A shtetl in Africa

Even as they were laying down their own roots in the 'dark continent' - the eyes and hearts of Zimbabwe's Jews were ever looking toward Israel.

Ezer Weizman 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ezer Weizman 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Zimbabweans in Israel converge on July 11 at the Ra'anana Bowls Club for a reunion, they may well exceed the number of Jews remaining in their former country. For those up on international news that should come as little surprise. Reminiscent of the worst days of the Weimar Republic, when basic commodities were priced in the millions of Deutschmarks, Zimbabwe under authoritarian President Robert Mugabe goes one better - even at a price tag with a trail of zeros, the desired chicken, loaf of bread or aspirin might not be available. Once the bread basket of Africa, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) today is a basket case, unable to feed even its own people. From a peak of some 7,500 Jews in the 1970s - comprising some 80 percent Ashkenazim - the country's community today numbers only about 200 souls, an eighth of whom are residents of Savyon Lodge, the retirement home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. Zimbabwe-born Dave Bloom, vice chairman of Telfed (an organization representing all Southern Africans in Israel), takes solace in the fact that over 700 former Zimbabweans live in Israel today, "representing some 10% of the size of the community at its zenith." That many Zimbabweans made Israel their home is hardly surprising. From its humble beginning, the community was proudly Jewish and passionately Zionist. When Bulawayo's 100-year-old synagogue was engulfed in flames in 2004, the conflagration resonated as the end of an era. In 1894, 21 Jewish traders and ex-soldiers from an expeditionary force sponsored by the British South Africa Company gathered in the tent of Messrs. Moss & Rosenblatt to form a congregation in Bulawayo, a sun-blistered town of tin and wooden shanties with roads that were little more than sand paths. On September 18 that same year, the community gathered in its new synagogue - no longer a tent, but a hut - to consider the establishment of a Zionist society. A lengthy discussion ensued as to whether the society should identify itself with Herzlian Zionism or with Hovevei Zion, the precursor to political Zionism. In other words, three years before the first Zionist Congress in Basel, a group of pioneering Jews, trying to eke out a living in the most primitive conditions in central Africa, were discussing the Jewish people's alternatives in their quest for a national homeland. Hardly having established a home for themselves, they were seeking a national home for their people. In 1919, Lord Edmund Allenby visited Rhodesia. As a World War I hero who only two years earlier had conquered Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks, he was welcomed by the local Zionist leadership. Asked what he thought lay ahead for a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people, he responded emphatically, "Hard work and increased immigration." History records that in the 1930s, the per capita financial contribution of Rhodesian Jewry to Palestine was the highest in the Diaspora. This was a tradition that continued into the 1970s. Even before the embers of the Bulawayo Synagogue cooled in 2004, Bloom, who describes his erstwhile community as a "shtetl in Africa," believed it was time to "preserve the past before nothing was left or no one alive to tell the story." He started collecting material, which he posted on his Web site (www.zjc.org.il). Visiting the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, he made copies of newspaper cuttings, minutes of meetings and photos. In a collection of documents recording interviews with early Jewish settlers in Rhodesia, he discovered the unpublished manuscript by the renowned South African historian Eric Rosenthal on "Rhodesian Jewry and its Story." From these writings we learn of an Englishman, Daniel Montague Kisch, the first Jew to feature in the history of Rhodesia. By 1860 he had become a prospector "and so joined the expedition of diggers, mainly Australian, on the wearisome trek to a golden will-o'-the-wisp on the Tati Fields." Kisch had a frontier way of dealing with issues. When Sir John Swinburne, a future MP, but then chairman of the London & Limpopo Company working on the Tati Concession, tried to assert his authority over Kisch, he received the latter's resignation in the form of a broken nose. Like Kisch, Moss Cohen also came to Rhodesia from England, although because of his alleged Irish "associations" he was better known as Paddy Cohen. The area was a tribal kingdom and Cohen wrote in a diary entry how "King Lobengula took a fancy" to him and granted him a trading license, "the sole rights in all his territory." "I gave him a horse for it," he added. Later, when the issue of prospecting rights for gold arose, the king, Cohen wrote, "gave a promise that I should be the first to get one. He would not give it in writing, but I was satisfied with his (verbal) promise." Things never quite worked out that way. Rosenthal recounts the trials and tribulations of this colorful Jewish personality who fell in and out of favor with all the major players of the time, a time period known as the "Scramble for Africa" - including King Lobengula; mining magnate Charles Dunell Rudd, Rhodesian pioneer Francis R. Thompson, better known as "Matabele," and imperial colossus Cecil John Rhodes - over who owned what rights. Before its posting on Bloom's Web site, very few had seen Rosenthal's monumental work, commissioned by the Rhodesian Jewish Board of Deputies in 1949. Since its completion, it attracted little else than dust. "Very few even knew of its existence. Gems were coming out of the woodwork," Bloom told Metro. People all over the world were dusting off the past to reveal a treasure trove of Jewish history in central Africa, much of which is now available on his site. Mindful of the tragedy that befell the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where the past itself was no less a victim than the people of history's toxic twists, Bloom, of Polish ancestry, was determined to pictorially document all the Jewish