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Levy family at Wits.JPG

Trude and Paul Levy with their son Michael at his graduation at Wits University.

Some life stories of the German Jews

They stuck together. They preferred their own music and food. They spoke German only to each other. They told their children nothing about their suffering.



hat was it like, being German Jewish refugees within the Reform community? A quick answer is that the families started off poor, burdened with unspoken feelings of guilt about those they had left behind to die. They felt isolated from mainstream South African Jewry and clubbed together in their own institutions. After the war, their families climbed to modest prosperity. Their children, who were quickly anglicised, learnt no German and knew little or nothing of their parents’ harsh early lives. Below are some examples of such families.

Paul and Gertrude Levy

The Levys were a musical family, and it was with music that they left their mark on the mid-century Reform community. Paul Levy, the beadle of Temple Israel in Hillbrow, and his wife Gertrude (Trude) became choirmasters and organists of Temple Israel and other Progressive congregations in Johannesburg, as did their only son, Michael.

Paul and Trude, who came from the Rhineland, married shortly before departing for South Africa, arriving in Cape Town in January 1937, among the last German Jews to gain entry here.[i] He was 33 years old, she was 29. In Germany, they both had successful careers. He was a partner with his brother in a successful law firm, but had received a letter telling him that as a non-Aryan he could no longer practice. She had been trained a music teacher and concert pianist at the prestigious Stern Conservatoire for Music in Berlin, also closed down for its Jewish roots. In his case, playing the organ had been more of a hobby, but his teacher had been a world-famous organist.

It is Trude who first landed a job at Temple Israel, within a few months of their arrival, as a singer in the choir, for a few shillings a week. The music director Jerry Idelson seems to have had a fondness for German choristers, because most of the rest of the choir were also émigré German Jews[ii].

In October 1937, the management “terminated” the employment of their first beadle, Mr S Golding, who had the impertinence to demand a “living wage” of £15 per month. Mr Levy was appointed in his place. He asked for £10 per month but was paid £12. What he did before that is not known, but according to embittered and perhaps exaggerated remarks by Rabbi Weiler several years later - when he had fallen out once again with a beadle - Levy had tried various jobs and failed at them. The rabbi hired him out of pity, he said, because if Levy could not find a job, he might be sent back to Germany[iii]. Levy may have been trained as a lawyer, but at Temple Israel he worked mainly as a fixer and handyman. The congregation paid for him to have English lessons, and also Hebrew, because “he hardly knew what a Torah was”, according to the rabbi. Levy battled for months to get his employment visa approved, finally receiving it in November 1938, almost two years after his arrival. In a family photograph shared by Michael Levy, his parents are both short, a little stout, and peering owlishly through thick glasses that give them a slightly severe look.

Late in 1938, Temple Israel bought its first electric organ, a Hammond, to replace a smaller harmonium. The electric organ, smaller and less expensive than the piped organs found in churches, had only been invented in 1935, and was still something of a novelty.[iv] The purchase was opposed by Jerry Idelson, who said it was unaffordable and playing it would require a level of skill not easily found in the Jewish community. His advice was ignored. Four people were selected as candidates to try out for the role of organist, and sent for two weeks training on the new machine before being auditioned by a committee. Both the Levys were on the list, and Mr Levy, the only male, was the one who got the job. According to Michael Levy, both his parents had played pipe organs in Germany.

“My father took it very seriously, playing the Hammond and getting the best tone out of it. He went into the mechanics of it. He knew all about how it produced the tone artificially without having pipes there. He hadn’t known Hammonds, but he had trained on proper pipe organs. He took the trouble to find out and that was long before ‘Googling’ things. I believe there was no Hammond agent here at the time. I think they were imported directly from America.”[v]

The choir had a fraught relationship with the Temple Israel management. The early honeymoon with Jerry Idelson had turned into frequent carping from committees about the quality of the music, and what was perceived as Idelson’s over-commitment to a multitude of outside interests. Idelson in turn complained that his budget was constantly being cut, and that top singers would not perform for Temple Israel’s lowly rates.[vi] The choristers in turn had low opinions of one another’s skills. Levy tended to be in the thick of all these rows.

