King William’s Town (Eastern Cape)


King William’s Town is situated on the banks of the Buffalo River in the Eastern Cape, 54 km north-west of East London and 114 km north-east of Grahamstown.

The town was founded in 1835 as a mission station and named in 1836 after King William IV. In its early years it served as an important military post, developing against a background of frontier wars. The town became a commercial centre, with trade in hides, gum and coarse silk fibre. In 1847 it became the capital of British Kaffraria. Today it is an industrial area of some importance.

Among the early Jewish settlers were Joseph Levy, who was manager of a store that had been established in 1835 by his future father-in-law, Benjamin Norden (then of Grahamstown); Benjamin Alexander – formerly of Cape Town, where he had been a founder member of the first synagogue to be established in South Africa – was established as a trader in King William’s Town by 1855. Simeon Jacobs came to live in King William’s Town in 1861, with his appointment as attorney-general for British Kaffraria. M Marks arrived around 1870 and joined the firm of J Levy and Co. In 1875, Martin Rosendorff became the first German court interpreter in the town.” “Simeon Jacobs came to live in King William’s Town in 1861, with his appointment as attorney-general for British Kaffraria. M Marks arrived around 1870 and joined the firm of J Levy and Co. In 1875, Martin Rosendorff became the first German court interpreter in the town. Franz Ginsberg arrived in 1880 and became a leading businessman and manufacturer. In the mid-1880s he and Mr. Rindl opened the first photographic studio in the town. Isaac Kabelsky had a general dealers store and a dairy by the turn of the 20th century.

The first burial in the Jewish cemetery was that of Zalma Lewis, aged 10, in 1899. A congregation was formally inaugurated in November 1904, although according to one of the early residents, a congregation had been started around 1900 when a number of Transvaal Jews came to King William’s Town to escape the Anglo-Boer War.

The congregation served the needs of Jews living in a large area, from Peddie in the south, to Komga in the north-east, Stutterheim in the north and Alice in the west. The first minister to serve the congregation was Rev. M Hurwitz who joined the congregation in 1904. The synagogue was officially opened in 1908. Before this, services were held in the home of the first president, M Edelstein. A mikvah was built behind the synagogue around 1906.

The synagogue was declared a national monument in 1980. It was re-furbished in the mid-1980s when the congregation was boosted by the influx of a number of Israeli families. High Holy Day services were held for the first time in many years in 1984.
The Jews of King William’s Town and its environs were ardent Zionists. A Zionist society was founded in 1905 and despite difficult times, all appeals were generously supported. In 1914 a junior Zionist society, the King William’s Town Bnei Ubnoth Zionist Association, was also functional and in 1917, a Young Israel Society was started. This was a very active group in the 1930s and 1940s. A small Zionist Youth Society was still operating in the early 1960s.

By 1913, the town had a Jewish Ladies Society. In 1948 it incorporated the local branches of the Women’s Zionist League and the Union of Jewish Women. The Morris Kramer Lodge of the Hebrew Order of David was established in 1926, and in the following year, the Morris Kramer Hall was built to honour one of the congregation’s most distinguished presidents.

King William’s Town’s Hebrew School was in existence from around 1919 (possibly earlier), until 1957, when there were too few children to continue with classes. The last minister, Rev S Musikant, left the town in 1953. Until 1969, the children were taught by East London-based reverends who would travel to King William’s Town and assist with occasional services, cheder lessons and shechita. By 1973 the few remaining children attended classes in East London.
In the early years of the town’s existence, there were a number of Jews who contributed to the economic life of the town but did not actually live there. Examples include Benjamin Norden (of Grahamstown) who owned a shop in 1835; and Emanuel Mendelsohn who opened a music shop in the early 1880’s but lived in Queenstown.
King William’s Town became highly industrialized, and Jews contributed significantly to this development. Among the early industrial pioneers were Franz Ginsberg who started a match factory in 1886, followed by a candle factory and a soap works; Morris Kramer, who is regarded as the founder of the tanning industry; Morris and Moses Shapiro opened King’s Clothing Manufacturers in 1924; and Chazkel Alperstein and Isaac Gell pioneered the local flour milling industry.

Other Jews from the town who achieved significant achievements include Simeon Jacobs, who was the first Jew to be admitted to the bar in South Africa and was also the first Jew to be admitted to the bench. He was appointed attorney-general for British Kaffraria in 1861 and in 1866 became solicitor-general for the Eastern Province when British Kaffraria was incorporated into the Cape Colony. In 1874 he was appointed attorney-general for the Cape Colony and a year later was elected as member of the Legislative Assembly for Queenstown. He sat as judge on the Eastern district court in 1880.

Franz Ginsberg was mayor of King William’s Town from 1904 to 1907. He became a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly in 1904 and was elected to the Senate in 1927, becoming the third Jewish senator since the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Siegfried Salomon served on the Town Council from 1903 and was mayor in 1912-13.

Prof Max Rindl, born in King William’s Town in 1883, was one of the first Jewish South Africans to attain distinction as a chemist and to serve on the staff of the University of the Orange Free State. In 1929 he was elected president of the SA Chemical Institute and in 1934 became president of the SA Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rudolph Ginsberg was mayor of King William’s Town in 1948. He represented King William’s Town on the Cape of Good Hope Provincial Council in 1953. Morris Shapiro served on the Town Council for many years. By 1948 he had already served 18 years as a councillor. Reuben Sive, born in King William’s Town in 1913, became a Member of Parliament for Bezuidenhout Valley (Johannesburg). He started Melrose Foods in Johannesburg in 1947, known at that time as Robin Cheese Manufacturers; it became part of the Unilever group of companies in 1965. J Levy was mayor of King William’s Town from 1963 to 1964.

Henry Alperstein was mayor of King William’s Town from 1961 to 1965, a member of the Borough Council for 10 years and a member of the Divisional Council. Hugo Alperstein was one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force and later became chief pilot of Arkia, Israeli Inland Air Service. The Aronowitz family produced three winners of the Overseas Scholarship of the University of South Africa, namely John, Alice and Cecil. John became a concert pianist, Alice was an accomplished cellist and pianist, and Cecil specialized in the viola and became a professor at the Royal College of Music.

Census data for 1891 show that there were 170 Jews in King William’s Town. The 1904 census recorded 122 Jews. However it is likely that these figures include the Jews in the entire district because other records show that in 1902 there were only 30 Jewish inhabitants in King William’s Town. In 1936 there were 134 Jews and in 1943 there were 157. Again, it is most likely that these figures reflect the number of Jews in the entire district. In 1964 the number of Jews had dropped to 72. In 1984 the community expanded with the arrival of some 12-15 Israeli families who were contracted by the Ciskei government for three years. When they left in 1987 there were only 5 Jewish families in the town. By 1999, only one Jew was left.