Calvinia (Northern Cape)

Lying at the foot of the Hantam mountains, Calvinia is in the Northern Cape, approximately 120 km east of Van Rhynsdorp and 370 km north of Cape Town. The town was established in 1848 on the farm Hoogekraal, owned by Field-Cornet A. van Wyk. It became a municipality in 1904. Originally part of the Clanwilliam magisterial district, the hamlet was known as the Hantam Gemente (congregation). It was only in 1851 that the name was changed to Calvinia, after Calvin the Reformer, at the behest of its Dutch Reform Church community, followers of John Calvin. There have never been more than 2000 people in Calvinia.

Louis Heilbron was the first Jewish trader in Calvinia in 1843. It is believed that he hired the premises of fellow Jews Goldsmidt and Sussholtz. Heilbron was joined by another German Jew, Gustav Wetzlar (who later moved to East London). Some of the traders, who came almost entirely from England and Germany before the turn of the 19th century, were Louis Rosenblatt, Victor Atlschul, Leon Helfet, Wolf Patlansky (a feather buyer), Joseph Hammerschlag, Lazar Sanders and L H Goldsmidt.

One early settler was Leon Helfet. Born in Russia, he went to England at the age of 12. While there, he met and fell in love with his English tutor and future bride, Sarah Levine. Leon came to South Africa in 1899 and Sarah arrived in 1905. He settled in Calvinia and volunteered for citizen force during the Anglo Boer War. While preparing for his reunion with Sarah, he set up in business as a trader and built their home, Carmel Villa.He employed two Russian Jewish brothers to build the house, transporting materials from Cape Town by train to Ceres and from there by wagon to Calvinia.

Sarah and Leon settled comfortably in Calvinia. Sarah, with her knowledge of English literature was very much sought after, and held tea and culture parties with the local ladies. Leon found that some of his local friends and customers arranged for him to pay his business visits on weekends. Aware that he did not want to travel or trade on Saturdays, he was invited to arrive on the Friday, and stay over until Monday. He would be accommodated in the guest room (‘vrykamer’) and his horse was stabled and cared for. As his hosts also kept their Sabbath, Saturdays and Sundays provided time for discussion about their respective religions, cultures and experiences. Leon would tell them about his experiences in Europe and Cape Town, and they would talk to him about farming. It is said that these friendships guided Leon toward his later buying a farm in the area.

During WW1, anti-British pro-German rebels – led by Manie Maritz – were held in the local jail. Leon took food, a stretcher, blankets and books to the prisoners, to make their lives under incarceration more bearable, even though he was ‘on the other side’. He died in 1945.

Louis and Julius Rosenblatt left Germany in the 1850s for America, but were disappointed by the lack of opportunities there. Many hundreds of refugees had gone to America, and there were simply too few jobs for too many people. The brothers returned to Germany, and then set off for Australia. Here, the gold-rush also proved disappointing. They then made for South Africa, landing at Port Elizabeth. At this point the brothers separated, with Louis ending up in Calvinia, where he established a business which was to remain in the family for 3 generations.When Louis Heilbron retired to Cape Town in 1863, Louis Rosenblatt bought out his business. L Rosenblatt & Company were general dealers catering for dressmaking, tailoring, purchase and sale of skins, hides, wool, wheat, agricultural implements and later even motor cars. The store is remembered as a reputable and attractive shop – referred to as ‘little Stuttafords’. Louis’ son Julius joined the family business when his father retired. Louis died in 1895. Julius died in 1901and was succeeded by his son Max.

The business closed after an uninterrupted 106 years when Max Rosenblatt left Calvinia to retire in 1969. Max was one of the last members of the once flourishing Jewish community. He was treasurer of the community until 1915. When he left at the age of 82, he was the oldest male resident to have been born in Calvinia. He died in Cape Town in 1975, aged 88. Julius Rosenblatt’s other son Willie (Wilfred) was a dental surgeon in Cape Town and served for a record 51 years on the staff of Groote Schuur hospital, he died in 1976 at the age of 84. Julius’s daughter Francis married Arthur Friedlander of Cape Town.

The Rosenblatt’s story also involves two other Jewish families – Hammerschlag and Sanders – who were connected through business and marriage. Joseph Hammerschlag arrived in Calvinia in 1871 from Germany. He joined his uncle Louis and worked as an employee in the shop. He married one of his uncle’s daughters, and became a partner with his cousin Julius Rosenblatt. Joseph lived in Calvinia for 60 years and retired to Cape Town for a further 5 years. He died in Calvinia in 1945 at the age of 84.Lazar Sanders was born in Australia, and settled in Oudtshoorn. He married Ida Hammerschlag of Calvinia in 1901 and they moved to Calvinia after the birth of their daughters Julie and Sybil. Lazar became partners with Max Rosenblatt, after Joseph Hammerschlag retired after WW1. He was active in the firm until his death in 1958. Sanders’ daughter Julie married cousin Willie Rosenblatt.

