Pietersburg (Northern Province)


Pietersburg is the main center of the Northern Province (northern Transvaal   pre 1994). It lies 275 km north of Pretoria. Although only proclaimed in 1884, its history begins around 1868 with refugees fleeing the Bavenda settling in the area

Gold was discovered on the farm Eersteling in 1871 and prospectors flocked to the area, with Marabastad and later Smitsdorp serving as the center for the diggers. In 1881 a decision was taken by the Volksraad to lay out a new town as the center for the northern Transvaal. The farm Sterkloop was selected in 1883 and in 1886 – the year that Pietersburg officially became a town – the seat of the magistracy for the northern Transvaal was moved from nearby Marabastad to Pietersburg.

As the mining of gold in the district proved to be unprofitable, the focus of the town turned to commerce and farming. Pietersburg built up a comprehensive industrial, commercial and financial economy that serves a vast, sparsely populated, but significant agricultural area.

It was in the early 1880s that Jews are noted in the Pietersburg district. The signatures of L C Kaufman and A J Marcus appear on the document, dated 20 October 1883, agreeing on the selection of the farm Sterkloop as the future site of Pietersburg.

William (Patsy) Cohen was one of the first Jews in the district. He and Barney Herman were said to have arrived around 1885. Other early settlers include Messrs Benjamin, Jacobs and Rubenstein (all living at nearby Smitsdorp by 1889), Mr Frenkel (already established as a produce dealer by 1890), the Israelsohn brothers (arrived in Pietersburg in the early 1890’s), Marcus Rosenberg (the first Rosh Hashanah service was held in his home), Julius Koenig (arrived 1897), Herman Eicholz (arrived 1898), the Kallmeyers (lived at Houtbosdorp near Tzaneen before moving to Pietersburg in 1898) and Moses Miller (who fought for the Boers during the Anglo Boer War).

In 1893 the first Rosh Hashanah minyan was held in Pietersburg, attended by the handful of Jewish men who lived in the village itself and further afield in other settlements in the northern Transvaal. It was only when the village blacksmith revealed himself to be a Marrano (Jews who followed their religion in secret, following persecution by the Spanish Inquisition), and offered to make up the 10th member of the group, that the service could take place.

By 1897 a small congregation, known as the Zoutpansberg Hebrew Congregation, came into being. In November 1914 the S A Jewish Board of Deputies was notified that the Jews of Pietersburg now called themselves the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation   the name Zoutpansberg Hebrew Congregation referred to the Jews in Louis Trichardt.

The Pietersburg Jewish cemetery was established in 1896 and the first burial was that of Mr. I Wilensky in 1897. Other early graves are those of Solomon Himmelhoch (of Louis Trichardt), Solomon Klisser and Joseph Spiro, all dated 1897.
Pietersburg’s first synagogue was built in 1921. It was the first synagogue to be built in the northern Transvaal, with Jews from the surrounding towns contributing to the building fund. The foundation stone was laid on 19 June 1921 by William (Patsy) Cohen. A new synagogue was opened in 1953 and the old synagogue enlarged and converted into a communal hall.

In later years, this hall was renamed the Jacob Levine Memorial Hall in honour of Rev Levine who served the community for 32 years until his death in 1963. The Wally Levy Hall, built to replace the Jacob Levine Memorial Hall, was opened in 1995.

The first minister engaged by the congregation was Rev J Hurwitz, who was followed by Reverends Kellen, Cohen, Levy, Rosenberg and Gadd. In 1931 Rev J I Levine came to Pietersburg. It was during his term of office, that Pietersburg reached its zenith as regional center for the Jews of the northern Transvaal.

By 1948 there were already ten Jewish institutions in the town. The congregation employed assistant ministers. As part of their duties, the ministers visited nearby towns, such as Potgietersrus, Louis Trichardt and Messina, to teach Hebrew and perform shechita (ritual slaughter). Rev Levine’s successors continued with the regional work that he had pioneered. Family Days were introduced in the 1960’s to celebrate chagim and were attended by Jews from the neighbouring towns.A Talmud Torah was already well established by 1917. In the 1960’s the cheder operated 5 days a week. When the last minister, Rev Lerer, left in 1989, Mrs Charlotte Wiener, a local resident, took over the running of the cheder.

In 1935 there is record of a Jewish kindergarten in Pietersburg and for a few years in the 1960s a Jewish nursery school operated in the town.

