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Lithuanian Jews in South Africa

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  • Esther Barsel (deceased)
  • 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)

Holocaust in Lithuania

Lithuanian Jews

Jews in South Africa


Memories of Lithuania in South Africa


Jews began living in Lithuania as early as the 13th century. Despite upheavals of expulsion and subsequent returning to the country, the population grew from 120,000 to 250,000 in 1792 thereafter Jews became subjects of the Russian empire after the Second Partition or the Polish-Lithuanian government. By 1941 the Jewish population of Lithuania and swelled to about 10% of the total population. During the German invasion of 1941 206,800 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators.

The community grew tenfold between 1880 and 1914, from 4,000 to over 40,000. During apartheid, a number of Jews were prominent in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, while others were instrumental in promoting the extension of diplomatic military ties between Israel and the country's white government.

The first wave of Lithuanian Jews to South Africa began at the end of the nineteenth century. Even though pogroms had not yet started in Lithuania, Jews felt unease and anxiety. Massive gold deposits were discovered in 1886, the economy was booming, so at that time around 40,000 Lithuanian Jews left the country for South Africa.(Newman et al. 2006, p 385) The quota act of 1930 however banned Eastern European Jews from entering the country. Within the racial apartheid scheme Jews had a "white status" they faced fierce anti-semitism from Afrikaners, and began to form their own separate Jewish community comprising a rich network of schools, cultural and welfare organizations.

South Africa's Jewish community participated extensively in anti-apartheid activities, which was astonishing as they found no benefit and risked freedom and property despite not being directly victims themselves. In this struggle they were assassinated, tortured and imprisoned together with the non-whites. 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 comprising 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.

Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝 Sugihara Chiune?, 1 January 1900 – 31 July 1986) was a Japanese diplomat who served as Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania. During World War II, he helped 6,000 Jews to leave the country by issuing transit visas so that they could travel to Japanese territory, risking his career and his family's lives. The Jews who escaped were refugees from German-occupied Western Poland or Russian-occupied Eastern Poland, as well as residents of Lithuania. In 1985, Israel named him to the Righteous Among the Nations for his actions, the only Japanese national to be so honored.

Many of the migrants who travelled to South Africa 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.

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. //

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. The South African Litvaks differs from its counterparts in other African countries in that the majority have remained on the continent rather than emigrating to Israel (62% of the maximum 120,000 still remain).

Events of the Holocaust

The Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania resulted in the near total destruction of Lithuanian Jews living in the Nazi-controlled Lithuanian and Polish territories (Generalbezirk Litauen of Reichskommissariat Ostland). Out of approximately 208,000-210,000 Jews, an estimated 190,000–195,000 were murdered before the end of World War II (wider estimates are sometimes published), most between June and December 1941.

More than 95% of Lithuania's Jewish population was massacred over the three-year German occupation — a more complete destruction than befell any other country affected by the Holocaust. Historians attribute this to the massive collaboration in the genocide by the Christian locals, though the reasons for this collaboration are still debated. The Holocaust resulted in the largest-ever loss of life in so short a period of time in the history of Lithuania. The events that took place in the western regions of the USSR occupied by Nazi Germany in the first weeks after the German invasion, including Lithuania, marked the sharp intensification of the Holocaust.

  • An important component to the Holocaust in Lithuania was that the occupying Nazi German administration fanned antisemitism by blaming the Soviet regime's recent annexation of Lithuania, a year earlier, on the Jewish community.


  • Another significant factor was the large extent to which the Nazis' design drew upon the physical organization, preparation and execution of their orders by local Lithuanian auxiliaries of the Nazi occupation regime.