graves in Zimbabwe. "So far, we have posted on our Web site photographs of over 4,000 headstones… covering Harare (formally Salisbury), Bulawayo and all the smaller country towns." Former Zimbabweans from all over the world have been contributing to the site and, Bloom says, "we now have over 200 family biographies. These personal narratives present a colorful history not only of the families, but also of the country, illuminating how people arrived in what was then Rhodesia and why they came." Each family has its own story. Marvyn Hatchuel's father came from Morocco. Hatchuel, who is organizing the July reunion, is a former president of CAZO - Central African Zionist Organization. "In 1904 my 20-year-old father was in Alexandria [Egypt] on business when he met a fellow Sephardic Jew, Behor Benatar, from Rhodesia, who had originally come from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes. He told my dad, 'You want to make money, come to Rhodesia. My brother and I run a concession store at Penhalonga, a gold mining town in eastern Rhodesia.'" Wandering off, Hatchuel continued, his father found himself pounding the port area of Alexandria. A ship bound for east Africa grabbed his attention and on the spur of the moment he bought a ticket to Mozambique. Disembarking at Beira, Hatchuel had insufficient money to pay for any further passage. So the young Moroccan followed the railway track and walked the breadth of Mozambique until he crossed over into Rhodesia and completed the last stretch to Penhalonga. "I believe when Behor Benatar saw my father enter his store, he nearly collapsed. Anyway, he gave him a job. At night and under candlelight Dad would sit with a dictionary and a newspaper and in that way taught himself English," Hatchuel related. When Hatchuel the elder had arrived in Penhalonga, he spoke to his employers in Ladino. When he left, he was fluent in English and six years later, in 1910, he opened - together with the Daniel brothers - one of the first general wholesale stores in Salisbury. The community's Sephardim, who came mainly from Rhodes, "started arriving in the early 1890s," said Nick Alhadeff of Kfar Saba, who at one time or another held all the top positions in his former community - president of the Sephardic Congregation of Rhodesia, Chairman of the Board of Deputies and President of CAZO. Alhadeff's father left Rhodes for Rhodesia in 1931 over a split-up in the family's bank. "Rather than choose to become either the managing director of his uncle's bank or the breakaway one of the nephews, he opted instead to join his brothers in Rhodesia," Alhadeff explained. It was a fortunate choice. Those members of his family who did not leave Rhodes "ended up in Auschwitz." The Sephardim were part of a unified Jewish community until 1931, "when all hell broke loose. It was over some difference in the conduct of the shul service," Alhadeff told Metro. "Jews! Who can remember the exact details, but soon thereafter, the Sephardim had their own shul." Time, however, is a great healer. "I, the son of a Sephardic Jew, became the first of my community to write the bar mitzva exam under Rabbi Konviser of the Ashkenazi shul. I became a member of both congregations, a sign of the changing times," he recalled. Times were changing in more ways than one. In 1960 Harold Macmillan delivered his famous address in the South African parliament, in which he declared that "The winds of change are blowing through this continent," referring to the growth of the nationalist movements across Africa that were seeking independence from colonial powers. National aspirations were no less rooted in Africa's Jewish communities, as their youth movements as well as the adult leadership increasingly identified with the Jewish state. Fundraising for Israel and aliya became an integral part of local communal life. It was an age when Jewish pride was riding high, reinforced by Israeli victories in war as well as subsequent daring air raids on Entebbe and Iraq. The older generation was quite happy to regard their youth as future Israeli citizens. Attending the upcoming reunion in Ra'anana will be many of those former members of the Habonim, Betar and Bnei Akiva youth movements who may have stood in honor guards for Menachem Begin, Ezer Weizmann, Moshe Dayan and Chaim Herzog, who all made a point of including Rhodesia in their visits to Southern Africa during the sixties and seventies. They were following in the legacy of their parents and grandparents, who would have welcomed such figures as Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Zeev Jabotinsky, Nachum Sokolow, Dr. Alexander Goldstein, Moshe Sharett and Dr. Abba Hillel. "We may have been a small community, but we led by example," says Hatchuel. "Most of the CAZO heads made aliya - Mervyn Lasovsky, David Melmed, Eric Brod, Boris Cass (Honorary Life President) and Adolf Leon. And let us not forget the women's Zionist leadership." Women like Rachel Baron, a vibrant speaker and founder of WIZO in Bulawayo, who became an international figure in the women's Zionist organization. Years later she would settle in the country for which she had worked so tirelessly, joining her two daughters, Beverly Kaplan and Merle Gutman, and their families. Kaplan was a founding member of Manof, a moshav founded by Southern Africans in the Lower Galilee. Gutman, founder and life president of ESRA (English Speakers Residents Association) has been the recipient of the President's Prize and the Prime Minister's Prize for Volunteerism. "It was a wonderful childhood," Gutman told Metro. "Life revolved around the shul, the Jewish Guild Hall and Habonim." Like all one-time Zimbabweans, she laments what has befallen her former country. "It's so tragic, so cruel and so unnecessary. I feel no less for the country as a whole than what has befallen the Jewish community. It is horrific how a tyrant [Mugabe] can so wantonly destroy his own country and persecute his people and the world stands idly by. South Africa has not only failed its neighbor, but has been complicit in supporting this tyrant." Reunion of ex-Rhodesians/Zimbabweans: • Date: Friday, July 11 at 9:30 a.m. for brunch • Venue: Ra'anana Lawn Bowls Club • For further information, contact Marvyn Hatchuel at (09) 774-7181 or Dave Bloom at 054-465-0220.