George Aschman writes of early Oudtshoorn

George Achman (1906-1987) was born and educated in Oudtshoorn, the son of Moritz J. Aschman. He started his newspaper career on the Oudtshoorn Courant, later joining the staff of the Cape Times, where he became managing editor in 1960. Mr. Aschman was associated with many community projects and with organisations concerned with the arts, conservation and preservation.

Oudtshoorn in the Early Days

from THE JEWS IN SOUTH AFRICA: A History
Edited by GUSTAV SARON and LOUIS HOTZ
GEOFFREY CUMBERLEGE
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
CAPE TOWN LONDON NEW YORK
1955

Chapter 7
pp. 121-137
by GEORGE ASCHMAN

‘JEWS ARE DIAMONDS’, SIR ERNEST OPPENHEIMER IS REPORTED AS SAYING to a friend. With equal truth it might be said that ‘Jews are ostrich feathers’, for Jews have played a dominant role in the development, in South Africa and abroad, of both industries.

For more than seventy years Oudtshoorn has been the greatest ostrich-producing district in the world, as well as being the centre of the feather industry that has brought more than £50,000,000 into the Cape Province since the first ostrich was domesticated. That event took place years before the discovery of diamonds in Griqualand West. In fact, during the years 1865-9, the value of the ostrich feathers exported from the Cape, mostly from wild birds, amounted to £343,000, compared with only £5,093 worth of diamonds exported during the same period.

In the next five years, however, the position changed completely, for, from 1870 to 1874, diamond exports totaled £1,027,000 to ostrich feathers’ £152,000. Diamonds have ever since far outstripped ostrich feathers in value, as has gold, wool, fruit, and other products of the land and mines. But substantial as has been its material contribution to the wealth of the country, the ostrich feather industry was also responsible for writing a chapter in the history of the Cape that historians of the future will regard as important in the field of economic, social, and human development.

It was in 1880 that the ostrich feather industry really became firmly established in the Cape Colony. It was from the start of that decade too that Jews first became closely associated with the industry, as they remain to this day.

The district of Oudtshoorn was for years among the most isolated in the Cape. It lies in the Little Karroo between the two great mountain barriers the hinterland, the Outeniqua range and the Swartberg range, the latter separating the Little Karroo from the Great Karroo. Given a normal rainfall without any drought, the land in most parts of the Oudtshoorn district is among the most fertile in the Union, and the adventurous farmers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries penetrated into the district and established themselves along the banks of the many rivers that run down from the 5,500 ft. high Swartberg watershed. Here they went in for mixed farming, for which the district is so well suited.

It was only in 1847 that the village was surveyed and named after the wife of the magistrate of George—she was a descendant of the Governor, Baron van Rheede van Oudtshoorn—in whose area the district of Oudtshoorn fell. But such was its inaccessibility that twenty-five years later there were only 1,837 residents of all races in the town, though the population of the district was much higher than that.

In 1875, says John Pocock in Oudtshoorn Forty Years Ago (published in 1909), there were in the town ‘no banks, attorneys, agents, chemists, barbers, insurance agents, or feather buyers’. There appears to be no evidence of any Jewish settler in the district in that year, though St. Jude’s, the pretty little church with stained-glass windows which all visitors admire, was started in 1859 by the Rev. Herman Hirsch, a converted Jew. Hirsch was at Oudtshoorn for only six months and when he left the walls of the church were three feet high.

When Pocock started the Oudtshoorn Courant in 1879, the first Jews he met at Oudtshoorn were an elderly speculator named Rouff, with whom he used to play draughts at Lipman’s Hotel, and Mr. M. Lipman himself. Lipman owned the Oudtshoorn Hotel and advertised ‘good stabling and forage with an attentive groom’. Mrs. Lipman, an American Jewess, died within a year of arriving at Oudtshoorn at the age of twenty-two. On 3 August 1880 the Courant published the following report:

It is our painful duty to have to record the death of Mrs. Lipman, wife of Mr. M. Lipman, proprietor of the Oudtshoorn Hotel. It is not quite a year since she arrived in this village as a happy bride, having come all the way from San Francisco to be a helpmeet to an affianced husband. …. She was liked and esteemed by all who knew her…. The funeral took place on Friday afternoon .. – the Rev. Alfred Morris of the English Church officiated, using an appropriate special service for the occasion as the deceased was of the Jewish persuasion.

Oudtshoorn Courant

Four weeks later the Courant reported that the Rev. J. Rabinowitz of Cape Town visited Oudtshoorn for the purpose of exhuming the mortal remains of Mrs. Lipman which were to be reinterred in the Jewish burial ground in Cape Town.

Another Jew in Oudtshoorn in 1880 was Louis Field, of Field, of Field and King, algemeene handelaars in Koopmanswaren, opkoopers van Struisvogelvederen en andere produkten [General retail dealers, buyers of ostrich feathers and other produce.]. There was Julius Ascher, another algemeene handelaar, who was also honorary secretary of the Oudtshoorn Turf Club.

Until the coming of the railway to Oudtshoorn at the start of this century, the transport wagon was the only means of conveying goods from the district to the markets of the interior. It is estimated that in the latter half of last century, 2,000 wagon-loads of produce were conveyed from Oudtshoorn annually to distant parts. All through the Karroo the farmers bartered loads of meal for slaughter stock. They also traded with their tobacco, brandy, dried fruit, and whipsticks right up to the Orange Free State and Transvaal, through the Transkei to the borders of Natal and also as far afield as Namaqualand. As far back as 1860 the Oudtshoorn district was second only to Malmesbury in the quantity of wheat produced, second only to Paarl and Stellenbosch in the production of brandy, and easily the largest producer of tobacco in the Western Cape.

