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Arts & Culture Exhibit on Jewish Immigration Shows South African Wasn’t Too Welcoming

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Fleeing persecution in the years after Hitler came to power, some German Jews looked to South Africa as a country of refuge.

But according to a new exhibit on German Jewish immigration to the Cape region in the 1930s, the welcome they received was far from warm.

Titled “Seeking Refuge,” the exhibit at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre includes narratives of individual settlers, photographs from family albums, letters, documents and other memorabilia.

South Africa became a safe haven for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, despite the Quota Act, a piece of legislation designed to curtail immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe

The act did not apply to German Jews, but widespread anti-Semitism during the 1930s led to the enactment of further restrictive measures designed to close this loophole.

In response to the impending legislation, the German Jewish organization Hilfsverein chartered a boat in 1936 called the Stuttgart, which was scheduled to arrive in South Africa with 500 immigrants just three days before the new regulations were to be enacted.

The move placed the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in a quandary, fearing that it might exacerbate anti-Semitism and lead to plans to cut off Jewish immigration altogether.

The exhibition records that after a long and heated debate, the Board of Deputies gave its cautious approval, saying, “Whilst we cannot accept responsibility for the project, the law permits those with proper papers to enter.”

Jewish reaction to the new arrivals may have been ambivalent, but others wasted no time in making their hostile feelings known.

A group of professors from Stellenbosch University — including a future prime minister and architect of apartheid, H.F. Verwoerd — organized meetings in protest.

It was only due to inclement weather and a strong police presence that planned anti-Semitic demonstrations at the quay were averted.

The exhibition contains a newspaper report of the ship’s arrival, proclaiming in a telling subheading, “Stuttgart passengers not molested.”

Refugee Claire Lampel notes in a diary entry that the refugees arrived “to be met with the sights and sounds of Nazi Germany,” with protesters waving swastikas and shouting anti-Semitic slogans.

“We could have stayed in Germany,” she laments.

Political considerations aside, when it came to dealing with practical matters, the local Jewish community swung into action. In 1933, the South African Fund for German Jewry had been established to assist the refugees with financial aid, employment, accommodation and other things.

Refugee Miriam Herzfeld remarks on the significance of Rosecourt, a home purchased for the new immigrants’ relaxation and social needs.

“It was indeed a home from home where you were made aware of the fact that you were becoming part of a caring community,” she recalls. “All our free time was spent there, and every Saturday afternoon people would gather there to exchange news and give each other moral support, not only as far as the new life was concerned, but also with the never-ending worry about those who were left behind.”

Herzfeld had arrived in Cape Town in 1937, without the requisite payment demanded by the South African authorities.

“The Jewish people of Cape Town were wonderful” and put 100 pounds per person in security, “which was a fortune in those days,” she says.

Jewish-owned businesses rallied to provide employment opportunities — mostly semi-menial work — for the new arrivals.

Refugee Peter May writes that his father went to work in South Africa as a delivery boy before requalifying as an accountant and establishing his own firm.

Another refugee, Harry Heinz Schwarz, arrived in 1934.

He studied law with the help of a government loan and entered politics, eventually becoming South Africa’s ambassador to the United States during South Africa’s transition to democracy.

“My story is of a penniless boy who came to represent his adopted country during an exciting time in its history, and who believes he owes a great debt to South Africa and its people,” he said.

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