Gwynne Schrire, a veteran contributor to Jewish Affairs and a long-serving member of its editorial board, is Deputy Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies – Cape Council. She has authored, co-written and edited over twenty books on aspects of South African Jewish and Western Cape history.
“No matter how much suffering you went through, you never wanted to let go of those memories,” wrote bestselling Japanese writer and Jerusalem Prize winner Haruki Murakami. However, the same does not hold true of one’s children or grandchildren who live in another time. With the passing of years, memories become mementoes and those mementoes can land up in the bin, or in junk shops, auction houses and, sometimes, in museums. To the descendants, they are mere artefacts occupying space, and the experiences that were the reason for their original owner holding on to them shrivel and then disappear altogether.
This article will try to bring back to life the forgotten stories behind four of these artefacts, each associated with an event that took place 120 years ago. Two are on display at the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies and two are in this writer’s possession.
Hanging on the wall of the Samson Centre, where the SAJBD’s Cape offices are housed, is a carved walking stick of Burmese teak. We know who carved it as it bears the craftsman’s signature: M. Segal. Also engraved thereon is the place and date where it was made - Darryl’s Eiland, July 1901. Darrell’s Island is a small island off the coast of Bermuda. It does not feature on the list of places where East European Jews fleeing Russia chose to settle, so why was Moses Segal carving a walking stick there in 1901? Segal answered the question on his stick - “Bermuda krygsgevang” - Bermuda prisoner of war. The British used the island as a POW camp during the Anglo-Boer War along with camps on other Bermuda Islands, St Helena, Ceylon and India – an estimated 26 000 POWs passed through these camps.
What else can we learn from the stick? The owner was a gifted craftsman who demonstrated his loyalty to the Boer republics by carving on it the armorial crests of the Orange Free State and Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) with an eagle on the top. He also carved a hand in a sleeve with the initials P.R.D.T. M.T. Steyn on the cuff. Martinus Theunis Steyn was the last president of the independent Orange Free State (1896-1902). The hand clutches a knife that pierces the head of a snake twisted round a frog. The snake curls right around the stick. At the bottom, the snake’s tail is in the mouth of another snake that twists up the other side of the stick.
These symbols are found on other handcrafts made by Boer POWs to while away the time and earn some pocket money. Many have been given by their families to the SA National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg and to the Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein. Segal’s walking stick was donated to the Cape Town Jewish Museum by his grandson, K Segal from Oudtshoorn, and is now in the possession of the Cape SAJBD as it did not fit into the themes of the new SA Jewish Museum. Comments Allan Sinclair,[i] Curator of the Military Art Collection at the SA National Museum of Military History, “It was common practice for items to be marked with special labels, including such details as the date, the name of the camp, the country in which the camp was located and, in many cases, the name of the prisoner who created the piece”.
Sinclair points out that the snake was a symbol of the guerrilla war. He also mentions that on the blade of a knife made in Ceylon, the coats of arms of both the ZAR and the Orange Free State were carved, just as Segall had done. The symbols on Segall’s stick were thus not unique but conform to those carved on objects made in other POW camps.
In his Collector's Guide to Boer War Memorabilia, P Oosthuizen explains that the POWs started to mass produce items, like walking sticks, pens, boxes, clips, serviette rings and paper knives[ii]. Indeed the POWs on Burt's Island, another island in Bermuda, formed the Industrial Association for Carvings and Curios to help sell the articles they made through shops in Bermuda. They were paid a percentage of the profits[iii].
What else do we know about Moses Segal?
Although the symbols carved on his walking stick show that he had a strong loyalty to his president Steyn (who was friendly with Segal’s brother Abraham[iv]) and to the independence of the Boer Republics, the face he gave to the British indicated otherwise. After the war he claimed to the Provost Marshall’s office at the SA Army Headquarters that although he had been arrested on suspicion of having aided the Boers by providing them with supplies (which he was doing), he had remained “strictly neutral” and was not actually fighting for them[v]. However, the symbols he carved on his stick tell a different story.
