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South African Landsmanshaftn Records

By Ada Green, April 1999

Whether in South Africa or America or elsewhere, a landsmanshaft was an organization formed by people from the same town, shtetl, or region, of Eastern Europe. One of its main purposes was social, to enable the immigrants to associate with people whom they knew in the Old Country and to make them feel more at home in their new environment. The landsmannschaft also provided emotional and financial support to its members in the form of sick benefits, interest-free loans, aid to grieving families following a death, as well as financial aid to those who remained behind back home. In late 19th and early 20th century New York, one often became a member of a landsmannschaft because it owned one or more burial plots. This was an alternative to purchasing an expensive cemetery plot. Each landsmannschaft would have a chevra kadisha (burial society) whose responsibility was to purchase, maintain and sell individual graves.

The South African landsmannschaft did not perform a similar burial function because each South African Jewish community formed its own chevra kadisha and benevolent societies, caring for all the Jews and thus making it unnecessary to have landsmannschaft plots. For instance, the chevra kadisha for WestPark Cemetery in Johannesburg is the Jewish Helping Hand and Johannesburg Jewish Helping Hand and Burial Society, P.O. Box 93280, Yeoville 2143, South Africa, Tel. (011) 487-3480/4, Fax (011) 487-1318. These societies were well organized and financed and either bought the necessary land, or were more likely allocated it by the local municipal societies. In South Africa it was not necessary to purchase a burial plot in advance, unless one wanted to be buried next to a previously deceased spouse. According to several SA genealogists that I asked, perhaps another reason why people weren’t concerned about advance purchase of burial plots was due to a lower Jewish population.

I was familiar with YIVO’s landsmannschaft archive in New York, which contains materials from over 800 societies, including records for charity and fund-raising activities, anniversary banquet celebrations, membership lists and cemetery maps. These are genealogically useful documents because not only do many of them contain names of members, but the souvenir anniversary booklets frequently contain their photographs. For instance, YIVO’s file on the now defunct Kroker Benevolent Association for the town of Krakes, Lithuania, is 5 inches thick. It is listed in the YIVO Archives Guide compiled and edited by Fruma Mohrer and Marek Web as containing minutes for 1910, 1916 and 1938; financial records; membership records; a chart of the members’ cemetery plots 1931-68; announcements, speeches, invitations 1910-77; photographs; and miscellaneous documents from Krakes and the United States. Admittedly, most of this material is in Yiddish though so I couldn’t appreciate the full benefit of it.

I was hoping to find similar material in South Africa, in particular a record that would give me the names of all the people from my particular shtetls who had belonged to a South African landsmannschaft. On 3 Nov 1997 I posted the following message on the Keidan SIG Digest:

"I am planning on doing genealogical research in Johannesburg during the week of Jan. 8-15, 1998, pertaining to my Lithuanian shtetls of SHATT (Seta) and KROK (Krakes). Can someone in Jo’burg please contact the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for me to find out whether they will be open that particular week and what its days and hours of operation will be? In addition, I am most interested in finding out if they have landsmannschaft records for the Shater & District Benevolent Society as well as for a similar society for Krok. I don’t know what the name of the Kroker landsmannschaft would be, but it would probably be something similar to the now defunct Kroker Benevolent Association in New York."

While I received several responses about the opening hours, no one was able to give me an answer about the specific records that I requested. When I finally visited the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (1 Annerley Office Park, 7 Annerley Road, in the Parktown section of Johannesburg) on 8 January 1998, I soon found out early in the day that they had nothing for a Kroker society and the one document that they had for the Shater Society contained nothing that could provide me with the names of its former members. At that point, I thought the only productive thing left for me to do would be to find out exactly what towns in South Africa had had landsmannschaften and what type of material might still exist about them at the Jewish Board of Deputies.

The first thing that I did was look up the 1929 edition of The South African Jewish Yearbook in their library, which contained the following seventeen South African landsmannschaften, most of which are for Lithuanian shtetls:

Chevra Mishna and Gemara D’Poswohl - established 1926; 104 members

Congregation of Ponewez Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society - established 1896; 100 members

Esras Achim D’Plungian - established 1904; 60 members

Hebrew Order of David Kurland and Riga (Lifland), Lodge No. 20 - established 1914; 80 members

Kedan Helping Hand and Benevolent Society - established 1904; 85 members

Kelmer Benefit Society - established 1910; 150 members

Kovno Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society - established 1911; no. of members not listed

Kroze Benefit Society - established 1905; 50 members

Lutzin Resitza United Benevolent Association - established 1905; 60 members

Polish Hebrew Benevolent Association - established 1920; 283 members

Poshwohl Friendly Benefit Society and Poshwohl Hebrew Congregation - established 1904 and 1922 respectively; 60 members

Schavlaner Sick Benefit and Friendly Society - established 1911; 50 members

Schawler Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society - established 1910; 100 members

Tels Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society and Special Distress Fund - established 1907; 160 members

United Hebrew Polish Society - established 1911; 80 members

United Minsk Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society - established 1908; 60 members

