Emigration from the Russian Empire

When the Jews arrived in England – many through the port of Hull  – they were housed at the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter or in approved lodgings linked to the Shelter. The Shelter was built in 1906 to house Russian Jewish emigrants. Some stayed in England but the majority transmigrated to other countries such as America, Canada, France, Australia and South Africa.

Most of the Jews arriving in England were aiming to go to America, and did so. The Union Castle line paid for the accommodation at the Shelter, which was included in the price of the ticket. The price of a ticket was 10 guineas (10 pounds 10 shillings). The South African Jewish immigrants were mostly Lithuanian and Latvian; the Lithuanians were the larger group. My mother’s parents came from Libau (it’s German name) in Latvia, and my father’s parents came from Vitebsk, a Bela-Russsian province on the border with Latvia. Libau (today’s Liepaja), on the Baltic, was the main port serving Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire.

All passenger ships from Great Britain, which were mainly those of the Union Castle Line, docked in Cape Town. At the time of my parents arrival, there were about 48 000 Jews in South Africa. More than half of these followed the gold to Johannesburg and the diamonds to Kimberley; a quarter stayed in Cape Town, and the other quarter spread out all over the other cities and towns and villages of South Africa. Oudshoorn became home to the Jewish Ostrich feather barons. Cape Town has the oldest Jewish community in South Africa: the Cape Hebrew Congregation dates back to 1841.

At various times in South African history, attempts were made to limit the entry of Jews; for example, in 1903, they weere classified as Asiatics on the grounds that Yiddish was not a European language. Nothing came of that. In the 1930s, Jews didn’t get off that easily. Many of those that were refused entry to South Africa – where there were many Nazi sympathizers – perished in the death camps in Europe. Fanny, my mother, born 1906, and Izzy, my father, born 1902, arrived in South Africa with their respective families. My mother’s Yiddish name was Feiga (Feigele), which means “little bird” in Yiddish. This was the name my father mostly used to address my mother. We know that Fanny’s parents arrived in South Africa in 1912, which makes her six years old when she arrived in South Africa. Izzy must have left for South Africa quite soon after arriving at the Poor Jew’s Temporary Shelter, because the shtetlers at the Shelter were only allowed to stay 14 days.

My father told me that he left Russia with his family during the first world war on a ship to England. I drooled over the mug of sweet cocoa he received on arrival in England. Izzy told me very little about his childhood in Russia. Besides the cocoa, the only other thing – food again – he mentioned was the big juicy Russian apples. When I went to Russia much later in life, the apples there were not big and juicy at all. They were stunted bruised little things. The harsh Russian climate is not kind to fruit and vegetables. But what is stunted and bruised for a well-fed South African may very well be a juicy windfall for a serf or a fallen child of Abraham. That makes me a child of a fallen child of Abraham, and thus fallen too.

In my teens, I never thought about my extended family. My parents never mentioned any of their family. I never thought it odd at the time. Besides, my immediate family was enough. I saw my mother’s sister, Auntie Edie (not to be confused with my sister Edie, whom I talk about later) a few times when she came on holiday to Cape Town from Johannesburg. She stayed with us in our house in Claremont to be near Muizenberg, which we called “Jewzenberg”, because during the summer it was chock with Joburg (Johannesburg) Jews . Three kilometers away was the windy beach in Strandfontein, which Jews called the “Christian” beach. My siblings and I used to resent Aunt Edie because when she came for her annual visit of two weeks or more, she took over one of the bedrooms, which involved a cosmic reshuffle. I also saw Aunt Edie’s husband, Sydney, at our our house in Claremont. He had a very red bluish face. He smoked nonstop and gulped large glasses of whiskey. He died a few years later. These years were the early 1950s ( when I was 10 -12 years old). Why did the genealogy of my family interest me so late in life (2003, aged 61)? Some deep reason of the heart? What got me started was investigating whether I could claim Latvian citizenship. Latvia had recently joined the European Union, and I wanted to try and get EU entry for my two daughters, Rebecca and Talitha. Love has its reasons.

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