Graaff-Reinet (Eastern Cape)

Graaff-Reinet, the “Jewel of the Karoo”, located 296 km north west of Port Elizabeth on the Sundays River, is the fourth oldest town in South Africa, founded by ‘Trekboers’ in 1786. Today Graaff-Reinet is an educational and administrative centre for the district and a popular tourist attraction with its restored historical buildings and picturesque location.

The Jewish population of Graaff-Reinet was always small and fluctuated with the prosperity of the town. Isaac Baumann from Hesse-Cassel in Germany was the first Jew in Graaff-Reinet, and opened a trading store in 1837. He was followed by his relative, Joseph Baumann and his wife Rosa, who arrived around 1839, and later by his brothers Jacob and Louis Baumann, who were living there by 1854. Another brother, August, and his wife Bertha arrived in around 1862-63 and remained for 30 years.

The Mosenthal brothers, Adolph and Joseph, also from Hesse-Cassel, arrived in 1842 and started their mercantile business. In the course of setting up their network of enterprises in the Eastern Cape, they brought out scores of family and friends to help run their empire, among them the Lilienfeld, Hanau, Hotfa, Alsberg, Weinthal and Nathan families. Phoebus Caro, originally from Poland, was brought to Graaff-Reinet by the Mosenthals in 1856 after surviving a shipwreck off the Cape coast. Other pioneers in the 1850s and 1860s include Michael Henry Benjamin, Joseph Benjamin, Maurice and Louis Joseph, Hermann Wertheim and a Mr Rothschild.
The Graaff-Reinet Hebrew Congregation was founded around 1850 and was the third Jewish congregation to be established in South Africa, after Cape Town and Grahamstown.

The cemetery was consecrated in 1858 on ground granted by the governor, Sir George Grey. It is one of the oldest cemeteries in the country and was proclaimed a national monument in 1985.

Although there were many Jewish settlers in these early years, mainly from Germany and England, few remained for long, as the region suffered through depression, war and droughts. The Jewish population of Graaff-Reinet dwindled and almost died out during the 1880s, but revived between 1890 -1910 with a new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. From Lithuania came the Balkind, Brett, Levy, Lipschitz and Michelson families; from Latvia the Nurick, Rubens and Suttner families; the Herbsteins came from Rumania; the Gruss family from Austria; the Bregers from Galicia; and John Ruben from England. Their numbers were boosted by Boer War refugees from the Transvaal. In time, however, poor economic prospects prompted a number of Jews to leave Graaff-Reinet.

In the early 1900’s services were held in the hall of the Masonic Lodge de Vereeniging. A minister, Rev Wiskin, was only appointed in 1904. The Graaff-Reinet Zionist Association was founded before 1899; the first chairman was Moritz Herbstein. By 1909 Graaff-Reinet became the centre of Jewish and Zionist life in the area and Jews from the neighbouring villages participated in all major functions.
Congregational life appears to have waned by the 1930s but was revived when Mr Halberstad came to live in Graaff-Reinet in 1941. A hall was again hired from the Masonic Lodge for High Holy Day services and Friday night services were held in his home. In the 1940s, Zionist activities were organised by the Graaff-Reinet Jewish Guild.
There was also a Women’s Zionist League. A synagogue / communal hall, the Joseph Miller Hall, was completed in
The congregation ceased to exist in 1968 but the Joseph Miller Hall was only sold in 1975.<p>
Economically, Graaff-Reinet’s most prosperous years were the 1850s and 1860s with large-scale production of wool and mohair, and sheep and goat farming. At this time most of the Jews were traders, although there were also two Jewish doctors in the town.

The Mosenthals set up trading stores, promoted the mohair industry and supported the Jewish peddlers (‘smouse’). A monument to these ‘smouse’ was erected in Graaff-Reinet in 1989. Through the 20th century the few remaining Jews were mainly shopkeepers and wholesale merchants. There were also Jewish hoteliers, a butcher, garage owners, a cinema proprietor, an accountant, a solicitor, a traveller, farmers and produce dealers, a furniture dealer, bottle store owners, and a town engineer.

Among the prominent personalities from Graaff-Reinet were Isaac Baumann who became one of the first mayors of Bloemfontein in 1849; Dr Emil Baumann who was an authority in the field of child care, and became a Member of Parliament in 1933; Richard Baumann who established the law firm, Baumann & Gilfillan, in Johannesburg in 1902; Michael Henry Benjamin who was elected to the Cape House of Assembly in 1864. Adolph & Joseph Mosenthal set up a trading empire in the eastern Cape and promoted the merino wool and angora mohair industries in SA; Edward Nathan who was mayor of Graaff-Reinet from 1862 to 1865; Emil Nathan became a prominent lawyer in Johannesburg and a member of the House of Assembly from 1910.
Dr Manfred Nathan became a judge of the Income Tax Court, was the author of several works on South African law and history and was president of the Jewish Board of Deputies in 1906; Harry Solomon who was a member of the first Transvaal Legislative Council in 1903 and became president of the Jewish Board of Deputies in 1904; Mr Justice Joseph Herbstein who was a judge of the Supreme Court in Cape Town from 1947 to 1963; Leo Weinthal who was a well-known writer and journalist and who founded the Pretoria News in 1898; Sylvia Raphael who as an Israeli Intelligence agent served 22 months in a Norwegian jail in 1974 for her role in the murder of a suspected Black September terrorist and Frank Horwitz who was twice mayor of Graaff-Reinet, from 1978 -1980 and from 1982 -1984, and was a town councillor for 25 years.

Community records indicate that in 1875 there were 37 Jews in the town. The highest recorded number of Jews was in 1904, when there were 82.