Uprooted and uncompensated: the mistreatment of ‘Russian’ Jews by Perfidious Albion during and after the Anglo-Boer war

Richard Mendelsohn is Emeritus Associate Professor of History at the University of Cape Town. His books include the award-winning Sammy Marks: ‘The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal’, The Jews in South Africa: An Illustrated History, the first major general history of South African Jewry in fifty years (co-authored with Milton Shain) and Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen (co-edited with Vivian Bickford-Smith).

2019 marks the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). While it was by no means a ‘Jewish War’, despite the accusations of some hostile English commentators like JA Hobson, there was nevertheless a significant Jewish presence in the theatre of war. Some 3000 Jews, mainly English but also on occasion of Russian origin, joined the British forces. Many of these chose to demonstrate their patriotism at a time when Anglo-Jewry was under public pressure as a result of a flood of immigrants arriving in England from the Russian Empire.[2] A much smaller number fought for the Boers, probably a few hundred at most, for by and large Jewish residents of the Boer republics were recent arrivals who understandably did not see the war as their war. Besides the combatants there were some ten thousand Jewish civilians who lived in Kruger’s South African Republic and its neighbour, the Orange Free State, at the war's outbreak. Many of these joined the general Uitlander exodus from the cities of interior, Johannesburg and Pretoria, for the relative security of the coast but some remained for a part or the whole of the war.

The Jewish population of the Boer Republics was heterogeneous in character. Significant numbers had come from western and central Europe. These were highly acculturated and largely indistinguishable from fellow British, Germans and Hollanders. Much larger numbers had come from Eastern Europe, chiefly from the Russian Empire, and predominantly from one limited geographical area, the Kovno and Suvalki provinces in Lithuania, though there were also smaller numbers from Latvia and Eastern Poland. These Jews were by and large recent departures, part of the wave of Jewish migration from the Tsarist Empire in the last decades of the 19th and early decades of the 20th Centuries. (There were some earlier Eastern European Jewish arrivals in South Africa prior to the 1880s.The most notable of these was Sammy Marks, who in 1861, at the age of seventeen, left Russia for England before coming on to South Africa in 1868. He went on to make successive fortunes on the Kimberley diamond fields in the 1870s and in the Transvaal from coal mining and secondary industry in the 1880s and 1890s).[3]

While Marks and others arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, the major influx began in the 1880s in the wake of the pogroms and so-called May Laws following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Those who chose to come south rather than heading westwards across the Atlantic were drawn by the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, the largest worldwide discovery of gold hitherto. Some of the new arrivals settled in the coastal ports of the British colonies of Natal and the Cape, but the majority moved into the interior, to the Boer republics, particularly Paul Kruger’s South African Republic.

What was the experience of this predominantly Russian Jewish population through the war? Additionally, what was its character on the eve of the war, and how did it emerge from the conflict? Answers to these questions can be pursued, albeit only in part, in the contemporary Jewish press, in particular the detailed reporting of the war in the London Jewish Chronicle, the weekly voice of British Jewry, and in its English rival, the Jewish World. Though most of their attention focussed on the patriotism and heroic deeds of the Anglo-Jewish soldiery, some attention was paid to the fate of Jews in the republics. Beyond these well-known printed sources, and buried in the State Archives in Pretoria, are the papers of the Central Judicial Commission, a body set up by the British after peace was made to investigate and adjudicate claims for compensation for damage to property incurred during the war.

The background to the creation of the Commission is the extensive damage to the property of burghers and of foreign subjects living in Transvaal and Free State due to the devastating nature of the war. This was particularly the case in the countryside where successive British commanders-in-chief, Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, adopted punitive scorched earth methods in an effort to end the fierce and sustained resistance of the Boer guerrillas. When the war eventually ended the British, as part of a programme of pacification and reconstruction of the defeated Republics, undertook to pay compensation for these wartime losses. Very large sums were set aside for these purposes. The Central Judicial Commission (hereafter CJC) played a critical role in administering the payments. Claims for compensation were submitted or passed on to this commission. These were carefully investigated, often by magistrates and the police. The CJC would then rule on the merits of the claim and make awards.

The Archives of the CJC are organised by category: British Subjects, Burghers, Protected Burghers, Foreign Subjects, and within the latter, by country of origin, French, German, American, Dutch, Turkish, and so on. One of the largest sub-categories is the Russian section: there are some 553 files devoted to claims by Russian subjects and many of these are quite voluminous. The great majority of the applicants in the Russian section are Jewish rather than ethnic Russians.[4]

What do these voluminous files reveal? Firstly, they provide biographical information about these immigrants, including:

· their years of departure from Russia and of arrival in South Africa

· their ages and marital status

· their occupations

· their patterns of settlement in the republics.

This is rich documentation of a sort not otherwise available for this particular immigrant population.