It was into this isolated but well-developed agricultural area that from 1881 onwards there came a large number of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, the Lithuanian provinces, and Latvia—part of the stream of nearly 3,000,000 emigrants from the congested Pales of Settlement in eastern Europe, who in a quarter of a century spread to the United States, Britain, Germany, South Africa, and other parts of the world.

The farmers in the Oudtshoorn district were comparatively well off. The export of feathers had steadily risen in value from £87,074 in 1870 to £304,933 in 1875, £883,632 in 1880, and more than £1,000,000 in 1882, remaining at that figure for the next two years. News of Oudtshoorn’s prosperity lured many of the Cape’s new citizens to Oudtshoorn rather than to the more glittering prospects of Kimberley, and later of the newly opened Witwatersrand.

By 1883 there were sufficient Jews in the town and district to form a congregation. Five years later, in 1888, the Queen’s Street Synagogue was built, to be followed in 1896 by the St. John Street Synagogue for the more Orthodox section, the prime movers being Samuel Lazarus and Herman Lewin. There was room enough for both in Oudtshoorn’s boom years, though there was often unnecessarily strong communal and social rivalry between the two congregations. Fortunately, the children of the members of the respective congregations worked off their partisanship in the only proper place, the playground or back-yard where clashes between the Jewish boys of Queen’s Street and those of St. John’s Street took place with a soccer or rugby ball, or a cricket bat. To this day, former St. John’s Street boys claim that collectively they have gone further in life than those from the Queen’s Street Synagogue!

In July 1888 the Rev. Myers Woolfson arrived at Oudtshoorn. He had been sent out to the Cape by the Chief Rabbi in London to take charge of the Barberton Congregation, but on his arrival in Cape Town he was dissuaded by the Rev. A. F. Ornstien from going to so unhealthy a centre and was sent instead to Oudtshoorn, where he ministered to the Queen’s Street congregants for more than fifty years. He lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six. Woolfson was very proud of the fact that his licence as a marriage officer had been signed by Sir Hercules Robinson, then Governor of the Cape.

J. L. Weinstein, the shammas, who died in 1947, also served the community faithfully during the fifty-one years he spent at Oudtshoorn. He arrived there the day before Christmas in 1896 to take up the position of shochet, mohel and shammas. The Rev. Emmanuel Lipkin of the St. John’s Street Synagogue and his family were also very well respected at Oudtshoorn. Lipkin came to the Cape from England, and was stationed at other towns before settling at Oudtshoorn, where he died in 1913, at the age of thirty-nine. He left a family of six sons, most of whom went back to Liverpool where they soon established themselves in the medical and dental professions. Lipkin was a man of artistic talent and inclinations, and wide cultural interests. He was a great lover of music, and wrote much on synagogue music.

The first president of the Jewish congregation was Mr. Abraham Stusser, whose family has held a respected place in Oudtshoorn history for seventy years. Stusser was president when the foundation-stone of the Queen’s Street Synagogue was laid on 26 January 1888, and also on 13 December 1889, when the building was consecrated, and he held office as president for many years afterwards.

Other prominent office-bearers of the congregation, of the Jewish Philanthropic Society and the Hebrew school up to 1910 were Messrs. Louis Feldt, Herman Lewin, Mark Morris, A. P. Velenski, Jacob Nochamson, Marcus Hotz, Meyer Luntz, Moss Morris, Robert Sladowsky, M. J. Aschman, Louis Field, W. Solomons, M. S. Lipschitz, A. Berman, Arthur Jacobson, A. Wolff, Isaac Nurick, W. Sanders, M. Sanders, Benjamin Lewin,S. Gillis, B. Weinberg,B. Vallentine, H. Friedland, Dr. L. H. Lewin, M. Danzig, Samuel Lazarus, R. Bresky, L. Hildersheimer, and H. B. Annenberg. [If names have been omitted from this list it is because all the records of the organizations concerned are not easily accessible, and it must be left to some future historian to complete this record.]

Between 1881 and 1910 the Jewish community at Oudtshoorn grew into probably the largest in the country districts of South Africa. Today, with the community shrunk to about one-third or less of what it used to be, it is difficult to imagine the impact of so large a foreign-born community upon the local townspeople and farmers. The village of Oudtshoorn had been established only thirty-five years, the municipality less than twenty, when the immigrants arrived. Though some had spent a few months or even years in England, Scotland, or elsewhere, before coming to Oudtshoorn, the majority came almost straight from eastern Europe via Table Bay, Algoa Bay, or Mossel Bay to try their fortune in Oudtshoorn, where they had been lured by the activity of the ostrich feather market. They were thus raw to western European customs and completely ignorant about the Cape and its ways of life. They were, however, not uneducated nor uncultured. The few who came from Germany felt keenly their isolation from cultural interests.

Few could speak English when they arrived. They spoke Yiddish, some Russian, some German. Their lives had been conditioned almost entirely by religious practices and sanctions which they continued to observe faithfully under the burning sun or in the bitter cold of the Little Karroo. For the Feast of Tabernacles, many had summer-houses specially built, with the roof open to the sky, where meals were partaken of in order the more properly to observe the festival. At New Year the community would adjourn en bloc from the synagogue to the banks of the sluggish Grobbelaars River, which runs through the town, for the ceremony of Taschlich, figuratively to cast their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’, but actually into a few shallow river pools – a ceremony seldom observed in the Union today. Not a day passed without the immigrants putting on their phylacteries even when moving for days at a time from farm to farm in a Cape cart or buggy.

For years, many of the newcomers remained a separate group isolated spiritually from the rest of the non-Jewish community. A few remained so until their death, in spite of the fact that they had established businesses for themselves which brought them into daily touch with all the other elements of the community. The majority, however, rapidly began to take their place in the new scheme of things and to settle down to a new and expanded way of living. They very soon acquired enough English and Dutch to get on with the local residents and farmers.

