As told by his son, Ze'ev Karpas

Jack Karpas
Jack as the Deputy Director of Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem

Jack Karpas was born in Lithuania. His family left for South Africa when Jack was  four years old. They settled in Koffiefontein, in the Orange Free State, together with a small community of Jewish families. Jack left for boarding school in Cape Town. With help from his parents and a scholarship, he was accepted into medical  school at the University of Cape Town, qualifying in 1931 when he was almost twenty-three.

After working for some years in Koffiefontein and Natal, he moved to Parow  with his wife Jessie where he set up private practice.

Jack was a popular general practitioner in Parow from 1934-1951 when he emigrated to Israel with  his young family. His career in the young country was filled with positive achievements topped by his fulfilling the role of Deputy Director General of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for many years.

In addition to the autobiography which Jack recorded, his son, Ze'ev has recently published a book on Amazon on his father`s life.

Excerpts from Jack Karpas’s autobiography

I left Durban, then took over the practice of Sam Jaffe and got started.

In 1934 Parow was a suburb of Cape Town, about 8 miles from the centre of the city and on the main road to the North. The businesses were on the Main Road and just off  it, the housing. Further down this road lived the poorer communities, the Coloured settlements just across the railway line.

Goodwood lay on the Cape Town side and Bellville, further north. In Goodwood there  were two doctors, Dr Needham, the Railway Medical Officer and Dr Myer Hoffman who also had a surgery in Parow. There was another doctor in Parow when I took over,   one in Bellville and one in Elsies River, while Maitland stretched for miles between Maitland and Goodwood.

Jack Karpas and family
Lt-Rt David, Jack, Jessie, Ze'ev, Alan

Parow was a rapidly growing community; factories that needed larger premises moved to the Northern Suburbs and with them, workers. The desire for education for   their children brought them to work in Parow. Railway Medical Officers did not have    a good reputation. I found myself starting on the failures of others. Then one or two good cases and one's reputation gained strength.

I also made friends with Sammy Bloch who had a small store next door and was also  anxious to get started. We spent hours building up the world. When Sammy could recommend a patient, he did so. He became one himself. We remained life-long friends. My second month's earnings totaled 25 pounds which was more than Sam Jaffe had earned. Twenty-five pounds in 1934 was quite a start considering one had to see a hundred patients for this amount of money. My breakthrough came when I was called by the local midwife to a difficult labour. The patient's doctor was not available. I applied forceps with much skill, a credit to my teachers and an eye-opener to the midwife. I delivered a healthy baby to an elderly mother.  

We bought land and started to plan a house with a surgery, one for the Whites and one for the Blacks. We built a lovely double-storey house, standing well back from  the Main Road. It included servants' quarters, wash rooms, a total of fourteen rooms. In South Africa it was possible to get a mortgage of almost the total cost of the building and as ours was a highly valued property, all we had to do was to pay off in subsequent years.

This was quite easy because of the income I had from my practice. We sold the house when we left South Africa for 17,000 pounds. It was sad for us to see how the buyer built shops in front of it, destroying our garden and lawn and hiding the house from view. Although Alan, our eldest son was born in a nursing home, the other two, Bernard and Charles were born at home.

As factories grew up around Parow, I became more and more in demand. I became  the doctor for Plywoods, Starck's and the Glenbo Brick. The directors and their families all became personal friends and patients.

I convinced them that their productivity could be improved if they looked after the  welfare of their workers. There was little legislation then and this group was amongst the first to agree to have pre-employment examinations and provide general medical services for their workers. The Workers' Compensation Act was subsequently implemented in South Africa and because of their connection, they received adequate compensation. As a result, my practice became quite lucrative.

The owner of 'Starck's', George Starck, had built a very modern furniture factory on the outskirts of Parow, near Elsies River. He employed first class workmen and produced solid, good quality furniture. He decided to expand by using a hard wood  imported from Brazil.

This wood is similar in appearance to the South African Stinkwood except that it  reaches maturity at fifty years whilst the Stinkwood requires two hundred years.

In fact, most of the furniture we took to Jerusalem came from his factory. However, in due course, Mr Starck found that in the manufacturing of this imported wood, the sawdust was causing dermatitis (a skin rash), to all the exposed parts i.e. face and hands, as well as conjunctivitis (infection of the eyes).