Levy’s name appears frequently in the minutes, being praised for his good work in teaching the junior choir, and for rescuing a major event when Jerry Idelson stormed out in a tantrum, taking all the music with him. Levy’s salary was raised several times in recognition of his services. And yet Levy was also described, by the same men who had praised him, as impossible to work with, unpleasant and incompetent. His contract was reduced to temporary employment on two weeks’ notice. “I think he was terminated. In fact I’m sure he was terminated,” said Michael Levy, who described his father as his own worst enemy, constantly picking fights when none were necessary.[vii] It is worth considering whether the emotional strain Levy might have been under (his parents and a brother perished in the Holocaust) accounted for his behaviour, which seems similar to that of Rudolph Schwab, discussed further on.[viii] There were no notions of post-traumatic stress disorder in nineteen thirties South Africa.

Michael Levy was born in 1945. His parents mixed almost only with fellow German Jewish emigres, not all of whom were members of the Reform community. His father would frequently announce that they would never speak German again, but they did, particularly among themselves “and when they were fighting”.

“Their social circle was almost exclusively made up of other refugees. They did try to make friends with other South Africans but it didn’t work out. They weren’t the others’ type, the others weren’t my parent’s type. So their entire social circle consisted of other German Jews. That’s how we knew the Auerbachs, the Kleineibsts, the Heinemanns, the Blumenthals, the Wallachs.”[ix]

They lived in a house in Rosebank, where the Rosebank Clinic is today, in those days the far outer fringe of Johannesburg. His parents doubled as musicians and music teachers, particularly of piano and organ. The house was crowded with musical instruments, some even in Michael’s bedroom:

“My parents had two organs and two pianos at the house. One of the pianos was a ‘boudoir’ grand which is one smaller than a concert piano. My mother’s mother had it shipped out from Germany after my mother arrived here. And then we also had a Bechstein upright piano which was in my bedroom. And then we had a very large organ. Not a pipe organ, it was a reed organ which was the next best thing to a pipe organ in the days before electronic music. And that was a very big and bulky instrument with a full pedal board. We also had a Hammond spinette organ, which was also in my bedroom.”[x]

Felix Kleineibst, who replaced Levy as the beadle and proved rather more popular, lived on the same block as Temple Israel, with his unmarried daughter. The Kleineibsts held frequent musical evenings at which they would play records. The Levys, who could not afford a baby sitter, would bring young Michael Levy along:

“Everybody sat in a circle in the lounge and everybody smoked their cigars and cigarettes and pipes. It was before the time of the connection with cancer and all of that. And I couldn’t take it. I remember I used to escape onto the patio that ran around the house to get away from it. But everybody smoked. And we sat in a circle, listening to 78 rpms classical music.”


Much like other German Jews, the Levys told their son Michael almost nothing about their lives back in Germany (he had to do his own research after their deaths), or their feelings about losing their families, or their struggles to establish themselves in South Africa. For a better understanding of those difficulties among German Jews, we can look at the life of one of the people in their circle, Rudolph Schwab, the first of the German Jewish emigres to actually chair a Reform synagogue committee.

Rudolph (Ralph) Schwab

We know much about Schwab thanks to a 2017 biography From Things Lost by Professor Shirli Gilbert, based on some 4 000 pages of correspondence found in a trunk left in a suburban garage, letters between Schwab and family and friends he had left behind in Germany.[xi] The letters were discovered by chance long after Schwab’s death in a road accident in 1971. What was unusual about the letters is that, with almost caricature Yekke thoroughness, Schwab not only filed the letters he received, but also made copies of his own replies.