It was principally with the farmers that these new South Africans made contact. They became traders, produce buyers and sellers, pedlars, and ostrich feather buyers, though some carried on trades learned overseas and started business as jewelers, tailors, bakers, shoe-makers and the like. The immigrants opened stores throughout the district at places where no shop had ever been—at the Cango, Gamka, Armoed, Kandelaars River, Camfer, Kamanassie, Dysselsdorp, as well as further afield in the surrounding villages of Calitzdorp, Ladismith, Uniondale, Klaarstroom, Prince Albert, Vanwyksdorp, Riversdale, and Robertson.

A detailed description of a Jewish country store in the Oudtshoorn district is given by Pauline Smith in her novel, The Beadle. Pauline Smith is the daughter of a one-time district surgeon at Oudtshoorn, an Englishman to whom many a Jewish woman recently arrived was deeply grateful for delivering her South African-born babies. Sometimes she accompanied her father on his rounds in the district and this is what she writes of the store owned by the fictitious Esther Shokolowsky at ‘Harmonie’:

Here they sold prints and calicoes, bags of coffee beans, rice, sugar, salt, spades, and buckets, cooking pots, kettles, gridirons, combs and mouth organs; sweets, snuff and many patent medicines. Money was but little used in the valley, and in payment for their goods the Jew-woman and her grandson took from the bywoners and their wives such produce as they brought them from their lands—mealies, pumpkins, dried fruit, forage and tobacco, pigs and poultry. These in turn the young man took to Platkops dorp [Oudtshoorn], exchanging them there at the market or at the stores for such goods as were needed to replenish his stock at Harmonie. . . .

At the end of the previous month young Shokolowsky had bought part of the bankrupt stock of a Platkops storekeeper and the little shop at Harmonie was now overflowing with such an assortment of goods as had never before been seen in the valley. With these, the young man expected to do much trade at the coming sacrament (Nagmaal)…. Round about Harmonie the talk for some weeks had been of the colorful prints, the ribbons and laces, the cheap gay jewelry and the little mirrors rimmed with pink and white shells, to be seen at the Jew-woman’s store.

Pauline Smith in The Beadle (1926)

Many of these Jewish storekeepers spent long years in the countryside, often being separated from their families whom they sent to live in Oudtshoorn so that the children could receive a better education than that offered by the farm-schools. They were also anxious for their children to learn Hebrew and be near a synagogue where they could attend service every Friday night and Saturday. It was only at High Festival time that one saw these storekeepers in the town. Some traveled up to fifty miles by horse and cart to get into Oudtshoorn for the Jewish holidays when they were happily reunited with their families.

One such country storekeeper, Simon Noll, had the distinction of having a stop on the railway bus service and a post office down the Longkloof Valley in the George district named after him—Noll’s Halt. Like so many other Jewish immigrants, Noll, who came to the Oudtshoorn district about 1888 at the age of sixteen, first began life at the Cape as a pedlar. Later he opened a shop at Dieprivier in the Longkloof. A devout Jew, he would close his shop every Friday evening, reopening it the next night. By dusk crowds of farmers and Coloured labourers had congregated outside his store and when they observed the first stars in the sky they knew that within a few minutes Noll would have finished his evening prayers and would shortly be opening his shop.

Noll’s store was fifty-six miles from Oudtshoorn, nearly a full day’s journey by horse and cart, yet he regularly attended synagogue in the town at all the High Festivals. Later he acquired the farm Dieprivier where he planted thousands of apple trees. He donated land for a church and a school on his farm and when his eldest daughter had qualified as a teacher in Cape Town, she was appointed to this school. The only Jew in that part of the district, Noll was greatly respected, and this led to his appointment as a J.P. When he died at the age of seventy-four he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had given every one of his seven children a good education. Two of his sons are doctors, one a chemist and two of his daughters qualified as teachers.

The sons and daughters of these storekeepers would often spend their school holidays with their fathers in the country. It was there that many learned to know the farming folk and the lore of the country that deepened their understanding of South Africa.

Moses Kottler, the sculptor, started life in South Africa at just such a country store at Middelplaats in the Oudtshoorn district. His father, Jacob Kottler, and his uncle, who is still active, ran a trading-store hardly a hundred yards from the farm of Mr. S. D. P. le Roux, father of the present Minister of Agriculture, who later farmed it.

When after a number of years the storekeepers began to find their feet financially, they were happy to dispose of their businesses to newcomers, often new young Jewish immigrants. They themselves then moved into town. Their early years had been no bed of roses, a hard, isolated, lonely and uncomfortable life with the spectre of drought always threatening.

In the town and district of Oudtshoorn, with the coming of the second ostrich feather boom which lasted from shortly after the South African War until 1913, the Jewish community grew steadily until it reached about 1,500 souls or about 300 families. This was a high proportion of the local population. Some streets or parts of the town– St. John’s Street, for instance—- became predominantly Jewish. Very often the boys of one street, all Christians, would challenge the Jewish boys from another part of the town to a pitched battle. These were fought with branches of palm trees and shields made of the sides of paraffin boxes. No heads were broken and honours were generally easy. They were good boyish fights which never left any deep wounds, either physical or psychological.

In 1904 a Hebrew primary school was established at Oudtshoorn with state aid. Here Jewish children received not only their secular education but also their Jewish education. It was one of the few schools of its kind in South Africa. The medium of instruction was English, and Hebrew was taught as one of the subjects. The first pupil was enrolled on 16 May 1904, and until it closed some forty years later, through lack of numbers, it turned out a steady stream of pupils who are to be found today in many a town and village of the Union as well as on many farms.

