Remembering the Jews of District Six

ORIELLE BERRY

A kaleidoscope of cultures existed in the place called home for the thousands who lived in District Six.

More than a century has passed since the Jews who lived in the area dispersed, but the memories live on strongly through books, photographs and anecdotal evidence.

And while old buildings that saw their heyday come and go, some remained to carry on the heritage well into the new millennium.

M Beinkinstadt closed its doors as recently as 2008, and there a deep tradition and a love of Judaica, religion and intellectual study was passed down from its founder Moshe Beinkinstadt through to his son-in-law Berl Padowich and then Berl’s son, Michael Padowich, who, with his wife, Fay, ran the store in Canterbury Street, until the building was sold and Charly’s Bakery took over the premises of the well-loved shop that was a treasure trove of all manner of Jewish artefacts.

When I used to park in District Six in Caledon Street I often used to make a turn there to indulge in my own Jewish heritage, to finger the heirlooms, the books and the many religious artefacts that were on sale in the large high-ceilinged rooms of this beautiful old building.

When the store was opened in 1903 by Mr Beinkinstadt, who arrived in the country from Lithuania, it was a meeting place for the small but vibrant community of Jews who lived in the area.

On the eve of the Sabbath, many residents would gather there, according to accounts in the book The Jews of District Six, Another Time, Another Place, published by Jewish Publications South Africa; the Isaac and Jesse Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, with Milton Shain convenor and consultant.

Pearl Selibowitz, is a descendant of some of the first Jews to arrive in the Cape, who lived and worked in District Six in the early part of the 20th century.

Ms Selibowitz works in the Jewish Museum bookshop and recalls vividly her father, Dr Philip Dickman, who practised as a general practitioner and shared his surgery with Robbie Bliden in rooms in Tennant Street.

Born in 1938, Ms Selibowitz, says by the time she was born, many members of the Jewish community had spread further afield to areas such as Gardens, Vredehoek, Oranjezicht and Highlands Estate.

An overriding memory is how, as a child, she and her friends and family would stand on the top floor of the house where the surgery was located and stare down each year at the colourful minstrel parade, passing by underneath the window.

Many Jews left Eastern Europe, Latvia and Lithuania in the late 19th century and came to South Africa to escape anti-Semitism and the furious pogroms that swept through the shtetls (enclaves) of Jewish communities, leaving devastation, death and misery in their wake. But many came in later years in search of Der Goldene Medine (the golden land), a land of milk and honey in the southern hemisphere. Here they sought success, which, despite their initial hardships, they found as Ms Selibowitz recounts.

The initial struggles of the early Jewish community many of whom have been described as impoverished immigrants, as they came off the ships, gave way to success stories as their businesses flourished and they managed to provide for future generations to become lawyers, doctors and prosperous businessmen.

Mrs Selibowitz’s grandfather was David Dickson, and he opened a kosher bakery, which was subsequently taken over by his sons and brother.

His son Abe drove a lorry around the early settlements of the City, delivering kitke – freshly-baked plaited Sabbath breads and other delicacies to members of the Jewish community.

Mrs Selibowitz recalls how her grandfather was described as a great lover of the opera and was often to be spotted in his black satin cloak and top hat, making his way to see a performance in centre of town.

The individual mark of the Jewish community could also be found in a Hebrew school and a synagogue which in the early 1920s were situated in Constitution Street, and there was a large building in Chapel Street that housed the elderly.

Many other communities lived in District Six but one thing that is noted in The Jews of District Six is “As the history of the Jews of District Six has receded, or has been subsumed into the iconic status District Six has rightly achieved as a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man… it is a salutary reminder of a time when a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community could live together in peaceful coexistence”.