In May 1900 he handed over to the British a Mauser rifle and cartridges - this in itself is suspicious as in order to enrol in a Boer commando, as required, each man had to supply his own horse, rifle, ammunition and two weeks’ worth of rations. When the Afrikaner forces won the battle of Spion Kop on 24 January, 1900, they believed they owed their success to “vertroue in God en die Mauser” (faith in God and the Mauser)[vi].
Much is known about Moses Segal through the research of Richard Mendelsohn[vii]. Moses and his brother Abraham came to South Africa in 1894 from the very small north-western Latvian shtetl of Piltene, and started a shop in Vlakfontein in the Free State. Four years later Abraham’s oldest son, 14-year old Joseph, joined them. In March 1901, a passing column of British troops “totally ruined” their shop, smashing the safe and looting their goods.[viii] The next month Joseph’s cousin HB Kaplan said that Moses was commandeered by Commandant Munnik Hertzog but released shortly afterwards minus horse, saddle and bridle and allowed to return home with a protective pass. In May, having heard that the British were in the neighbourhood, Moses decided to flee, packing his cart with his shop books, promissory notes, clothes, two watches and three gold rings[ix], only to be captured at the farm Skanse near Metz in the Fauresmith district. A British officer searched him, confiscating his papers, £81 in gold and notes and four shillings in silver. He was refused a receipt but the officer promised to return the money when they reached the Orange River Station. While they were about it, the troops also looted and burnt down the Segal’s Vlakfontein store. Moses was handcuffed, despite protesting that he was a neutral, and marched to that station.
Arriving eight days later at the Orange River Station, the intelligence officer saw the incriminating protective pass and concluded that “the Jew Segall has been trading and aiding enemy if not on commando and probably his money will be confiscated.” ”[x].
On 24 May poor Moses, still protesting his innocence, was placed in an open coal truck on a train headed for Cape Town and the POW camp on the Green Point common. He demanded that his money be returned but nothing doing. Two days later he was put onto the SS Armenian bound for Bermuda. He did not find that journey any better than the one on the train ("The food and treatment were very bad and having no money, I was obliged to take what they gave me. The treatment on ship was much to complain of”[xi].
Transferred to Darrell’s Island, Moses complained repeatedly about the theft of his money, writing to the camp authorities and even to Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces. He complained about his innocence. He complained about his neutrality. He complained that he had been left destitute without adequate clothing or the most ordinary comforts. To little avail.
Finally, the Provost Marshall at army headquarters decided to investigate, writing to Captain Leigh, the officer accused of taking Moses’ money now back in England. [xii] Naturally, Leigh “emphatically” denied knowing anything about the case. He did not remember taking any money. He did not remember Segal. He did not remember being in Metz. Faced with the word of an English gentleman and officer and the word of a Jewish foreigner it was a foregone conclusion which of the two the British would believe.
On 7 October 1902, Moses Segal was repatriated - but not before he suffered another robbery. This time his trunk was ransacked and “a great number of things stolen therefrom”. These included a silver watch chain, a suit of clothes, five shirts, four pairs of underpants, one fountain pen. Also taken was a small box which had contained “Numerous curios in silver and carved wood, a good number of them bearing my name and which I valued greatly.”[xiii]
As Segal had, according to his letters, arrived on the island destitute and without clothing, one wonders how he had managed to acquire all these possessions. Would it be from the sale of goods he had carved? Knowing the quality of carving displayed on the walking stick in the SAJBD's possession, his craftsmanship must have been considerable.
Moses landed in Simonstown on 29October and was returned to the Free State once more on an open truck, penniless. He submitted a claim to the British for £7 924, which the British refused to pay. They had found a cost-saving legal loophole. Britain would only pay compensation to foreigners who were citizens or subject of foreign countries. Some of the East European Jews had left the country illegally, sneaking over the border. Some had failed to comply with Russian laws about retaining Russian status when out of the country as they had had no intention of returning to a land where conditions were far worse for them than they were in southern Africa. Nor was the Russian consulate keen to accept responsibility for these now stateless Jews. So Segal received compensation neither for his shop, nor his goods, nor his looted POW possessions. As Prof Mendelsohn wrote - “perfidious Albion”[xiv].
