Witbank Jewish History

The Jews of Witbank
   By Shirley Gafinowitz, nee Young 
a long time resident of Witbank, now living in Johannesburg, who relates from a personal view the history of her once vibrant hometown community which had by 1988 dwindled to 14 Jewish families.

This history is the substance of a talk given by Mrs. Gafinowitz at a reunion of old Witbank residents which was held in Johannesburg in November 1988.

     As far as I can make out, the first Jew arrived in Witbank in about 1878. His name was Wolf Harris, and he had some knowledge of geology. He settled in the Witbank district, and after doing some prospecting, he started digging and found coal in what is now known as van Dyksdrift.

     Due to the cost of transport and the lack of demand for coal, he did not continue with the development but he predicted that the best coal fields would be in that area. Today the many prosperous mines around van Dyksdrift, bear out his opinion.

     A few Jews arrived In Witbank before the Anglo Boer War, including my late mother's father, Michael Katz.

     The first recorded High Festival Service was held in 1905 in Main Street, just next to the old Alambra cafe. The Esakov family was probably the most prominent Jewish Family in Witbank in those days.

     In 1911 there were only twelve adult males in the Witbank Hebrew Community, but already as early as 1909, a general meeting of the Community had been called.

     I think everyone present must have been put on to the committee. Its members were M. Berkowitz (President), L. Goldburg (vice ­President), A. S. Goldberg (Chair­man), N. Gordon (Treasurer), S. Silpert (Hon. Sec.), S. Esakov and S. Cahn (Trustees), I. Isaacs, J. Katz, J. N. Ziman and M. Hillman were also on the Committee.

The Witbank Synagogue

Witbank Judaica

     The following is a genuine bit of Witbank Judaica. It is entitled "The Bye-Laws of the Witbank Hebrew Congregation" and was printed in1909 by the late Mr. O. H. Frewin who is reputed to have run off the first copies of his newspaper from the back of an ox wagon.

     These Bye-Laws are the foundation of the Witbank Hebrew Congregation. The form of service was in accordance with the ritual and observance adopted by the United Synagogues of London. The Con­stitution was a very thorough little document and the secretary had to "keep a plan on which shall be numerically entered all the seats of the Synagogue with the rates of each, and an alphabetical register of the members, with the number of seats against their names respectively" - presumably even in those days they had "'Verribels", about where they were sitting. As far as the price was concerned the Executive had the right "to let seats for Holy Days for ladies and gentlemen being members of the Jewish persuasion, and to fix prices at their discretion."

     In 1913 the foundation stone of the old synagogue, was laid by no less a dignitary than Mr. Emile Nathan, a Member of the Legislative Assembly. There was a large gathering present, including that distinguished personality the late Rabbi  Dr. J. I. Landau, the Chief Rabbi.

     "Witbank News" of October 1987 published the following item "The original synagogue was the first place of worship in Witbank. The second, the Anglican Church, was designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1917. Prior to that people worshipped in private homes". It is sad that today neither the original synagogue nor Sir Herbert Baker's Anglican Church, are in existence.

     Now we are back in 19I3 and in his opening address, President Mr. S. Esakov far sightedly mentions how gratified he is on "the erection of a suitable and adequate place of worship for the present and increasing future needs of the Witbank Jewish Community". He goes on to say "the Congregation was in the unique position of being able to complete our religious edifice to acquire and enter into possession of it entirely free from any liability or encumbrances for which happy fact we feel deeply grateful to all supporters, whether of our faith or not." 

     In his speech, Mr. Wainstein gave credit to the first Jewish pioneers who were in the Witbank area already in 1896.They were the President Mr. Esakov, and a Mr. Susman Cahn, a bachelor who was my grandfather's cousin.

     Thanks was expressed to the Witbank Colliery  "who kindly ceded to us a free grant of land"  which was the site upon which the old Shul was built.

