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Yvonne Frank, Sisterhood chair, right, at a party for a group of pensioners in 1976. The women are

showing off embroidery which they must have produced themselves

The founding of a Port Elizabeth congregation

Groups of émigré German Jews were key to the establishment of a Reform congregation in Port Elizabeth, with the first rabbi arriving in March 1951



he German Jewish influence was particularly evident in the Reform congregation of Port Elizabeth, founded a few years after the war’s end, with recent German Jewish immigrants playing a prominent role.

The Eastern Cape had German Jewish roots stretching back into the early nineteenth century. The first German Jew at the Cape (or rather, the first practicing German Jew), was Gabriel Killian, who arrived in 1823, years before a minyan was possible or the first congregation could be established. Kilian set up a successful trading firm with a network across the newly-colonised Eastern Cape. News of his success spread, and he brought in more German Jews to work for him, among them his cousins, the Mosenthal family.

The Mosenthals are largely forgotten, but in their day they were South African approximations of the Rothschilds. They set up as general merchants in Cape Town and created their own trading network that bought and sold agricultural produce, stretching across the Eastern Cape and up past the Orange River. They moved their headquarters to the new commercial centre of Port Elizabeth – indeed, it was largely the Mosenthals who transformed the town into a commercial hub. Since no banking system existed in the remote rural areas, they invented their own, including printing their own bank notes. When a formal banking system followed, they became directors of the big banks as well. Among other achievements, the Mosenthals pioneered sheep farming for wool and Angora goats for mohair; they moved from wool to ostrich feathers, and they also became partners with Cecil John Rhodes in early diamond mining.

More relevant to this chapter, the Mosenthals were from the Principality of Hesse Cassell, and their success in South Africa inspired a stream of German Jewish settlers from Hesse Cassell to try their luck in the Eastern Cape.[i] Thus, by the time the twentieth century arrived, the Eastern Cape had a reputation as a haven for German Jews. As described in Chapter 17 (the Lily Richards burial affair), the first congregation in Port Elizabeth practiced a liberalised form of Orthodoxy along German-Jewish lines, including such modernist aberrations as organs and females in choirs. But by the mid-nineteen thirties, Jews from Eastern Europe with more traditional practices had displaced the German Jews as the dominant group in town.

Professor Steven Robbins has written an acclaimed – and tragic - biography of his German Jewish father Arthur, who fled the Nazis on his own. Arthur arrived in South Africa as a youngster, having left most of his family behind, and settled in Port Elizabeth. The book offers some interesting insights into the Port Elizabeth refugee community during the post-war period.[ii] He describes how the families learnt to suppress their sorrow and guilt over the loss of their families - and how some were driven to suicide on receiving notifications of deaths from the Red Cross.[iii]

Arthur was among many who found modest jobs in the Jewish-run “rag trade” in Port Elizabeth, a spin-off of the wool trade set up by the Mosenthals. Families would share homes, which helped to both offset costs and provide comfort and solidarity. And yet they never spoke to their children about the relatives they had left behind. His father’s group coped by drinking, partying and hanging about nightclubs, which other “too-serious yekkes” did not approve of.

Although his father never joined the Reform congregation, those in his social circle were members, and he was thus “exposed to their values”. Robbins interviewed his father’s friend Jean Comaroff, who was prominent in the Reform movement, and who told him how the German Jews, isolated in a rough-and-ready frontier town, formed groups which appreciated European music, arts and literature – and even imported German food from a delicatessen called Harris’s.

In an abbreviated history of the Port Elizabeth congregation, the late Colin Melmed, an early member and former president of the congregation, said emphatically: “The majority of members were from the German Jewish community and it remained like this for many years.” Melmed’s history – it is mainly a series of personal memories – is striking in that he takes it for granted that the Reform movement in South Africa and the German Jewish immigrants are more or less synonymous:

“Rabbi Weiler arrived in this country knowing that there were many Jews of German origin who only knew Reform Judaism … many of these Jews found the Litvak-based Orthodoxy unfamiliar and generally unaccepting of them.”

As any reader of this book will know, this is not quite accurate, but the underlying assumption is that German Jews initiated the movement – which may have been true of the Eastern Cape. When Rabbi Weiler paid his first visit to Port Elizabeth, “there was a great upswelling of excitement, not only among the Jews of German origin, but also among those who were not able to accept the strict laws which governed Orthodox congregations.”

A committee was set up: “While this early committee had a huge task on its hands, the enthusiasm, work ethic and attention to detail of the Jews of German origin in particular made it look relatively easy.” [iv] Melmed argues that this early sense of communality was the basis for the congregation’s strong “family feeling”, which outlasted the founding generation and was remarked upon by many visitors.

Leslie Bergman, whose father Arnold was among the founding German Jews, agrees with Melmed. “German Jews were prominent in the founding of the congregation, its leadership thereafter and its membership when I was a child (in the early fifties) was probably half German Jewish.” Apart from his father Arnold Bergman – the only congregant to be made an Honorary Life President -  he recalls the names of Sigi Hallis, who was the first president; Ewald Nagel who was president a decade later; Gert Simon, who died in office of a heart attack during a fractious Annual General Meeting; George Adler, who replaced him (and was also architect of the Temple);and Victor Hirsch, all of them presidents of the congregation.

