23 February 2018
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Text and photos: Aage Myhre



It is considered that around 90% of the approximately 80,000 Jews living in South Africa are of

Lithuanian descent (the so-called Litvaks), which thus constitutes the largest pocket of Litvaks

in the world! You are hereby invited to learn more about this unique Jewish community that

still holds Lithuania alive in their hearts, museums and synagogues.




For the tens of thousands Litvaks who came to South Africa during the years 1860 –

1940, the Cape Town harbour was the first glimpse they had of their new homeland.



The Jewish Museum in Cape Town is more Lithuanian than Lithuania itself.


Lithuanian footprints

in South Africa

Text and photos: Aage Myhre




The Jewish Museum in Cape Town offers visitors a journey back in time. Most museums do. The striking feature of this museum, however, is that the journey to the past also brings us to a completely different part of our world, from Africa's southern tip to a seemingly modest little country far to the north, to a country where around 90% of South Africa's Jewish population has its roots (there are today about 80,000 Jews in South Africa).


The museum's basement is dominated by a village environment (shtetl) from the late 1800s. A few houses are reconstructed in full scale, and you can clearly see how people lived and co-existed at the time. The village is called Riteve. It was recreated in the museum on the basis of entries made in the 1990s by a group of experts who went from South Africa to Lithuania to find traces of the family of the museum's founder, Mendel Kaplan. 


The village is called Rietavas in Lithuanian. It is there to this day, less than a half hour drive from Klaipeda, at the highway direction Kaunas and Vilnius. The Kaplan family emigrated from here in the 1920s, while the village's population was still 90% Jewish. Today, no Jews live in Rietavas. 


A stroll among the house-models in the Cape Town museum's basement is like walking around in a part of Lithuania, almost more Lithuanian than Lithuania itself. This impression is becoming no less strong when I discover that the café that is a part of this comprehensive Jewish complex in Cape Town, is also named after the founder's home town in Lithuania, and that the older part of the museum is a replica of a Vilnius synagogue. This synagogue was built in 1863, and was the first ever built in South Africa. 


The museum and Café Riteve are just two of the elements of an extensive complex of Jewish-related buildings here in Cape Town's incredibly beautiful botanical garden, so if you first come here, I recommend that you take your time. Worth a visit is the Great Synagogue from 1905, the Gitlin Library (including a large collection of books in Yiddish that the Litvaks brought with them on the long sea voyage from Lithuania to Cape Town), and the Cape Town Holocaust Centre (see below).


Lithuanians dominate the Jewish community in South Africa


Lithuanians dominate the Jewish community in South Africa to an extent seen in no other country. Casino magnate Sol Kerzner (1935 - ), communist leader Joe Slovo (1926 – 1995) and veteran anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman (1917 – 2009) make an unlikely trio but have in common that they are all of Lithuanian descent.


Like their Lithuanian ancestors, whose political ranks included wealthy capitalists, zealous Zionists, prominent religious scholars and committed communists, South Africa's Litvaks, have spanned the political spectrum. On the left stands Slovo, the former head of the South African Communist Party, who was born in Lithuania in 1926 and came to South Africa at the age of nine. On the right stands Kerzner, a flamboyant businessman who built the famous casino resort Sun City (north of Johannesburg) and founded the entertainment and leisure giant Sun International.

Jewish emigrants from Tsar occupied Lithuania are generally thought of as having fled the persecution and poverty for the safe shores of America. A much less known story is that of the many Litvaks who travelled to South Africa. Many of these migrants came from the Kaunas region (Kovno in Yiddish), but many also came from towns such as Palanga, Panevėžys, Rietavas and Šiauliai. 

Many travelled via the Liepāja port in Latvia on ships bound, via the Baltic Sea and (after its opening in 1895) the Kiel Canal shortcut, for English east coast ports. From there, they travelled overland, usually via London, to Southampton to embark for Cape Town.

This movement of people was not accidental: a whole business existed to cater for them, from the ticket agents in Kaunas or Vilnius, to shipping lines such as the Wilson Line shuttling between Liepāja and Hull, to the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter in London which housed and orientated many of the trans-migrants, to the Castle Line and the Union Line which specialised in the route to South Africa.