The first principal was an English Jew, Mr. I. Abrahams, who had been educated at the Jews’ Free School, London. Later Abrahams moved to Johannesburg, where his brother A. M. Abrahams became principal of the Jewish government school. Also prominently associated with the Hebrew school at Oudtshoorn for some years was David Mierowsky, who later transferred his activities to wider fields of Hebrew education in the Union. For the last twenty-one years of its existence the principal was Mr. Johan G. Smit, who is still teaching at Oudtshoorn today. It is symptomatic of the good feelings existing between the Jews of Oudtshoorn and the non-Jewish residents that they should have chosen an Afrikaans-speaking South African to be principal of the school, and for so many years retained their confidence in him. Writing in the Zionist Record of 28 January 1949, Mr. W. Rybko says:

The Hebrew School raised a new generation of well-informed Jews. In fact the Oudtshoorn Jewish boys and girls were outstanding in their knowledge among the South African Jewish youth. They were the first ones to receive their Jewish education not in the afternoons, after school, but in the mornings in the same way as the other school subjects…. Thus every child lived for seven years in succession in a thoroughly Jewish environment…. For this reason the Hebrew School was the pride of Oudtshoorn Jewry.

Zionist Record (1949)

Not all the Jewish children were sent to the Hebrew school, but even those who were educated there easily made friends with the Christian children. Sport, especially the ragged games played in stony backyards and on open fields, brought the children together a great deal. Often the Jewish boys and girls provided a means by which the Afrikaans-speaking farm children met and mingled with the English-speaking children of the town, a social contact not always as easy as might be imagined. The farm boy, shy, often uneasy in town company, speaking a different home language, frequently stood back from the more socially integrated and self-confident town boy until drawn into the common play or conversational circle by the Jewish boy. At Oudtshoorn the Jewish boys and girls not only helped to teach the Afrikaans-speaking children English; they also taught some of them Yiddish. The late Mr. Johnny de Jager, through his close association with the Jewish produce buyers, learned to speak Yiddish better than many a South African-born Jew could.

From the beginning, the farmers of the district as in other parts of Cape Colony were friendly and helpful to the new immigrants. And in spite of the tremendous political, ideological and sociological changes that have taken place in the world since those halcyon days of 1881, the Oudtshoorn farmer, whatever his political affiliations, has remained in his own personal relationship with the Jewish storekeeper, produce buyer or merchant, essentially friendly, courteous, and sympathetic. The warm feeling which many ex-Oudtshoorn Jews now living in cities and towns have towards Afrikaans-speaking South Africans is a result of close contact in childhood and in adolescence. For many it is a form of nostalgia for the days of their youth when they mixed freely and on the friendliest terms with Afrikaans-speaking boys and girls. Jewish South Africans educated at Oudtshoorn often talk sadly about the unsympathetic and unfriendly attitude of so many city people towards the country Afrikaner who in recent years has flocked in such large numbers to the big industrial centres. It is their Oudtshoorn upbringing which has made them sensitive to this unhappy attitude on the part of so many city-bred men and women of all races and religions.

There are many stories told of the hospitality of the farmers to the early Jewish winkelier, handelaar or smous. The farmers soon learned to understand the reluctance of the Jewish produce buyers, because of dietary laws, to share in the meals to which they were invariably invited on the farms. So eggs were always prepared specially to take the place of the meat dishes, and the produce buyers never went away hungry. Some Jews took their own cooking utensils with them, and the farmer’s wife, respecting their religion, never objected to this.

Soon after they arrived at Oudtshoorn, a number of the immigrants became actively interested in the ostrich feather industry. Most of them had never before seen an ostrich, not even in a zoo, but realizing the potentialities of the industry, they began to make a study both of the birds and their feathers. Some dabbled in feather buying and selling while running their stores. Others traveled round from farm to farm buying feathers and later even buying the feathers on the birds before they had been clipped. They established sorting-rooms in the town whither the feathers were brought, and here expert sorters, mostly Coloured men, made them up into the neat and tight little bunches according to their size, colour and quality, from scruffy body and tail feathers to the long and elegant white plumes that from time immemorial have been used for female adornment.

The Jews started buying in a small way, as they had little money to lay out for the cash purchase of feathers for later resale. But gradually they bought larger and larger parcels until in the boom days they were paying up to £5,000 for one farmer’s output alone. The immigrants themselves learned to sort feathers just as they quickly learned the names of all the different types of feathers that the ostrich produces— chicks, wings, bodies, tails, spadonas, drab-cut bodies, long cuts, flos, broken tails, bloods, and female bodies.

They got to know, too, a great deal about the life and habits of the ostrich, especially when later, in addition to buying and selling feathers, they took to farming and running big flocks of birds.

Mr. Jurie Schoeman, of Oudtshoorn, recalls that when his late father Jan Schoeman, who represented Oudtshoorn in parliament, was away in Cape Town he would leave the arrangements for the plucking of his flock of ostriches entirely in the hands of the late Meyer Luntz, a prominent feather buyer who later turned farmer. Luntz, he always said, knew far better than he did just when the birds were ready to be plucked. (Many of the farmers were loyal throughout their lives to one particular buyer, such was the mutual confidence and respect that grew up between them.)

The late Mr. Max Rose, known for nearly fifty years as the ‘ostrich feather king of South Africa’, not only had a greater knowledge of the ostrich feather market than any man alive, but also knew vastly more about the breeding of birds and the growth of the right sort of feathers than most other farmers in the Oudtshoorn and surrounding districts. He took a scientific interest in the life of the ostrich and there were few points on which he had to yield to the knowledge of those who had been handling ostriches in captivity van toeka se dae. He knew the historical background of the ostrich as a creature of the desert, he knew the bird’s idiosyncrasies from the day it was hatched until old age. He knew especially the great difficulties in rearing the young chicks until they had reached the stage when they were ripe for their first plucking.