The Gilbert book concentrates on the trauma of a family living under the shadow of the Holocaust. Less visible is Schwab’s role as a prominent leader of the Reform movement: three times the chairman of Temple Israel, and married to a woman who was twice chairman of the United Sisterhood.[xii] But several interesting themes can be spotted and enlarged upon.[xiii]

Born to an observant Orthodox family in Hanau, a village in south west Germany, Schwab fled the country on his own, aged 21, in 1933, shortly after the Nazis took power. He was pushed and pulled across Europe, facing rejection or unemployment, until finally boarding a ship to South Africa in 1936. He arrived penniless in Cape Town, and moved to Johannesburg in search of better conditions. Yet it took months to find a job, as a labourer on a construction site, his first job in three and a half years. He showed extraordinary pluck and entrepreneurship, starting his own construction business, but it took two decades, says Gilbert, before he earned a regular income. His letters describe for example, how for more than a year he wore the same underwear and suit and slept on the same sheets because he could not afford new ones. He struggled with the language, the culture and even the climate, and had to teach himself construction skills he’d never learnt before. The German Jews kept together, because as noted above, they were treated with suspicion by other Jews and in turn had some disdain for what they considered the Ostjuden’s lack of sophistication.

Schwab initially showed no interest in religious matters, joining neither an Orthodox nor a Reform congregation. He married a Pretoria-born Jewess who spoke no German, which separated him from the rest of the German community, and he prided himself on mastering both English and Afrikaans. As part of his Anglicisation, he began calling himself Ralph. Indeed, those South Africans who encountered him, never knew him as Rudolph[xiv]. The marriage ended in divorce in 1951, with one son, Norman, who was packed off to a Catholic boarding school, Marist Brothers Inanda, where he spent eight years, while his solitary father moved from one guest house or rented flat to another. Although Gilbert describes the letters as warm and generous, the harshness of life as a refugee and the trauma of losing his relatives transformed Schwab into a hard and aloof man, an unsentimental disciplinarian, so remote that his own son confessed to hardly knowing him.[xv]

Schwab joined the Reform congregation of Rabbi Weiler in the early fifties, after his divorce. It provided a sense of community and belonging to man living on his own. Norman Schwab, who had his barmitzvah in 1956 at Temple Israel, speculates that his father, despite no previous experience of or interest in Reform, simply felt more comfortable among German Jews. Schwab explained his reasoning in a letter written in 1953, in which he complained that Orthodox services were “so prescribed that it’s no surprise to me that Jewish communities throughout the world lost, in a spiritual sense, not just their adults but also their children a long time ago … Our rabbi (presumably Rabbi Weiler) understood all this a long time ago … so he made the services so interesting … that the children adore him and lead almost the entire service by themselves in Hebrew and English … The result is that we regularly have between 350 and 400 members in attendance at an ordinary Shabbat service …”[xvi]

Thanks to the thorough Jewish education he had received from his Orthodox parents, Schwab was able to make himself useful as a lay reader. “He considered it an honour to lead the services and placed great importance on reading the mourner’s Kaddish for distant relatives who had no-one else to say it for them.” And yet, he ate non-kosher food with some relish: “Oysters, lobsters and knuckles of pork … I eat with great pleasure when they aren’t too expensive.”[xvii]

Through the Reform movement, he met Miriam Mandelstam, a widow with three children, much involved in Jewish community affairs, including the United Sisterhood, of which she would become chairman in 1968 and 1969. For three years from 1959 to 1961 – a period of uncertainty in the community after the departure of Rabbi Weiler – Schwab was chairman of Temple Israel. This led to further positions on the Jewish Board of Deputies, Zionist organisations and the German community’s B’nei Brith. Gilbert quotes a letter in which he describes his exhaustion at attending meetings almost every night; he had not had a full night’s sleep for months. Gilbert comes up with a psychological explanation for this punishing regime: he was trying to emulate his murdered father, who had been at the centre of community affairs in their village. In 1969, two years before his death, Schwab was made an Honorary Life Member of Temple Israel. Much as with other early Reform families, there is no second generation Schwab story within the community. Norman Schwab has been a devout Orthodox Jew for 25 years, living in Glenhazel and attending the Yeshiva Synagogue.[xviii]

German Jews in the Eastern Cape

The German Jewish influence was particularly evident in the Eastern Cape 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 the first congregation would 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.[xix] Thus, by the time the twentieth century arrived, the Eastern Cape had a reputation as a haven for German Jews. As described in the book version of Mavericks Inside the Tent, the first congregation in Port Elizabeth practiced a liberalised form of Orthodoxy along German-Jewish lines, including such 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 Robins has written an acclaimed – and tragic - biography of his German Jewish father Arthur, who, much like Rudolph Schwab, 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.[xx] He describes how the families learnt to suppress their sorrow and guilt over the loss of their families - and yet some were driven to suicide on receiving notifications from the Red Cross.[xxi] A letter written by a non-Jew trying to offer advice, described his father as “unhinged”.

