Preserving the past

The Skuinshuis, situated obliquely across from the synagogue, is arguably the most celebrated eccentricity in impressive Ryneveld Street, a thoroughfare noted for its comprehensive range of architectural styles. Originally the Callabassenkraal farmhouse, the house was built in the late 18th century. It survived the fire of 1803, but not the new layout of Stellenbosch; when plans for Ryneveld Street took shape, the building found itself at a skewed angle to the rest of the street – hence the name Skuinshuis, or ‘skew house’. It later became the property of the Stellenbosch Jewish Congregation, bought after the synagogue was built in 1924–1925, and was made into a home for the rabbi. Although no longer serving that purpose, it remains a Stellenbosch landmark.

In the past 90 or so years, Stellenbosch’s beautiful Agudas Achim (‘band of brothers’) Synagogue has overseen several generations’ worth of memorable Jewish activities that demonstrate the Yiddishkeit that is so entrenched in Jewish settlements in the diaspora.

The first Jews in Stellenbosch, Adolphe and Masha Rose Fischer, arrived in 1890 and were followed by a steady stream of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. A decade later, German Jews, alarmed at what seemed to be a growing threat of anti-Semitism in their homeland, started arriving in Cape Town and would disperse across the country.

According to tour guide Gerald Potash, who has carried out meticulous research into the so-called Boerejode, 40 000 Jews arrived at Cape Town’s harbour in 1900. On 8 April of that year, 24 Jewish people in Stellenbosch got together to start a congregation. And of course there was a huge emigration, especially to America.”

Gerry and Bernice came to Stellenbosch in 1956 to join Bennie Spiro’s medical practice. Now the shamus (secretary/treasurer) of the synagogue, Gerry opens its doors every Friday at 6.30pm for minyan. Although this service cannot be held every week (a minimum of 10 men are required to take part), the doors are steadfastly opened. Jeffrey Zetler has been chairman of the congregation for 27 years and he remains optimistic that enough Jewish men will come in from nearby towns to make more regular minyan services possible.

Inside the synagogue, the impressive woodwork of the benches and cantor’s podium was crafted by local cabinetmaker Sam Meyer. The four Torahs are sheathed in rich embroidery and at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, they are adorned with white coverlets.

From then until the end of the year there are regular readings from the Torah. The cemetery, too, laid out below Papegaaiskop in 1904, is beautifully maintained. No fewer than 151 Jewish names can be found there.

Dr Gerald Rosendorff. and The Holy ‘Ark’ in which the Torahs are kept.
Above: Dr Gerald Rosendorff and The Holy ‘Ark’ in which the Torahs are kept.

Services were held in various venues until the building of a synagogue got under way. When the cornerstone was laid in 1923, the entire town came out to celebrate, including popular mayor Charlie Neethling – he laid three ‘tickey’ coins under the cornerstone for luck – and famous rugby player Paul Roos, who was headmaster of Paul Roos Gymnasium. In Stellenbosch, as in most towns where Jews settled and started businesses, the relationship between them and the local Gentiles was close. Many Jewish children attended the gymnasium.

Moses Zuckerman and Rebecca Glazer married in 1902, the first Jewish couple to do so in Stellenbosch. Moses, an ardent Zionist, organised charities to support the Jews in Palestine. Their son Solly, born in 1904, moved to England where he was to become Baronet Zuckerman. As a scientist during World War II, he played an active, and critical, role in researching the effects of bombing cities. The year 1904 saw the arrival of Mendel Zetler and his wife Deborah from the village of Lyakhovichi in Belarus. On acquiring a house in Bosman Street, Mendel immediately laid out a strawberry patch. Enthusiastically he rented more plots and so started the Zetler strawberry farm that his son Sam and four of his five grandsons would develop into an international business. Dennis, Jeffrey, Herschel and Leonard, all Paul Roos old boys, conduct meetings in Afrikaans and have kept the original Afrikaans names of their farms, such as Mooiberge and Brakelsdal. The former is known for a special Stellenbosch attraction: its spectacular parade of scarecrows. Made by the farm workers, these cheerful, garishly coloured works of art strut among the rows of strawberries and are a magnet for tourists. When students were caught trying to steal some of the scarecrows, they were given the option of prosecution or working in the strawberry fields for a day in the relentless heat of a Stellenbosch summer. No one has attempted to steal a scarecrow again.

Another early settler in Stellenbosch was David Osrin, who arrived with his wife and son in 1901. A carpenter by trade, David soon branched into other businesses, including a shop in Die Vlakte, where he also became a landlord.

By 1965, the Jewish community in Stellenbosch had grown to 70 families, and there was a time when the town came to a standstill because most of the businesses were closed for a Jewish holiday. Ten years later, fewer than half that number remained. Today Dr Gerald Rosendorff and his wife Bernice are the only Jewish family in town. “Children leave to pursue their careers,” says Gerry. “Parents follow.

Gerry has compiled a list of Jewish businesses active in Stellenbosch between 1925 and 2005. Among the names that may be recognised are Senitsky, Gelb, Harry Scheffer, Max Sacks, the hoteliers Mossie Tollman and Joel Friedman, and the attorneys Pikkie Geffin and Rudy Schneider. Members of the local council and Rotary also feature on the list. In addition, Jews were very active in sports and in academia, where Lossie Ginsburg, for example, was renowned for fruit research. Combining the two disciplines, Dr Ernst Jokl, an Olympic athlete, came from Germany to establish the Department of Physical Education at Stellenbosch University. His fame was such that students would enrol to study ‘Jokl’. In the world of music, Professor Lionel Bowman taught piano at the university and was acclaimed as a concert pianist.

Gerald Potash, who researched the Boerejode, took over Stellenbosch Furnishers from his father after studying law and is now an affable and sought-after tour guide with a rich store of anecdotes from

Jewish wives invariably became involved in local, and especially Jewish, charities. A Hobo Dance at the City Hall for Zionist funds was described by Fanny Segal as “a cheap fund-raiser. As ‘hobos’ we could not eat anything fancy, just soup and sandwiches.” The late Myrel Ginsburg was instrumental in setting up a trauma centre for rape victims at the local police station. She is also remembered for her organisational and writing skills.

Remembering Jewish history is an important part of the local culture and in this respect

Felix Gut made a remarkable contribution, donating more than 300 books about the Holocaust to Stellenbosch University Library over a 14-year period. The collection was collated by Lorinda de Klerk and now constitutes the largest record of the Holocaust in the library. Felix also bequeathed substantial funds to the university, part of which went to the Theological Seminary.

Born in Cologne in 1903, Felix moved to Standerton in South Africa in 1937. He was a businessman and a lover of history, music and art, and he was disturbed when he became aware of an anti-Semitic trend among South Africans. This made him a passionate collector of Holocaust information that he distributed, along with articles of his own, to a number of local and overseas publications. He reported on, among other things, Jewish concentration camp inmates being forced to sing a capella, even on their way to the gas chambers, and how a Jewish orchestra at the Janowska camp was made to play ‘Death Tango’ for the amusement of the captors. The entire orchestra was later killed.

Felix came to live in Stellenbosch in 1978 and died in 1989. He is remembered looking up at the white painted ceiling of his beloved synagogue and sighing, “Ja, we know at least that this will always be a cultural centre.”

And indeed it will be. The constitution of the Stellenbosch Synagogue decrees that, even if the synagogue closes down, the building will remain and either form part of the Stellenbosch Museum or be used by the university for academic purposes.