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Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A MOST COSTLY RAILWAY




Retired railway locomotive in Barkly East, 2003

I never met my mother's father, Iwan Bloch, as he died many years before I was born. His eldest son, my late uncle Felix, remembers sitting with him when he returned home from work and opened his correspondence. This was in the 1920s when Germany, where Iwan's family came from and where many of them still lived, was undergoing a severe hyperinflation. Felix remembers that many of the stamps stuck on envelopes from Germany bore high denominations, many thousands or hundreds of thousand, or maybe even millions, Deutschmark.

My late mother remembers taking the train from Barkly East to Aliwal North on her way to boarding school in King Williams Town. The first part of the journey was mountainous. The train had to negotiate a series of switchbacks, and moved very slowly. She remembers that her elder brother Felix and many of the outher young boys on the train, used to jump out of it and run down the slope to the next lower stretch of railway. There, they would wait for the train to make its way down to where they were sitting by the track. This railway would probably never have existed had it not beeen for my Grandfather Iwan Bloch...

At 11 p.m. on the 8th April 1886, a birth was recorded in the town of Diessenhofen on the Swiss side of the Rhine. The child was my grandfather Iwan Isaak Bloch. He was of German nationality as his father Salomon Bloch was born in the town facing Diessenhofen on the German side of the Rhine, Gailingen in the state of Baden. Salomon had a store there. Iwan's mother was Peppi Bloch, née Seligmann. She was one of the fifteen surviving children of Isak Rafael Seligmann of Ichenhausen in Bavaria. Iwan died in 1931 in Johannesburg, having been a successful businessman and also the Mayor of a small town in the Eastern Cape, Barkly East. This is his story.




Wedding day of Iwan Bloch and Ilse Ginsberg


Before we continue with Iwan, it is necessary to describe the events that led to his arrival in South Africa. The Mosenthals of Kassel were probably the first German Jews to have made a success of trading in South Africa. Around and shortly after 1839 Joseph Mosenthal and his brother Adolph settled in Cape Town and became general merchants. They were very successful and set up trading posts in the interior of the Cape Colony and beyond the Orange River (Saron & Hotz pp 349-55). The importance of the Mosenthals in establishing an efficient system of commerce throughout the Cape and beyond cannot be over emphasized. To quote Saron and Hotz (p. 350) they, "not only acted as intermediaries who bought and sold; they were also, by force of circumstances, the financiers and bankers of that first generation in which their business took root". Further on, Saron and Hotz write (p 353), "Firms like Mosenthals were responsible for attracting to South Africa, as assistants, many good class immigrants who were able to give services otherwise almost impossible to supply in the comparatively undeveloped state of commerce and finance. These men in turn contributed towards the further extension of trade and industry in their new homes." These homes were the small towns scattered all over the Cape Colony and along the Orange River. Iwan Bloch's uncle Sigmund Seligmann (Iwan's mother's brother) was one of these men attracted to South Africa. Louis Herrman (p. 216) noted that, "The Mosenthals and their industrial and commercial activities were the means of introducing into South Africa nearly half the Jewish families who came to this land between 1845 and 1870".






Sigmund Seligmann


The Seligmann family of Ichenhausen in Bavaria was quite enormous. Some of the family were involved in commerce in Ichenhausen during the nineteenth century. Many of them emigrated. Sigmund Seligmann had a first cousin Heinrich Bergmann who arrived in South Africa in 1849. He was a very successful member of the Mosenthal business, and by the time of his death in 1866 was running their branch (under the name of "Mosenthal and Bergman") and their bank (the Frontier Bank) in Aliwal North. I have written about Bergmann in a recently published article (see Stammbaum, issue 25, 2004). I suspect that Bergmann was one of the earliest members of the extended Seligmann family to reach South Africa. Sigmund Seligmann came to South Africa in 1874, aged 18 years (having already spent two years in the USA!). He worked in businesses in Rouxville and in Lady Grey before setting up his own trading business. His first business was started in partnership with Moss Vallentine in Dordrecht, Cape Colony, in 1884. This did well. In 1885 Sigmund decided to open another store, in Barkly East, on the Langkloof River, north of Dordrecht in the southern edge of the Drakensberg range of mountains. It is one of the highest towns in the Cape. The opening of S.Seligmann and Co. Ltd, took place in 1886. Gradually Sigmund sent for three of his nephews: Jakob Krämer, Julius Cornelius and Moritz Rosenberger (incidentally, he also was a member of the brass band of Barkly East). They came out from Germany and helped to run the business before and after Sigmund returned to Germany in 1898. Other nephews were sent out to help in the business and amongst these were Iwan Bloch and his brother Daniel.




