Rabbi Shrock’s sermons were listened to with rapt attention, his addresses to barmitzvah boys seemed to produce a lasting impression and the ladies who attended his bible classes evinced a keen interest.
Rabbi Dr Shrock, June 1945, drawn by Morris Robinson
Philip’s emotion-filled reports give an indication of the despair felt by the community at the cruel fate of their families in Eastern Europe and their hopes for the establishment of a State of Israel to take in the remnants huddled in DP camps in Europe and others set up by Britain in windswept Cyprus and in Madagascar for people whose only crime was in trying to get to the homeland promised by the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate of Palestine. The Synagogue donated a Sefer Torah to the SA Jewish War Appeal which was shipped to Paris to be used by the refugees in the DP camps (29.5.1947).[xiv] Cantor Katzin was contacted from Paris by M Berlinsky, a survivor, and he asked the committee to write to Berlinsky engaging him as a choirmaster, a letter which would enable him to obtain emigration facilities. Filled with compassion, the committee agreed but asked for testimonials (15.7.1946).
A picture of the effect the Holocaust had on the congregation has been recorded in a novel called Home, written by Cape Town-born writer Ronald Harwood.[xv]
Year’s end 1946... in blazing heat the Jewish community of Cape Town show newsreels of the Nazi death camps, fragments pieced together as a macabre duty by elderly Dr Hurwitz... They sit beside each other... in the darkened hall adjacent to the Sea Point Synagogue. To the whirring of the sixteen-millimetre projector they watch the ghastly evidence of unimaginable barbarism. Men and women weep; there is the constant flickering of handkerchiefs.
The Shul has been privileged to have had a number of Holocaust survivors among their members like Giuseppe Conne, Kalman and Pesla Lis, and Martha Mannsbach and several contributed articles about their experiences in the Rosh Hashanah bulletin, like Xavier Piat, Miriam Lichterman, Ella Blumenthal and Shmuel Kerem. G&SPHC’s Rabbi Fogel[xvi] was president of Cape Town’s She’erith Hapletah, the survivor’s association, and he reported in the 1983 Rosh Hashanah bulletin on his attendance at the world assembly to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany convened by the Government of Israel where he laid a wreath at the Heroes Monument in Jerusalem to represent South Africa. Miriam Lichterman[xvii] found the event unforgettable.
Ten rabbis, each carrying a Shofar Gadol and wearing a white Kittel and long tallit, barefoot because they were on holy ground, ascended the platform in front of the six burning lights and the thousands of candles. It was an unforgettable sight – I thought I was dreaming. Most of the time we were asking ourselves the question: “Why were we singled out to remain alive? To what do we owe this miracle” Each one of us knew how we survived. There are no two alike, but none of us knew why.
In 1967 the shul agreed to purchase a replica of the six-branched menorah erected as a Holocaust memorial at Pinelands No 1 cemetery by She’erith Hapletah through Nachum Zolin and they agreed to light it every Shabbat and chag as a permanent memorial.[xviii] When Yad Vashem was established, a decision was made to honour the names of all who had perished during the Holocaust as Israeli citizens and the JNF approached the G&SPHC to collect the names of victims.
Soldiers died as well as innocent civilians and in 1950 they agreed to the suggestion of Committee member BL Rubik and Singer, an ex-serviceman, to place a memorial plaque in honour of those members or sons of members who had lost their lives. The SA Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s League provided the names - 95 people in the Cape Peninsula had lost their lives. A suitable memorial would be erected in the Communal Centre being built. They held a social and dance in the Sea Point Town Hall to honour the returning Jewish ex-servicemen from Sea Point - now estimated at about 300 (5.4.1946). Speeches of welcome were delivered by President Philips and Rabbi Shrock with songs by Diana Leza and thanks by Rubik (6.6.1946).
The rabbi was present at the dance, women and men danced together, a woman was the soloist and no one seemed to have any problem with it.
