The road less travelled…..

…..contains the occasional detour.

If a migration date had stumped me, then my grandparents’ marriage became the new obsession.

I hadn’t thought to ask my father for details when he was alive.  All I could rely upon was my best guess:

  • Ceremony: most likely religious, therefore in an Orthodox synagogue (Progressive Judaism had not yet come to South Africa).
  • Date: sometime after Harris had completed his studies in 1898 and (hopefully) before the birth of their first child, my aunt Julia, in 1906.
  • Location: possibly in the former Transvaal and maybe in Johannesburg.  Why?  Only because my father had been born in that city and spent his childhood and some of his early adulthood there.

An eight year window for a possible date…..

In the normal course of events, one would apply to the South African Department of Home Affairs for copies of birth, marriage and death records.

None of my leads had mentioned this organisation.  I guessed this was due to Home Affairs’ reputation for poor customer service and lengthy document processing times.  I also had my brother-in-law’s experience to confirm this.

A resident and citizen of South Africa, he had applied more than a year prior to Home Affairs for a vault copy of his birth certificate (held in Pretoria) only to be told that it had been destroyed in a fire.

On further investigation by another party, it appeared that there had indeed been a fire in a Home Affairs building which had also destroyed documents.  But the fire had occurred in Durban.


For those who are unfamiliar with South African geography, Durban is some 600 kilometres away from Pretoria.  The fire would have had to have been of extraordinary power and accuracy to have travelled all the way to a designated building in Pretoria.

The prospect of my approaching Home Affairs from half way around the world did not appeal.  Someone else could handle inquiries of that organisation on my behalf at a later date.  That is, unless I could get the information elsewhere.

One of my contacts had referred me to Saul Issroff, an eminent genealogist with a special interest in South African Jewish emigration and migration.  Saul had volunteered the Office of the Chief Rabbi in Johannesburg as a possible source of marriage information, but cautioned me not to expect a reply.    To my surprise, I got one, but that was the sum of it.  This Office suggested that I could try the local Beth Din instead.

The Beth Din is a rabbinical court that deals in religious divorce, conversions to Judaism, kosher certification of restaurants, among others.

My inquiry was short and to the point: I was looking for a date for my grandparents’ marriage.

A wide-ranging reply came back.  Yes, there were Jewish Orthodox marriage application records for the Johannesburg area and its environs.  These records could be searched on my behalf for a fee in the range of R300-R800 (A$35-$90) or more.  I was ready to write a cheque there and then.

But there was a catch.  I had to provide details of full names and surnames of the people, the date of marriage and the synagogue of marriage.

And so ended my dialogue with the Beth Din.  Or so I thought at the time.

A more realistic aim was to retrieve some or all of the 49 documents in the National Archives.

For that I needed a private researcher.

The power of networks

Owen Kinahan could not shed any light on my inquiries.  Instead, he introduced me to his network of contacts from which more progressively unfolded like pieces of origami.

Howard Phillips, a professor of Historical Studies at UCT and author of The History of the University of Cape Town 1928-1948: The Formative Years, suggested that I visit the Western Cape Archives in Cape Town to see if they held a death notice and will for Harris, adding that this presumed that he had died in Cape Town or nearby.

Owen had also copied Lesley Hart, Manager of Special Collections at the UCT Library, in correspondence.

The mention of “Special Collections” jogged my memory.  As a student in the 1970’s, I had spent many hours reading and copying texts from this part of the library, generously assisted by one of its senior librarians, Tanya Simons, whose sister, Mary, had also taught one of the undergraduate courses I took in African studies.

The Simons sisters come from an illustrious South African political family.  Their father, Professor Jack Simons, lectured in African studies at UCT from 1937 until 1965, making generations of students aware not only of African society and government, but also of the inequities of the apartheid system.  His wife, Ray Alexander was active in the trade union movement, and both were closely associated with the South African Communist Party.  Ray stood for and was elected to one of three native representative seats in the white parliament in 1954, but was prevented from taking her seat due to a banning order served on the day.  A succession of banning orders culminated in their exile in 1965 and they spent the next 25 years mostly in Zambia, returning in 1990 to a South Africa in the process of dismantling apartheid.

During their period of absence, their daughters had remained in Cape Town.  Both were  subject to banning orders which restricted their movements and places they could visit.  At the time this seemed a rather unfair treatment of the Simons’ sisters, having less to do with how they went about their daily lives and more to do with who their parents were.  An example of a banning order is here.

Lesley Hart had some interesting news for me.  In the library’s Manuscripts and Archives, she had found evidence that Harris had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1898.  This was published in the calendar of the University of the Cape of Good Hope which was the examining body.  At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the distinction between this body and the South African College; that would come later.

