Pilgrim’s Rest (Mpumalanga)

 

Pilgrim’s Rest is situated in Mpumalanga (eastern Transvaal pre 1994) in the foothills of the Drakensberg, on Pilgrim’s Creek. It was laid out as a diggers’ camp on the farm Ponieskranz after a significant gold strike in September 1873. A year later, the mayor of Port Elizabeth, Henry Hyman Solomon, obtained transfer of the farm for a Port Elizabeth based company. The camp rapidly developed into a busy mining village. However, as early as 1876 the alluvial gold deposits began to peter out and many diggers left the town. Today Pilgrim’s Rest has been restored as a living museum and is a popular tourist destination.

There were several Jews among the alluvial gold diggers in the early days of Pilgrim’s Rest. Well known Jews who prospected in the area included Alois Nellmapius and Ikey Sonnenberg; David Henry Benjamin, a London financier, was granted the concession to mine the Lydenburg goldfields (centred around Pilgrim’s Rest) in 1883 by the President of the Transvaal Republic. Other Jews involved in the financing of various mining ventures included Baron Grant (the former Albert Gottheimer), Otto Rothschild, Henri Frank, Salomon Frank, Adolph Hollard, Adolph Astrowsky, Anthony Goldschmidt and Charles Sonnenberg.

A Jewish cemetery was consecrated as early as 1878 but there is no record of a formal congregation having been established at that time. The majority of graves in this cemetery are without tombstones and the language on the still legible inscriptions reveals the cosmopolitan nature of the mining camp. A second cemetery is situated in the valley and adjoins the general cemetery. The first burial in the new cemetery was that of Meyer Lewis on 11 November 1933.

Religious services were held in a private house – now known as Swanepoel House, one of the oldest buildings in Pilgrim’s Rest. In 1932, spearheaded by the Dredzen brothers, a small unpainted wood and iron synagogue was erected in Pilgrim’s Rest to serve the needs of the eleven Jewish families living here and in the neighbouring town of Graskop. There is no record of a minister having been engaged by the congregation. The small synagogue was built on a stand donated by the Pilgrim’s Rest municipality and was sold in 1944. The building was later re constructed on a nearby farm.

As the village developed, the Jewish residents became an integral part of its economic and social life. They were generally involved with the commercial activities of Pilgrim’s Rest, owning general dealerships and numerous trading stores. They were also barbers, hoteliers and chemists.

With the decline in the Jewish population, families from Pilgrim’s Rest and other neighbouring towns went to Sabie to attend religious services. When the Pilgrim’s Rest congregation ceased to function, the two Sifrei Torah were donated to the Sabie Hebrew Congregation. When that congregation became defunct, the Sifrei Torah were sent to Kibbutz Tzora in Israel where children of the Dredzen family, the founders of the synagogue, now lived.

Alois Nellmapius was the first alluvial gold prospector at Pilgrim’s Rest to sluice ground in large quantities and in a systematic way. The President of the Transvaal Republic, Francois Burgers, commissioned him to construct a road from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay, which was completed in 1876. Around this time he became the vice consul for Portugal on the goldfields, becoming honorary consul general for Portugal in the Transvaal around 1882. After 1902 he collaborated with Isaac & Barnett Lewis and Samuel Marks in starting the first factory in the Transvaal, a distillery at Eerste Fabrieken, near Pretoria. He held the first concession for the manufacture of gunpowder in SA, was the first to attempt to produce steel in SA and pioneered new agricultural methods on his model farm, Irene Estate, outside Pretoria, now a major industrial area.

Official census data show that the Pilgrim’s Rest community reached its peak in 1936 with 116 Jews. This figure appears to be rather high, because when the synagogue was built in 1932 there were only 8 families residing in the village (with a further 3 families in nearby Graskop). A community survey conducted in 1943 by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies recorded only 27 Jews. By 1957 there were six Jews and in 1980/81 there were four. The census for 1991 recorded only one Jew.