His knowledge of the world markets for ostrich feathers was limitless, and the local farmers drew heavily upon this at all stages of the industry’s mercurial career. He was always consulted by the government on matters affecting the industry. He had an ability to analyse and anticipate changing social habits and fashions of the world’s great cities– London, Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin-— and link these with the fashions of the day. He seemed to know in advance of all others what particular type of feather would be in favour in six months’ or even a year’s time. This was naturally of great advantage to the farmers; and it was inevitable, in spite of the heavy blow he sustained during the slump following World War I, that he should grow in stature and popularity with the passing of every year. It was small wonder that on his death in 1951 farmers came from far and wide to pay their last respects to the man who for half a century was so vital a figure in the industry.

Max Rose arrived in Oudtshoorn from Shavel in 1890, at the age of just under seventeen. He was one of five brothers and three sisters who migrated to the New World. A year later he went to Ladismith, with which town Oudtshoorn Jewry always had close links, especially with the Hoffland, Mann, Broido, Nurick, Gordon, and Rose families. Ladismith was the home town of Selina Gordon, later Selina Hirsch, who was said to be the first Jewess to graduate at the old South African College, and who later became a Transvaal M.P.C.

Max Rose started life at the Cape in the traditional way by smousing, but soon gave that up, and in partnership with Isaac Nurick opened a shop at Zoar near the mission station of Amalienstein in the Ladismith district. Before they dissolved partnership, Max had already begun running ostriches on hired land. In 1906, he bought the farm Weltevreden in the Ladismith district for £18,000, spent £54,000 on improvements, mostly in constructing canals for irrigation, and in 1913 sold the farm to a company for £200,000. He received in cash £100,000 and the other half in shares in the company. Then came the collapse of the ostrich feather market, and years later the farm changed hands at £15,000.

It was at Ladismith that Max Rose amassed his first big fortune from ostrich feathers only to see it all crumble before his eyes as the slump set in on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. He returned in 1914 to Oudtshoorn to throw all his energies, financial resources, and marketing skill into an attempt to keep the market from collapsing altogether. He came back to find ostriches selling at 7s. 6d. each, birds whose proud plumes had once touched £40, £50, and £60 a pound. The long succeeding years of depression, however, did not break Max Rose’s spirit, and he lived to write a fresh chapter both in the history of the ostrich feather industry and his own financial rehabilitation.

In 1917, Max Rose was appointed by the Union Government to the Ostrich Feather Commission, which was asked to inquire into ‘the present depressed condition of the ostrich industry’ and to suggest measures for placing the industry on a better basis. Rose disagreed with the findings of his fellow-commissioners and put in a minority report. Even in those dark days for the industry, Rose foresaw the revival one day of the ostrich feather’s popularity. When it came, it might last for twenty-five years, he then said.

His brothers, Barney, Albert and Wulf, were closely associated with him in his feather- and produce-dealing enterprises though they were not always resident at Oudtshoorn. In fact, Albert and Barney made a great reputation in England during World War Il, by running at Hounslow the largest single vegetable farm, seventy morgen in extent, in Britain’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. But far distant as were their later enterprises, the roots of their success lay in the Oudtshoorn and Ladismith districts which regard them very much as their own. Barney Rose, who followed Max to the Cape in 1897, later married Miss Golda Broido of Ladismith. He and his wife left for London in 1909 to look after the marketing side of his brother’s vast ostrich feather business, and they remained in London for forty years.

The first decade of this century saw prosperous days for Oudtshoorn. Many of the feather buyers had, by the turn of the century, acquired farms and there ran large flocks of birds which brought them in a substantial annual income. From 1902 to 1913 alone the total value of ostrich feathers exported from the Cape amounted to just under £20,000,000, and most of this money came into the Oudtshoorn district. There was a great scramble for land, which rose in price from £200 a morgen to £300 and then £500, until finally some lands under irrigation changed hands at £1,000 a morgen.

The Jewish farmers were as aware of the beneficial results of irrigation as were the other farmers and spent large sums of money in leading on water to their lucerne fields, the ‘green pastures’ without which the ostrich feather industry would not have made as much headway as it did. In fact, the industry’s most permanent and valuable legacy to agriculture in the Union has been, firstly, the lesson it taught the farmers of South Africa about the necessity of irrigation, and secondly, the introduction and successful cultivation of lucerne for fodder. This first occurred in the Oudtshoorn district. The introduction of lucerne, ‘the king of fodder plants’, revolutionized irrigation all over the country. That great authority on ostrich farming in South Africa, Mr. Oscar Evans of Melrose, as far back as 1911 told the Irrigation Congress: ‘The ostrich has added enormously to the lasting wealth of South Africa by providing the capital and incentive for the construction of most of the irrigation works of this country. Without the ostrich, this country’s future would have been seriously handicapped by the delay which must have occurred before its irrigational wealth could have been developed.’

As the marketing of ostrich feathers was almost exclusively in the hands of Jewish buyers, they are entitled to a large share of the credit that the industry must receive in the history of agricultural development in the Union. It was their marketing skill and resources, their financial aid to the farmers, and their wider interest in the industry, that helped to provide the capital and the incentive for farming and irrigation improvements at Oudtshoorn and elsewhere in the Little and Great Karroo where ostrich farming was carried on.

With the spread of prosperity in the ostrich feather industry throughout the south-western Cape, Jews were attracted to settle in districts surrounding Oudtshoorn. In 1896, Robertson’s completed synagogue was consecrated by the Rev. A. P. Bender, A. Buirski being president of the congregation at the time. At Humansdorp, a Jewish community was formed in 1901. By 1903, a congregation had been established at Willowmore.

