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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Kenya

November 9, 1983
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The history of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation is somewhat intertwined with the “Uganda Plan” for a Jewish settlement in part of Kenya. According to business executive and communal leader Dr. Manfred Lehmann, the publicity it generated attracted Jewish settlers and by the end of 1903, the nucleus of a small but viable Jewish community existed.

Eighty years ago this year, in April, 1903, Dr. Theodor Herzl, founder and president of the World Zionist Organization, appealed to British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain on behalf of the survivors of the recent Kishinev pogrom and other oppressed Jews in Eastern Europe. Herzl was seeking a sanctuary for them as an “antechamber” to Eretz Israel.

In August, 1903, the British Foreign Office officially proposed that the WZO dispatch a commission to the East Africa Protectorate to investigate the feasibility of settling Jews in a 5000-square mile area of the Uasin Gishu Plateau.

The vote in the World Zionist Congress that month was 295-178, after an hour-long balloting and days of heavy emotional scenes. People wept as if Zion had been abandoned forever; the Russian delegation walked out.


At the very some time this was going on in Basle, back in Nairobi, white settlers were protesting the Plan for very different reasons: they feared an influx of poor Russian Jews who would fail at farming and become a drain on the community coffers. Settlers’ meetings and most newspaper editorials were heavily contaminated with anti-Semitism.

It was not until a year later that funds — blocked by opponents of the Plan — were found by the WZO (Mostly from Christian friends of the movement) to send a three-member commission to East Africa.

The commission, with one Jewish member — an engineer named M. Wilbusch — spent January through March of 1905 traveling through the proposed area of settlement in Kenya. At a reception for a group of Jewish journalists visiting Kenya recently, Danzig-bom Heini Lustman told this reporter that the grandfather of one of the women present had served as a guide to the WZO Commission.

“Since he opposed the plan,” said Lustman, who settled in Kenya in 1938, originally hoping to be a coffee farmer, “he took them to a place where he expected a herd of elephants to come thundering by.”

The grand-daughter of the putative guide hotly denied the story as apocryphal, as does Charles Miller, author of “The Lunatic Express” (Macmillan, 1971), which covers this period. Nor is there any record in Wilbusch’s diary or any of the commission reports of anything of that nature occurring on the trip — or even of the local community’s providing a guide. The colorful story, however, still continues to circulate.

The commission members presented two negative and one positive report (the positive one was by Maj. A. St. H. Gibbons of the British Foreign Office) to the Seventh World Zionist Congress in July, 1905. By then Herzl was dead. The WZO rejected the plan on the grounds that the area was insufficient in extent and resources for large-scale Jewish colonization (the argument of the two negative reports).


The first Jewish settlers, some of whom had imagined themselves the vanguard of a new Jewish Common-wealth, arrived in Nairobi in 1903, mostly from Poland and Russia. Nairobi was at the time a little more than a railroad camp in the middle of a frog swamp. The settlers lived in tin shacks, cooked their meals in the street, and traveled by rickshaw.

According to Lehmann, the first two Jewish settlers were named Marcus and Loy; they traded in ivory and skins. Wilbusch’s diary mentioned Marcus as well as Sulsky, Hotz and Block, whom he describes as farmers.


The “Block” in the diary was Abraham Block, who was described as a pillar of the community; he died in 1965 after a long and successful business and communal career. Block arrived in 1903 from Eastern Europe via South Africa, said Lustman, “with a donkey and three sacks of potatoes,” and went on to pioneer tourism in Kenya. “It’s a real rags-to-riches story,” said Ivor Davis, the Jewish community’s public affairs person. Block’s sister, Lillie Haller, was the first Jewish woman settler in the country.

Block acquired the delightfully atmospheric Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi (where the Bat-Dor Dance Company stayed when they performed there in May) in 1927 and later, the New Stanley, which he sold to Conrad Hilton. He sold the Mawingo Hotel in Nanyuki to the late William Holden, who renamed it the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.

Other Block hotels visited by the Jewish journalists were the Samburu Lodge in the Samburu Game Reserve, the Lake Naivasha Hotel and the Keekorok Lodge in the Masai Mara Game Reserve. These lodges, as well as those owned by other concerns, are the gateways to the animal reserves which the Jewish journalists toured in minibuses of the Rift Valley Tours and Safari company, owned by two Israelis.

Besides Block, other Kenyan Jews who “made good” include Israel Somen, a one-time congregation president who served as Mayor of Nairobi in 1955-57; S.S. Abraham who was appointed Attorney-General of Uganda in 1924; and a Jew named Kramer who was Mayor of Nakuru in the 1940’s. Other Jews succeeded as merchants, farmers, hoteliers and restaurateurs, engineers, lawyers, musicians, surveyors and accountants.

(Tomorrow: Part Three)

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