These three families played pivotal roles in the development of the town and its district, as well as in civic and Jewish affairs. A memorial in honour of Julius Rosenblatt was presented to his widow in the form of a clock at the entrance to the Gardens Shul.

After 1880, the community was boosted by Jews arriving from Lithuania. These Jews were thoroughly bilingual, speaking Yiddish and Afrikaans – no English. There are reports of High Holy Day services being held in Calvinia as early as 1894. Services were held in a private home in a room designated for religious purposes. The room housed a small ark, covered by a curtain. In 1899, Mr and Mrs Altshul opened a synagogue in the Rosenblatt house, in honour of the birth of their daughter – Marguerita Sophia (Dolly). The community used a torah brought to South Africa by Victor Altschul. Rabbi Joel Rabinowitz used to visit by post-cart from Cape Town.

In 1904 the Calvinia Hebrew Congregation was officially established. Rev Movsowitz was employed as the first minister from 1907 – 1916. When he left for Riversdale, he was succeeded by Rev Wainman (who served until 1919) and then by Rev Berelowitz, who served for 24 years, resigning in 1942. Rev Berelowitz also serviced remote communities in the district.The synagogue was built in 1918 at a cost of £1400.00, and opened in 1920. Used by the community for the last time in August 1968, the building was donated to the Calvinia municipality for use as a museum in 1970.

The Jewish community of Calvinia played a significant part in the development of the area. They are referred to as one of the earliest and most influential Jewish communities in the Cape hinterland. These ‘uitlanders’ brought their European culture and ways to the rural communities of South Africa. They were welcomed and accepted by the local Afrikaners and despite vast differences between them in background, upbringing and religion, lasting friendships and mutually beneficial relationships were created. Jews helped indigent Afrikaners in distress. At Middelpos, near Calvinia, Jewish shopkeepers Sher & Weinreich erected a school and a church hall. On the last Friday of every month, the Jewish community was entertained by the Dutch Reform Minister at an Oneg Shabbat in his house.

An incident is related where Nachtmaal had been organised on a date coinciding with Rosh Hashana. The Nachtmaal festival was traditionally the time farmers from the district would come into town for services, and would also settle their accounts with local dealers. The Jewish traders would stay open to allow business to be conducted. When the two festivals were set to clash, Louis Rosenblatt appealed to Rabbi Joel Rabinowitz to intervene, as he would not be able to close his shop on Rosh Hashana. After a request from Rabbi Rabinowitz, Reverend Hofmeyer, who had organized Nachtmaal, postponed it to a later date, and Rosenblatt’s store was saved. The incident was repeated in 1932, when Nachtmaal was postponed in order not to inconvenience the Jewish shopkeepers and to allow farmers to do their trade and shopping.In 1975, Mrs Florence Malan wrote to the Argus that the Jews of Calvinia brought joy to the town; “it is not a good thing for any dorp to be without a Jewish community”, she said. She described the era of co-habitation as a golden period.

The first pharmacy in Calvinia was owned by Jacob Berelowitz (son of Rev Berelowitz), who also manufactured Neurosan headache powders. Ben Berelowitz owned Calvinia Motors – a Chevrolet dealership, now a Delta dealership. He is believed to have married one of the Sack daughters. He and his wife Pauline were among the last Jews to leave Calvinia in 1965. One daughter married Mr Jowell of Springbok, the other a Mr Abrahamowitz. Leon Helfet owned Helfet Motors, a Ford dealership. M & D Sack had a store which still bears their name. What is now the Noordwester office was a residence for the Jaffe, Brown, Hellig, Klein and Dansky families.

One of the oldest graves in the Jewish cemetery is that of Adolph Picard Bauman, a German Jew born in Cassel, who died in 1863. Another German Jew buried here is Louis Abt, who died in May 1873; it is thought they were brought out from Germany to buy wool from sheep farmers in remote areas. Also in the cemetery are two Altshul baby graves, one is unnamed, the other belongs to Goldie, who died in 1907, age 19 months. During the Boer War, a Jewish soldier, Trooper E Horwitz (1901) was shot by Manie Maritz. The inscription on his stone reads: “He died for the Empire”.

Jews of Calvinia were doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, town councillors and businessmen. Leon Helfet and Michael Sack served on the Town Council. Gustav Wetzlar was elected to the East London Town Council in 1881 and became mayor in 1889. L. H. Goldschmidt was magistrate in Calvinia and a member of the Cape Parliament before the turn of the 19th century.In 1924, Leopold Greenberg became one of the youngest judges of the Transvaal Division of the Supreme Court, at the age of 39. He was appointed Judge President in 1938, Appellate Judge in 1943 and was Acting Chief Justice in 1953.

The community numbered 47 in 1916; some members of the congregation lived in out-lying areas such as Rhenosterpoort, Niewoudtville, Loeriesfontein and Klawer. The last Jewish family and 3rd generation Calvinia resident – Jackie Sher, and his family left Middelpos for Somerset West in 1975.