During the feather boom the wealthy Jewish feather buyers and farmers traveled to Europe, in more comfortable circumstances than when they came out to the Cape, to see their feathers being sold and marketed and made up by the world’s best couturiers and milliners. They visited London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, sometimes taking their wives and elder children with them. They returned to Oudtshoorn with developed tastes in clothes, furniture, and homes, as well as with a heightened appreciation of gracious living. Some built homes for themselves which set a new standard in comfort and taste in the town and district. They introduced into their homes such refinements as paneled walls, tiled bathrooms, hand-painted friezes; the finest mahogany, walnut, and oak furniture was imported mostly from Birmingham, but also from the Continent; they introduced gilt concave mirrors, silver and Sheffield plate, the best Irish linen. One Jewish home was built with twenty rooms at a cost of £7,000, equivalent to at least £20,000 today. A few of the families returned, too, with English governesses for their children, or an English companion or lady’s maid for the woman of the house, but this was by no means a general practice.

The old-established farmers of the district stepped into line in spending money on greater comfort for themselves and their families. There thus arose in both the town and the district many homes which are still today monuments of the boom period in Oudtshoorn’s history, though the glory of many of them has long since departed.

But the wealthy Jewish citizens did not spend all their money on luxurious living. What they themselves lacked in formal education, they made up by travel and by sending their children to good schools. One prominent Jewish farmer sent three sons to public schools in England; later two went on to Cambridge, while the eldest daughter was sent to finishing schools in Germany, Britain, and France. So firmly did the ambition to give their children a good education become implanted that when the wealth of the Jewish community at Oudtshoorn declined after 1913, most parents made tremendous sacrifices that their sons and daughters should not be deprived of what they had planned for them in the rosy days, especially professional careers for their sons. The result is that Oudtshoorn Jewry has supplied the Union with what is probably a record pro rata number of medical specialists, general practitioners, dentists, chemists, attorneys, advocates, accountants, civil servants, to say nothing of manufacturers and business men in all walks of commerce and industry.

It was only after they had been in the country for about a generation that the immigrants felt sufficiently settled and secure to take time off from their business and devote this to public and civic affairs. The first Jew to be elected to the town council at Oudtshoorn was Moritz J. Aschman, the writer’s father, in 1899. He was a councilor for eleven years, and served on the school board and hospital board as well as being for many years president of the Jewish Philanthropic Society.

He was soon followed by other Jewish citizens—M. Luntz, who served on the town council, as did his wife later; Arthur Jacobson, the first Jew to be appointed a justice of the peace in the Oudtshoorn district in 1903, and later to become mayor; and Marcus Hotz who was a member of the town council for fourteen years and of the hospital board for seventeen. Hotz arrived in Oudtshoorn in 1883, and was one of the first feather buyers in the district. He took a keen interest in communal matters, and was at one time president of the Queen’s Street Synagogue. He was greatly respected by C. J. Langenhoven, the great Afrikaans writer, who lived in Oudtshoorn and who mentions Hotz in his book Sonde met die Bure, the story of his crazy journey with a disused tramcar pulled by Herrie, the elephant, from Oudtshoorn to Meiringspoort. Langenhoven describes an angry encounter in the streets with the mayor, who was about to call the police when, he says, ‘Maar gelukkig kom ou Meneer Hotz by, die enigste verstandige man in die dorp. Hoe op aarde hy tot stadraadslid gekies is, sal ek nooit begryp nie.’* Hotz smoothed things over, and the curious caravan moved on.

[* ‘But fortunately old Mr. Hotz passed by, the only sensible man in the village. I shall never understand how on earth he was chosen as a town councilor.]

A number of Jewish citizens also served on the hospital board and in other ways interested themselves in the welfare of the hospital. When the hospital was opened in 1899, the Jewish community was responsible for the entire furnishing of this institution. The women presented the hospital with all the necessary linen and one Jewish citizen presented all the beds—- thirty-six in all.

A pillar of support to the hospital was the late Dr. Israel Stusser, son of Abraham Stusser, one of the earliest Jewish settlers. Dr. Stusser was one of the very first South Africans to obtain the English F.R.C.S. Diploma. He practised for many years at Oudtshoorn, where as district surgeon and honorary medical superintendent of the hospital he enjoyed wide popularity among all sections of the community. Other Oudtshoorn doctors, for whose memory earlier generations have great regard, were Dr. L. H. Jacobson, the town’s medical officer of health, as well as the railway medical officer, and Dr. L. H. Lewin, both of whom served the general community faithfully for many years.

While the immigrants themselves went diffidently into public life, their South African-born sons and daughters have readily undertaken public duties. From 1910 onwards they have occupied the highest civic and public offices at Oudtshoorn. They have served on the town council, the hospital board, the school board, on farmers’ associations, and irrigation boards, in civic associations, and have been well to the fore in the cultural life of the town, being interested in music, art, drama, and literature, as well as in home, garden, and town amenities.

As far back as 1901, a correspondent writing in the London Jewish Chronicle says this of communal life in Oudtshoorn:

Undoubtedly the largest town in the Western Province, Oudtshoorn is well known for its many products… but above all, ostrich feathers. This business is almost entirely in the hands of the Jews. The feather buyers are in nearly every instance Russian Jews who have arrived in this country poor men, but who, by dint of industry and frugality, combined with keen business faculties, have become rich and respected men in a community of Jews and Christians. Some of the largest businesses are owned by Jews. They form parts of committees and boards on almost every occasion when anything is brought forward for the good of the community at large… in music they have a colonial reputation.

Jewish Chronicle (1901)

It is significant that the late Senator Langenhoven, that great observer and recorder of the contemporary scene, who spent practically all his life in the Oudtshoorn and Ladismith districts, should nowhere in his massive output of prose, poetry and plays have said an unkind word about the Jews who lived around him in such large numbers. In fact, both personally and by his pen, he showed a sympathetic attitude towards Jews, even though he was sometimes sorely provoked by some Jews who in politics opposed him too zealously.

He had particularly cordial relations with the late I. J. Mann, M.E.C., of Ladismith, and with Max Rose. This friendship lasted all their lives, though both men were opposed to him on political grounds. Mann, who later became a member of the executive committee of the Cape Provincial Council, was very highly thought of by all sections of the community in the Ladismith and surrounding districts, and by none more than the farmers. Langenhoven, who was born in the Ladismith district, formed a real friendship with Mann, whose advice on many matters was often sought, and taken, by Langenhoven’s father.

