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South Africa - a new home for Lithuanians

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  • Helen Suzman, DCE (1917 - 2009)
    Suzman, a lifelong citizen of South Africa, was born as Helen Gavronsky in 1917 to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, Jewish Lithuanian immigrants.[1][2] Helen Suzman matriculated in 1933 from Parktown Con...
  • Albie Sachs
    Albert Louis Sachs Nickname: 'Albie' Anti-Apartheid Activist Born 30-01-1935 Albie Sachs is Director of Research at the Ministry of Justice. He is also Professor Extraordinary at the University...
  • Ruth First Slovo (1925 - 1982)
    Ruth First Jeppe High School for Girls Memorial Trust 25 August 2010 A small group of staff and learners from Jeppe High School for Girls recently attended the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits U...
  • Harry (Hirsch) Cohen (1897 - 1984)
  • Meishe Morris Cohen (1894 - 1982)

South Africa – a new world home for Litvaks

Lithuanian Jews immigrated to South Africa to escape anti-Semitism and poverty and to start new lives. Today they dominate the Jewish community in South Africa to an extent seen in no other country, even their former home. Most of the Baltic state's small Jewish community now numbers a mere 5,000 people comprises immigrants who arrived from different parts of the Soviet Union after WW2. The war devastated Lithuanian Jewry which was once a leading center of Jewish thought and culture. Historians estimate that 94 percent of the country's prewar Jewish population of 250,000 perished in the Holocaust.

  • South Africa has probably the largest Lithuanian Jewish community in the world. The first country wide census in 1911 indicates a population of 46,919 Jews, the majority of whom originated in Lithuania. By 1921, the Jewish population had risen to 62,103 but with more of a shift to gold-mining and commercial centers of Witwatersrand in the Transvaal area (which accounted for 33,515).

The capital Vilnius, once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania was home to a thriving community of 60,000 Jews with more than 90 synagogues and the biggest Yiddish library in the world.

Aside from one functioning synagogue, few traces of its rich Jewish past remain. "South Africa is more Litvak than Lithuania itself...when Jews from Lithuania look to South Africa, we see our culture and society have been preserved there," said playwright and novelist Mark Zingeris, one of the few Litvaks remaining in Lithuania. "Here, the Litvak culture was all but destroyed by the Holocaust and 50 years of Soviet rule. But it has lived on in South Africa," he told Reuters by telephone from Lithuania.

The public activities and politics of South Africa's Litvak community were rooted in the Old World but flourished in the soil of oppression and opportunity found in the New. The reformist streak of Lithuanian Jewry which faced anti-Semitism and repression at home was carried on by a host of anti-apartheid activists. Other less altruistic immigrants reared in a strong entrepreneurial tradition were lured by gold discovered in 1886 on the location where Johannesburg now stands in addition to the opportunities offered by the booming economy built around it.

Casino magnate Sol Kerzner, the late communist Joe Slovo and veteran anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who for 13 years was the only anti-apartheid voice in the whites-only parliament make an unlikely trio but they share one thing, they are all of Lithuanian descent. Like their Lithuanian ancestors whose political ranks included wealthy capitalists, zealous Zionists, prominent religious scholars and committed communists, South Africa's Litvaks have spanned the political spectrum.

  • On the right stands Kerzner, a flamboyant businessman who built the famous casino resort Sun City (north of Johannesburg) and founded the entertainment and leisure giant Sun International.

Although Jewish emigrants from Tsar occupied Lithuania are generally thought of as having fled the persecution and poverty for the safe shores of America a much less known story is that of the many Litvaks who travelled to South Africa. Many of these migrants came from the Kaunas region (Kovno in Yiddish), but many also came from towns such as Palanga, Panevėžys, Rietavas and Šiauliai. Many travelled via the Liepāja port in Latvia on ships bound, via the Baltic Sea and (after its opening in 1895) the Kiel Canal shortcut, for English east coast ports. From there, they travelled overland, usually via London, to Southampton to embark for Cape Town.

This movement of people was not accidental: a whole business existed to cater for them, from the ticket agents in Kaunas or Vilnius, to shipping lines such as the Wilson Line shuttling between Liepāja and Hull, to the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter in London which housed and orientated many of the trans-migrants, to the Castle Line and the Union Line which specialized in the route to South Africa.

And like any successful movement of people, it became self-perpetuating as the new South Africans sent home letters and money, encouraging others to follow suit.

What this means is that a great many of those North Americans and British with Litvak ancestors are likely to have kin in South Africa. There are many good sources for Jewish family history research in Lithuania and prospects of success are often favorable as long as the place of origin within the country is known or can be identified.

Lithuanian South Africans:

  1. Eli Weinberg
  2. Joe Slovo
  3. Ruth First
  4. Esther and Hymie Barsel
  5. Sam (Shmuel) Keren
  6. Jeanette Jegger
  7. Professor Milton Shain
  8. Richard Freedman
  9. Kim Feinberg
  10. Ruth Rabinovwitz
  11. Raymond Joffe (Honorary Consul of Lithuania, Johannesburg)
  12. Alan B. Schmiedt (Honorary Consul of Lithuania, Cape Town)
  13. Ivor Feinberg (Honorary Consul of Lithuania, Pretoria)
  14. The Kaplan family - Mendel Kaplan
  15. Jadvyga Kazlauskiene
  16. Wendy Machanik
  17. Pranas Domsaitis
  18. Hermann Kallenbach
  19. Hymie Kloner
  20. Aron Klug
  21. Sammy Marks
  22. Philip Rabinowitz (runner)
  23. Louis Washkansky
  24. Ali Bacher
  25. Sydney Brenner
  26. Poppy Cannon
  27. Johnny Clegg
  28. Jean Comaroff
  29. Richard Goldstone
  30. Lee Harris (musician)
  31. Ronnie Kasrils
  32. Olga Kirsch
  33. Moses Kottler
  34. Roland Levinsky
  35. Lippy Lipschitz
  36. Taubie Kushlick
  37. Sammy Marks
  38. Sarah Millin
  39. Louis Isaac Rabinoritz
  40. Albie Sachs
  41. Isaac Lewis
  42. Bension Hersch
  43. Charles Segal (musician)
  44. Antony Sher
  45. Helen Suzman
  46. Percy Yutar

(List modified on June 26, 2011)