The Seligmann store occupied the site where Lewis &
the Barkly East Bottle Store stand. It was burnt down in the 1960s.
The red roofed building beyond it was a store for wool bought by Seligmann's.


Now I shall digress to describe the Jewish life of Barkly East, of which there is little to report. Barkly East was mainly a commercial centre for the flourishing local sheep farmers and the wool business. Its heyday antedated the building of good motor roads. In latter years when road transport became better (after WW2) its importance declined as the farmers were able to reach bigger centres such as Queenstown and East London. Saron and Hotz make one mention of Barkly East: a Jewish cemetery was consecrated there in 1894. The earliest gravestone in the cemetery records the death of Hannah (wife of Manassah) Woolf who died in February 1894. In an appendix I have provided a list of the Jews who were buried in Barkly East, with some notes about their families. I do not know when the first Jew(s) arrived in the town, but Iwan Bloch's uncle Sigmund Seligmann was certainly there by 1885. Barkly East had no synagogue and was probably not visited much by rabbis from neighbouring towns. The last Jewish family to live in Barkly East was that of Lazer Bortz. Lazer and his family were of Russian origin. They joined Seligmann's on arrival in the town. Later they started their own business, a dealership in fuel. They left the town some years ago, in the 1980s (approx.) and were last heard of in Bloemfontein. Of all the Jewish businesses, the only one that retains its name today in Barkly East is that of Bortz, albeit under new ownership. Whilst we were visiting Barkly East last year, a curator in the town's small museum showed us a small object which she had detached from the deserted and derelict former home of the Bortz family. She asked us to identify it as she was unaware of its significance: it was the Mesusah, with its scriptural contents intact, from the family's front door!





The branch of Seligmann's at Moshesh's Ford, 2003


Before going out to South Africa, Iwan Bloch left Gailingen and lived in Zurich where he was employed in a department store. Clearly Iwan was a good choice as a helper in his uncle's store as he had already had some experience in commerce. According to information on his Certificate of Naturalization (April 1908), Iwan arrived in South Africa in 1903, aged 17 years, landing at East London (where he stayed for 6 days at Deals Hotel) in 1903. Then he went to Barkly East where he became a "general dealer's assistant" at S.Seligmann & Co. When Iwan arrived, the firm was directed by his three cousins: Krämer, Cornelius and Rosenberger. Seligmann's was not only a general dealer (they sold everything from cups to coffins, from pins to farm equipment. My late mother recalled that the firm imported the latest clothes from the leading fashion houses of Paris. Seligmann's was the 'Harrods' or 'Saks Fith Avenue' of Barkly East!). It was also involved in issuing credit to farmers and handling the wool produced by the many sheep farmers in the area. When the farmers were hard up, Seligmann's sold to them on credit, and when the wool was harvested the farmers settled their debts. Iwan worked his way up through the firm from clerk to a managing director, in conjunction with his friend and neighbour Carl Blume.





According to Iwan's obituary (in the Barkly East Reporter), "The late Mr. Bloch was born in Germany, and who was 45 years of age, came here in 1903 when he was a mere youth. He joined the firm of Messrs. S Seligmann & Co, and soon showed that he possessed a remarkable business attitude. Within a few years he and Mr. Blume had taken over the business, Mr. Bloch acting as managing director, a position he filled with great success." I am not sure exactly when Iwan became a managing director of Seligmann's, but it was most probably before 1916, when Iwan married Ilse, daughter of Senator Franz Joseph Ginsberg of King Williams Town, a signatory of South Africa's Act of Union in 1910. Her mother was Iwan Bloch's second cousin, Hedwig, née Rieser. Franz Ginsberg was not merely an important public figure in the Eastern Cape, but was also a major industrialist in the area. He was an important South African manufacturer of soap, candles and matches.