Decline of the population

Prior to the German invasion, the population of Jews was estimated to be about 210,000, although according to data from the Lithuanian statistics department, as of 1 January 1941 there were 208,000 Jews. This estimate, based on the officially accounted for prewar emigration within the USSR (approx. 8,500), the number of escapees from Kaunas and Vilnius Ghettos, (1,500-2,000), as well as the number of the survivors in the concentration camps when they were liberated by the Red Army, (2,000-3,000), puts the number of Lithuanian Jews murdered in the Holocaust at 195,000 to 196,000.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of casualties of the Holocaust and the latter number cannot be final or indisputable. The numbers given by historians differ significantly ranging from 165,000 to 254,000, the higher number probably including non-Lithuanian Jews among other Reich (empirical) dissenters labeled as Jewish killed in Lithuania.

Jewish genocide

Kaunas Ninth Fort- the Lithuanian port city of Klaipėda (Memel in German) had historically been a member of the German Hanseatic League, and had belonged to Germany and East Prussia prior to 1918. The city was semi-autonomous during the period of Lithuanian independence, and under League of Nations supervision. Approximately 8,000 Jews lived in Memel when it was absorbed into the Reich on March 15, 1939. Its Jewish residents were expelled, and most fled into Lithuania proper.

In 1941, German killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, followed the advance of the German army units and immediately began organizing the murder of Jews. Most Lithuanian Jews perished in the first phase during the first months of the occupation and before the end of 1941. The first recorded action of the Einsatzgruppen (Einsatzgruppe A) took place on June 22, 1941, in the border town of Gargzdai (called Gorzdt in Yiddish and Garsden in German), which was one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the country and only eleven miles from German-annexed Memel.

Approximately 800 Jews were shot that day in what is known as the Garsden Massacre. Approximately 100 non-Jewish Lithuanians were also executed, many for trying to aid their Jewish neighbors.

About 80,000 Jews were killed by October and about 175,000 by the end of the year. The majority of Jews in Lithuania were not required to live in ghettos [c] nor sent to the Nazi concentration camps which at that time were just in the preliminary stages of operation. Instead they were shot in pits near their places of residence with the most infamous mass murders taking place in the Ninth Fort near Kaunas and the Ponary Forest near Vilnius.//

By 1942 about 45,000 Jews survived, largely those who had been sent to ghettos and camps. In the second phase, the Holocaust slowed, as Germans decided to use the Jews as forced labor to fuel the German war economy. In the third phase, the destruction of Jews was again given a high priority; it was in that phase that the remaining ghettos and camps were liquidated.

Organized killings

The Nazi German administration directed and supported the organized killing of Lithuanian Jews. Local Lithuanian auxiliaries of the Nazi occupation regime carried out logistics for the preparation and execution of the murders under Nazi direction. Nazi SS Brigadeführer Franz Walter Stahlecker arrived in Kaunas on 25 June 1941 and gave agitation speeches in the city to instigate the murder of Jews.

Groups of partisans, civil units of nationalist-rightist anti-Soviet affiliation, initiated contact with the Germans as soon as they entered the Lithuanian territories. A rogue unit of insurgents headed by Algirdas Klimaitis and encouraged by Germans from the Sicherheitspolizei and Sicherheitsdienst, started anti-Jewish pogroms in Kaunas (Kovno) on the night of 25–26 June 1941.

  • Over 1,000 Jews perished over the next few days in what was the first pogrom in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. Different sources give different figures, one being 1,500 and another 3,800, with additional victims in other towns of the region.
  • The most notorious Lithuanian unit participating in the Holocaust was the Lithuanian Sonderkommando Squad (Ypatingasis būrys) from the Vilnius (Vilna, Wilno) area which killed tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and others in the Ponary massacre.
  • Another Lithuanian organization involved in the Holocaust was the Lithuanian Labor Guard. Many Lithuanian supporters of the Nazi policies came from the fascist Iron Wolf organization. Overall, the nationalistic Lithuanian administration was interested in the liquidation of the Jews as a perceived enemy and potential rivals of ethnic Lithuanians and thus not only did not oppose Nazi Holocaust policy but in effect adopted it as their own.