And like any successful movement of people, it became self-perpetuating, as the new South Africans sent home letters, and money, encouraging others to follow suit. The first countrywide Union of South African census in 1911 indicates a population of 46,919 Jews, a majority of whom were Litvaks. By 1921, the Jewish population had risen to 62,103, but with more of a shift in gravity towards the gold-mining and commercial centres of Witwatersrand in the Transvaal area (which accounted for 33,515). 

What this means is that a great many of those North Americans and British with Litvak ancestors are likely to have kin in South Africa. There are many good sources for Jewish family history research in Lithuania and prospects of success are often favourable, as long as the place of origin within the country is known or can be identified.

The extraordinary story of Sammy Marks (1843 – 1910) from Taurage

The entrepreneur Samuel Marks was born in the Lithuanian district of Taurage in 1843. He was one of the very first Litvaks to arrive on African shores. He came here via England in 1868 and began his career by hawking cheap jewellery and cutlery in Cape Town. Later he moved on to Kimberley where he went into business with his brother-in-law Isaac Lewis and Jules Porges. Together they formed the French Diamond Mining Company.

Following this, Lewis and Marks decided to relocate to the Eastern Transvaal where they established the African and European Investment Company. This company proceeded to become a major Rand finance house with controlling interests in several gold mines. Mr. Marks had become a leading magnate and one of South Africa’s richest men.

An example of his many success stories is one of the companies he started, theZuid-Afrikaanscheen Oranje Vrystaatsche Mineralen en Mijnbouvereeniging, which became the basis of the town Vereeniging. Marks also developed the Viljoen’s Drift coal mine and encouraged the expansion of the Witbank coalfields.

Sammy Marks was also a close friend and admirer of South Africa’s State President Paul Kruger (who is often called the father of the Afrikaner nation) and a popular figure within the Transvaal business community. It was Marks who advised Kruger to build a railway line from Pretoria to Lorenco Marques. He served as a senator in the Union Parliament from 1910 until his death in 1920 in Johannesburg.

Worth a visit is the Sammy Marks Museum north of Pretoria and Johannesburg. The museum building, a splendid Victorian mansion dating from 1884, was the residence of Marks, whose significant contribution to the industrial, mining and agricultural development of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek has given him an outstanding position in South African history, so very far away from his birthplace in Taurage, Lithuania…


Click here to read more about the exceptional history of the Litvaks in South Africa:


Some of today’s Litvaks in South Africa


Let me introduce you to some of my good friends in South Africa. Most of them are second and third generation Litvaks (plus one single first-generation Litvak). There is also a small colony of Lithuanians who have moved down here the last 20 years. My conclusion is that Lithuania and the Lithuanian spirit is alive and present, even in modern South Africa.







Sam's life story is worthy of a screenplay. His autobiographical book, 'Mulik the Zulik', says it all. Sam was the only person of his family able to escape the Holocaust in Lithuania. A Polish neighbour family acted as if he was their son and managed in this way to smuggle him out of Lithuania during the war. The rest of his family was executed.  After WWII, Sam managed to get to Switzerland, and later to Israel. But it was South Africa that was to become his new homeland, in the 1960s. Here he has done well in business and private. Sam visits Lithuania and his home-place Pabradė every summer since the 1990s. He likes Lithuania, but is still sceptical of Lithuanians and their involvements in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. I took the above photo of Sam in his office in downtown Cape Town. On the walls hangs many of the memories from his enormously challenging youth. The image he shows me is of the tombstone he installed on his mother's grave a few years ago. In Pabradė village, Lithuania.







Jeanette completed an MA in Film Production at the University of Bristol, UK, in 2000 and, upon returning to South Africa, realised that the only way to make a film was to get out there and do it. And so, with the support of friends and other grassroots filmmakers, she made Krisimesi, also exploring children’s unique perspectives, which has, in its different versions, screened at various international film festivals and won several awards. She teaches film and has a production company with Matthys Mocke.

