Russia and the Jew

The Jewish Board of Deputies

When Cathy, my wife, and I were on holiday in South Africa (July 2004) from Oman where I was teaching at the University of Muscat, we went to stay in Rivonia, Johannesburg with Lorien, our eldest son, and Lindi, his wife. I wanted to find out more about the origins of my parents, who were Jewish immigrants from Europe. I went to visit the Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) in Houghton, Johannesburg. Owing to the tight security in Jewish establishments all over the world, I knew  I couldn’t just arrive unannounced. I phoned the secretary of the Jewish Board of Deputies and told her that I was looking for information on the arrival of Jews in South Africa after 1900: my parents had arrived as children in South Africa between 1910 and 1920. I drove to Houghton in the old light blue rambling Chev station wagon I had given to Lorien.

I arrived at the gate of the Jewish Board of Deputies . As expected, tight security. I gave the security guard the name of my contact in the JBD. He checked this out, and then let me in. As I entered the building, I felt a mélange of nostalgia, guilt and detachment; memories of my Jewish youth, guilt for pretending to be a “real” Jew (was ist das?), and distance because I had moved far away – another Jew would say – from my “Jewish” roots. I climbed the stairs to the JBD library. At the entrance a few monographs on a shelf caught my eye. They were on early Jewish settlements in South Africa; heroic titles like “Into Kokerboom Country: Namaqualand’s Jewish Pioneers”. Many of these settlers became fully bilingual: in Yiddish and Afrikaans. I call them Yode; A hybrid of Yid (Yiddish for Jew) and Jode (Afrikaans for Jews). In the library I asked the librarian if she had any information on early Jewish migrations to South Africa. She disappeared between the shelves, and a few minute da later gave me a volume containing the names of Jewish arrivals on ships from Europe. The names were not in alphabetical order, so I had to plough through thousands of names. I was looking for Mendel Gilinsky, my mother’s father’s name. There was no Mendel on the list. After a few hours, I was hot, tired, and thirsty. I’d hit a brick wall. I got up to leave the library. On my way out, I asked the librarian: “Are you sure this is all you have?” She thought for a moment. I’m wasting my time, I thought. “Oh, there is an old ship’s list written out in pencil,” she said. “Oh, is there!” What I wanted to say was: “Oh, is there now!” Off she disappeared again between the shelves. She brought me the ship’s list; a few flimsy pages. I sat down and scanned the pages. There was my grandfather: It said: “Mendel Gilinsky – shoemaker – arrived 1912, Cape Town – Galway castle.” I asked the librarian to make me a photocopy. She said that this couldn’t be done because the list was very worn, and the heat of the photocopier would fade the original. I wrote down the details in my notebook, “Mendel Gilinsky – shoemaker – arrived 1912, Cape Town – Galway castle”. I left the Jewish Board of Deputies and drove back to Lorien’s place.

galway castle

The Galway Castle had three passenger classes: 87 1st class, 130 2nd class, 195 3rd class. No prizes for guessing which class Mendel was in. The ship had a short life, but an exciting one. In September 1914, at the start of the German South West Africa campaign against the German army, she transported troops from Cape Town to South West Africa (now Namibia). In 1915 she was used on the Cape-England mail run . On 3 August 1916 while near the Thames estuary she was attacked by a German aircraft. She only suffered minor damage. In October the following year, she was not so lucky and ran aground on Orient Beach, East London (South Africa). I was to get to know East London very well. My family spent the period 1990 to 2003 in King William’s Town, 60 kilometres from East London. My children spent most of their school life in this part of the East Coast of South Africa. We went often to Orient beach. This beach, which was just outside outside the harbour breakwater, has been the graveyard of many ships. It wasn’t yet the Galway’s time, though; she was refloated and was able to sail on to England. She survived another two years. On 12 September 1918, two months (almost to the day) before the official end of World War 1 on 11 November 1918, she was attacked by U-boat U 82, 160 miles south-west of Fastnet Rock near Plymouth. She was at the start of her voyage to Port Natal (South Africa). She sank three days later. The Galway Castle was one of the ships of the Union Castle Line. It was built in 1911, and was thus a brand new ship when Mendel and his family, and other Jews embarked on it for Cape Town . The Galway Castle brought Jewish immigrants from Southampton to Cape Town over a period of six years. England was a half-way house for European Jews. Most of the passenger traffic between America and Europe was in British hands and so the bulk of this traffic went through Great Britain. Even when other routes were opened, it was often cheaper to travel through Britain than to sail directly from Europe, for example, from Latvia, Russsia and Germany, to other countries such as America and South Africa. It was sailing under the name “Rhodesia”. I met my wife, Cathy, in Rhodesia. More about Rhodesia in a later chapter. How remarkable the coming together of the Galway Castle, Orient beach, East London and Rhodesia.

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