Litvaks in South Africa

From my FB Friend, Aage Myhre.  I knew about these Litvaks, but Aage includes a lot more depth ti this story.  Jura, you can see a lot more to this story, and photos, by searching on FB for Aage Myhre.

– and the Jewish Museum in Cape Town is more Lithuanian than Lithuania itself! (Litvaks = Lithuanian Jews) …

🌿 The 12-hour direct flight from London to Cape Town is long and tiring, but I wake up quickly as the plane makes a U-turn out over the sea and passes Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years for his rebellion against the apharteid regime in South Africa. And soon I see the contours of the unmistakable Table Mountain, Cape Town’s premier landmark.

My friend Sam Keren has sent a car to pick us up from the airport, and not long after we are well installed in a hotel in the middle of the huge area of one of the world’s largest casinos. Because South Africans like gambling.

The next day our tour of this fascinating country starts, infinitely far from Europe but still with many clear elements of European peoples and culture.


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!

Yes, that’s how it is, Lithuanians dominate the Jewish community in South Africa to an extent seen in no other country. Casino magnate Sol Kerzner (1935 – 2020 ), 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 were 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.

offers visitors a journey back in time – most museums do exactly that ….

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.


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…