Procrastination with purpose

‘We don’t want you doing research in twenty years’ time.  You have to start writing the story around it.’
My creative writing lecturer had been aghast to hear that I’d been on Harry’s case since the late 1990’s.  She had a point.

Probing the past is a powerful drug, enhanced by the continual release of new information.  Every time an email arrives in my inbox advising of some hitherto unseen resource, the urge to sneak a peek is almost too much to resist.  I think I’m getting better at it.

Recently I’ve had a shift in thinking about where the research is taking me.  This came about after I finished reading Robert Eales’ book on Emily Hobhouse, A Compassionate Englishwoman.  There had to be a back story to an Englishman being in a Boer town occupied by British forces during a war.  So here I am about to do more research, but with one difference: I’m going to do it in South Africa.

It had started drizzling when I walked through the entrance of the Bathers Pavilion, a beach-side restaurant and café on Mosman’s Balmoral Beach.  I’d been delighted to discover that not only did Robert Eales and I live in the same town, we live in the same suburb.  I had a mental image of Robert from the head shot on his website.  The live version was shorter than I’d expected, but trim and with clear blue eyes.  I noticed that he had a small backpack with him.  We settled at a table near the windows that look out across Middle Harbour to North Head.  The rain had eased, but I knew it would be back later, and with insufficient notice.  Sydney is like that.

Ahead of my trip to South Africa, I wanted to probe Robert’s knowledge of Bloemfontein during the Anglo-Boer War and his contacts.  As he spoke, I took notes. He pulled out a map and pointed to the site of the Bloemfontein concentration camp; a large freeway, built with apparent disregard for the history of the area, has alienated a section of the site.  It is less than five kilometres from the town centre, closer in than I’d expected.  He didn’t think there was much to look at there; but if I wanted a better example of a concentration camp, I could go to Orange River Station, about 100 kilometres south of Kimberley.  There was a contingency, however: that camp was on private property and the entrance gate padlocked.  He gave me the name of the owner and suggested I contact her.

I offered to drive Robert home.
‘Thanks, but I’ll walk.’
When he told me where home was, I knew that he would be walking up Awaba Street – the venue for the annual Balmoral Burn – and up and down a few other ‘hills’ before arriving at his front gate.  He proffered his backpack; it must have weighed at least four kilos.  ‘That’s for extra effort,’ he said.

Back home, I looked for Orange River Station on Google Maps.  Having pinpointed Robert’s co-ordinates – ‘if you find the two silos, the camp is next door’ – I switched to Google Earth for a view of the landscape.  Apart from a few splotches of green along the river banks, the terrain was barren and desolate-looking.  I counted fewer than 20 houses in the small settlement that takes its name from the railway stop.

The only contact I could find for Rina Wiid, custodian of the Orange River Station concentration camp, was a phone number.  I called yesterday at around 11am, South African time.  The recorded message, in Afrikaans, implied that Rina was out and could the caller please leave a contact phone number.  I blurted out an email address, then thought how useless that was.  My husband called today and Rina picked up.  We’re booked in for a night in a few weeks’ time.

It may not be in Bloemfontein, but this camp site comes complete with imprints of where the tents stood and a swag of artefacts that Rina has harvested and put on display.  It is as close as I am going to get a sense of what it must have been like to live there.  Downstream is another special place: the old railway bridge, from which I inadvertently pitched my wallet into the Orange River in the 1960s.  All that is left are the original columns that supported the bridge.  But it would be good to see it again.

Help needed: please inquire within

I’ve tried to crack the nut of my grandparents’ record of marriage.  If this were a real nut, it would be a macadamia, an Australian native and the hardest of all nuts.  I’ve tried to smash it a few times, but I’m using the wrong tools.  All I get is shards.

What I know:

  • They married in Johannesburg, Transvaal Province, South Africa.
  • They married ‘out of community of property’.

What I am assuming:

  • As Jews, they married in a synagogue.  I’m on fairly safe ground here because my parents would not have been able to marry in an Orthodox synagogue without both sets of parents having done likewise.
  • The window within which they were likely to have married is circa 1904/5 – 1907, dated from the birth of their first child.
  • Marrying ‘out of community of property’ assumes that an ante-nuptial contract was drawn up and a copy filed somewhere.