Some of the victims came to me for help and I hit upon an idea which seemed to work. Every worker had to cover his face and arms with Vaseline and wear goggles.

At the same time, I convinced Mr. Starck that contact dermatitis was at the root of the   problem and not the susceptibility of the individual. He had become desperate because of his large investment in the factory, but was relieved at this solution and even provided special work-clothes for the workmen. This proved so successful that the demand for his furniture grew greater than the supply and soon Mr. Starck became a very rich man. On a follow-up study, I found that a worker after using precautionary measures with Vaseline, became immune to the dust. 

So, a regime was instituted whereby each new worker used this method for three months. If he showed that he was immune after this period, he was kept on –only   a small percentage did not develop this immunity. Mr. Starck remained faithful and went on to say that I had saved his business. When his company went public, I was given one thousand shares which was a large allocation. He also told  me when to sell and how right he was.

Later on, when I was Counsellor of Parow, I was approached by the Provincial Administration to acquire the site next to his beautiful Cape mansion, Dutch style–between Parow and Bellville – for a hospital. Mr. Starck had refused them and they asked me to use my influence with him. My intervention proved successful  and today there stands on the site, the Karl Bremer Hospital, connected to the Stellenbosch University. Whenever I visited, while in Cape Town, I was made extremely welcome.

Early in my practice, a Rolls Royce Model 1920 drew up at my surgery door. The owner got out saying that his wife was in labour and had been for two days and that the midwife required my assistance right away. Off I went! On the way, I realized that I had been called to the wife of the Head of the Malay Community. This small community as well as the larger one in Cape Town had their origins as     imported labourers by the Dutch two centuries before. They were devout Moslems  and well respected as artisans.

I found a woman in her late thirties or early forties groaning on the bed with a distended belly. I examined her, but could not feel a foetus or hear a heart-beat. In fact, it was a case of pseudo-pregnancy. The woman blew up and the abdomen  develops until it comes to term. Then the woman goes into simulated labour. I had only read about this, but had never seen a case. However, I knew what to do. I spoke to the midwife who was shocked, but the father was even more shocked.

The Malay custom allowed for more than one wife and he had taken a second wife who  had borne him two daughters. His first wife had been barren for twenty years and now,  lo and behold had hoped that she would present him with a son. In the presence of the husband and the midwife and two others, I explained that there were going to be complications and there might not be a live baby, but the woman would be all right. I then proceeded to give her a mild anaesthetic and before our very eyes the abdomen went flatter and flatter until it was quite clear that there was no baby. Of course, when she came to, she wanted to see the baby and we needed to explain why there wasn't one.

So close are the family ties in this community that not a word of this ever leaked out. From then on, my reputation was established in their eyes. As was their custom, males had to be circumcised at the age of thirteen. I became adept at this by developing a method of my own, since using a general anaesthetic for circumcision was against their principles.

Parow, in the period 1935-1939, saw an incredible growth, overtaking its neighbours, Bellville and Goodwood on both sides. With factories moving from Cape Town, the population growth was rapid and with it, came the time for the status of Parow to change from village management to a municipality. The population had changed and had fundamentally become Dutch speaking. There were two associations, but they were divided on political lines. In 1938 I was approached by the English Association to      join their organization and be a candidate for the forthcoming municipal election, the first in Parow.

I had not taken a great deal of interest in the town's affairs, being too busy building a practice. The idea, however, appealed to me. The town was divided into three wards and three representatives were to be elected from each ward. No one thought I had a chance. As a matter of fact, the opposition had every chance of making a clean sweep. But to everyone's surprise, I came top of the list and carried with me my two associates. My patients had rallied for me, irrespective of their political affiliations.

I stayed in the Council until we left 12 years later. After three years, I was elected as   Deputy Mayor. In 1944, towards the end of WWII, my party gained the majority in a bitter political election. I was installed as the second Mayor of Parow, an honour rarely bestowed on a Jew in South Africa in those days.