Jewish war memorial at Pineland No 2 Cemetery with names of Jews who fell fighting during the World Wars and in Israel
With the end of the war, Jewry all over the world had to come to terms with the full extent of the tragedy that had befallen their people. Everywhere it was realised that efforts needed to be made to make good some of that loss. The synagogue was a place where they could meet and find solace together and reinforce their Jewish identity. The number of members increased rapidly and additional premises had to be hired for High Holy Day services. When Aubrey Berman[xix] (1999 Shul president) started cheder in 1946, the lessons were held where the Shul offices were later situated, their playground was where the Succah hall stands, and Rabbi Shrock’s home was where the Weizmann complex stands.
After eleven years, their 800-seater synagogue was no longer big enough to seat all their Congregants and in 1945 they bought a large house standing on over an acre of ground in Regent and Kloof Roads. Although a substantial amount of money was collected, many feared that they would not be able to afford to build the intended synagogue cum hall cum school. This resulted in protracted arguments and many, very many, meetings, and naturally the longer the debates continued, the more building costs soared and the less affordable the plans became. Finally, they scrapped the idea of building a synagogue, and decided instead to build a Communal Centre with a major and minor hall, a Talmud Torah and Nursery School[xx]. The residents of Camps Bay also decided to establish a synagogue and the G&SPHC lent them a Sefer Torah[xxi] for its first festival services which were held at the Camps Bay Sports Club in 1950 – the Sports Club agreed to them using the club in exchange for painting the premises[xxii]. Sea Point Shul required no quid pro quo for the Sefer Torah.
[i] Green, M, South African Jewish Responses to the Holocaust 1941-1948, MA Thesis (Unisa 1987), 50
[ii] Zionist Record, 27.11.1942
[iii] G&SPHC minutes, 22.12.1943
[iv] Green, M, ibid, 94
[v] Hansard 10-11 April, 1944, Quoted in Green, M, 102-104
[vi] Green, M, 132 -137
[vii] They declared that throughout the free world, Jewry had gathered together on the same day to mourn the millions of Jews who had perished as a result of the barbaric policy of extermination carried out by the Nazis. They asked the UN to punish those who committed crimes, to guarantee the Jewish people free national development in their ancient homeland, to end restriction on Jewish immigration to Palestine, and to establish a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth in Palestine.
[viii] Newman, Rabbi Dr J, “Message from the Rabbi”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 40th Anniversary, 1974-5734, 2
[ix] Manoim, op cit, 28
[x] Sherman, Rabbi David, Pioneering for Reform Judaism in South Africa, 1976,13
[xi] G&SPHC committee minutes, 4.3.1944
[xii] Abt, Klaus Yitzchak, “I remember”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 2007-5768, 59
[xiii] Green, M, op cit, 209
[xiv] Paris was the European headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee of (the American) Funds for Jewish War Sufferers known as the JDC or “Joint”.
[xv] Harwood, R, Home, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1993, 31.
[xvi] Fogel, Rabbi J, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 1983 – 5744
[xvii] Korber, Rose, “The Survivors”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual Golden Jubilee, 1983-5744, 80-83
[xviii] Piat-ka, Xavier, She’erith Hapletah, IN Schrire, Gwynne (Ed), In Sacred Memory; Recollections of the Holocaust by Survivors Living in Cape Town, Holocaust Memorial Council, Cape Town, 1995, 194
[xix] Berman, Aubrey, President’s message, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 1999, 1
[xx] Jackson, AM, “Twenty–Fifth Anniversary of the Synagogue”, First published in the 1959 G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 1959, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 70th anniversary, 5765, 23
[xxi] Schrire, Gwynne, Camps Bay: An Illustrated History, Tricolor Press, Cape Town, 2003, 148
[xxii] Ruch, Brenda, “Camps Bay Hebrew Congregation turns 50 as Sun turns 25”, IN Atlantic Sun, 15.6.2006