During my meeting with Jeanette she told me much about her so far only visit to Lithuania. She told me about when she came to Kaunas to try to find the house where her ancestors lived, and how nervous the woman who now lives in the house became when Jeanette knocked on the door, and the fantastic three days that followed when she and the woman, a known Lithuanian artist, afterwards sat down in mutual trust and dialogue…







Professor Shain excuses himself, mildly and courteously, as he welcomes me in shorts this December day. "It's really all in the middle of summer here," he says as he leads me into the facilities he is the head of, here at the “Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town”. And it is by his crowded desk that I get to know so much more about the amazing relationships between his ancestral homeland, Lithuania, and the intellectual South Africa he represents. So, dear reader, if you want to know more about Jews in South Africa, you should definitely read Milton's latest book “Jews in South Africa”.







Richard meets me at the entrance to the Holocaust Centre in Cape Town. I was expecting a man that would put the most emphasis on the many tragic events of the Holocaust in Lithuania and in Europe in general. Richard is, after all, a Litvak himself. But what he instead emphasizes, is that there are an infinite number of comparison points between the Holocaust in Europe and the apartheid in South Africa. "Whites who look down on blacks, Nazis who look down on Jews, people who think themselves better than others, aren’t they all of the same kind?", he asks… 








The Christmas trees are beautifully decorated in the district of Rosebank, Johannesburg, this summer afternoon in December. I am slowly strolling around when I suddenly see an energetic white young lady in the middle of a crowd of black youths. It turns out that she is a genuine Litvak, and that she is the head of the organization 'Tomorrow's Trust', which in recent years has become a leading institution in the fight against AIDS-HIV in South Africa.


Kim is the one who some years ago walked out of the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ filled with a sense of purpose. “I just thought, ‘I have to do something. I spoke to my rabbi and then started my own oral history project,” she explains.


What an amazing person and determination. Her name is Kim Feinberg, soon 50 years old, still young forever.








An unlikely Zulu, Ruth Rabinowitz represents the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party in the South African parliament!


I meet Ruth in the library of the Johannesburg Grace Hotel to talk about her unusual life and political career. And Ruth tells an almost incredible story. About how her Litvak family, many years ago, became close friends with the Zulu king and his family. She tells about her medical background, but first of all, she focuses on the circumstances for Africa's largest tribe, the Zulus, that today includes three million people, almost as many as the number of inhabitants in Lithuania, the country her ancestors came from (if to count only the present, local population of Lithuania, of course)…








Honorary Consul of Lithuania, Johannesburg

Honorary Consul of Lithuania,  Cape Town

Honorary Consul of Lithuania, Pretoria


Here they are. Lithuania's three musketeers in South Africa: Raymond, Alan and Ivor. Three skilled lawyers, all of them genuine Lithuanian Jews. It is these three who make up the front line in terms of current relations between Lithuania and South Africa. It is these three who help facilitate Lithuanians arriving to Africa's southern areas, and they are also the ones constantly informing South Africans about the wonderful country called Lithuania.


They were, some years ago, recommended as consuls by the Lithuanian ambassadors to Israel. Israel? Yes, believe it or not, but the fact is that Lithuania does not have its own ambassador to the country having the largest pocket of Litvaks in the world… The Lithuanian ambassador in Tel Aviv must serve Israel, Cyprus and South Africa altogether. But then, in turn, the ambassadors we've had so far have done a good job. It was, as an exemplary example, the very capable Lithuanian ambassadors Romas Misiunas and Alfonsas Eidintas who recommended these three smart guys we today are naming Lithuania's three musketeers in South Africa.


I have had the pleasure of meeting all three of them several times, both here in Lithuania and in South Africa, and I know that they all burn for stronger ties between our two countries. But I've also heard them talk about how sad it was to experience the Lithuanian Constitutional Court rule that Lithuanian citizens around the globe could no longer be registered as Dual Citizens. They feel, as I do, that it is terribly sad to see nowadays Lithuania burn bridges instead of seeking renewed contact with its fantastic diasporas around the world. In this aspect, sadly, every day that passes is a day lost…








Rietavas and the

Kaplan family




The impressions from the Jewish Museum in Cape Town were as glued to my memory. So in August last year I decided to visit Rietavas, the village the Kaplan family emigrated from almost 100 years ago. I had expected to find proud traces of the family; a museum, a memorial, or maybe even something more sophisticated… But I got terribly disappointed. What struck me, then and there, was that this was almost like coming to Salzburg without seeing Mozart mentioned at all... 