Not all of the Lithuanian populace supported the killings. Out of a population of close to 3,000,000 (80% of it ethnic Lithuanians), a few thousands took an active part in the killings while many hundreds risked their lives sheltering the Jews. Israel has recognized 723 Lithuanians as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In addition, many members of the Polish minority in Lithuania also helped to shelter the Jews. Lithuanians and Poles who risked their lives saving Jews were persecuted and often executed by the Nazis.

The genocide in Lithuania is seen by some historians as one of the earliest large-scale implementations of the Final Solution, leading some scholars to express an opinion that the Holocaust began in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Other scholars say the Holocaust started in September 1939 with the onset of the Second World War, or even earlier, on Kristallnacht in 1938, or, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

In 1995, president of Lithuania Algirdas Brazauskas speaking before the Israeli Knesset, offered a public apology to the Jewish people for the Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust. On 20 September 2001, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) held a session during which Alfonsas Eidintas, the historian nominated as the Republic's next ambassador to Israel, delivered an address accounting for the annihilation of Lithuania's Jews.

Rampant post WW2 anti-Semitism

Lithuanian Migration Department is continually rejecting the restoration of citizenship for Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) and their descendants who are residing in Israel and South Africa. Since November 2015, the Lithuanian Migration Department has been rejecting the majority of applications from those who wish to restore their Lithuanian citizenship. This extends to those who left Lithuania during the 1920-1939 interwar period, plus their descendants.

According to Lithuanian Citizenship Law, those who left Lithuania before March 11 1990 and acquired citizenship of a different country can be citizens of Lithuania. The law also applies to their descendants.

Around 1,000 Litvaks living in South Africa have sought to use this piece of legislation. However, citizenship restoration was suspended for some mid-2015. Migration specialists follow the case law that those left Lithuania before March 11 of 1990 should include the former Lithuanian citizens who fled the country for political reasons, resistance to occupation regimes or persecution by the regime.

"The treatment has changed,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told BNS. This applies to those who left Lithuania in 1918-1939. The discussion is that there was no violence, repressions or anything like that at the time. Therefore, the departures cannot be considered an attempt to escape threats.”

The minister refused to give his opinion on the situation, as the analysis is still in progress. "I am aware of the problem, and some people are not happy," he concluded. Evelina Gudzinskaite, the acting chief of the Lithuanian Migration Department, claimed that the decision to revise the practice of dual citizenship came after the 2013 and 2014 rulings by the Lithuania's Supreme Administrative Court. She emphasised that dual citizenship was granted to Litvaks who fled occupied Lithuania, as well as their descendants. According to her, migration specialists also reject applications from ethnic Lithuanians who emigrated in the interwar period.

"This is arbitrary practice, not an interpretation from Constitutional Law,” said conservative MP, Emanuelis Zingers - a signatory o the 1990 Independence Act. “This denies all the Lithuanian ideals of March 11.” Zingeris also told BNS he had heard inquiries on the topic during his recent visit to Israel. According to the 1923 general census, nearly 154,000 Jews lived in Lithuania. During that time, Vilnius was part of Poland. During the interwar years, they emigrated to Palestine, South Africa and the United States. About 25,000 Jews left Lithuania between 1923 -1939. Lithuania lost more than 90 percent of its pre-war Jewish population during the Holocaust.

Lithuanian officials state that Jews were not oppressed in Lithuania

In an astonishing display regarding the ignorance of rampant anti-Semitism in inter-war Lithuania, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius stated that there was “no violence, repressions or anything like that at the time”, against Jews in Lithuania during the period 1918 – 1939. Based on this assumption, Lithuania intends to deny citizenship applications for descendants of Lithuanian Jews. The belief that Jews did not suffer enough, in Interwar Lithuania, to warrant citizenship is simply preposterous. Lithuanian citizenship rejected