Thus the only memento remaining from his months on the island is the walking stick, a unique item carved by a Latvian Jew and Boerejood in captivity on a lonely Bermudan island.
The Board of Deputies also has a medal that was awarded to 'Burger W Jacobson'. Wolf Jacobson was a landsleit of the Segals
– they had all come from Piltene, the same shtetl in Latvia. Piltene had 629 Jews in 1897 (42% of its population[xv]) so it is probably not coincidental that they settled in the Fauresmith district in the Free State and that Wolf and Joseph Segal (nephew of Moses) ended up in the same commando.
Many Afrikaans folk legends tell of the tricks of Wolf and Jackal, so with one of them being named Wolf, it did not take long before the other Jew in the unit became known as Jakkals and the nickname stuck.
Wolf Jacobson served under General Hertzog. He may have gained his knowledge of the area as a smous as he was a renowned scout[xvi]. Until the end of the war he served in the Staff Corps of Hertzog’s successor, General Chas. Niewoudt[xvii].
In 1999 (the centenary of the war's outbreak), David Saks met Jacobson’s daughter Jenny Leviton when he was researching Jewish participation in the war[xviii]. Through him, she donated her father's medal to the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, along with two handwritten testimonials from General Hertzog and General Niewoudt. Hertzog's letter, dated 5 July 1905, states that Jacobson had been a burgher of the Orange Free State Republic, had fought under his leadership until the end of the war and had discharged his duty “faithfully and dutifully" [xix]. Niewoudt's testimonial is similarly worded.
Jenny had been told that if she should ever find herself in difficulties, she should appeal directly to General Hertzog and no stone would be left unturned for her rights or justice. She did so in 1939 when she needed documentary proof of her late father’s South African citizenship. She also asked that she be given his Dekorasie vir Troue Diens medal, which was duly sent to her.
Jacobson had died in 1920, shortly before medals for Boer veterans were officially issued.
There is another medal, also belonging to another grandchild, the present writer. It was given to me by my grandmother Sara Neche Schrire nee Senderowitz. Sara was born in Beaconsfield, a town one-mile south of Kimberley, on 11 November 1893. She was the only one of seven children to survive (there is a whole row of little Senderowitz graves in the Jewish cemetery in Kimberley) and one of the first Jewish children to be born there[xx]. Her father Raphael Senderowitz rented a stand on Market Square, and opened a shop and a mill. He would buy mealies and mill them into flour which he sold around Kimberley and in the Transvaal. The family lived in a house next to the mill and had a stable for the horses that delivered the flour. They also kept chickens and cows. Raphael was highly respected for his ability, to the extent that the locals would come to him at election time to ask his advice on whom to vote for.
When war broke out in 1899, Kimberley and Beaconsfield were besieged. Much to the indignation of its inhabitants Col Robert Kekewich, who commanded the garrison in Kimberley, had originally intended to exclude Beaconsfield in his plans for the defence of Kimberley. However, the Beaconsfield residents protested so strongly that he was forced to include the defence of Beaconsfield with his defence of Kimberley, although independently of the main defensive enclosure.[xxi]
The Senderowitz family decided to flee, loading their cart with their possessions and setting out for Kimberley. On the road, which was blocked with other refugees, they met up with relatives from the Barkly West river diamond diggings likewise fleeing into Kimberley and who were planning to stay with them. They decided to turn round and return home together.
The families survived on sacks of dried peas and beans from their shop. When I moved out of my house recently I sold two doorstops - shells from Boer cannon that my grandmother claimed had landed in their garden. When the shelling was bad, Rhodes ordered all the women and children to go down the mines for safety. Raphael refused to allow his wife and daughter to join the women and children sheltering in the mines, however, as he did not want them to associate with the women of ill repute who would be there.