Where I’ve searched:

  • Department of Home Affairs, the organisation that holds copies of birth, marriage and death certificates.  This has involved one year of wasted effort and money.  Now abandoned.
  • Johannesburg Beth Din, a Jewish ecclesiastical court that holds records of Jewish Orthodox marriage applications for the Johannesburg area.  Unfortunately, they can’t search their records without full date and synagogue of marriage.
  • Lions Synagogue, the oldest in Johannesburg.  They don’t answer email.
  • Latter Day Saints (LDS) Family History records.  This recommendation came from another South African researcher who suggested I could do it through a LDS family history centre in Sydney.  I’ve discovered that the LDS has extensive South African holdings, but their records for civil registrations (marriages) in Johannesburg stop at 1903.  There are records for Pretoria between 1879 and 1966, but none for the period 1903-1905.  On the ‘off-chance’, I ordered the film for 1906-09.  In my heart I knew that my grandparents’ names were unlikely to be among those on the film.  And they weren’t.
  • DeedsWeb.  This is an online search facility for the South African Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, a repository of registered deeds including ante-nuptial records.  To search their records, I need to register as a user and agree to their terms.  These include providing a copy of an identity document (no problem), proof of residence (no problem), contacts of two credit references (no problem), registration document in the case of a company (no problem) and copy of bank statement or cancelled cheque (very big problem).  They don’t answer email either.
  • My Deeds Search: this is a commercial service that offers document searches, including those searchable on DeedsWeb.  To get a copy of an ante-nuptial contract, I would need to hand over $40 and give the names of the parties (known), ID numbers (unknown and probably irrelevant 100 years ago) and where the contract was signed (unknown).

As you can see, I’ve not been idle.  Another option is trawling through old South African newspapers for a wedding announcement, but there doesn’t seem to be the equivalent of Trove in South Africa.  If there is, and I’ve missed it, please let me know.

Other than that, I’m in your hands.  Any ideas?



How to read candlesticks

We thought long and hard about getting a website for our company.  We did not delude ourselves that online advertising would usher in a flood of new business.  In the past, media marketing had attracted very little new work.  In all likelihood, business would continue to flow from the usual sources: referrals and repeat customers.

On the positive side, the website would be a virtual resume, a place where prospective clients could find out more about us, the work we did and our other clients.  A website would mean dispensing with updating brochures, a tedious and expensive chore.

On the negative side, there was the risk of increased exposure to trolls, tyre kickers and freeloaders.

We bit the bullet, hired a web designer and had a professional photographer take mug shots.  Our web designer, Sean – whose other life is one quarter of an Australian bluegrass band called The Pigs put together a professional looking site and added a device to screen out the trolls.  Several months later, we went live.  One freeloader managed to sneak in under my radar – swine! – after which I resolved to treat all unknown inquirers with scepticism.

I make exceptions for relatives.

In early March I noticed a number of hits to my blog from Canada.  This was followed by a web inquiry from one Gail Copeland who appeared to know enough about my family for me to strike up a conversation.   Gail’s relationship to me is through her connection to the Silverstone family, as per her comment below.

After a few exchanges involving family updates and the correct spelling of Tabetha’s name – she with whom I was so fixated during a visit to London in 1971 – we gravitated to the topic of Sabbath candlesticks.  We each have a set.  Gail knew exactly where hers had come from, their date and place of manufacture.  I knew nothing about mine other than that they had originated in my mother’s household.  And that sorely needed a polish.

I set about cleaning them before presenting them in public.  Corinthian columns and filigree work might be great to look at, but removing the dirt from their surfaces is time-consuming and finicky.

Half way through the clean up job (there are no prizes for guessing which candlestick I did first):


My work complete:


Gail had given me the links to various websites to help interpret the significance of the stamps at the base and underside of each candlestick.    IMG_3044

So my candlesticks were sterling silver.  But what did A3206 and .925 mean?  I put “sterling silver candlesticks A3206” into Google.  The first hit was a pair of Gorham sterling silver candlesticks manufactured in Providence, Rhode Island.  There was no photograph, so I googled “Gorham Corinthian candlesticks” and several other hits came up showing candlesticks looking very much like the ones on my dining room mantlepiece, with a manufacturing history spanning several decades. If I hadn’t been confused before, I certainly was now.