Iwan's business achievements alone would have qualified him as a success in life, but this was not enough for such a hardworking and intelligent person as he was. Returning to his obituary, " But immersed in business as he was, he found time to take his share in public life here. For twelve years he was member of the Municipal Council, and for eight years in succession he was Mayor, until he retired in September last. It is not too much to say that we never had a better Mayor, and that his term of office was marked by great progress in Municipal matters. The electric light was installed; the accommodation for Natives in the Location was twice added to; and the town greatly benefited from his knowledge of finance and his business acumen. He was ever to the forefront in the advocacy and carrying out a progressive policy, and his actions were always designed with a view to furthering the best interests of the town as a whole." Iwan was a member of the Barkly East Municipal Council from 6th May 1919 until 21st Aug 1931, a few months before his death. He was, I believe, the first Jewish member of the Council, and most probably the town's only Jewish Mayor (his term of office was 4th Sep 1923 until 21st Aug 1931). Even before becoming a member of the Council, Iwan appears to have been interested in public works. I have a photograph of him in 1918 standing with several of the town's officials at the opening of a dam built to improve the town's water supply. He was also Chairman of the town's Chamber of Commerce.




Iwan Bloch's home as it was in 2003


Iwan's impact on the development of Barkly East was not inconsiderable. In 1910 the town's Council had made enquiries into the possibility of acquiring an electricity generator to provide lighting for the Town Hall and the main square, but nothing came of it. Under Iwan's Mayoralty, in 1927, the electrification of Barkly East was finally achieved. Electricity was available for the use of inhabitants between the hours of 4 PM and 12 PM only! By 1930 Iwan Bloch warned the Council that the existing electricity scheme no longer met the needs of the town, and three years after his death this was remedied. Iwan's greatest municipal achievement was his involvement in bringing the railway to the town.

In about 1902 the burghers of Barkly East began to campaign to have a railway built to the town. A connection to Aliwal North would have joined Barkly East to the existing rail network of South Africa, and no doubt would have worked wonders for the prosperity of the town. A Railway Committee was established in October 1902. By November 1905 a railway had been built from Aliwal to Lady Grey, and was a success financially once it became functional. This fuelled optimism in Barkly East. By 1916 the railway had reached New England, 18 miles from Barkly East. Much campaigning for the railway occurred between 1916 and 1924 when the Railway Board of South Africa finally visited Barkly East in connection with extending the railway to the town. By the following year, Iwan Bloch had already become the Chairman of the town's Railway Committee. He received the news that the government had finally agreed to build the long awaited extension of the railway to Barkly East. Despite this there was procrastination on the part of the government, and the construction of the railway was delayed: there was a shortage of funds. It was not until May 1928 that Iwan Bloch received the following telegram from Mr. Sephton, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, "£40,000 provided for the construction of New England/Barkly East Railway". 



The remains of the switchbacks on the railway just outside Barkly East, 2003


Exactly a year and two days before Iwan's death, the official opening of the railway to Barkly East was celebrated on 10th Dec 1930. Two days later the Barkly East Reporter wrote, "As the train headed for the station, it was seen to consist of an engine and three of(sic) four coaches. The engine, which was decorated, had a very festive appearance. As it passed under the arch and entered the station, the Mayoress, Mrs. I.I. Bloch, performed the ceremony of christening it, by dashing a bottle of champagne…. against it". The town celebrated the arrival of the railway with a day of events including a Fancy Dress Carnival in which cars were decorated in imaginative ways. I note with some pride that the car decorated by Seligmann's won second prize in the Best Decorated Car competition. In a fancy dress parade Iwan's brother Daniel and his wife appeared as a Swiss Couple. Amongst the children in fancy dress is mention of Master Iwan Bloch, one of my two uncles, dressed up as 'Red Riding Hood'. It is of interest to note that the extension of the railway from Lady Grey to Barkly East was, according to the South and East African Handbook and Guide (1947), "….one of the most costly (about (£8,000 per mile) in South Africa owing to the mountainous nature of the terrain", and is today sadly non-functional.