When the siege was lifted, the relieved Beaconsfield residents (pun intended) decided to strike a Beaconsfield medal for their schoolchildren. Fifteen hundred were made of white metal and presented by Beaconsfield Mayor J.M. Pratley to schoolchildren of all races in Beaconsfield whose parents had submitted an application form. Suspended by two links from a rather crumpled red and white ribbon, the one face contains the full figure of the Roman goddess Pax extending an olive branch in her right hand, cradling a cornucopia in her left and standing on a small plinth. Underneath her is the word: 'PEACE’ and around the medal it states: ‘COUNCIL CHILDRENS MEDAL PRESENTED BY THE TOWN’; ‘1900'. The Beaconsfield coat of arms is on the reverse with motto: 'FORTI NIHIL DIFFICILE’ (nothing too difficult for the strong) on a ribbon below with ‘SIEGE OF BEACONSFIELD' '14 OCTOBER 1899 * 15 FEBRUARY 1900 around the medal. The medals were presented to my grandmother and the other children at a large ceremony only late in 1901 because while the siege had been lifted, the peace took longer to arrive than anticipated[xxii].
My grandmother said that Cecil John Rhodes used to ride past their house every day to review the troops. He was a poor horseman, and when the children used to shout after him, he was too scared to turn round to shout back. At the Big Hole Open Air Museum one can see the stone that Rhodes used for mounting his horse. She also also said the children used to run after the soldiers shouting “badges, badges”. These the soldiers would tear off their uniforms and give to the children, which they would then swap amongst themselves. She was sorry that she had not kept them.
Something else young Miss Sendelowitz, or perhaps her father, must have acquired, from a soldier was a tin that had originally contained chocolate. These were presented to the troops by Queen Victoria as a Christmas/New Years' Gift. The chocolate were made either by Cadburys or by Fry and Rowntree. As these were Quaker owned companies, they were pacifists and reluctant to support the war effort, but were persuaded to change their minds[xxiii]. It certainly made sound business sense. The three companies' tins vary slightly in appearance - my grandmother’s tin had been made by Fry and still contains the tissue paper in which the chocolate had been wrapped - but no chocolate. How the chocolate would have managed to survive the summer heat without refrigerated trucks is a marvel.
The gilt tin is magnetic, with red and blue paint. On the lid is an embossed left-facing bust of Queen Victoria, flanked by the crowned Royal cipher at left and inscribed at right "SOUTH AFRICA 1900". Beneath is the message “I wish you a happy New Year Victoria R”
So here are the stories behind four Anglo-Boer War mementoes, all preserved by grandchildren who, while not having experienced the hardships of those who lived during those times, had not wanted to let go of the memories the objects carried and accordingly had handed them on to others to care for. The owners had come from Fauresmith and Beaconsfield, but apart from the the Prisoner of War encampments on Green Point common, how did the war effect Jews living far from the fields of combat in Cape Town?
During the war, the woman who was to become Sarah Neche’s mother-in-law ran a kosher butchery in District Six. She came down with the plague brought in by bacteria in the fleas in the rats in the fodder in the ships to feed the horses for the British troops. As plague was believed to be caused by unhygienic living conditions, on her recuperation, the Schrires decided to return to Europe away from gossiping innuendoes. They left behind their oldest son Max, who was a photographer in De Aar. Max followed the British troops, taking photographs of the shops they destroyed for the owners who hoped to claim compensation after the war. They did not know of the convenient British loophole refusing payment to Russian Jews whose country had disowned them as citizens.
Of Max, his younger brother Harry wrote, “He managed to accumulate TWO THOUSAND GOLDEN SOVEREIGNS by the end of the war[xxiv]”. This he used to enter partnership in a shop with the man who would become his brother in law, Israel Mauerberger, which developed into the country-wide chain of Berger’s stores.
Apart from increased business opportunities, the war brought many changes to Cape Town. Over 25 000 refugees - mosty having fled from the Witwatersrand - flooded into the city between September and October 1899. Their arrival put enormous pressure on a town already with an unemployment problem and which lacked facilities, welfare network or the legislation to cope with the influx. The Mayor's Rand Relief Committee was formed to handle refugee relief and the City Council agreed to convert part of the Produce and Feather Market Building near the docks into an “admirable shelter. The accommodation is far better than that of the best steerage. The bunks are comfortable and spacious. The breakfast supplied is from the best materials and the most scrupulous cleanliness is observed. If a man is willing to work, is unobtrusive and cleanly in his habits, he can live in comparative comfort until a passage home to Russia can be procured him". [xxv]
The Cape Town Jewish Philanthropic Society [xxvi] contributed £50 to the Mayor’s committee to help Jewish refugees to return to Europe. The Jewish community began fund raising drives for the refugees, Christian as well as Jewish. For Christmas 1899 Rev A P Bender helped to organise a dinner of soup, roast beef, potatoes and vegetables for 140 men temporarily housed in the Produce Market and gave an appropriate talk on behalf of the Jewish community.