     Incidentally many years later, my late father Sam Young realized that the property had no resale value as it was donated for "religious purposes” only. He went with the late Mr. I. Schech, who at all times acted in an honorary capacity as our legal representative for the Congregation, to the authorities who agreed to have the title deeds changed. If this had not been done the handful of Jews left in Witbank in recent years, would never have had the finance to run the Congregation.

The Consecration

    At the Consecration, Chief Rabbi Landau spoke most eloquently. In his quaint way he said that every brick of the synagogue should bear not the name of man, but the name of God. He also said that he had the greatest admiration for those Jewish men and women, far removed as they were from the centre of Jewish life and activity, who had lived in the mining camps for years and who still had time to think of God and their duty towards their people.

     Members of the Executive Com­mittee were Messrs. S. Esakov, Dembo. J.N. Ziman and N. Gordon as well as M. Wainstein. M. Berkowitz, Friedman, Ludwig Weiler, W. Solomon, Samuel Katz, S. Schulman, I. Slomoi and the Rev. I.  Hershman who had succeeded the Rev. Hurwitz, who was the first Minister of the Jewish Religion in the town.

     An item of news on the same page of the Witbank News when the official opening of the Shul was reported, notes the fact that at the Railway Sports, to be held at Balmoral, a 150 yard race for a trophy will be run by Miss Davis and Mr. Ben Yates, the, latter conceding 15 yards start. Mr. Yates, was for many years the Jewish proprietor of the Athlone Hotel and the Athlone bioscope. I'm sorry I don’t know who won the race, but even in those days it seems Witbank had Jewish sportsmen.

The Witbank Hebrew Congregation - 1905.


The laying of the foundation stone of the Witbank Synagogue - 1913.

The Business Centre

    Bobby Lennox. who grew up in the Dworkin household and was very close to the Jewish people says that in the bottom part of the town near Main Street, was Noll the Shoemaker's shop. Next door was Joffe the photographer, then Dennis Shein’s father had a harnessing and saddle repair shop and nearby was Alec Milwidsky's shop "Supermans" and Solly Himmelhoch’s bicycle shop. There was Alec Swersky Tailor and Chona Milwidsky’s furniture shop. The Bernstein's had the Carlton Hotel and my father had the Witbank Cash Store.

     Higher up, in and around Eadie Street, there was Gollachs: Janet Bros. the Shoe shop and Myer Young, Wholesale and Retail Butcher. I must tell you about blacksmith Gorvy, non Jewish, who used to keep Alsations. One of these dogs used to come regularly to Young's Butchery carrying a basket in his mouth and an order for meat in the basket. He used to jump on to the counter, deposit the basket with the order and when the order was completed, he used to trot home with the filled basket in his mouth. 

     The consecration of the new Synagogue was a somewhat different affair from the consecration of the old synagogue.

Nostalgic Attachments

     Many contributed generously. There are some very moving letters received from men re-calling their boyhood days spent in Witbank. I shall quote one of them written from Israel, by Mr. Teddy Friedman.

     Writing in 1974, Teddy says that he saw a picture of the old shul in the Zionist Record and it evoked all sorts of long forgotten memories.

     He goes on to say that not only was he named in the Shul, he also celebrated his Barmitzvah there. Then he adds " As I look at the left window in the picture. I recall those long ago times, when we were huddled together in Kheder and were being questioned, not only by our teachers, but also outside inspectors from the bigger cities. I remember too the Hashtilim and Zionist youth days, as well as the soccer and cricket matches in the back yard and can hardly believe that the windows are still all in one piece.

     "All these memories fade into insignificance when I recall those wonderful times when my late father, of blessed memory, was present and my later mother looked down from upstairs (in the shul) to see what her boys were doing.