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Jews represented about 14% of Lithuania’s population. In May 1915, the Czarist regime deported and exiled approximately 100,000 Lithuanian Jews to the Russian interior. After the war ended, Lithuanian Jews, who had lived in Lithuania for centuries and often constituted half of the population of many towns, were promised that the new independent Lithuanian state would be tolerant to minorities. Jews provided considerable political support for Lithuania in international forums and enlisted into the Lithuanian army to defend their country’s independence. A great many war medals were awarded to these soldiers for their extraordinary bravery and many lost their lives fighting for Lithuanian independence. In return for their contributions, the government granted full autonomy to the Jewish community and created a Cabinet-level Ministry for Jewish Affairs. Unfortunately, these promises were not kept; in 1923 funding for this Ministry was withdrawn, and in 1924 the Ministry was abolished. Sadly, the Ministry had served little purpose, because in 1923 the Lithuanian Government reportedly rounded up and expelled Jews whom they considered to be “alien”.

These actions constituted the first high level Governmental official acts of discrimination. However, they were in tandem with anti-Semitic conduct by the Government bureaucrats who were to adjudicate the return of the Lithuanian Jewish deportees. As this was the period of Stalin’s first Holodomor in Ukraine, Jewish returnees from deportation had an opportunity to live if they reached Lithuania, while Lithuanian Jewish deportees unable to return from Ukraine were unlikely to survive that enforced famine. Committing official acts in the name of the State, Lithuanian officials refused re-entry to less desirable Jews, effectively condemning them to death by starvation. My own family was among those whose deaths were caused by deliberate official actions.

Under the 1922 Constitution, the second Lithuanian Parliament was in power from 1923 until May 1926. That Government promoted ethnic Lithuanian interests, forbidding any business on Sundays, imposing discriminatory taxes on Jewish artisans and merchants; and requiring that all commercial records, correspondence, signs, advertising, and other public notices be only in the Lithuanian language. This was in direct opposition to the earlier promises made to Jews. Some Lithuanians began to smear tar on Jewish businesses and on professional notices which were written in Yiddish. There were a number of Lithuanian towns where prejudicial activity against Lithuanian Jews were also practiced, with tacit support of the Government. Jews were slowly being excluded from the economy. These deliberate acts of excluding Jews from a livelihood, forced Jews to consider emigration.

Beginning in 1926, unofficial actions were pursued to deny Jews a presence in public life. Jews serving in the police force and army were steadily discharged. Educational institutions adopted quotas to reduce the percentage of Jews in professions, and authorities were encouraged to adopt policies designed to reduce the number of Jews who could be lawyers or doctors.

These official anti-Semitic actions were supplemented by a virulently anti-Semitic propaganda campaign led by a government-supported nationalist organization called “Verslas,” whose motto was “Lietuva Lietuviams”” (“Lithuania is for Lithuanians”). The meaning of Lithuanians in this context is ethnic Lithuanians, not Lithuanian citizens or minorities in Lithuania, it is a specifically racist statement. This motto continues to be used in Lithuania today for racist, ultra nationalist demonstrations. Verslas stridently demanded boycotts of all trade with Jews. Although the group supposedly was independent of the government, it was in fact closely tied to the government leadership. The group’s general secretary was a leader in President Smetona’s party, and their Honorary President was the then Deputy Minister of Finance. In early December 1934, the government radio station broadcast vociferous anti-Semitic speeches given at a Verslas conference that called upon the Lithuanian people to boycott Jews in every branch of life. These calls were broadly successful; as the number of Jewish businesses halved.

Lithuanian political life was not monolithic, and complicity in oppression was not universal. However, the broadcasts from the Government radio station, carried an official and sanctioned imprimatur.

The efforts to limit Jewish participation in the country’s political and economic activities would have been enough to “encourage” Jews to emigrate. The plight of Jewish citizens was worsened by private actions designed to harass and terrorize the Jewish citizenry.

One of the most potent instruments to inspire individual hostility toward Jews was the ancient blood libel accusation. Blood libels in Lithuania during this period took place in Sveksna in 1922, in Linkuva in 1924, in Seduva in 1931, in Pandelys in 1932, and in Vainutas in 1939, in addition to others.