I let Gail know and she sent me a few more links to Gorham’s date code and American silver.  Several searches later, I was none the wiser about my candlesticks’ history.  Gorham proved to be a red herring and mostly because I was not reading the hallmarks correctly.

I turned to my sister – whose knowledge of antique silver is far greater than mine will ever be – for help.   She confirmed that the candlesticks had belonged to our maternal grandmother and dispelled any notion that they were of US manufacture.  This was because Gorham and other American makes are most often stamped “sterling” and nothing else.

It appears that my candlesticks were made in Britain.

IMG_3040British hallmarks are usually sequential, showing the initials of the artist or factory, a symbol of the guild, a lion or monarch’s head and a letter signifying the date (year) of manufacture.

This online source explains British hallmarks.

Unfortunately, the manufacturer’s symbol at extreme left is too worn to decipher.  Perhaps someone can help me out here.

The anchor symbol suggests a Birmingham manufacturer.  The lion symbol indicates the purity of the silver (.925).  The letter “k” at extreme right, written in lower case, suggests that the candlesticks were manufactured in 1909.

Getting a website wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Not just a burial place

Jewish burial customs require that the deceased be interred as soon as possible after death.   Taking this into account, the two likely locations for my great-grandfather’s grave were Liverpool and Sheffield.  Grimsby was a remote possibility due to the presence of siblings and father living there.

Michael Saltman had mentioned that by 2011, the Jewish community in Grimsby had shrunk to three people.   To paraphrase Avrom, the most vital institution of this once thriving community was now its cemetery, the synagogue having ceased to function.

I was impressed to read that the North East Lincolnshire Archives has more than two kilometres of shelving filled with 12,000 boxes of records dating from the 13th century.  If Israel had been buried in Grimsby, I figured that he would show up in these records.  He didn’t.

That left Sheffield and Liverpool.

I had stumbled across a blog devoted to the conservation of Walkley Cemetery in Sheffield.  I had known of a Jewish cemetery in that vicinity and contacted the blog author, Hugh, for more information.

While Walkley Cemetery is a Church of England Burial Ground, there is a small Jewish cemetery adjacent which is a separate entity.  Both cemeteries opened in 1880.  But Israel had died in 1876 so I could cross that one off my list.

Sheffield City Council

Bowden Street Cemetery (Sheffield City Council)

Hugh had copied a link to an earlier Jewish burial ground in Bowden Street.  According to the source of information on this link – one Neville Ballin, a Sheffield local writing in August 1999 – Bowden Street Cemetery opened in 1831 and closed in 1880.  In 1975 Sheffield City Council bought the Bowden Street Cemetery and 51 remains were re-interred in that year at the Sheffield Jewish Congregation Cemetery at Ecclesfield.  Most of the Bowden Street graves appeared to have been unmarked, so my expectations were low.

More recent information on the JCR-UK website inferred that Bowden Street Cemetery might have closed in 1874.  In that case, I could cross this cemetery off my list as well.  The remaining working Jewish cemetery in 1876 was at Ecclesfield, the oldest section having been acquired in 1872.

JCR-UK identifies 1,390 burials having occurred at the Jewish Community Cemetery at Ecclesfield between 1874 and 1997.  Of these, only a handful of names are obtainable online and none matches my great-grandfather.

I shall digress slightly here.  Mr Ballin had previously caught my eye in connection with a book he had written, “The early days of Sheffield Jewry”.  The book includes a list of all Jews extracted from Sheffield directories between 1852 and 1900.  A period during which my ancestors lived there.

I knew that Sheffield Council held a copy of this book, but I wanted my own.  The market for Mr Ballin’s book must have been thin, as none was for sale anywhere.  Nor was there a copy in any library close to home.

Cap in hand, I asked the Council if they would scan the book – it was only 64 pages long – and email it to me.  I would, of course, pay for any costs.

If the market for the Ballin book was thin, then so were the prospects of my request being met.  My correspondent advised that due to United Kingdom copyright law, I could be supplied with up to five percent or one chapter of the book.  I am still wondering how I was to select a particular five percent or book chapter, sight unseen.