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”. Robins 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. When his father finally married, in his late forties, his wife was from a devout Lithuanian family who did not approve of their irreligious son-in-law.

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.”

 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.” And once a committee had been 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.” [xxii] 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.[xxiii]

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.[xxiv]

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”.[xxv] 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.”[xxvi] 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.[xxvii]

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.[xxviii] Bobby Braak, the third president, often led services and later came to be known as Reverend Braak, an informal title[xxix]. Arnold and Ruth Bergman became, over the next few decades, leaders of the congregation, the Sisterhood, the Brotherhood, and the Chevra Kadisha.[xxx] 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] Michael Levy thinks an unknown benefactor stood surety for them to help them get into the country. (Interview with Michael Levy, 31 October 2018.)

[ii] The appointment comes as a surprise to Michael Levy, who never knew his mother as a singer. It may also suggest a level of desperation on her own part. (Levy interview, op cit.)

[iii] Combined meeting of Choir subcommittee and executive, 23 March 1941 at which Weiler suggested that Levy had been ungrateful to him.

[iv] Hammond claimed that it matched a pipe organ for sound, at a fraction of the cost, but lost a court case years later when experts found that it was not quite the same thing.

[v] Levy interview, op cit.

[vi] Michael Levy, a former choirmaster and SABC musician himself, said Idelson’s team were of high quality. Idelson’s wife, Anne Sacks the violinist, and Betty Pack the cellist, were well-regarded in Johannesburg. (Levy interview, op cit.)

[vii] Levy interview, op cit. “My father always fought with everybody – EVERYBODY - over nothing at all. He had to have a fight and if there wasn’t one available he would manufacture one.”

[viii] Paul Levy continued as an organist, his last post before his death in 1970, aged only 66, being at the breakaway congregation Bet El. Trude, who died in 1987, aged 79, was the first organist at the newly-established Temple Emanuel, where Michael followed her. He was also at the short-lived Temple Sinai with the young Rabbi Charles Wallach, and at Temple Israel until 1980, when he fell out with the rabbi, who wanted to replace the choir with a chazzan.

[ix] Levy interview, op cit.

[x] Levy interview, op cit. His mother liked to joke that when he was a baby, there was a piano on one side of his cot and an organ on the other … if only they had put cash registers next to his cot.

[xi] From Things Lost: Forgotten letters and the legacy of the Holocaust. Wayne State University Press, Michigan 2017. The book was also turned into an exhibition, at the Jewish Museum in Cape Town and the Holocaust Centre in Johannesburg.

[xii] Based on lists of office bearers in the Golden Jubilee Magazine of the United Progressive Jewish Congregation of Johannesburg, September 1983.

[xiii] Based also on an interview with Rudolph Schwab’s son, Norman Schwab, 17 October 2017, and references to Schwab in Reform movement archives.

[xiv] Those who mentioned him in interviews include Alan Morris and Peter Alexander, both of whom knew him only as Ralph.

[xv] Interview with Norman Schwab, op cit.

[xvi] Quoted in Gilbert, op cit.

[xvii] Gilbert, op cit. Even in South African Reform circles of that era, when the niceties of kashrut were largely ignored, showily eating pork would have been frowned upon as provocative.

[xviii] Ralph Schwab  died tragically in a car accident near his home in Birnam, shortly after having led the Friday night service at Temple Israel. (Rabbi Charles Wallach in the 70th Anniversary brochure of Temple Israel, 2006.)

[xix] 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).

[xx] 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.

[xxi] Robins credits Claudia Braude for this research.

[xxii] 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.

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

[xxiv] 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.

[xxv] Melmed, op cit.

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

[xxvii] (Scheurenberg interview, op cit.)

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

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

[xxx] 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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