Political differences here, too, did nothing to break down the personal friendship of Rose with the Afrikaans writer, and they were always ‘Max’ and ‘Corneels’ to each other. On his seventy-fifth birthday, Rose expressed a wish to be photographed with Vroutjie, Senator Langenhoven’s widow. This was readily arranged, and the picture of the two pioneers of the Little Karroo hangs today in Arbeidsgenot, Langenhoven’s home which has been turned into a national memorial to the writer. Every Christmas, Rose would take Mrs. Langenhoven a gift, and right up to the time of his death, Rose always received a personal call from Langenhoven’s only daughter, Engela (Mrs. Brummer of Beaufort West), whenever she visited Oudtshoorn.

In his professional capacity, Langenhoven had a great deal to do with Jewish litigants. As is well known, he was the greatest living authority on irrigation law in the Union, and in a district where farmers were given to going to law about their water rights, he was generally called in on one or the other side. Among the most active litigants were three Jewish farmers whose legal battles over the notorious Donkiesluit could fill a volume.

Langenhoven’s attitude towards the individual Jewish immigrant was typical of that of the Afrikaners generally in the period under review. The farmer’s reference to ‘my Joodjie’ implied the friendliness he felt. For years he looked to the Jewish smous who regularly visited his farm for news of the outside world, for the latest information about the produce markets, for gossip from the town and the rest of the country-side. In the days before radio, railways, motor-cars, and daily newspapers, he came to rely on that information and to seek the advice of the smous or makelaar, who was in touch with the world beyond the ‘aching Swartberg range’.

These, then, were the pioneers. Though they laboured in a district remote from the main stream of economic development, the effect of their labours and enterprise was felt far beyond the boundaries of the Little Karroo. Given the opportunity of a wider education, their children moved out of the valley of isolation into the world beyond, where the majority have made good, each in his or her own line.

Many remained in the town and district to build firmly on the foundations laid by their parents. Though smaller in numbers today than the original community, they are by no means lacking in public spirit or private enterprise. They and the scattered descendants of the first Jewish immigrants who were glad of the opportunity of settling in Oudtshoorn and of making a new life for themselves, are repaying South Africa for that opportunity.


A Childhood in Oudtshoorn

by George Aschman
From Jewish Affairs, ISSN 0021-6313
May, 1969, pp. 26-29

My childhood was doubly blessed in that it was spent at Oudtshoorn and in an age and among a community where family life was warm and secure and a shelter against the cold winds of penury which swept over most of us following the slump in the ostrich feather industry in 1913.

Oudtshoorn lies in the Little Karoo, physically cut off (or rather, isolated in those pre-World War I days) by the towering Outeniqua Mountains in the south and the awesome Swartberg Range in the north. It was then (and to an extent is still today) largely a farming community and though we and our childrhood friends considered ourselves as town boys, we grew up to be partly country folk, something for which I have always been most grateful.

There was barely a family in the town that did not have some link with the soil or with the farming world which lay closely around us. Most of our fathers were in trade either in the town or running country stores or handling the produce of the country-side– ostrich feathers, lucerne hay, barley, tobacco, honey, walnuts, but especially ostrich feathers.

Some of them were farmers themselves. My mother inherited a farm six miles outside of the town on the banks of the Olifants River from her father who had come to Oudtshoorn in 1887. After the death of my father, my eldest brother, then aged 18, was recalled from the Grootfontein Agricultural School, to take over the management of the farm– quite a task for a youngster in an era of tumbling farm prices and continuous drought.

Every day he would travel out to the farm by horse and cart from our home in the town, named Riga Villa after my father’s birthplace. Before starting school, my two other brothers and I would take it in turns to fork out of the stable the horse’s straw bedding to dry before nightfall. And after school we would have to cut the sheaves of hay for the horse’s supper, re-lay the dried straw bedding and when my brother returned home, usually at dusk, we would have to lead the horse cold, as they say, or walk him around for 10 to 15 minutes to cool off before settling down for the night, a duty which we found most irksome.

On the farm we would in holiday time enjoy collecting quails’ eggs from nests in wheat fields, occasionally be permitted to lead water on to the lucerne fields, and in periods of drought help with the aid of long forks to burn the thorns off the prickly pear leaves before they were cut up for fodder for the ostriches.

Like most other schoolboys in our town we stole quinces and pomegranates and grapes and apples from neighbours, for there was hardly a house in Oudtshoorn which in those days did not have either a small orchard, vineyard or vegetable patch that had infinite attraction for us.

I loved the veld around us, the heavenly scent of aandblommetjies that open their white faces to the world only at dusk; the joy of bursting with a bang the Chinese lantern flowers of the klapperbos tree that is peculiar to the Little Karoo; the excitement of climbing as far as I dared to reach the finchs’ nests as they hung so gracefully from the willow trees.

There was no radio, no– or very infrequent– “bioscope,” no cars or motor-cycles to distract us. But though we lived in a small community, it was a cosmopolitan one. The ostrich feather boom, which lasted from about 1880 to 1913, had attracted to the Oudtshoorn district hundreds of immigrants who might otherwise have settled on the expanding Reef. They came into a district that was previously almost wholly Afrikaans-speaking and immediately settled down in friendship and harmony with all around them

My schoolmates were mostly the children of men and women who had come to Oudtshoorn from all parts of Europe– British traders, Cornish stonemasons, Scots bakers, Irish saddlers, German dentists and doctors and Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland; from London, Manchester and Newcastle; from Berlin and Hamburg. We even had a French-speaking Mauritian who ran the local mineral water factory.