Wilner Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society - established 1912; 50 members

Then, I checked the 1959/60 edition of The South African Jewish Yearbook, which in comparison to the earlier 1929 yearbook, now contained the following twenty landsmannschaften:

Anykster Benefit Society

Birzer Society

Dwinsk Society

Keidan Helping Hand Society

Kelmer Benefit Society

Kovno Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society

Krakinover Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society

Kupisker Benevolent Association

Kurland Friendly Society

Minsk Benefit and Benevolent Society

Plungianer Esras Achim

Poneves Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society

Rakishker Sick Benefit Society

Schavlaner Sick Benefit and Friendly Society

Shater and District Benevolent Society

Telsh Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society

Utianer Society

Wilner Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society

Zagare Benefit Society

From looking at these two lists, it is apparent that there are societies for nine towns listed in 1959/60 that didn’t have one 30 years earlier, and there are seven societies listed in 1929/30 that don’t have one in 1959/60. The names of the societies changed slightly also. For instance, what was known as the United Minsk Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society in 1929 was later known as the Minsk Benefit and Benevolent Society in 1959. There may have also been other societies that came and went between 1929 and 1959 but are not in either listing, such as the Malater & District Society, which had a 20th anniversary in 1955, yet might not have existed long enough to have had a 25th.

Now I was at the point where I could try to find out as much information about the contents of their landsmannschaften collection as possible. The librarian, Sylvia Tuback, was very kind and helpful and brought up six boxes of material for me from the cellar, which she said was all they had. I then spent several hours going through all the boxes and cataloging what they contained.

Unfortunately, there was no box labeled A-F, which would have contained info on the Anykster, Birkzer and Dwinsk societies listed above.

The first box I looked at, labeled G-K, contained the following:

Kurshaner Society: application for admission to membership

(This Kurshaner Society was a separate grouping of loose papers separate from the other files that followed in this box.)

File 1

Grodno Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society:
notice of 11th annual general meeting, March 2, 1941

Keidaner Sick Benefit and Benevolent Association:
3 copies of 50th Anniversary ball souvenir programme - May 30, 1950

Krakenowa Society:
3 page history (from 1901-1987) dated Feb. 18, 1987 written by Cherry Gell, a third generation South African also correspondence in Yiddish from Krakinowa 1911

Kovno Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society:
Finds and Recommendations by Commission of Inquiry - Dec. 1943

File 2

Krakenowo Society:
2 copies of "Krakenowo, Our Town in Lithuania - The Story of a World That Has Passed" - reminisces collected to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Krakenowo Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society" - 1901-1961 (written 1961)

A second box, which if I recall correctly was not labeled, contained societies beginning with the letters M-S, as follows:

Malater and District Society:
20th anniversary booklet 1935-1955 (2 copies)
Constitution, Rules and Regulations - 1935
Questionnaire - 1957
Photograph & notes

Plungianer Society:

Ponevez Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society:
Golden Jubilee booklet - 1899-1949

Poswohl Friendly Benefit Society:
Constitution and Rules minutes book, in Yiddish, which begins in 1909 also 180+ year old document in Yiddish written by the grandfather of Reb Moishe Aharon Rosen (who died a few years prior to 1968 at the age of 95-100)

Poswohl Hebrew Congregation:

Rakisher Society:
a book, mostly in Yiddish, containing presumably minutes plus correspondence and newspaper clippings in English and Yiddish (from both the Yiddish & Anglo-Jewish press)

Schavlaner Sick Benefit & Friendly Society:
1st Folder:
constitution of Rules & Regulations
certificate of Jerusalem Volume "Jerusalem Restored" inscribed by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies
- Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund

2nd Folder:
Income and Expenditure Account

Shavler Benefit Society:
3 other large folders containing correspondence and document files

For those of you who are researching Minsk, the last four boxes I examined are devoted exclusively to the United Minsk Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society. Not only was this the largest file by far, but the membership list contained in the first of its four boxes is the most genealogically useful document out of everything that I looked at that day.

Minsk: Box 1
File 1: Special Fund Committee - minutes 1944-1946
File 2: Special Fund - Income & Expenditure - 1944-1947
File 3: Correspondence (in Yiddish)
File 4: Special Committee Correspondence (including membership list with addresses circa 1944)
File 5: Correspondence 1944-1946
File 6: Correspondence 1946-1948

Minsk: Box 2
two minutes books - 1916-1922 and 1922-1927 (partly in Yiddish)
day book - 1911 (mostly in Yiddish)

Minsk: Box 3
two minutes books
1934 - 1937

Minsk: Box 4
three minutes books

Unfortunately, as with the societies beginning alphabetically with A-F, there were no boxes for societies beginning with the letters T-Z, including Telsh, Utianer, Wilner, and Zagare. Since we are all our own best researcher, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps I had the opportunity to do a thorough search myself these missing boxes would have surfaced. Or perhaps these two boxes could still be at the old office of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in downtown Johannesburg.

That office, which is not in a secure area, is no longer open, and is being used only as a warehouse to store material that the current building has no room for. The files that are stored there are retrievable only by messenger. Perhaps one of you in South Africa might want to check into this further.