From these records it is apparent that the majority had arrived in the 1890s, particularly in the mid-decade, though some had left Russia considerably earlier. Most had come directly from Russia, presumably first travelling to the Baltic ports and then on to England before embarking at Southampton for the long sea journey to Cape Town. But there were cases of staged migration, Jews who arrived in South Africa after extended stays in Britain. With regard to age and marital status, one might have expected the great majority of the new arrivals to have been young, single males. Instead the archive reveals that while these predominated there were significant numbers of older men and a fair number of women. Some of the former were married but at this early stage of settlement were still unaccompanied by their wives.

With regard to occupations, an overwhelming number of applicants described themselves as general dealers and storekeepers. There were also a significant number of hotel keepers and a sprinkling of artisan and miscellaneous occupations: cab drivers, dairymen, butchers, tailors, photographers, hawkers, booksellers, builders, a blacksmith, a printer, a hairdresser, and a handful of farmers. Judging by the extent of the claims for compensation submitted, many of these had prospered quickly in their new countries. Some had only arrived in the mid-nineties and yet within a few years had accumulated substantial means. (This rapid economic betterment is clearly related to the opportunities a rapidly developing Transvaal offered.)

Regarding patterns of settlement, most of the claims came from urban centres, the Witwatersrand in particular, but also from Pretoria. There were also many claims from the countryside. The files provide evidence of a pattern of dispersion throughout the backveld. There was a whole constellation of rural stores established and operated by Jews on farms owned by Boers, along the roads of the republic. These Jewish-owned stores supplied local farming communities with goods, and bought and then sent to market their produce. The Archives of the CJC include detailed inventories of products bought from the farmer, mealies (maize), tobacco, skins, wool, and so on. From these records it is clear that Jewish storekeepers played a vital role in the commercialisation of the South African countryside during the last decades of the century.

Besides profiling these Russian Jewish immigrants at the outbreak of the war, the CJC archives also richly document the wartime experience of these Jews. The files record the departure of many as refugees on the eve of the war and detail the crippling losses many suffered as they abandoned their property. These refugees would board up their homes and stores with wooden planks and corrugated iron, or take their stock of goods to central stores for safekeeping. Much of this property was poorly secured and duly fell victim to waves of looting along the wartime Witwatersrand. (In some cases this was ‘manufactured’ looting as the basis for fraudulent purposes.)

The files also document their lives as refugees, telling us about their wartime destinations and occupations. While it seems that most stuck it out in the Cape Colony, particularly in Cape Town, some of the Russian Jewish refugees returned to Europe, either to Britain or to Russia itself. Those who remained at the Cape struggled to find employment; many, it seems, were unemployed for the duration and lived off charity. The files also document their often frustrated attempts to return to the Transvaal late in the war or soon afterwards. The British authorities, it appears, were none too eager to have major influx of Jews, some of whom had been involved before the war in undesirable practices such as illicit liquor dealing and prostitution.[5]

The files richly document the experience of the minority who had remained behind, both in the towns and in the countryside. They are particularly revealing of the fate of the latter. Pressure was brought to bear on those who stayed behind to join the commandos going off to fight against the British. A few did so but most resisted service in what was not their war. The key to avoiding commando service were documents issued by M. Aubert, the French Vice-Consul in the Transvaal, acting for the Russian Consul at the start of the war. On the basis of statements from four witnesses the French Vice-Consul issued consular passports stating that the holders were Russian subjects. Armed with these documents asserting that they were foreign subjects the bearers were able to resist efforts to conscript them.

These consular documents provided no protection for their goods, however, and these were commandeered where required by the Boer forces. Many of those who remained behind were involved in supplying the Boer forces, including those laying siege to Mafeking. (The irony here is that the British forces inside Mafeking were able to resist because of the extensive stores laid in by Julius Weil, an Anglo-Jewish merchant with Russian Jewish connections.)

Once the British forces advanced in 1900 and occupied the Boer capitals, ending the conventional phase of the war, Jews like many other residents of the Transvaal and Free State, took an oath of neutrality. Most of the rural Jews were allowed to remain at their stores once they had taken the oath. The rapid conclusion to the war the British had expected once the Boer capitals were occupied failed to materialise and in the second half of 1900 the Boers instead turned to guerrilla war. Jews were caught in the middle as the Central Judicial Commission archives fully document. Willingly in some cases, unwillingly in others, these Jewish rural storekeepers played an important role in sustaining and encouraging the guerrilla struggle in its initial stages. Jewish stores effectively became supply depots for the commandos, who regularly turned up and took what they needed: boots, clothing, food, fodder for their horses. The hapless storekeepers had little choice faced by these armed (and dangerous) men.