What a shame. I took some pictures and went from there with bowed head. Mendel Kaplan, by far the wealthiest and certainly one of the wisest Lithuanians ever, was not mentioned with a single word or symbol in the very home village of his own family...


When I came back to Vilnius from Rietavas that August evening, I sent my photos and comments to Dr. Kaplan in Cape Town. This is what he replied a few days later:



Dear Mr Myhre,

I thank you for your correspondence on Riteve and your complimentary remarks about our family.

When President Landsbergis was surrounded by tanks and holed up in parliament I visited him with my wife and friends in the building and established a very warm relationship.  I hope he is still well and I remember the fact that his wife was responsible for saving a number of Jews during the Second World War.

Yours sincerely
Mendel Kaplan



Mendel Kaplan (1936-2009) died of a stroke three months after he sent me the above message. In the obituaries that followed, leading Jews stated that Dr. Kaplan was a man who could be termed “the father of the South African Jewish community.”  They wrote that he had served as a leadership capacity in several Jewish organisations, that he was involved in the establishment of the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town and was also one of the first founders of the ‘City of David Archaeological Excavation Project’ in Israel.


Born in Cape Town, Dr. Kaplan had qualified both in law and with an MBA, survived by his wife, four children and grandchildren.


I never met Mendel Kaplan face to face, but I was told that there had been much for him to celebrate in his 73 years of living: The steel company Cape Gate had been transformed from a modest business selling products like wrought iron and garden benches into a vast conglomerate producing its own steel; becoming one of the largest privately owned companies in South Africa, an expansion largely orchestrated by Mendel and his brother Robert.


Dr. Mendel Kaplan, a world leading Litvak philanthropist, lawyer, writer and business magnate passed away just four months ago. His ties to and care for Lithuania were strong and impressive. Isn’t it time for Lithuania to offer a proper response?




Rietavas at the time Mendel Kaplan's parents lived here (around 1900).


Old wooden buildings

in today’s Rietavas (August 2009).



Lithuanians settling in

South Africa



If to compare with the more than 70,000 Litvaks living in South Africa, the numbers of Lithuanian expatriates of today are very modest. But there are a few of them, and I want to tell you all a little bit about Jadvyga Kazlauskiene from the village Vievis between Vilnius and Kaunas. Jadvyga emigrated to South Africa mid 1990s with her daughter, now 20 years old. She started her career down under as a waitress in a Johannesburg restaurant, but began gradually to climb up the career ladder after she came in contact with the property industry in South Africa's main city and most densely populated area.


My personal impression is that Jadvyga's success started the day she met her current manager and boss, property queen Wendy Machanik (along-standing with Jadvyga in the above photo). Wendy is an amazing Litvak with phenomenal successes within real estate brokerage in the Johannesburg area for many years (hi Wendy, are the pictures still hanging there, in correct positions?).

Last time I saw Jadvyga and her family was at her home village Vievis, here in Lithuania, on a very cold winter day just a few weeks ago, when they all came here to bring their beloved mother to her final rest. The contrast between warm Johannesburg and freezing Lithuania must have been enormous. When the funeral was over, I thought that now one more link between Lithuania and South Africa had been cut. How often will Jadvyga come back up north now when her mother is gone? 

But maybe there is something we can do to keep the ties and connections alive, all of us who love both Lithuania and South Africa? Please feel free to write me with your suggestions and ideas…

Aage Myhre




The "VilNews" e-mails from Vilnius International Club (VIC) reach around 1000 recipients worldwide, providing Lithuania-related news, articles and general information to expatriates and the diasporas. Since its founding in 2001, VIC has been a leading non-profit organisation and has created a dynamic forum for people from many nations. The club's mission is to support and encourage cultural, historic and economic vitality - in the capital city of Vilnius and in the outstandingly historic yet contemporary and cosmopolitan nation of Lithuania. Expatriates join the Lithuanian community in furthering diplomatic, business and cultural links, fulfilling VIC's mission through fellowship, monthly meetings and occasional charitable programmes. 

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Category : Lithuania in the world

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