     "I know that many of the old school with whom I sat on the shul committee and with whom I enjoyed those heated general meetings, have since left Witbank, but I am sure that the community is still as thriving and successful as it was in the old days. (This was 1974). Needless to say my thoughts are with you in the building programme and I wish you the success you so richly deserve". He enclosed a cheque as a small mark of regard for the work being done and for "happy memories” and asked that the names of his late parents be inscribed on the Donors Board.

     The Foundation stone was Laid by Chief Rabbi B. M. Casper. Two plaques were then unveiled --- the one for the Communal Hall was unveiled by Mrs. Edie Shill, widow of the late Mr. Philip Shill, in honour of whose memory the Communal Hall was named. The late Mr. & Mrs. S. J. Young had the pleasure of unveiling the plaque for the Sam & Gertie Young Talmud Torah, which commemorated their many years of loyalty, devotion and hard work for the Congregation.

     The service was conducted by Rabbi M. Gordon who was the local minister at the time and who now lives in Israel. The Wolmarans Street Synagogue choir sang beautifully with Cantor Reich himself officiating - apparently Witbank's polluted air did not affect them!

     The Congregation was addressed by Les Gafinowitz, President of the Shul for 20 consecutive years. He spoke in Yiddish, English and Afrikaans.

     The distinguished gathering included the M.P. for Witbank. the late Hon. T.H.N. Janson who at the time was Deputy Minister of Bantu Administration and Education. He flew down specially from Cape Town for the occasion and had to fly back before the proceedings were over.

     It may be interesting to mention that the main chandelier of the shul comes from the old shul, which was originally transported from the Park Synagogue Johannesburg in 1913. 

"Ship or Sheep!"

     Even in the earliest days when my mother was a child there was already a Kheder. As has always been the custom in Witbank the children had to attend every afternoon of the week. There was a time when Witbank boasted of both a Minister and a Hebrew teacher.

     I must relate my personal experience in regard to Hebrew lessons. Owing to health reasons I could not go to Kheder so my father arranged for the teacher to come to the house to teach me. A Hebrew concert was taking place at the Athlone Theatre and I was to recite. I complained to my father that I knew how to say the recitation in Hebrew but I didn't know the meaning of a single word of it.

     My Dad asked the teacher to translate it to me. He did, but to this day I don't know what it was all about because the teacher's English was such that I didn't know if it was about a "sheep" or a "ship".

     I must give the Zionist Society the tribute it deserves.

     Even before 1920, the Jewish people of Witbank were making subscriptions to the Palestine National Restoration Fund, the fore-runner of the I.U.A. Originally the Witbank Zionist Society (W. Z. S.) consisted of men and women and the late Mr. Isaac Shein was in the Chair. When the women formed their own Society, the first chairperson, as we would say today, was the late Mrs. Dembo. I have fond memories of the late Mrs. Dembo. When you ask for donations for charity you don't expect to get a thank you with it. Once when I went to empty Mrs. Dembo's blue box, she and he husband were running the Athlone Hotel at the time, I thanked her for her contribution. She responded with “Oh no, my dear. I must thank you. You are doing the work".

     The first Secretary and Treasurer were the late Ruby Schech and my mother. I would like to mention that my late mother worked for the Witbank Jewish Societies, always in an Executive position, for over seventy years until the time of her death.

     The U.J.W. and the W.W.Z.S. used to hold their meetings concurrently, as they both had the same membership. It was agreed at the meetings in the early days, to pay the princely sum of one tickey each towards expenses, including tea.

     I'm still using the Zionist Cookery Book we brought out during Dora Becker's term of office to raise funds. We brought our plays such as "How to Be a Jewish Mother" and "The Wooden Bowl". But in the very early years these groups were even more ambitious and had a thriving Witbank Jewish Dramatic Society. Write ups were in the Witbank News and they catered for all tastes in drama from "The Jewish King Lear" in 1917 to “Broken Hearts". We too had dances but its early as 1920 the community were arranging dances in the Recreation Hall. In addition to waltzes and foxtrots, they danced Lancers, Saunters, Maxinas and Barn Dances. One year they even had a book dance and everyone came dressed as the title of a book.