The newspapers [xxvii] reported on the Committee’s meetings which were attended by dignitaries from the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation - all of whom were on the committee of the CT Philanthropic Society - the Rev Bender, Hyman Liberman (soon to be Cape Town’s first Jewish mayor and David Isaacs. Indeed Rev. Bender suggested to the Philanthropic Society’s 1899 AGM that they convey their thanks to the Accommodation Sub-Committee of the Mayor's Rand Relief Committee for their consideration in allowing kosher food to be provided to the Jewish refugees. The Cape Times [xxviii] reporting three days later mentioned that "Hebrews having religious scruples" were fed at a special boarding house, the meals coming to 5s3d per head per week, and there were 90 such persons. A year later these numbers had dropped to 11[xxix]. There were never many Jewish refugees maintained by the Mayor's Committee as they were "apparently maintained partly by independent Jewish relief."[xxx]
Most of the Jewish refugees did not want a passage home to Russia and preferred Kosher boarding houses to the admirable accommodation offered in the Produce Market below Dock Road. They would get tickets from Rev Bender issued by the accommodation Sub-Committee of the Mayor’s Rand Relief Committee entitling them to nine pennyworth of food per day for as long as Rev Bender deemed necessary[xxxi]. Their children were provided with free education at the Hebrew Public school by the Cape Town Jewish Philanthropic Society.
To provide employment for the refugees, the authorities started road works on the Cape flats - a site chosen because it was out of the way and being sandy would not be too difficult for novice labourers. The men were paid two shillings a day plus rations, tents were provided and they built Lansdowne Road (now Imam Haroon), Klipfontein, Ottery and Wetton Roads. The Jewish workers were allowed time off for Jewish holidays and given food for Passover, but the work was unpopular. Living in tents on the sandy Cape Flats in the winter rains and the summer south easters was not idyllic, the work was hard, the hours long and discipline strict. Many absconded. Ashenden the engineer in charge of the relief labour did not approve of his Jewish workers. He thought them “a most undesirable crowd, incapable on the whole as labourers, not physically but mentally, for they look upon work as they do water, as a luxury, not often to be indulged in. As labourers (although picked for their physique) they are useless, being unwilling to even try laborious work, and I would undertake to do as much work with two ordinary Kaffirs in a day as any two of these Jews would do in a week... should be treated as vagrants... or better still be deported. I write without any prejudice towards Jews [sic!]...but … they should by right be under police protection not the Public Works”. [xxxii]
The arrival of 3000 Jewish war refugees had an enormous impact on the social and religious life of the Cape Town Jews. They had leisure time and little money. They gathered at Beinkinstadt, a bookshop, to read Yiddish newspapers, sit and talk and flocked to newly established societies, lectures, meetings and cultural evenings. Even to Yiddish plays on Friday nights put on by the Hebrew Opera Company. Among the refugees were keen Zionists, including most of the executive of the South African Zionist Federation, whose headquarters were consequently moved to Cape Town. Among them was its Vice president, Rabbi Dr JH Hertz (later to become British Chief Rabbi), who had been expelled from the Transvaal after a fiery pro-British speech.
Many of the refugees did not feel comfortable in Rev Bender’s Anglicised Gardens Synagogue, preferring to worship elsewhere. The organisation of Passover 1901 was particularly problematic. Rev Bender had not anticipated the refugees still being there, and had not ordered enough matzah and matzah meal from England. To make matters worse, the Norham Castle which carried a lot of the matzah docked late[xxxiii]. Special refugee festival services were held in the Good Hope Hall and the Sea Point Hall and were arranged by a joint Festival Services Committee made up of representatives of Bender’s congregation, the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation and the Johannesburg Hebrew Congregation with Rabbi Dr Hertz preaching at both venues [xxxiv].