Some examples of attacks against Jews during this period may be found here:Live Journal

As early as September 1923, nationalist Lithuanian youth defaced synagogues and other Jewish institutions and injured 20 Jewish citizens. Jews, who had been victims for hundreds of years, could begin to sense a doomed future, and therefore began to leave Lithuania in order to protect their families. Anti-Jewish action was widespread. It was prevalent not only among the lower echelons of society, but even the national hero Steponas Darius, whose face appeared on Lithuania’s 10 Litas banknote, participated in anti-Jewish activities. Sadly, this fact has been made irrelevant in modern Lithuania. //

In 1934, Lithuania suffered a military coup that failed. This attempted coup brought Nazi ideology to national Lithuanian attention. The plotters promoted anti-Jewish violence. Lithuanian newspapers “Lietuvos Aidas” and “Verslas” floated suggestions to take anti-Jewish steps on openly racist grounds, such as forbidding Jews to employ non-Jewish servants, forbidding Jews entry into holiday resorts, and segregating special areas on beaches.

Some of the public supported these suggestions. They reacted by violently destroying Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish properties including synagogues. Emigration was now the only way to ensure Jewish lives were safeguarded. There was little or no reaction on the part of the authorities. Anti-Semitic riots broke out in Plunge in 1935. Additionally, in December 1935, in two small towns near Telsiai, Lithuanians attacked and injured 32 Jews, and murdered one. The leaders of the pogrom called for more violence, terrifying Jews throughout the region. Future doom became progressively apparent.

By 1936, the Nationalist Lithuanian establishment used administrative ploys to prevent Jews from being elected to Seimas, and in 1938 they succeeded in amending the Lithuanian Constitution to exclude minority autonomous rights.

The cumulative effect of the state-sponsored and private efforts to marginalize, harass, and terrify the Lithuanian Jewish population caused many Jews to seek to emigrate to more tolerant countries. The United States had accepted waves of Eastern European immigrants prior to the First World War, but severely limited immigration in the 1920s. In the 1930s, one of the few countries that would accept Lithuanian Jews was South Africa. Approximately 90% of South African Jews are of Lithuanian heritage.

From 1938, oppression of Jews progressively worsened. On June 15, 1940, Soviets invaded and occupied Lithuania. Jews suffered disproportionate oppression under the Soviets. More than 96% of the Jews remaining on Lithuanian territory thereafter, were murdered. This occurred often at the hands of Lithuanians, not at the hands of the Nazis. Lithuania suffered the highest murder rate of Jews in Europe during the Second World War. Comparing the murder statistics, it is ironic indeed that a Jew in Nazi Germany had a better chance of survival than a Jew in Lithuania.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius’s statement that there was “no violence, repressions or anything like that at the time” is erroneous. Lithuania is using that statement as a pretext to exclude Jews from citizenship. Lithuanian Law claims that if Jews were forcibly exiled after June 15, 1940, then they could apply for citizenship. Lithuanian officials fail to recognize that almost every Jew who meets this citizenship criteria, lies in murder pits that litter Lithuanian lands which are soaked with Jewish blood.

Lithuanian law does not give Migration Department clerks guidance as to an objective standard of persecution required for citizenship restoration; these criteria are left to low level individual employees, who have a historical predisposition of denying applications by Jews. By any objective standard, the treatment of Jews during the interwar period amounts to extraordinary governmental, political and ethnic persecution of this minority population.

Prime Minister Butkevicius and Foreign Minister Linkevicius continuously invite Jewish investment and tourism to Lithuania. However, Nazi sympathizers at Lithuania’s Genocide Center and the Judeinrein citizenship attitudes at Lithuania’s Interior Ministry, conflict with these invitations. Should Jews pay attention to Lithuanian words, or Lithuanian actions?

Permission granted by Grant Gochin

Open letter to Ambassador Darius Degutis, dated 12/3/15

Letter to Consul General - Los Angeles

Lithuanian South Africans:

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

(List modified on June 26, 2011)