15 June 2008

Zimbabwe: A shtetl in Africa

In 1894, 21 Jewish traders and former expeditionary force soldiers gathered in the tent of Messrs. Moss & Rosenblatt to form a congregation in Bulawayo, a sun-blistered town of tin and wooden shanties with roads that were little more than sand paths.

Dwindling from 7,500 Jews in the 1970s - about 80% Ashkenazim - today's community numbers only about 200. A small number of them are residents of the Bulawayo retirement home, Savyon Lodge.

In a Jerusalem Post article by David E. Kaplan, a July 11 reunion for former Zimbabweans in Israel may exceed the number of their countrymen back home. Some 700 former Zimbabweans now live in Israel.

Dave Bloom describes his community as a "shtetl in Africa," and believed it was time to "preserve the past before nothing was left or no one alive to tell the story." He started collecting material which is available here.

Bloom visited archives, made copies of newspaper articles, meeting minutes and photos. He found recordings with early Jewish pioneers, unpublished manuscripts and much more. Of Polish ancestry, he was determined to document all the Jewish graves in Zimbabwe; so far more than 4,500 headstones have been published and former Zimbabweans have contributed more than 250 family biographies.

Englishman Daniel Montague Kisch was the first Jew to feature in the history of Rhodesia. By 1860, he had become a prospector. "and so joined the expedition of diggers, mainly Australian, on the wearisome trek to a golden will-o'-the-wisp on the Tati Fields." Another English Jew was Moss Cohen.

Before its posting on Bloom's Web site, very few had seen Rosenthal's monumental work, commissioned by the Rhodesian Jewish Board of Deputies in 1949. Since its completion, it attracted little else than dust. "Very few even knew of its existence. Gems were coming out of the woodwork," Bloom told Metro. People all over the world were dusting off the past to reveal a treasure trove of Jewish history in central Africa, much of which is now available on his site.

There were also Sephardic immigrants. From Morocco, Marvyn Hatchuel; Behor Benatar from Rhodesia via Rhodes, as was the Alhadeff family.

Wandering off, Hatchuel continued, his father found himself pounding the port area of Alexandria. A ship bound for east Africa grabbed his attention and on the spur of the moment he bought a ticket to Mozambique. Disembarking at Beira, Hatchuel had insufficient money to pay for any further passage. So the young Moroccan followed the railway track and walked the breadth of Mozambique until he crossed over into Rhodesia and completed the last stretch to Penhalonga. "I believe when Behor Benatar saw my father enter his store, he nearly collapsed. Anyway, he gave him a job. At night and under candlelight Dad would sit with a dictionary and a newspaper and in that way taught himself English," Hatchuel related.

The reunion of former Rhodesians and Zimbabweans will be a brunch at 9.30am Friday, July 11, at the Ra'anana Lawn Bowls Club.

Read the complete article here and for contact information and reunion details.

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