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.


2 thoughts on “The road less travelled…..

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