The Jewish community of Parow in 1934 was small. It had built a small communal hall and appointed a Hebrew teacher. The hall was used as a synagogue, a meeting place as well as a school. All the Jewish children went to 'Cheder' until after Bar Mitzvah, but didn't succeed in learning any Hebrew. Mr. Lipshitz taught the younger children who then graduated to the Rabbi's class. He was not cut out to be   a good teacher. The congregation was at loggerheads with the Rabbi and I was being pressured into becoming President of the congregation. Matters then improved considerably.

I was able to institute a pension fund for the Rabbi in addition to giving him a salary, thus upgrading his duties and productivity in the community. We then embarked on a campaign to build a new synagogue which was completed and dedicated a month before we left. There is a silver plaque in the synagogue in my honour, a replica of which I have.

The war years brought many industries to Parow, bringing with it a new population. While industry was manned by Cape Coloureds, the rapid growth resulted in the migration of Blacks from Cape Town and with it, the necessity to house them. They would gather planks of wood and build make-shift shelters. Parow was among the first to accept the proposal for housing schemes. I was then Chairman of Finance and had a great deal to  do with it.

I was involved in all the growing pains of the town: electric schemes, sewerage and industries. A river called Elsies River passed through the town between Parow and Tiervlei. It used to flood annually and submerge a great deal of Tiervlei under water. It took many years to persuade the Cape Divisional Council that the fault lay further down the river where the flow of the river to the sea was impeded. I went on many a deputation and it was during my mayoralty that the canalization of the river was passed, started and completed, solving that nasty problem.

When I finished my term as Mayor, a street was named after me. And it is still there for all  to see, the second street on the left as you enter from Cape Town,'Karpas Street'. There  were other noteworthy events. I attended a ball in honour of Prince George, who became George VI, at the Cape Town City Hall. Present too was Princess Elizabeth. It was a very  formal affair. All the guests were introduced to the Royal Family and shook hands with them. During my mayoralty, the Second World War came to an end.

In May, 1945 I decided that together with other municipalities, Parow would celebrate.  So I arranged a large open-air gathering at which I addressed the gathering on the termination of the War. It was a momentous and solemn occasion which stands out amongst the many ordinary tasks that I had to perform. 

As a golf course was so convenient in Parow, I joined up and learned to play golf which I soon became proficient at. Antisemitism was quite prevalent in the golf clubs in Cape Town and a Jew could not easily become a member at the Royal Cape Golf Club, Mowbray and Rondebosch clubs.

So, the Clovelly Golf Course with its predominantly Jewish membership like the Parow Golf Club course, did not develop at all. About some time in 1948, I received an invitation from the secretary of the Rondebosch Golf Club. To my surprise, he offered me membership to the Club, promising me I would not be 'blackballed'.     Voting for membership was done using round white or black pebbles. If the black pebble turned up, the application was turned down and no one knew who was anti.

I said I would accept, provided that the club was prepared to accept Jewish members on their merits as citizens, statesmen and golfers and that religious affiliations not be a factor. 

This he would not promise and so I said: 'No thank you, look elsewhere for trying to rid yourself of your biases against Jews', and left. The chairman called me subsequently and I would not budge. A friend of mine fell for the plea and to his horror, he was blackballed. He never recovered from the shock. It was a great  satisfaction to me when a team of fours representing the Parow Club and the Rondebosch Club played and Rondebosch was defeated.

My partner and I beat our opponents soundly and revenge was never so sweet. Of  course, the story of my refusal got around. And in all events in this particular club, I was treated with the greatest consideration and respect.

From 1942-43, I was overworked and could not manage my practice so Brotz  Olsen, a Dane, very well-qualified and highly recommended, came to my assistance.

I rented a house for him and gave him a salary and he proved to be a loyal and hard-working colleague. I was sorry when he left to go back to academic medicine. After the War, he took a position of professor of Physiology in Sydney,  Australia. I never heard from him again.

I must relate one story of his sincerity. 'Although Dr Karpas was a good doctor ',  one patient told him that 'he and his family would always remain his patients, they preferred that Olsen, a non-Jew should attend to them under Dr. Karpas' guidance'. Olsen reacted that this was indeed an offence to Dr Karpas and insisted that they apologize to me which they did.

After the War, my brother-in-law, Mendel Sacks joined me in my practice. And he too was accepted by the community.


group photo