Collaboration was quite willing in some cases though. There is plentiful evidence in the archives of illicit ‘trading with the enemy’ as the British investigators put it. It seems that Jewish storekeepers were a vital part of an informal economy that sprang up during the guerrilla phase of the war, with sales of produce to the storekeepers from farms whose owners were on commando, an underground economy that helped to keep the Boer guerrillas in the field.

Given this, as well as their own uncertain loyalties, it is not surprising that the Jewish storekeepers became objects of suspicion and that in an atmosphere of paranoia and of denunciation many fell victim to accusations, often malicious, of disloyalty. The archives contain records of arrests, often repeated arrests, on the basis of reports from informers.

Given too the willing participation of some and unwilling participation of others in sustaining the commandos, it is equally unsurprising that Jewish storekeepers, together with Boer families and black peasants, became the targets of the land clearances conducted by the British forces in the second half of 1900 and first half of 1901. They too were victims of the scorched earth tactics adopted by Lord Kitchener to deny the commandos any traction in the countryside. The archives are filled with reports of the destruction of rural Jewish homes and stores: poignant tales of the arrival of British columns at remote sites, the issuing of instructions to accompany the columns to town immediately, the hasty packing of a small part of the family’s possessions, the seizure of some of the goods by the British, and the destruction of the rest, together with the burning and dynamiting of the homes and stores.[6]

Take the the unfortunate case of Joseph Aaron Braude for example.[7] Born in Kovno province in 1854, he left Russia and came to South Africa in 1887, a year after the discovery of the Witwatersrand goldfields. With his wife Bertha he raised a family of six children and prospered as hotel and storekeeper on a farm in the Lichtenberg district of the western Transvaal on the road between Klerksdorp and Vryburg, trading in skins and wool, and earning the respect of their Boer neighbours. “Everyone has a good word for these people and they certainly are a good class of Russian Jew”, a British office reported to the compensation commission after the war.

During the early part of the war Braude had goods commandeered by Boers. After the British arrived in May 1900, goods to the value of close to £3000, a very large sum, were requisitioned by passing British columns. These were fraught and lonely times with the “enemy always hovering about in the neighbourhood”. Neither the Braudes nor their servants could leave the farms, and little news reached them of the progress of the war. The Braudes lived on in this precarious fashion for over a year, till mid 1901, all the while, they would later claim, behaving with scrupulous neutrality.

Nemesis arrived at 8 am on 31 July 1901 in the shape of a Lieutenant Boyle of the British army who ordered Braude (as Braude testified a few months later) “to pack up whatever personal effects he considered most urgent for himself and his family…and … hold themselves ready to leave at once….” Boyle offered two military mule wagons to carry the Braude family’s possessions. While the family hastily packed, the troops began destroying their furniture and preparing to dynamite and set their buildings on fire. The mule wagons had gone no more than 150 yards, Braude later recalled, when smoke began to pour from his store; looking back from further down the road, he saw the rest of what he had built up over the past eleven years going up in flames. The column marched off with Braude’s mares and donkeys, the troops laden with Braude’s geese, fowl and turkeys. The family were taken by the British troops to Taungs in Bechuanaland, and then ‘allowed’ to proceed to Cape Town at their own expense. Soon afterwards, Braude returned to Russia and had his lapsed Russian nationality re-instated.

In applying for compensation to Britain as a Russian subject, Braude claimed that the fair value for the destroyed buildings and their contents was the very substantial sum of £7068, an amount disputed by the British, who claimed that Braude was ‘grossly’ exaggerating the value of his losses. Doubt was also cast on his neutrality, and it was alleged that he had kept his store open and traded with the Boer commandos till his removal in July 1901. Deeply despondent Braude, a ruined man, took his own life in May 1902, leaving his widow and six children “in much straitened circumstances”.[8]

While the archives richly detail the fate of Joseph Braude and his fellow Russian Jews during and immediately after the war, they also graphically reveal the fate of their applications for compensation for their wartime losses. Over 550 applications were made to the Central Judicial Commission by people claiming Russian nationality. Some of these were for relatively small amounts, a matter of just a few pounds, some, as we have seen in the case of the benighted Braude family, were for sizeable amounts. The British conducted careful investigations of many of these claims, seemingly in an effort to minimise or even invalidate them. They sought to cut down the value of the claims and where possible, to invalidate them on the grounds that the claimants had breeched their neutrality as foreign subjects and aided the Boers. Hence the importance attached to investigating the commercial activities of these Jewish storekeepers during the war. Many of them were accused of trading with the enemy and had their claims disallowed on these grounds. All these efforts at invalidating the claims on an individual, case by case basis were overtaken by the fortuitous discovery of a means of collective disqualification of the Russian Jewish claims.