     Later there were premieres and the mannequin parades. the tape derbies and the bingo evenings - and always catering, catering Barmitzvahs, Simchat Torah, Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Kippur night celebrations. Members of the Society even catered at cattle sales. 

     1938 was an important year in the annals of the Congregation. It was the year that the Hall was built -subscriptions 5/- p.a. payable in advance. It was also the year that the Ladies Jewish Guild, the forerunner of the U.J.W. was established in the town.

     As a gesture of goodwill for years the U.J.W, used to visit the hospital weekly and take to the patients, the Witbank News and magazines.

     There was a feeling of "togetherness" of goodwill and close cooperation. The Zionist Society used to have four chair persons in a year - no one wanted to be in the chair for a full year.

     Now we come to what used to be a thriving society in Witbank, but which is no more. the Hebrew Order of David. One can't mention the Witbank H.O.D. without mentioning the name of the late Barney Hope, who founded the movement in 1924, the year I believe he arrived in the town.

     In an account of the consecration in a book entitled "The First Eighty Years of the H.O.D." Wor. Bro. Talekinsky wrote:

     "One of the most outstanding Consecrations it has been my pleasure to attend was that of the Witbank Lodge. There were no passenger trains on Sundays in 1924 to Witbank and Grand Lodge hired a special train. A huge Magen David and a banner entitled "H.O.D. Special" was stuck on the engine and the train stopped at Germiston, Boksburg, Benoni and Apex stations to pick up H.O.D. members, their wives and children, who altogether were about 170 strong. Among the Grand Lodge Officers present was Sir Harry Grauman.

     When we arrived in Witbank we found the Mayor, Mr. Tom Spencer and numerous prominent Witbank personalities to welcome us. African Theatres took films and these were later shown on the "African Mirror'.

     We were invited to the Witbank Club (which is no more) where we changed into evening dress for the banquet.

     The banquet itself proved a magnificent social success with an excellent supper and speeches. Dancing took place till midnight and when our train left Witbank station at 12.30. there was a huge crowd to see us off. It was an occasion to be remembered. 

     I would like to make brief mention of the Hebrew Nursery School which opened in 1958 and only lasted three or four years because the contract with the teacher expired. She was imported from Israel and we could not get another teacher. Oh well, its nice to know that Witbank once had enough Jewish toddlers to warrant a Nursery School. Today the only Jewish children at school in Witbank are three of the Phillips children.

     Throughout the years, Witbank has had the honour of having no less than five Jewish Mayors. The first was Barney Joffe, the photographer, who was Mayor from 1925-1934. Later Dr. Markilles was Mayor and then there was the dentist, Dr. Morris Maselle. In the 1950's there was Mayor Joe Katz and lastly, there is Yokkie Shill who is the present Mayor of Witbank. The latest census figures for Witbank are for 1986 when the town had a population of 42,000 Whites. 2,750 Coloured, 1,000 Asiatics, 90,000 Blacks. In 1988, Witbank had fourteen Jewish couples (not all members of the Congregation) plus ten singles - but we do have a Jewish Street, Yudaiken Street).

     Generally the Witbank youth of yesteryear have done pretty well for themselves. There are doctors and specialists almost by the dozen, lawyers, pharmacists, dentists, in fact all the professions are well represented in our ranks. But sometimes I wonder, who have done better for themselves? Our parents and grandparents, most of whom were forced by circumstances to start off from such humble beginnings, - or us!

This history is the substance of a talk given by Mrs. Gafinowitz at a reunion of old Witbank residents which was held in Johannesburg in November 1988, and was published in the Jewish Affairs (September/October 1989) issue.

Click below for
Witbank Home Page

Click below for
Web Site Home Page

My email address:     fabrics@whc.net

Copyright © 2007 by Barry Mann. All rights reserved.