Lesley had also copied Lionel Smidt, head of the University’s Administrative Archives, where student records for this period were kept.  She gave an undertaking that he would reply to me directly with further details.  I instinctively knew that those records contained information that would be important to my search.  But engaging Lionel in conservation would prove to take longer than I had anticipated.

Networking my way to a new lead


A couple of years ago I attended a networking event run by a group affiliated with LinkedIn.

By the time I arrived at the venue – a waterfront CBD location near the Sydney Opera House – it was packed with people.  Several tight circles had already formed, heads nodding earnestly to each other.

I moved to the bar and ordered a soft drink.  Plates of finger food cruised by on platters borne by stylishly clad waiters; prawns, chicken satays, mini-lamb chops, Thai fish cakes, buffalo cheese quiches, frittata wedges for the vegans.  I helped myself to a passing prawn, pondering how best to inveigle my way into one of the human laagers.

As I considered the content of my opening line, a voice rose above the rest to brief  us on the format for the evening.  Everyone was to spend two minutes chatting to another person, sharing information about each other’s business, their professional backgrounds and business goals.  The aim of this exchange was to expand business contacts which would – hopefully – lead to referrals and new business.  I was about to be introduced to ‘speed networking’.

While I did not strike it lucky on the night – I don’t know that anyone can realistically expect things to happen that quickly – the event did bring home to me the power of making connections.  And because the hidden job market means that about 50% of jobs are not advertised, making the right connections becomes even more important when looking for work.

So how was I going to network my way into the administrative fortress of UCT?  Who did I know who could “link me in”?

In the course of conversation with my sister-in-law – a UCT alumna like me – I casually mentioned my dilemma.  She suggested that I contact someone called Owen Kinahan.

This name had a vague ring from the past.  I Googled it and found that Owen’s credentials included history teacher, UCT alumni officer and UCT Council member, Cape Town City councillor, public relations consultant and conservationist.

I wasted no time in contacting him.  And he wasted none in replying.

Adventures of a cold caller: part 2


In 1976, Stephen Hawking had calculated that once a black hole formed, it started losing mass by radiating energy and that when the black hole evaporated, all information inside it was lost.  Almost 30 years later, in 2004, he famously recanted: he now suggested that black holes might, after all, allow information within them to escape.

Where Professor Hawking’s black hole theory might have leaked information like a compartment in the Titanic, my forays into various information vaults have often met with watertight conditions!


Source: State Library of Queensland, via the Nonno Diaries (

Finding a record of Harris’ passage to South Africa was always going to be a challenge.  For one, I had a large window within which to find a possible emigration date, that is, 1881 to 1895.  Further, as outbound passenger lists from British ports prior to 1890 have not survived, if he had left before this date then it would be almost impossible to pin down the date of his journey to South Africa.  On the other hand, it was quite possible that he had departed after 1890.  I’ve searched the available departure records from 1890 – as well as the Hamburg and Bremen lists, in the vague and probably unrealistic hope that Harris might have diverted via these ports – and have found nothing of interest.

I decided to follow up on documents held in the National Archives in Pretoria.  The Archives’ website has an automated information retrieval system (NAAIRS) which allows one to search for records by name.  I found no fewer than  49 records against the name “Saltman”, more than half of them on my grandfather.

I’d learned from a genealogy chat board that the archivists at NAAIRS might be unwilling to retrieve records for me, but I made an approach anyway.  The folks on the chat board were right.  I received a fairly perfunctory response from NAAIRS advising that staff were too busy to carry out research on behalf of people and I was best to contact a private researcher to do this for me.  No names were offered.

Wanting some respite from cold emailing, I turned my attention to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).  Bubbles had given me the name of their archivist, Naomi Musiker.  I learned from her that the SAJBD had no records for the nineteenth century, the consolation prize being a few snippets about my two siblings’ swimming prowess and my brother and sister-in-law’s triplet daughters.  Nothing new there…

SACS school has a well-established “Old Boys” network with the name of a contact – Sandy Edwards – prominently displayed on its website.  In my email to Sandy I would mention that my brother was an Old Boy, just to reinforce the connection.  Her reply was swift and cheery; yes, she knew my brother who was in regular contact with the Old Boys Union.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that records on old boys only went back as far as 1905-06.  She suggested I contact the University of Cape Town Alumni office for further information.  Well, UCT was on my list anyway, so now was as good a time as any to initiate an inquiry.

UCT employs about 4,500 staff members of whom more than half are administrative or support staff.  Somewhere in and among them had to be a person who could help me substantiate Harris’ attendance record.

Without any leads, I emailed my request to the alumni@uct address.  Anyone who has directed email to a generic address – info@ is another example – will know that this carries with it the risk of a nil or, at best, tepid response.  Suffice to say that I have long since given up on expecting alumni@uct to reply to my email.

If I wanted information from that institution, then I would have to try another approach.