How Iwan found time for leisure is a puzzle, yet he did! Barkly East was (in the Twenties and Thirties) a hive of social activity, difficult to imagine today. Iwan participated in tennis parties, held more than once a week. There was time for playing bridge, and a daily walk, not to mention many other social gatherings including golf twice a week. The family owned a number of motor cars (the most expensive newest imported models of the time) including a Hupmobile, which was used to transport the large family (Iwan had four children) on holidays to a wide range of destinations all over South Africa. My mother recalled that she and her siblings were often car-sick, and on occasion Iwan's hat acted as a receptacle for one of the symptoms of this! Iwan and his wife also made occasional trips to Europe to see family members in Germany.

In the second half of 1931, Iwan suffered a massive heart attack. He was transported to Johannesburg for medical treatment. He spent his last weeks in a nursing home (? Fairview) in Johannesburg. He passed away on the 12th Dec 1931, and was buried in Johannesburg. His obituary noted that he was, "Of a kindly and sympathetic nature (and that) he will be sadly missed by a large circle of friends and by the poor alike". Although the Bloch family was not observant in religious matters it is worth noting that Iwan was buried in a Jewish cemetery, and the ceremony was officiated by a Rabbi.

He left behind him a widow and four children including my mother. His widow remarried Oscar Levy, who also worked for Seligmann's. Tragically, he died shortly after their marriage and the birth of their son. Oscar is buried in Barkly East. Seligmann's, the business continued to exist until the early 1960s, watched over by a member of the Bloch family and by the Ginsberg's in King Williams Town. A large fire in about 1965 destroyed the main building of Seligmann's. Today all that remains in Barkly East is the Bloch's former home and some of the many smaller buildings that belonged to the firm.

The railway to Barkly East no longer functions. When we visited it in 2003, we were told that traind had run on it occasionally, but since a fatal accident on one of its infrequent runs it no longer operates. However, this video made in 2001 will help you to relive the glory of the railway that my grandfather helped to create. Click on this image to see it:







Appendix: Jewish Graves in the Cemetery at Barkly East




View from Barkly East's cemetery towards an African settlement, 2003



When we visited Barkly East in August 2003 we visited the small museum there. We met the curator who very kindly provided me with a list of the Jewish graves in the cemetery. The Jewish cemetery is within Barkly East's 'white' Christian cemetery on the edge of the town on the road leading to Moshesh's Ford and Rhodes, two places at which Seligmann's had branch stores. The Jewish section is small and separated from the rest of the cemetery by a metal fence. The whole place is subject to vandalism and I suspect that in a few years time most of the graves will be unrecognizable. My list gives 11 graves: last years only 6 of these were identifiable - the rest were damaged too much to be recognised.

The listing is as follows;

  1. Isaac ROSENBERG: London, d. 26 Apr 1956, aged 56 yrs.
[Dr. Isaac Rosenberg, born in Barkly East, was a highly respected and much loved medical doctor in Barkly East.]




  1. Emil SELIGMAN: b. 3 June 1877, d. 25 Aug. 1897
[Emil Seligman(n) was born in Ichenhausen in Bavaria, and ran the branch of Seligmann's in Rhodes. He was a cousin of Iwan Bloch]




  1. Bluma Chaia ROSENBERG: d. 30 Jul 1921, aged 52 yrs. (wife of Morris Rosenberg)
[Mother of Isaac]

  1. Nathan LEVENSON: d. 12 Jan 1927, aged 32 yrs.

  1. Jack VALLENTINE : died 7 Mar 1897, aged 32 yrs. (son of Phillip)
[Jack Vallentine, from London, worked with Sigmund Seligmann. His brother Moss Vallentine was a partner with Seligmann in a business in Dordrecht, south of Barkly East. Jack was married to Helene Perlmutter, sister of Erna Perlmutter who was married to Sigmund Seligmann. Jack's untimely death was caused by tetanus, contracted as a result of falling from a carriage.]