The great majority of these Jewish applicants had left Russia without Russian passports, possibly to avoid any risk of conscription. At best a few had internal travel documents. The British discovered that Russian law required that “no Russian leaving his country, legally or properly … be without an Imperial Russian passport”. The passport, “a small Green Book” with the signature of the passport holder on the first page and information in Russian, German and French inside, stipulated that if the holder of the passport was “to retain his Russian Nationality” after five years abroad, he would have to have “his passport extended by the Governor of the province” in which he had obtained the passport.[9]

Jewish applicants for compensation had no such passport and in most cases, little intention of ever returning to Russia. The only official proof they had of their status as Russian subjects were documents issued by the French consuls in the former Boer republics acting for the Russian consuls. As explained above, these documents were required if the applicants were to remain in the republics and avoid conscription into the commandos.

The British established to their own obvious satisfaction (and relief) that these documents carried very little legal weight for purposes of claims of nationality. The consular passport was strictly a “temporary” arrangement “to enable a Russian subject to comply with the passport regulations, and obtain the extension of his passport from the Governor of the province.” Failure to comply with these regulations meant that one “was debarred from the rights of a Russian subject abroad.”

Like nearly all his fellow Russian Jewish applicants Moses Aaron, a Johannesburg storekeeper who had left Russia in 1863 and the subject of the test case, could produce no Imperial Russian Passport, nor any evidence that he had ever had such a passport or had ever applied to the Governor of his former province for the extension of such a passport. He was consequently in effect stateless – without a Russian or any other nationality – at the time he had incurred his wartime losses. In the words of British officialdom: “This man, therefore… is not considered to have proved his nationality, or his neutral foreign nationality. In the absence of such proof there will be no award.” Effectively, no proven nationality, no status as a foreign subject, no award.

The precedent established in the Aarons case was then applied across the board to the great majority of the hundreds of Russian Jewish applicants for compensation for wartime losses. Their applications were simply disqualified whatever the merits or otherwise of their actual claims. The notations on the files read:

“…not genuine foreign subject”

“…not bona fide Russian”

“…no nationality”

“…No award’”

The only positive outcome of this bureaucratic exercise in futility was the mountain of paperwork it generated. This provides a rare and invaluable archival resource for the early history of the South African Jewish community at a time of great crisis. It further uniquely allows researchers to capture both the experiences and the voices of otherwise obscure individuals, victims of great historical forces beyond their control who sought unsuccessfully to re-establish lives disrupted by a war that reshaped the whole of South Africa.


[1] The article is an adaptation of a paper originally given at an African history conference in Moscow. See ‘Russian Jews in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 : Recent Archival Discoveries’, in A. Balezin (ed.), Archives – key to African history of the 20th century (Moscow: Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University, 2005), pp.141-149.

[2] See Richard Mendelsohn, ‘The Jewish War: Anglo-Jewry and the South African War’ in G. Cuthbertson, A. Grundlingh and M-L. Suttie (eds), Writing a Wider War: Rethinking Gender, Race, and Identity in the South African War, 1899-1902, Ohio University Press and David Philip Publishers, Athens, Ohio and Cape Town, 2002.

[3] Richard Mendelsohn, Sammy Marks: ‘The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal’, David Philip Publishers and Ohio University Press, Cape Town and Athens, Ohio, 1991.

[4] There are also numerous claims by Jews of Russian origin in the British and American sections. These are Jews who had emigrated from the Russian Empire and had been naturalised in their initial countries of settlement.

[5] Diana Cammack, The Rand at War 1899- 1902: The Witwatersrand and the Anglo-Boer War , James Currey, University of California Press and University of Natal Press, London, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Pietermaritzburg, 1990, p.198. See Charles van Onselen, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886-1914, Volume 1: New Babylon, for Jewish involvement in illicit liquor dealing and prostitution. See also van Onselen’s biographical study of Joe Silver, the Polish-born ‘King of the Pimps’ in Johannesburg. (The Fox and the flies: the world of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007).

[6] The Jews removed from the countryside did not end up in concentration camps like their Boer and black counterparts. They owed this lenience, it seems, to their status as foreign subjects.

[7] State Archives, Pretoria: Archives of Central Judicial Commission (CJC). CJC 1453: Claim J.A.B . Braun (sic)

[8] A further example of the fate of rural Jewry, as reflected in the archives of the Central Judicial Commission, is that of the Segall family of Vlakfontein in the Orange Free State, one of whose members, Josef ‘Jakkals’ Segal, fought with the Boer commandos till the ‘bitter end’. For a full account of the wartime misadventures of the Segall clan, see Richard Mendelsohn, “A Jewish Family at War – The Segalls of Vlakfontein”, Jewish Affairs, vol. 55, no. 3, 2000.

[9] CJC 1388A: Claim Moses Aaron. This was the test case which provided the basis for the collective invalidation of most Russian Jewish claims for compensation. See also CJC 1762: Claim S. Meyer for details of the Russian passport and of the local consular procedures.

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