We were mostly first-generation South African-born sons and daughters of these new settlers. As families were large in those days, usually from six to ten children– we had an inexhaustible supply of companions, with few barriers of class or wealth or religion to restrict our choice of playmates. There were snobberies, of course. The German-born immigrants thought they were superior to others from Eastern Europe. My London-born mother, though she came to the Cape as a child, thought otherwise. She was intensely proud of her Britishness and did not easily conceal this.

But the world into which I (born 1906) and my brothers and sisters were born at Oudtshoorn and in which we grew up was neither solely British nor German nor Latvian, neither exclusively English nor Afrikaans, neither solely Christian nor Jewish, but an amalgam of all these nationalities and creeds and cultures.

While socially town and country mixed very little, in business, in sport and in school there was a great deal of contact and fraternisation. As children we played football and cricket together with boys from the farms and got up many a scratch game in some or other backyard. Many of the friendships started in those early days with Afrikaans-speaking boys, I am glad to say continue to this day.

As I grew up I was often puzzled by the name “A. N. Other” in the published list of teams to take part in week-end sport until I was put wise. This was really a cover name for a Jewish boy chosen to play on a Saturday but wanting to conceal this fact from his Orthodox parents.

Though a great many of the new settlers in Oudtshoorn came from Europe speaking Yiddish or Russian or Polish or German, but minimal English, there were undeniably strong links between them living in this isolated community and the world of Britain six thousand miles across the sea.

English influence in the town had been strong even before their arrival, for Oudtshoorn was part of the Cape Colony, a British possession until 1910. We had English schoolmasters and mistresses, English doctors (including the father of Pauline Smith) and lawyers and architects and many other British-born people in other walks of life.

It was not surprising that many of the new South Africans of those early days turned so readily and so gratefully towards Britain. After all Britain had given them refuge when they were forced by oppression in Europe to flee from their homes. Britain had given them the opportunity to start a new life for themselves away from racial and religious bigotry, in the wonderful Cape Colony. Britain was for them their great liberator, the tower of strength in a turbulent world, the provider of great new opportunities for themselves and their children.

Our own family links with Britain were strong. For many years, because of her failing eyesight, my mother had in our better-off days the services of a governess from England, Miss Emily Alden Brown, to look after her brood of nine. We were all devoted to her.

We had relatives in Birmingham and Newcastle. We had three cousins who in the halcyon days were sent from Oudtshoorn to school at Clifton Collge, Bristol. Two fought with the British forces in World War I. My eldest sister served as a nurse with the British Expeditionary Forces in France for the last two years of that war.

I personally owe a great debt of gratitude to the descendant of a British family at the Cape– the late Mr. Sam Wiggett, an attorney at Oudtshoorn (though not our family’s attorney) whose son Alan was in the same class with me throughout our school career. When I had passed the Junior Certificate examination my mother found it impossible to keep me at school any longer because she was unable to raise the fees required. So i was put to work as a clerk in a local accountant’s office.

I had not been there two days when in walked Mr. Wiggett. “Why aren’t you at school?” he inquired. On hearing my story he practically commanded me to go back to school, saying that he would arrange things for me.

He was as good as his word. Through his intervention and influence, the Masonic Education Fund (with, I suspect, personal help from Mr. Wiggett) paid my school fees and I went on to matriculate.

I wonder where I might have landed up in life but for this tremendous act of kindness?


Ostrich Feather Industry in South Africa

by George Aschman
from World’s Poultry Science Journal, ISSN 0043-9339
(1948) 4(2): pp. 114-115

The Oudtshoorn district in its heyday contributed substantial amounts to the national wealth through the export of ostrich feathers. In the ten years ending 1913 alone, the Cape’s export of ostrich feathers (the bulk of them from the Oudtshoorn district) amounted to just under £20,000,000.

The revival of the world market for ostrich feathers during the last two years once more holds great promise for the ostrich farmers who suffered so disastrously during the slump period. This lasted from 1913 until practically the end of World War II, when women once more began to look– and are still looking– favorably upon feathers as an article of adornment.

Mr. Hooper, an Oudtshoorn farmer, processes on his own farm the feathers grown by the ostriches running in his lucerne camps. He employs a number of girls from surrounding farms who are adept at making up the feathers into such marketable products as evening bags, flower novelties, evening capes, hat trimmings, and even feather bedspreads, each one of which uses up about 400 wing feathers.

Feather Factory

Another Oudtshoorn farmer, Mr. Jack Fish, whose feather factory in the town is today one of the town’s biggest industries, showed me delicate earrings made of feathers, also nightdress cases, handkerchief cachets, flower posies, and bridal bouquets. These last are made for big stores in those parts of the country where fresh flowers are difficult to obtain out of season. They are leased to brides in whatever pastel shades they want.

Both Mr. Fish and Mr. Hooper run ostriches on their farms. I do not know how many they have now, but when I was at Oudtshoorn two years ago Mr. Hooper had 300 birds with 24 breeding pairs. This flock was very much bigger than most other farmers had, but Mr. Hooper and his father found need to keep up their number of birds so as to be provided with the feathers required for their farm factory.

Most Birds

Quite the biggest ostrich feather farmer at Oudtshoorn is Mr. Max Rose, who at the age of 74 still puts in 16 hours a day on his farm and in running the business side of his farming activities. Mr. Rose grows lucerne, wheat, tobacco and peas on his farm Zeekoegat, which he bought during the gold standard depression for £12,000. This farm, previously owned by the late Mr. A.P. Velenski has 670 morgen under irrigation from both the Olifants and the Grobbelaars rivers, as well as 4,000 morgen of veld. From it Mr. Rose told me that he is now making between £15,000 and £20,000 a year.

Mr. Rose today runs between 2,500 and 3,000 ostriches. There was a time before the first World War when he ran just under 10,000 birds. Those were the days when he became known as the Ostrich King of South Africa. (The Farmer’s Weekly)