Kenhardt (Northern Cape)

Malmesbury is situated in the Western Cape, in a district known as the Swartland, 66 km northeast of Cape Town. The town started out as a new parish of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1745. Proclaimed in 1829, the town was named by Sir Lowry Cole, the Governor of the Cape Colony (1829-34) after his father-in-law, the first Earl of Malmesbury. The area is renowned for wheat production and is the headquarters of the oldest milling company in South Africa – Bokomo.

Jews settled in Malmesbury in the late 19th century. Some of the early names were Solomon Fonn, Morris Herzfeld, Herman Horwitz, Michel Paires, Israel Resnick, Mane Stanowitz, Chaim Steyn and George Wyner, all of whom had settled in the town by 1899. Within a year or two, they were joined by many others, such as the Beinarts, the Kretzmars, the Millers, the Krafchik family, the Tobias family and the Stohs. The story is told of Tobias (Tuvye) Kretzmar, a Lithuanian Jew, who walked from Cape Town to Malmesbury in 1901. His wife and four children, whom he had left in Schrimburg, Lithuania while he settled in Malmesbury, joined him later.
Tuvye Kretzmar later owned a shop in Main Street.

The first minyan (prayer group) is believed to have been held in 1895. There is reference to the Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation in 1901, although many sources point to 1904 as the year of its foundation. At the time (1904), there were 114 Jews in Malmesbury.According to the minutes of the Founding Jewish Committee, the first Jewish congregation – the Ohel Jacob Hebrew Congregation – was founded on September 26, 1904. Woolf Beinart was elected chairman and leader. Other elected office-bearers included: Mr. Zuckerman – vice-chairman; M Goldman – Hon. Secretary; Tobias Kretzmar – Hon. Treasurer. Committee members were: Messrs B Krafchik, H Kessel, M Meyers and Mr. Hossiason. The new congregation employed two ministers, Rev. Kaplan and Rev. Louis Joseph Kahanowitz, one of the co-founders of the shul.

By 1906 a lively community of 40 families (150 Jews) existed and it was decided to build a place of worship. Construction of the synagogue began shortly thereafter. Here the community could worship, educate their children in the Jewish faith and teach them Hebrew. The synagogue was built in 1911; the foundation stone was laid on November 11th by Abraham Katz and Benjamin Olswang. The architect was a certain Mr. Goldman. Over the door on the archway are the words “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob”.

The synagogue, as all other synagogues, became the focal point of the Jewish community. The community was served by a number of reverends, the most esteemed was Reverend Effron, who arrived in 1922 and remained for 20 years.

A Talmud Torah was founded in 1907. Classes were initially held in a private house and later in the synagogue. A Talmud Torah Hall was built in 1935. Around this time there were 28 pupils at the school. By the late 1940’s only one pupil remained and the building was sold in 1947. A mikveh was built at the back of the synagogue in the 1940’s.There was no Jewish cemetery in Malmesbury until 1922 when Mr. Piet van der Westhuizen donated a portion of his farm – Rozenberg – for use as a burial ground. Prior to this, all Jewish burials took place in Cape Town. Mr Van der Spuy left servitude on the ground: “This land is always to remain for the Jews”. He remained a staunch friend and supporter of the Jewish community and donated funds, cattle, livestock and poultry in aid of Jewish causes. In appreciation of his contribution, the community presented him with an illuminated address. A Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) was established to supervise burials in the town.

Recently, about 60 graves were repaired and the Tahara house restored in an effort to maintain the cemetery. A rededication ceremony was held in the cemetery on September 8 1996.

The Malmesbury Zionist Association was in existence by 1903, and local delegates were present at the first conference of the South African Zionist Federation held in Cape Town that year. A youth organization, the Malmesbury Maccabean Association was established in 1918 and was still functioning in 1941. Women’s organisations included the Malmesbury Jewish Ladies Benevolent Society and the Union of Jewish Women.

By 1920 the community was well established. Jews were comfortably settled and lived amicably with their gentile neighbours. They enjoyed a strong family life and maintained their traditions unhindered. The children excelled at school and had a better command of the languages than their parents, becoming thoroughly bilingual; their parents spoke Yiddish and the family read English newspapers. At school, parents could proudly observe their children receiving prizes.Malmesbury served as the centre for Jewish life in the district. On High Holy Days and festivals, Jews from surrounding settlements such as Kalabaskraal and Philadelphia and others further afield, such as Piketberg and Darling, came to attend services and participate in their finest clothes; the synagogue was full and brightly lit. In the 1960s a regional arrangement came into effect whereby ministers employed by the Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation travelled the district, teaching Hebrew and performing ritual slaughter.

Jews contributed to the social life of the town by organizing charitable events such as bazaars, and the local inhabitants learnt to appreciate Jewish dishes. Civic organizations benefited financially from the proceeds. The gentiles were also aware of and influenced by the festivities and contributed to Jewish charities.

The Jews of Malmesbury were general dealers, merchants, butchers, bakers, millers, wine merchants, produce dealers and salt merchants; others dealt in fodder or travelled the district as smouse (peddlers). There were also a number of doctors and attorneys, dairy and grain farmers and a pharmacist. By 1947 most of the Jews were operating in commerce and the hotel trade. There was also a Jewish town councillor, mining engineer and a professor of Jurisprudence.

Many of the Jewish farmers in the district lived in Cape Town e.g. Israel and Barney Barron farmed in the district of Philadelphia, the dairy farm Green River was owned by Jake Levine and Morris Maisel, all of whom resided in Cape Town (the present-day railway siding of Green River was originally built as a private siding to handle the huge cargo of animal feed needed for the dairy farm).Abraham Katz and his son Lutie were involved in farming activities in the south-western, western and northern Cape and Namibia. As property developers, they founded the resort of Yzerfontien on the Cape west coast in 1936, when they bought the farm and began to subdivide the land into residential stands. Control of the resort remains in the hands of the Katz family, and is managed today by Jeff and Dennis Katz, the sons of Lutie Katz.

Julian Beinart became professor of Town Planning at the University of Cape Town.

Benzion Beinart was professor of Law at Rhodes University and the University of South Africa. He was also Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town and later of Birmingham University in England.

K.A. Beinart was on the Malmesbury town council from 1940 until 1953 when Nachum Bloch replaced him as councillor.

Edel Horwitz became the president and chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, was on the World Zionist General Council from 1960 and was president of the United Zionist Association from 1959; he was also president of the South African Board of Deputies in 1958-59.With urbanization and the resulting exodus to the cities, the Jewish community gradually diminished and eventually it practically disappeared. Ultimately, the beautiful synagogue was no longer used by the Jews as a house of worship. On April 29, 1974 the synagogue closed and was transferred to the Malmesbury municipality, with the proviso that it would not be used for any religious activities, but only for cultural purposes. The Torah, Bimah and chairs were donated to the synagogue of the Herzlia Highlands School in Cape Town.

On October 10th 1991, The Malmesbury museum was opened by his Worship the mayor of Malmesbury, Councillor Rust, in the old synagogue. Present were many members and descendants of the erstwhile Jewish community.

According to community statistics, in 1904 Jewish community numbered 114 but the official census shows 246 Jews. Census data for the years 1936, 1951, 1980 and 1991 record 274, 129, 68 and 37 Jews respectively. However, these figures are much higher than available community statistics, which show 118 Jews in 1943 and only 15 families (approximately 70 people) in 1953. In 1964 there were 76 Jews and in the mid-1970’s there were 50 Jews. Another record shows no Jews by 1974.