  1. Hannah WOOLFE: d. 10 Feb 1894 (Wife of Manassah Woolfe)

  1. N. JOFFEE: d. 7 Oct 1917, aged 11 mos.


8. J. JOFFEE: d. 7 Oct 1917, aged 11 mos.

  1. VAN DER HORST: d. 5 Sep 1932, stillborn.

  1. S. EDELSTEIN: d. 17 Sep 1944
[The Edelstein's owned a retail business in Barkly East]

  1. Oscar LEVY: died 27 Sep 1934, aged 32 yrs.
[Oscar, son of Judah Levy of Melsungen in Hesse in Germany, came out to work in Seligmann's, invited by Iwan Bloch. He was highly educated. He married Iwan's widow, but died soon after.]





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Friday, 7 February 2014

A GREAT ALBANIAN SINGER




Vaçe Zela, the great Albanian chanteuse died on 6th February 2014
in Basel (Switzerland)

Sadly, I never met her nor attended any of her concerts. However, recordings of her songs were my first  encounter with music from Albania. This excerpt from my book Albania on my Mind tells how I 'discovered' the music of V. Zela in the mid to late 1960s:

"I had a Phillips radio in my bedroom. It was a valve radio, rather than the more modern transistor-based instruments, which were already available in the 1960s. Once it had warmed up - a slow business taking up to a minute - and had stopped emitting crackling sounds, it was able to receive broadcasts on three wavebands including short-wave. I used to enjoy twiddling its tuning knob, and listening to broadcasts transmitted from all over the world. It was a window to the world beyond the confines of the highly manicured, desirable but rather dull, Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived.



One day, I tuned in on an exceptionally clear transmission, and listened with some curiosity and a great amount of surprise to a woman who was speaking perfect English with only the hint of a foreign accent. After a few minutes, she informed her audience far and wide that they were listening to the voice of Radio Tirana. I could not believe my ears. I made a mark on the tuning gauge to ensure that I would be able to find this station again. I tuned into Radio Tirana regularly, listening with astonishment and also amusement at the various commentators’ beautifully articulated words - mostly rants and raves directed against the actions of the imperialists and capitalists. These were punctuated by stirring Albanian songs sung in a style that was new to me, as I had never experienced the music of the Balkans before. Incidentally, the clarity of the transmissions from Tirana was due to it being broadcast from a reputedly very powerful transmitter.

After a short while, I decided to write a letter to Radio Tirana. Somewhat tongue in cheek, I wrote to the unknown addressee (in English) that the songs, which were being broadcasted from Albania, inspired me greatly and helped to reinforce my faith in Socialism. After addressing the letter’s envelope to ‘Radio Tirana, Tirana, Albania’, I waited with little expectation of receiving any kind of reply. I thought that it was more likely that I would receive a communication from MI5 or MI6 than anything from Albania. However, I was wrong to have been so pessimistic. A flat parcel, wrapped in brown paper and string, arrived by post a few weeks later. It was from Albania. I unwrapped it carefully, my fingers thrilling at the thought of handling something that had arrived from the mysterious country that had begun to interest me so greatly.



The package contained a 10-inch diameter long-playing gramophone record in a garishly coloured cardboard sleeve. It was decorated with an electricity pylon; musicians in folk costumes; dancers dressed likewise; a man wearing baggy Turkish-style pantaloons; and an oil derrick. The plain, unadorned record label bore the name of the recording company: Pllake Shqipetare (‘Shqipëria’ being the Albanian word for Albania). I played this endlessly, much to the dismay of my parents who did not appreciate its special musical properties. Even today, I can still hear the tune of “O djell i ri” (a song about the sun) ringing in my head."

Click on the image below to hear this song:



And, the singer of that song and a few others on the disc was the late and much  lamented V Zela. There was also a song sung by her called  Fëmija i parë. For many long years I believed that that title meant 'Women are equal' but 3 days ago, I learnt that it actually means ' First born baby'. My informant was none other but the Albanian scholar, Bejtullah Destani. To hear this song sunng by V. Zela: click on this image:












Those of you who are interested in reading more of my experiences of Albania and the visit that I made there in 1984 may purchase a copy of my book, Albania on my Mind, (paperback and e-book) on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookdepository.