Doornfontein

‘WHAT IS IT??’

I’d been running to catch up with the elderly man before he passed through the security gate of his house.  He was wearing a yarmulke, and tzitzit were hanging out of his shirt.
‘Sorry, I’m trying to find the Lions Shul.  I believe it’s somewhere around here.’
The deer-caught-in-the headlights look faded a little.  He pointed to the south.
‘It’s two miles down Harrow Road and it no longer operates.’

Doornfontein’s Lions Synagogue, a candidate venue for my grandparents’ wedding, had been an optional extra.  I’d really wanted to see 45a Beit Street.  From an earlier encounter with Google Street View, I’d known what to expect: a three-storey brick warehouse with roller shutters at street level and wire mesh to its first-floor windows, with a sign proclaiming the address mounted over a pair of white double doors and another – JDF – painted in bold black capitals against a white background on an upper parapet.  From the building’s style, I could see that it had been there for several decades, way past the time when the site was occupied by a dwelling: my father’s birthplace and the first evidence of a street address – other than the Pretoria Gaol – that I have for Harry.

Doornfontein – or ‘thorn fountain’ – is a suburb immediately to the east of Johannesburg’s town centre.  It was laid out in 1889 and its streets planted to blue gum and cypress trees, giving the area a wooded atmosphere.  By 1892 its population was estimated at around 2,000[1], at a time when new immigrants were establishing themselves within the Reef’s economy.

In the decades that followed, Doornfontein, which had the added attraction of its own reservoir – a luxury in a thirsty landscape – became a ‘posh’ suburb sought out by reasonably well-off western European Jews.  Beit Street – named after the gold and diamond magnate – became its main shopping street.  A horse and buggy system provided ready access for residents to their businesses in the town centre, another reason for its popularity.[2]

As the community grew and consolidated, so did the threshold for ethno-specific facilities and services.  Schools, kosher butchers, delis and synagogues followed the march of middle-class, middle-income Jewish families to suburbs to the east and north of Johannesburg’s centre.  The period immediately after Union saw Doornfontein consolidate its position as the centre of middle-class Jewish life in Johannesburg, with the addition of new kosher facilities and several institutions that catered to the needs of disadvantaged members of the community.[3]  It prompted the diarist, H.W. Wedcliffe, who had come from an assimilated Edinburgh community, to remark that, ‘…for the first time in my life I see in Beit Street what a long Jewish business street is like.  Above each shop the placard of the owner is in Yiddish.  I hear Yiddish spoken wherever I go.  The situation is not what I am accustomed to from childhood: to be a Jew at home and a man abroad.  Here in an area now so close to me I experience the thrill of being a Jew anywhere and at any time.’[4]

Today’s Beit Street and the building that sits on the site of my father’s first home bear little resemblance to the charming streetscape of the early twentieth century.

During the Great Depression, much of Doornfontein was bought up by property speculators who turned it into slum housing for black workers.  After this population was relocated to the urban fringe, the slums were cleared and, in the mid 1930s, replaced with the industrial buildings one finds there today.  If black people have since returned to the area, the Jewish community has resolutely stayed away.  Which made my stumbling on the frightened man all the more extraordinary.  I wondered if he was the last of his kind in Doornfontein.

Perhaps the latest Census return could tell me.  I went onto Statistics South Africa’s website with high hopes.  I clicked on the ‘Find Statistics’ tab and put ‘City of Johannesburg’ into the ‘Search Municipality’ dialog box.  I drilled down to ‘Johannesburg’, having noted that Doornfontein was included in this wider area.  I clicked on ‘People’ and scrolled down the page expecting – as I would of the Australian Census – a table on ethnicity.  There wasn’t one.

I didn’t find the Lions synagogue either although I’m reliably informed it’s still there. I’m also told that there is more than one Jewish person still living in Doornfontein.

[1]              Cripps, E.A. Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886 – 1906 University of South Africa, 2012, p102.

[2]              Rubin, M. The Jewish Community of Johannesburg, 1886 – 1939: landscapes of reality and imagination, University of Pretoria 2004, pp 49-51.

[3]              Ibid. pp95, 99, 107.

[4]              Ibid, p97.

Anatomy of a name

Botha’s government lost no time in putting its stamp on race relations.  Within a year of the formation of Union preliminary drafts of the Natives’ Land Act, whose most grievous provision was to define less than 10% of the country where black people could buy or hire land, were being debated in the parliament.  In the same year – 1911 – the Mine Works Act was passed, which reserved certain jobs for white workers in mining and on the railways.

These laws, coming on the back of Union and numerous protocols that already restricted their movements and labour rights, were a further affront to black South Africans.  They did not go unnoticed.  On 8 January 1912, the South African Native National Congress[1] was formed in Bloemfontein, its charter to end apartheid and restore the franchise to black and mixed-race South Africans.  Among its leadership were Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a Columbia and Oxford-educated lawyer who had been called to the bar at Middle Temple in London before returning to South Africa on the eve of Union; and the author, Solomon Plaatje, whose observation of the siege of Mafeking was immortalised in The Boer War diary of Sol T Plaatje.

1912 was marked by significant improvements to railway infrastructure across South Africa, the naming of a small Free State farming town in honour of Emily Hobhouse – the welfare campaigner who had brought the plight of concentration camp internees to the British public – and the birth on 18 May of Walter Sisulu, a future founding member of the ANC Youth League and Secretary-General of the ANC, who would serve 26 years for treason on Robben Island.

On 4 November, Harry and Rose became parents to a boy, Philip Bernard Leopold.  My father used to make much of the fact that his first name meant ‘lover of horses’ – the stems of the Greek Philippos are philos (lover) and hippos (horse) – and, while he loved all forms of gambling, it was his patronage of two Cape Town turf clubs that I associate most with his betting on anything that moved.  If Dad’s first name was something of a departure from tradition – I am not aware of an ancestor named for the father of Alexander the Great or one of Christ’s apostles – his second name was more conventional.  Bernard, or Baruch in Hebrew, means ‘blessed’; the hoped-for son and heir, I daresay.  Leopold’s roots are Germanic, from the old German liut, meaning people, and bald, meaning brave: thus ‘bold among the people.’  In folklore, the first stem is attributed to the Latin, leo, or lion; this is an unlikely explanation as the Germanic people had no word for the king of the jungle.  The way I see it, my father was either named for a blessed horse-loving bold leader, or one who would be brave as a lion.  In defence of the latter, he did have a soft spot for cats.

The etymology of names aside, Dad’s birth – or more precisely, his birth certificate – gave me something I had hitherto not had: a street address for Harry.

[1]              In 1923 it would be rebranded as the African National Congress.