Through a combination of perseverance and luck, I found a copy of the book at the Sheffield Jewish Congregation and Centre.  The woman who responded to my inquiry generously offered to check the book, as well as cemetery records, for mention of my ancestors.  They didn’t feature in either.

That left Liverpool.

Deane Road Cemetery was opened in 1837 and closed for regular burials in 1904.  It is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Liverpool and was recently restored.

Despite the cemetery being operational during the relevant period, the project manager for the restoration, Saul Marks, said that there was no record of Israel having been buried at Deane Road.  He added that there was another Jewish cemetery active in Liverpool in the 1870’s at Green Lane.  However, a fire many years before had destroyed the burial registers for this cemetery and the surviving substitute comprised a list of existing upright tombstones made in 1979.

Was destruction of records by fire becoming a recurring theme in my search?

A colleague of Saul’s, Arnold Lewis, contacted me separately to say that Israel’s name did not appear in the Green Lane cemetery database.  The list did not include many headstones that had been overturned and their inscribed names unable to be recorded.  Israel’s headstone may have been one of those.  However, as the cemetery was now completely overgrown and access barred, no-one could do a headstone check to confirm.  Arnold’s view was that if Israel had remained Jewish and within the community then it was almost certain that he would have been buried there.

I did not need to muddy the waters by adding that Liverpool was one of two, possibly three, possible last resting places for my great-grandfather.

With my long distance forensic investigations having failed to identify a burial place for my great-grandfather, I was left pondering the future of cemeteries in modern urban life.  Did they have a role to play?

Increasing funeral costs, weather effects and greater societal mobility have seen a growing trend towards cremation.  Apart from the financial incentive – cremation offers huge savings compared to a conventional burial – this option also absolves family members of any responsibility for maintaining a grave site.  And more than one generation out, the likelihood of a surviving relative performing this role is fairly slim.

Will cremation, however, signal the death knell of cemeteries?  I don’t think so.  Or, at least, I hope not.

For as long as religion, culture and tradition prevail, so are physical memorials to people’s memories likely to continue. Cemeteries are where many cultures still prefer to lay their loved ones to rest, the grave being one of the last physical connections with the deceased’s existence.  This is also a place where those who remain behind can make a spiritual connection with their relative.

But burial places have a much wider appeal.

Their role as tourist destinations is well established: witness, for example, the Taj Mahal, the grave of Elvis Presley, the Pyramids.

bonaventure_cem – 160

A few years ago, I found myself at the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.  This is the garden of “good and evil” referred to in John Berendt’s gothic tale of murder and magic, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Rows of neatly laid out graves are compartmentalised according to faith, public achievement (or notoriety) and war service.  Some of the characters who featured in Berendt’s book are also buried there.  The grave  sites are interspersed with lush growth and set under a canopy of oak trees that drip with Spanish moss.  What better place to enjoy one’s lunch sandwiches and ponder the meaning of life than in this atmosphere-laden burial place?  I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

Closer to home, Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney’s west is the largest burial ground in the southern hemisphere and one of the biggest in the world.  Its 283 hectare site is represented by 80 different religions and cultural groups, and has seen a million burials since it first opened in 1868.  Inhabitants include representation from Sydney’s business world, entertainers, politicians, equal rights campaigners, war heroes, underworld figures and the odd convict.  Rookwood’s grounds are worth a drive through, if for no other reason than to take in the sheer scale of the cemetery.

Cemeteries are important not only for the above-mentioned characteristics, but also as islands of tranquility in the midst of urban areas.

Newtown, close to the Sydney CBD, is one of my favourite places to visit.  Its centrepiece is King Street, the longest and most complete commercial precinct of the late Victorian and early Federation period in Australia, and listed on the Register of the National Estate.  The colonnade of buildings which line King Street house a variety of restaurants, cafe’s, pubs, bookshops, entertainment venues and antique dealers.  There is a constant hum of activity on King Street and at times, it can be overwhelming.


Just one block back are the 19th century remains of the Camperdown cemetery.  Meandering amongst the graves, often with the birds as one’s only companion, it’s hard to believe that you are in the inner city.

Not having found the grave of my great grandfather was not the disappointment I thought it would be.  It was more reflective of the reality that, over time, some things survive and others don’t.