The war permanently changed the religious unity of Cape Town, resulting in the end of the Garden Synagogue’s sixty-year monopoly. The Zionist-oriented New Hebrew Congregation was formed after a meeting in September 1900 in the Masonic Hall - its Roeland Street Shul would open in 1902. In April 1901 the ultra-observant Lithuanian Jews established their own congregation and its Beth Hamidrash Hachodesh would open in Constitution Street two years later. Even the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation started a building fund for a new, larger, more ornate synagogue, which would open in 1905. With the end of the war approaching and the prospect of going home, twelve hundred worshippers attended a special final service and out of appreciation, donated £50 to the Cape Town Hebrew School.
Thus the mementoes left behind in Cape Town were more permanent, resulting in new synagogues, which extended to the Jewish residents greater religious choices, and new roads which opened up the sandy Cape Flats to any resident. All of this remained long after the last of the refugees had shaken the dust from the South Easter off their feet.
[i] Sinclair, Allan, ‘Boer prisoner of war handcraft at the South African National Museum of Military History’, Military History Journal, Vol 11 No 3/4 - October 1999
[ii] Oosthuizen, Boer War Memorabilia: The Collector's Guide, p84, quoted in Sinclair
[iii] Benbow, C, Boer Prisoners of War in Bermuda (Island Press, Hamilton, Bermuda, 1962), p28. Quoted in Sinclair
[iv] Mendelsohn, Richard, ‘A Jewish family at War: The Segalls of Vlakfontein’, Jewish Affairs, Rosh Hashanah 2000, Vol 55: No 3, 22
[v] Saks, David, Boerejode – Jews in the Boer Armed Forces 1899-1902, Charlie Fine Printers, 2010, 119
[vii] Mendelsohn, R op cit
[ix] Saks, 120
[x] Mendelsohn, 23
[xi] Ibid, 24
[xiii] Mendelsohn R, information by e-mail, 25.2.2019
[xiv] Mendelsohn 25
[xvi] Saks, 16
[xvii] Ibid, 125
[xviii] Ibid, 126-7
[xix] There is a photograph of that certificate in Saks, David, ‘Jews on Commando’, Jewish Affairs, Vol 54 No 3, Spring 1999, 26
[xx] This information was told to me by my grandmother.
[xxiii] Kekewich successfully defending the town but came into conflict with Cecil John Rhodes who undermined his leadership and behaved in an emotional and irresponsible manner. When Kimberley was relieved Rhodes persuaded the commander of the relief forces to replace Kekewich as commander of the garrison. Money talks. https://www.google.com/url?sa=...
[xxiv] From Harry Schrire’s typed memoirs in possession of the writer, subsequently published in Schrire Carmel &* Schrire, Gwynne; The Reb and the Rebel: Jewish Narratives in South Africa, 1892-1913, UCT Press, 2016,101
[xxv]. Abrahams. Israel, The Birth of a Community, (Cape Town, 1955) 125
[xxvi] Minute Book of the Cape Town Jewish Philanthropic Society 1897-1902, Morris Alexander papers, University of Cape Town archives
[xxvii] Cape Times 8.1.1901; 18.9.1900
[xxviii] Cape Times 21.11.1899
[xxix] Cape Times 13.11.1900
[xxx] Van Heyningen, E Refugees and Relief Cape Town 1899-1902 IN C. Saunders and H. Phillips (eds.) Studies in The History of Cape Town Vol 3 (1984) p88
[xxxi]. The Mansion House Fund of the Lord Mayor of London.
[xxxii] Van Heyningen, E, op cit 91
[xxxiii] Abrahams, op cit,125. He ordered 5500 pounds of matzah and 600lb of matzah meal – and the ship broke down and came late.
[xxxiv] Simon, John, ‘Rabbi JH Hertz and the Anglo-Boer War’, Jewish Affairs, Vol 54 No 3, Spring 1999, 55