In addition to these just catalogued boxes, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies also contains a card file, which is mainly a newspaper clippings index. However, when I looked up in the card file several of the towns that are mentioned in the South African Jewish Yearbook listings above, I noticed that some of the towns had box numbers including the Keidaner Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society (804.31), Kupisker (800), Shater and District Benevolent Society (800), Telsh (801.16), Utianer (800), and Wilner (801.13).

It appear that these files are amongst those stored in the old downtown Johannesburg building. The file on the Shater and District Benevolent Society for my shtetl of Seta had been retrieved by advance request and it turned out to be a 10 page document consisting of the society’s Constitution and Rules. I’m sure that the other files listed in the preceding paragraph were also predominantly administrative in nature as well and not genealogically useful, like the vast majority of the landsmannschaft files on the premises.

One of my Seta co-researchers, who now lives in Israel but who spent most of his life in Johannesburg, has attempted in the past several years to inquire from the widows or descendants of former officers of the Shater and District Benevolent Society as to whether any of them have the record books for the society. Unfortunately, nothing has of yet come to light (and hope seems to be fading that anything will). My co-researcher sent me a photocopy of a page from what looks like a souvenir anniversary booklet of the Shater and District Benevolent Society, including photos of the 8 men making up the Executive Committee in 1951-52, of which his late uncle was the chairman. This indicates that there would have had to have been other printed material on this society somewhere. The question is where. I would recommend that if you are interested in a particular society, try to track down an old timer in South Africa with roots in your particular shtetl to see if he or she can provide you with any information or documentation on its landsmannschaft or otherwise knows of someone who can.

One more point I would like to mention here is that there may have been other Lithuanian landsmannschaften that may have existed, but which are not listed in either the South African Jewish Yearbook nor are on record at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. For instance, I was told by someone with roots in my shtetl of Krakes that 30 years ago there actually was a Kroker society in South Africa. However, there is no written evidence of it as perhaps it was never legally incorporated. On my next trip to South Africa, which will hopefully be next year, I intend to pursue this matter further by linking up with people with roots in Krakes whom I didn’t know about when I was there in 1998.

In conclusion, the results of the landsmannschaften research that I did at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies are disappointing for not only are many societies’ records incomplete or missing, but one cannot derive much genealogical value out of those files that do exist.

This is far different from my experience with YIVO’s collection of US landsmannschaften documents where more of the files and documents housed in NY actually contain central genealogical resources, especially people’s names. There seems to be a greater concentration of minute books, constitution, rules and regulations, bylaws, financial statements and other items of an administrative nature amongst the available South African landsmannschaft material than there is in the YIVO landsmannschaft collection. At the beginning of this article I mentioned an important difference between the US and South African landsmannschaften: in America one of the first things that a society did was purchase a burial plot for its members, whereas in South Africa, there are no landsmannschaft cemetery plots. As a result, that is one less major genealogical resource that one can depend on right there.

Thus, I would suggest that this material about landsmannschaften societies in South Africa should primarily be used as a means to an end in continuing to locate more genealogical useful material in private hands, and not as an end in itself.

about the author
Ada Green

Ada Green is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in history and Judaic Studies. She has been researching her family history since early 1993, and has done genealogical research in Israel, Vienna, Ukrainian Galicia, Lithuania, Scotland, and South Africa, as well as numerous states in the USA.  She is a member of the JGS (New York) and was a former member of its Executive Council where she was Chair of its Cemetery Project. Her  proudest accomplishment was she single-handedly collected the gravestone data on over 75,000 burials that she submitted to the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), including all known New York area Litvak landsmanshaftn plots for Ariogala, Babtai, Kvedarna, Dieveniskes, Gargzdai, Jonava, Jurbarkas, Kaunas, Kedainiai, Kelme, Krakes, Kraziai, Krekenava, Lida, Raseiniai, Rietavas, Seredzius, Seta, Siluva, Sveksna, Taurage, Vilijampole, Vilkija, and Ukmerge. With the assistance of Lithuanian guide Regina Kopilevich, Ada indexed the Jewish cemeteries in Kedainiai, Krakes and Vandziogala, Lithuania.   In 2006 Ada received the IAJGS Achievement Award for Outstanding Contribution to Jewish Genealogy via the Internet, Print, or Electronic Product for her cemetery work.  Ada also indexed synagogue memorial plaques for the JewishGen Memorial Plaques Project, most notably those in Beacon, Hudson, Kingston, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie, NY.

Ada has taken 5 research trips to Lithuania and has given lectures on that subject in New York, South Africa, and Israel. Ada spoke on Lithuanian Jewish Genealogical Research at the 19th Annuali JGS Summer Seminar in New York on August 1999.  She has written articles for Dorot (the journal of the JGSNY) as  well as Avotaynu.  

In 1998 Ada was a member of the LitvakSIG temporary Advisory Board.  She served on the LitvakSIG board in 2006-7 and was co-ordinator of the LitvakSIG Kaunas District Research Group for 5 years.