And for those that do survive, their legacy is there for future generations to appreciate, interpret, value and enjoy.  For there is no need to have a personal tie to a place in order to connect with it on another level.

Reading between the lines

Wilson: “You’re forging my name on prescriptions again.”
House: “No. Because what you just said implied I stopped.”

(House, Season 7, Episode 23)

It is evident from my mother’s letters that Avrom initiated contact.  The letters, written in 1996 in her familiar hand, show that she knew as little about my father’s ancestors as did anyone else in my immediate family at that time.

I must have given my mother a lead because I am mentioned as having done so.  This was my school friend who had compiled a family tree which overlapped with ours.  Reference is also made to my paternal aunt, by then close to 90 years old, as a possible source of help.  Whether there was any correspondence between her and Avrom is something I have yet to discover.

The letters contain a précis of children, partners and grandchildren, and their progression and achievements.

I feel honoured to have rated a mention, albeit my occupation is cited as “computer expert”.  This does not entirely surprise me.  To my parents, urban planning was far removed from the family staples of medicine and commerce.  So even if my mother did not know how to use a computer, she at least recognised one when she saw it.


To help draw meaning from my great grandfather’s (Israel) death certificate, I have turned to a tutorial on the interpretation of death certificates in England and Wales.

Column 1 shows where the death occurred and column 7 shows the address of the informant.  There is, however, nothing which shows the specific address of the deceased.

Where a person has died away from home and the death is registered by someone other than a wife or husband of the deceased – in this case, by a cousin (A. Gordon) – then that suggests that the place of death is not the home address of the deceased.

Israel was a “commercial traveller” or “hawker”.  It is quite possible that he could have visited Liverpool on business at the time of his death.  In fact, the family history  (To be buried in Grimsby) suggests that this was indeed the case.

When Israel married on 7 July 1875, his age was given as 20. When he died on 26 November, 1876 – more than 16 months later – his age was shown as 19.

This anomaly could have arisen for various reasons.  The informant – the cousin – might not have known his true age.  It is also possible that Israel may not have known his age as there is no record of his birth in Lithuania.  Or he may have “adjusted” his age at some point during his life to suit a particular purpose.

The death was certified by a doctor.  Such a person would only have been qualified to sign the death certificate if he had attended the deceased in his last illness and had either seen him within 14 days of his death, or after his death.  This was to avoid having to notify the coroner.  The doctor certified that the cause of death – inflammation of the bowels – had lasted for what looks like 13 days so it would seem that he had attended Israel for almost two weeks prior to his death.

After his death, my great-grandfather would have been buried and a tombstone erected to mark his brief life.  Inscribed on the tombstone would have been, among others, reference to his parents, wife and child.

Somewhere there was a grave.

Finding Avrom

I read “To be buried in Grimsby” again.  On the cover page was a short citation which I had previously noted, but glossed over in my hurry to read the content.


With fresh eyes came new insight.  In small print, I saw the name, Michael Saltman.  The nit-picker in me also noted the misspelling of Lincolnshire.

I put Michael’s name into Google.  Four matches came up: two in the legal profession, one in the financial services sector, and a university professor.

For no particular reason, I eliminated the first three and concentrated on the academic.

The first hit for a person fitting this description was an honorary fellow in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.  This was tantalisingly close to home!  The only available detail, however, was an email address and I had a feeling that he may have moved on from there.

I drifted towards Facebook.  A professor emeritus in anthropology at Haifa University, complete with head shot showing a man in his  late 60’s or early 70’s, was on Facebook.  His educational background included the City of London School, a prestigious boys’ school whose origins date back to the 1500’s.

A pattern had started to emerge here.  Avrom had grown up in England and had migrated to Israel.  Perhaps Michael had followed him…

I sent Michael a private message, sat back and waited for a reply.  None came.  Facebook had connected me with many persons from my past, but this was not going to be one of those occasions.

In the interim, I had found a Haifa University email address.  The response to my inquiry was swift and confirmatory, with a wry comment implying that I had done well not to wait on a reply through Facebook.  He had been in Melbourne, but was now back in Israel.  More importantly, he was Avrom’s brother.

But he bore sad tidings: Avrom had passed away some years ago.  I had found him, albeit it too late.