Ronnie Scheurenberg, whose parents were German Jewish emigres, adds in the names Lowenthals, Rothenbergs, Benjamins, Bluhms, Zeidlers, Meyers. Scheurenberg produced a photograph of the cheder school children, taken in the early nineteen fifties. There were 43 children in the picture, and of those he recognised, he was confident that 18 (or 42%) had German Jewish parents.[v]

Alvin and David Woolf, whose father Felix was the first honorary secretary of the congregation, remember more details. In their account, their parents had been early members of Temple Israel in Cape Town. They were enthusiastic and regular attenders of services, their mother was on the Sisterhood and the children attended the cheder.

The family moved to Port Elizabeth in 1948 (Alvin was ten and David eight), where they found no spiritual home. But what they did find was “a loose collection of people wanting to found a shul, but with no direction, wandering aimlessly with no fixed address for themselves.” The Woolfs, with their Cape Town experience, acted as catalysts, setting up meetings with friends in the family home to discuss starting a congregation. This led up to High Holy Day services in 1950, held in their family lounge and attended by two dozen people, with the services led by a recent English immigrant, Sol Marcus, later to become president.[vi]

The first formally elected president was the German Jew Sigi Hallis, with Felix Woolf as the Hon Secretary. Within months, they had found premises, ground floor apartments called Sandra Chambers, wedged between the King Edward Hotel and a filling station on Western Road – the same street as the Orthodox synagogue, but on the opposite end. Internal walls were knocked down to “create a cosy little shul”.

An organ was quickly obtained, with Felix Woolf as the organist. Before a choir was established, “the singing sounded a bit like the Goon Show”.[vii] Friday night services drew 20 to 30 adults. As was common to all congregations, rather fewer arrived on Saturday mornings. “But there was a large crowd of children (on Saturdays) as the parents were not too old and we all came to shul as a must and as a habit; not like today’s attendance at shul. My dad used to boast that there was a Woolf at every service.”[viii] Ronnie Scheurenberg had another explanation for the lack of Saturday attendance: many of the adults, including his parents, were in the retail trade and had to work in their shops on Saturday mornings.[ix]

The congregation quickly outgrew Sandra Chambers, and bought a permanent property on Upper Dickens Street to build a synagogue. Perhaps there was something indeed to the legendary German Jewish efficiency, because, unlike Cape Town and Johannesburg, they had secured a rabbi (Reverend Isaac Richards) within a few months, and had built and opened Temple Israel Centre by August 1953.[x]

Bobby Braak, the third president, often led services and later came to be known as Reverend Braak, an informal title[xi]. Arnold and Ruth Bergman became, over the next few decades, leaders of the congregation, the Sisterhood, the Brotherhood, and the Chevra Kadisha.[xii]

What happened to the German Jews? They avoided speaking German in the company of other Jews – or even teaching German to their children. The next generation intermarried with the “Litvak” majority, and soon enough, the German influence became invisible to outsiders. But their presence was vital to helping the Reform movement towards is golden age of growth, in the fifties and sixties.




[i] The commercial achievements of the Mosenthals are described at length in Saron and Hotz, “The Jews in South Africa”, op cit. Marcia Leveson also attributes the German Jewish influx into the Eastern Cape to the Mosenthal family in her introduction to Volume 3 of “Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities” which deals with the Eastern Cape. (South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth, Johannesburg, 2007).

[ii] Letters of Stone, From Nazi Germany to South Africa. Penguin, 2016. Robins grew up in Port Elizabeth. The book attracted wide attention for its other theme, which linked Nazi racial theories to academics at Stellenbosch University.

[iii] Robins credits Claudia Braude for this research.

[iv] A History of Temple Israel, by Colin Melmed, in the congregational Rosh Hashanah magazine of 2013. Melmed was president of the congregation from 1986 to 1988, and active in the congregation long after that. The abbreviated history, only 16 paragraphs long, is unfortunately short on specifics.

[v] Interview with Ronnie Scheurenberg, 09 October 2018.

[vi] Correspondence with David and Alvin Woolf, 01 June 2018 and 03-05 October 2018. Alvin thought the date might be 1949, but was not sure.

[vii] Melmed, op cit.

[viii] Woolf correspondence, 01 June, op cit.

[ix] (Scheurenberg interview, op cit.)

[x] It was opened by the Mayor, Mr CF McArthur, on Friday, 23 August 1953.

[xi] “He was a dynamic person and he led the Congregation. I think he led it well.” (Scheurenberg interview, op cit.)

[xii] Arnold Bergman became the congregation’s only Honorary Life President. “Now Arnold was head of the Brotherhood and secretary of the Shul for many years. So he was very active in maintaining the governance and the running of the shul. Ja, you know whenever there was a function, Arnold and Ruth were there.” (Scheurenberg interview, op cit.)

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