Potgietersrus (Northern Province)

 

Potgietersrus is in the Northern Province (northern Transvaal pre 1994), 220 km north east of Pretoria and 58 km south west of Pietersburg. The town was established in 1852 and was originally named Vredenburg. The name was changed to Pietpotgietersrust in 1858. The town was abandoned soon after because of the high incidence of malaria and the almost continuous raids by local tribes. It was re established in 1890 and the name shortened to Potgietersrust. In 1939 the name was changed again when the final “t” was dropped.

One of the earliest recorded Jews in the district was a Mr F D Cohen, who was one of the first people to open an account at Barclays Bank when they established a branch in Potgietersrus in 1904. At that time he was a successful farmer in the district. Mr Berman was another Jew living in Potgietersrus in the first decade of the 20th century.

A Hebrew congregation was founded in 1927 with Rev M I Reichenberg as the first, and it would appear, the only, minister. Although land had been donated to the congregation in 1928 by the Potgietersrus Municipality for the purpose of building a synagogue, this never came to fruition. In the early 1930s services for the High Holy Days were held in a hall, known as Holly Hall, and later in private homes. A Jewish cemetery was established around 1925.” “In the 1950s and 60s numerous attempts were made to include Potgietersrus in various regional schemes, with the ministers of either the Pietersburg or Warmbaths Hebrew Congregations traveling to the town on a weekly basis to teach the children and perform shechita. Around 1966 the congregation enjoyed a short revival with the arrival of the Gordon family. Mrs Gordon started the Talmud Torah and organised a committee to plan cultural activities. The first succah was built in 1966 and the following year, Sonia Bloom celebrated her batmitzvah, the first in Potgietersrus.

The demise of the congregation came in the early 1970’s. The torah belonging to the Potgietersrus and Districts Hebrew Congregation was given on loan to the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation and in 1978 the community returned the plot of land given to them by the Potgietersrus Municipality. At that time there were only six Jewish families in the district and most of them became country members of the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation.

Many of the Jews were engaged as farmers, some were mill owners, and others were grain, produce and livestock dealers. There were many Jewish shop- owners, mostly general dealers. There were a number of Jewish hoteliers, several butchers and an attorney.

One person who contributed most significantly to the economic life of the district, although never lived there, was I W Schlesinger. His citrus estate at Zebediela, about 50 km south east of Potgietersrus, was said to be the biggest in the world under one owner. Schlesinger was buried on his farm at Zebediela in 1949 on land consecrated by the Pietersburg Chevrah Kadisha.

Census figures show that there were 110 Jews in Potgietersrus in 1936 and 105 in 1951. However, available community records for the 1950s paint the picture of a far smaller community with 25 Jews recorded in 1953 and 40 in 1955/56. The 56 Jews recorded in 1964 included those who lived in the town as well as in neighbouring settlements. This group of people numbered only 26 by the mid 1970s and 19 by the mid 1980s. In 1996 there were only five Jews left.