It was not all bad news, however.  Michael had taken over as family historian and had in his possession all of Avrom’s papers.  Unfortunately the photo of my father taken in London in 1936 had not survived, but there were a few other items from which I could draw much consolation.

The first of these was a photo of the gravestone in Grimsby of my great great-grandfather, Zelig (also known as Azriel).


I do not read Hebrew and have relied upon a literal translation of the Hebrew text cited in the family history:

“Unto his old age he acquired righteousness for the benefit of his soul.  Here is buried the aged, God-fearing Rabbi Azriel son of Rabbi Judah Arie, good and kind in his deeds, who departed to his world at the age of eighty on Sunday, the ninth day of Nisan in the year (5)660” (source: To be buried in Grimsby)

This reveals my oldest known ancestor, a great great great-grandfather who may have been alive at the close of the eighteenth century.

Apparently, there is no evidence to support the claim of a rabbinical title, either for the father or the son; at best, the reference indicated some level of Jewish learning.

The other items included an article in a Russian Hebrew newspaper, Ha-Melitz,  describing Kruky in 1894, a contemporary view of this town framed by Michael after his visit there in 2011, and his moving tribute to his late brother.  There were also copies of my great grandfather’s death certificate, as well as letters my mother had written to Avrom in 1996.

The two descriptions of Kruky more than a hundred years apart were sufficiently bleak to make me never want to visit this place.

The remaining items I have revisited several times.

Every cloud has a silver lining

We visited Israel in 1981 as part of a four-month trip across Europe and North America.


Safed (

Two days into the Israeli leg, we met up with a university friend living in Safed, an ancient hill town in the north of the country. It is a beautiful and deeply spiritual place.

We had left the bulk of our belongings in an hotel in Jerusalem and were travelling with the bare essentials: a change of clothing, a few cosmetics and cameras to capture special moments.  We were also carrying a sizeable sum in travellers’ cheques, onward flight tickets and our passports.  In these were stamped visitors’ visas for Canada and the USA and – most importantly – our Australian residency visas.

After a tour of Safed’s old quarter, we made for the coast.  Near the Lebanese border, our friend suggested we stop at a beach to look at a Phoenician ruin.  We parked the car and opened the boot to retrieve a camera, then walked the few hundred metres to the ruin.

We returned to the car park 10 minutes later to find that the boot had been forced and emptied of its contents.  A neighbouring car with a gun showing on the dashboard had also been targeted.  The thieves ignored a United Nations car parked nearby.

Our friend drove us to the nearest police station where we made our statement to disinterested police.  They were far more concerned about the gun theft because now – in their words – some “Lebanese terrorist” was wandering around the district with a firearm.  With a shrug of their shoulders that told us that they had written off our stolen goods, we were shown the door.

It was a quick and brutal lesson in the importance of securing one’s belongings.  The experience would have been far worse if not for a cousin living in Ra’anana who generously provided us with shelter while we went about replacing our stolen goods.

After a week of dealing with embassy officials, travel agents and banks, we had enough documentation to leave the country.  With our departure, the curse of the Israeli visit was largely expunged, although we had some tense moments reinstating our Australian residency visas in London.

Towards the end of 2008, I received an unsolicited email from Israel.  The author lived in Ra’anana and, as I had surmised, had found me through my cousin.  He was working on his as well as his wife’s family tree and hoped that I would help fill in a few gaps for them.  The bait was his connection to me through my paternal grandmother, Rose Kantor.  I swallowed it.

Through this new connection, I immediately acquired another set of great-grandparents, Wulf and Sarah Kantor, and another great great-grandfather, Abram Zelik Kantor.  I could now claim two Sarah’s for great-grandmothers and two Zeliks (Zeligs) for great great-grandfathers – how coincidental was that?  My absurd self fleetingly pondered that Woody Allen’s 1983 movie about a nondescript man who changes his appearance to that of the people around him could have drawn inspiration from people like my ancestors…

My newly found Israeli relative wrote again in early 2011 to say that he had found a “booklet” written by Avrom Saltman.  He knew that Avrom had migrated to Israel in the 1950’s and that he had a brother, Michael.  He had also made contact with Avrom’s nephew, whom I deduced must be Michael’s son.

Was I about to get another opportunity to find Avrom……?

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.