Printer, painter, philanthropist

A son remembers his father.

A ceremony for unveiling the plaque for Ephraim Charlaff in 2002: (from left) Yonatan Yagodovsky, director of the Jerusalem station at the time, Tobey Yanai Charlap and her husband, Joe Charlaff, and Rina Amikam, head of MDA public relations (photo credit: MAGEN DAVID ADOM)
A ceremony for unveiling the plaque for Ephraim Charlaff in 2002: (from left) Yonatan Yagodovsky, director of the Jerusalem station at the time, Tobey Yanai Charlap and her husband, Joe Charlaff, and Rina Amikam, head of MDA public relations
(photo credit: MAGEN DAVID ADOM)
FROM SIMPLE beginnings in Cape Town, South Africa, Ephraim Charlaff became one of the most prominent figures in the annals of South African Jewry.
Born in Slonim, Belarus, in 1908, Ephraim came to South Africa in 1921, at the age of fourteen, with his parents to escape the pogroms in Eastern Europe. His father, David, a lithographic artist, leaving a country torn by strife, and his own business in ruins, established a small printing company in the same year, with a single machine, in the back streets of Cape Town, printing labels for the wine industry. Ephraim helped in the business by delivering goods to clients while his stepmother operated the machine, and David went out canvassing for work.
Under his father’s wing, Ephraim was instructed in every aspect of the firm’s activities, and when his father passed away in 1944, he took over the helm together with his younger brother, Solly.
The company, S.A. Litho, expanded in size over 26 years from a one-room cottage industry, offering reliable service and quality craftmanship, to going public in 1947, and moving to new premises on a two-and-half acre site in a prime industrial area.
Charlaff was appointed managing director and through his astute management S.A. Litho Co. Ltd. became one of the largest lithographic printing companies in South Africa employing some 300 employees whose welfare was of great concern to him.
Through his efforts the company was able to claim the distinction of being the first firm to provide its employees with periodic screening for tuberculosis. On one occasion when a worker was found to be infected and was hospitalized for eighteen months, the company supported his family until he was able to resume work.
Training personnel was one of his passions.
He would frequently send technical staff abroad to learn the latest techniques in photo production. He made it his business to travel abroad once a year to keep up with the latest trends in the industry.
One of Charlaff’s proudest moments was when the company was appointed as the sole Southern African agents for Walt Disney Productions, and participated in a Walt Disney international conference held in Stockholm in 1951.
Outside the business, Ephraim was deeply involved in other interests.
Art was one of his great loves. As an amateur painter he used to drive to the harbor, set up his easel, and draw fishermen and their boats.
Charlaff felt that Cape Town lacked a center where people of all ages could learn to draw, sculpt, make pottery, and socialize.
He found a deserted double story house in the suburb of Green Point, on the outskirts of the city persuaded the municipality to rent it to him for a very nominal fee, explaining that he intended to make it usable as a center for art instruction with the aid of volunteers.
He set about finding volunteers to paint and plaster the building. His next task was to find volunteers to teach people of all ages eager to try their hand at painting, drawing and sculpting, and was successful. Two months later the Cape Town Art Centre, the only one of its kind, opened its doors and became a hive of feverish activity for teachers and pupils alike. He would personally walk around to each one to see how they were progressing and offering words of encouragement.
However, his main passion was the welfare of the State of Israel which was closest to his heart.
He was passionately devoted to the Zionist dream, born in a Europe plagued by antisemitism and pogroms – a haven for others like himself – creation of a homeland in Israel after millennia of persecution everywhere.
In his 1930 diary he writes extensively about how he, together with a group of Jewish Cape Town businessmen, met with prominent figures such as Lord Melchett, a British politician, industrialist and financier, who paid a visit to South Africa in January 1930, together with Col. Josiah Wedgewood, one of the leaders of the British labor party, known for his Zionist sympathies.
They both were committed to the idea of a Jewish homeland, and pledged substantial amounts of money for the Zionist cause.
During the 20-year period between the end of WWI and the outbreak of WWII, a number of shipping lines owned by Jews were operating in Eretz Israel, sailing in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
Two schools opened at that time to provide professional seamanship training to maritime youth organizations on the Yarkon River, and at the port of Haifa. All of these laid the foundations for the establishment of the State of Israel’s merchant marine and navy.
There was a dearth of trained seamen, and to this end the Israel Maritime League (IML) put out an urgent appeal for funds to organize training youth for the merchant marine, and financing potential candidates for the officers course. The IML with funds received established a training center and underwrote the major portion of the budget of the Haifa Nautical School.
Ephraim, who was chairman of the South African branch, was successful in raising funds for the IML, and personally paid for one young Israeli from Haifa to enlist in the officer’s course.
His other passion was Magen David Adom. By his unstinting efforts as National Vice Chairman of Magen David Adom in South Africa, he was instrumental in raising the funds for building the original first aid station on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There is a plaque in the newly renovated building honoring him with the inscribed words, “A man whose energy and vision made this first aid station possible.”
IN 1951, Charloff paid an official visit to Israel visiting Magen David Adom facilities, including an army camp where he observed new immigrants learning the basics of first aid. Dr. Joseph Kott, chairman at the time, presented Ephraim Charlaff with a commemorative photo album of his visit depicting Magen David Adom’s various activities in Israel.
The outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967 saw Charlaff, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, mobilize the population of Cape Town to donate blood to send to IDF field hospitals in Israel. Through his encouragement and enthusiasm, the local Jewish community rose to the occasion pooling all their energies to help Israel survive. Both Jews and Christians flocked to the blood bank to donate their blood.
Ephraim spent the entire weekend in Cape Town’s Magen David Adom’s offices with an eager band of volunteers packing medical supplies. Despite his illness, with a smile on his face he offered words of encouragement for the volunteers as they worked. He saw Israel’s victory as his victory.
Two months later he passed away at the young age of 58. A memorial service was held in his honor at a packed Zionist Hall in Cape Town. With many tributes flowing, there was not a dry eye.
Today, as Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Ephraim would have been very proud to see the thriving country he worked so hard for.
He did not live to see his son and family make aliya in 1977. He would have been very proud to know that his son served in the IDF as a paramedic, and in later years his three granddaughters all served in important roles in the army.
As I write about him, as his son, I feel emotional, remembering his feverish efforts to help the IDF by organizing blood donations and medical supplies during the Six Day War in 1967, two months before he left this world. As I think about it, the sheer magnitude of the huge efforts made by this man, small only in height, is overwhelming.
Above all, he always remembered the mitzva of feeding the hungry. He never turned a hungry man away from his door.