Ficksburg (Free State)

Ficksburg is situated in the Orange Free State (Free State – post 1994) on the Lesotho border, on the banks of the Caledon River. The town’s position on the Lesotho border and favourable farming conditions attracted Jewish traders and those with an interest in farming. Almost the entire South African cherry crop is produced in Ficksburg and an annual cherry festival is held in November. The settlements of Gumtree, Hammonia and Owanty are included in the Ficksburg research.

Early Jewish settlers included Gabriel Meyer, an early pioneer of the Orange Free State in the 1850’s, who later lived in Ficksburg, Henry Isaac Myers in the 1890’s, MP Myers who managed the Ficksburg Hotel in 1903, Solomon Milner, Mr Joffa, Abie Abrahams, Herman Herring, Mrs R Herring, Morris & Lily Aronson, Lionel Israel and Mendel & Leah Kosviner.

Until 1912, when the Ficksburg Hebrew Congregation was officially formed, synagogue services were held in the Hall of the Temperance Society. A synagogue was built on ground donated by Mendel Kosviner who laid the foundation stone on 29 June 1926. The synagogue was opened on 9 January 1927.

Regular cheder classes were held, with the first Hebrew teacher, Mr. Susman, engaged in the 1920s. No record can be found of any minister employed by the new congregation until 1931 when there is reference to Rev. A. Goldberg. In 1950 the foundation stone of a Community Centre was laid and Max Feinberg officially opened the centre in 1953.

As Ficksburg was a relatively large community, the reverends attended to the needs of surrounding small towns, such as Clocolan and Marquard.

It is not clear when the original Jewish cemetery was consecrated, but the first burial (that of Jacob S Solomon) took place in 1933. The cemetery was located at some distance from the town and was subject to ongoing vandalism. As a result, a decision was taken to move the cemetery (24 graves) to a better location and on 1 October 1995, the new cemetery was consecrated within the general cemetery.

The Ficksburg Jewish Ladies Society was founded on 8 May 1924 with Leah Kosviner as the first president. In 1945 the name was changed to Union of Jewish Women (Ficksburg branch). Zionist and youth movements were also active in the town from 1911.

By 1911 the town had Jewish shopkeepers, a farmer, a hotelier, a tailor and a barkeeper; later there were attorneys, doctors, pharmacists, hoteliers, produce and livestock dealers, butchers, tailors, boot makers, watchmakers and a pilot. Jews were active in the civic life of Ficksburg. Isaac Daneman and Ben Gorvy serving on the town council and as mayors in the 1930’s and 1950’s respectively. Jacob Lotzoff was deputy Mayor in 1954 and town councillor in 1959. Dr. Israel was also town councillor in 1954. Queenie Israel edited two local newspapers from 1951 to 1964.

A 1937 report to the SA Jewish Board of Deputies reported that anti-Semitism was rife in the Orange Free State and that the town of Ficksburg had been visited by the leader of the Greyshirts. In 1949, there was strong anti-Jewish feeling among the English speaking community of Ficksburg, and a planned mixed meeting had to be cancelled for fear of violence erupting.

The last resident minister to serve the Ficksburg Hebrew Congregation was Rev. I. W. Garrun who left in 1974. The congregation was no longer functioning by the early 1980s but was only officially dissolved in 1986. The synagogue was sold and the foundation stone as well as some of the furnishings are on display in the Riemland Museum in Heilbron.

In 1904 there were 15 Jews in Ficksburg; nine families are recorded in 1911. In 1936 there were 118, 84 in 1943, 115 in 1951 and in 1953 there were 105. In 1964 the figure had dropped to 55. The 1980 official census figure was 19 and the Rabbi Engel survey of 1980/81 showed 14 Jews. In 1991 there were only 7 Jews, this figure drops still lower down to 2 in 1996, 1 in 1998 and by 1999 there were no Jews recorded in Ficksburg.