The Pietersburg Zoutpansberg Zionist Society was established in 1905. Membership increased rapidly, e.g. in 1913 there were 39 members and by 1919 there were 75. The society was extremely active with workers canvassing the entire district. In 1930, Chaim Weitzman, later to be the first president of Israel, visited Pietersburg and addressed a meeting of the Pietersburg Zoutpansberg Zionist Society. A Young Israel Society was started in 1919.

In 1935 all the town’s existing Jewish youth organizations were combined into a single organization, known as the Pietersburg & District Zionist Youth Society. By 1966 there was no longer any Jewish youth society and for a few years the Youth Council of the Federation of Synagogues (Johannesburg) conducted youth programmes on Family Days which were organized by the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

The Pietersburg and District Women’s Zionist League had its origins in the Pietersburg Zoutpansberg Zionist Society where women were represented on the committee and were actively engaged in fundraising activities. Around 1933 the Women’s Zionist League became a separate affiliate to the S.A. Zionist Federation. The Pietersburg and District Jewish Women’s Guild came into being in 1947. A branch of the Union of Jewish Women was opened in 1966. The Pietersburg Hebrew Order of David Lodge 17 was consecrated in 1953, and closed in the early 1970s.
<p>Current active organizations in Pietersburg include the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation, the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Women’s League. Friday night services are still held on a regular basis and suitable candidates are brought in from Johannesburg to conduct services on the High Holy Days.

Minor incidents of anti-Semitism occurred in Pietersburg. In 1926 a newsletter of the Dutch teachers in the Transvaal contained statements about Jews that encouraged racism. In the 1930’s anti-Semitic pamphlets were circulated. By 1938 a powerful anti Jewish feeling asserted itself among Nationalists of the district. In November 1938 the Jewish community found itself in quite a predicament when they were informed that Gen Manie Maritz was planning to hold a meeting on a vacant plot of ground belonging to the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation, adjoining the synagogue.

It soon became apparent that Jews owned all other suitable vacant plots in the town and that this fact alone would have been enough to foment more anti-Semitism. A leading citizen of the town and a member of the Nationalists advised J Hirschmann, the president of the congregation at the time, to allow the meeting to pass off quietly as planned.

Many local Jews achieved prominence in legislative and commercial spheres. Isaac Brenner served on the Town Council; Louis Brenner was a founder of the Pietersburg Blood Transfusion Service; Barney Herman was elected to the Town Council in 1911 until 1922, was mayor from 1915 17, and served as chairman of the Pietersburg Hospital Board, School Board, Agricultural Society and Chamber of Commerce and Mining; Julius Koenig was mayor of Pietersburg from 1927 28; Max Marcus was elected to the Town Council in 1928, was deputy mayor in 1929 and mayor from 1930 31.

Max Chaitow was a town councilor from 1944 46; Moss Hyman Cohen was the town’s mayor from 1949 50 and was on the Town Council from 1944 to 1951; Norman Jedwood was vice president of the Pietersburg Chamber of Commerce in 1964; Julian Meyer was deputy mayor in 1960; Jacob Rakusin was president of the Pietersburg Chamber of Commerce in 1964 and Simon Worms, a well known businessman and pioneer industrialist, was a director and later chairman of the Pietersburg branch of the SA Permanent Building Society and president of the Pietersburg Chamber of Commerce.

Those who made their name further afield include Solly Feinberg who was mayor of Margate, Natal, in 1952; Sylvia Glasser, doyenne of Afro fusion dance; Arthur Goldreich, one of the accused in the 1963 Rivonia Treason Trial; Jack Hirschmann, president and vice president of the Association of Chambers of Commerce of SA; Joe Kaminer was a Springbok rugby player in 1958; Chris Levin, grew up in Bewaarkloof and became a well known couturier; Max Marcus who was a committee member of the Transvaal Association of Municipalities and of the Joint Municipal Pension Funds; Israel Mereine, well known figure in the world of amateur boxing; Jack Notelewitz, who was the chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies in Natal; Wilfred Rosenberg, Springbok rugby player in 1955; Prof Joseph Tager was professor of biochemistry at the University of Amsterdam and Prof Geoff Dusheiko who became a prominent oncologist in London.

Census data records show 328 Jews in Pietersburg in 1936, 323 in 1951, 184 in 1980 and 71 in 1991. Community records show that the population reached its peak in 1943 with 369 Jews. In 1996 there were only 18 families, three widows and four bachelors in Pietersburg.