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Tuvye’s letters – from 1899 to 1903

Though he had planned to make his way to Johannesburg, when Tuvye’s ship docked in Cape Town the local news was  unsettling.

[When they] came to the ‘Franken’ (? office), everyone had a letter advising them to remain in Cape Town until the tummel settled down. I also got a letter from Moishe Tsabentsieker telling me that for God’s sake I must not go further. I should see if it is possible to get something to do and earn daily bread until times would settle down. (2.10.1899)

He moved in with Taube’s cousins Lipman and Meish Rubin (Taube’s maternal grandfather, Zalman Rubin, and Lipman and Meish’s grandfather, Leizer Rubin, were brothers.)

Meish and Rachel Rubin and children photo taken behind painted backdrop before he left for South Africa.


War was threatening between the two independent Afrikaner (Boer) republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State) and Britain. Ostensibly the friction related to denial of the franchise to the foreigners, but was at heart about Britain’s desire to gain control over the gold fields.  The tummel did not settle down and on 11 October, two weeks after Tuvye arrived, the South African War broke out, making travel to Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand goldfields impossible. Tuvye writes a sarcastic response to his brother in law Moishe (Schochut) Morris:

I am very sorry that they started this without asking your advice – believe me, I’m doubly sorry about it. Firstly, if it had not been for the war, I would have gone to Johannesburg. And secondly, how can I take it quietly when the widow Victoria has all the expenses involved in it? I can only see that every day boats arrive fully packed like cattle, in their thousands, and every one of them is well dressed in different uniforms. Some of them have red clothes only, another group is dressed in white, and others in black and green, and all other colours and all new-made, with plenty of arms and ammunition and food and horses and mules by the hundreds. (12.1899)

To make it worse, thousands of refugees from upcountry arrived in Cape Town creating competition for work. Tuvye was without marketable skills or knowledge of local languages.

He kept his family updated on the progress of the war.

People are running from Johannesburg as from a fire because they are afraid the place is mined and it may become deserted like Sodom..., so many that there are not enough coaches for them. One is happy if one can creep into a railway coach through the window. And with every boat there are griener[i] arriving from Russia. (2.10.1899)

The war is still raging in South Africa. Every day cables arrive giving news that the English have killed many Boers, and the second cable tells of the Boers killing many English – and so boats are arriving from London full of military – horses and mules and arms and so on in great numbers.”


This I can inform you that the siege of Kimberley was lifted from the Boers [15.2.1900] and when the telegram came to Cape Town, it was Yomtov! On all the houses they hung out the British flag and everyone who drove into town, from the most expensive coaches to the cart that carried stones, each one carried flags on high and music was played in the streets. And again, when the news arrived by telegram [27.2.1900] that General Cronje[ii] had surrendered with all his forces, it was Yomtov again. (27.2.1900)

You are not allowed to leave Cape Town. A permit is not given. If one has important business, a permit is granted for a day or two and you need a reference that you are an honest person…A ‘griener’ must stay in Cape Town and not go further. To go into town a pass is also necessary, and you don’t always get one, and all business is stopped. (September 1901)

He wrote of censorship and restrictions.

But because all letters are censored now, it takes longer and we don’t know when the letters would go and when you would receive them. The same applies to your letters.” (16.3.1902)

It is very strict. They read every letter with great attention, and so the less one writes the better. (15.10.1901)

Tuvye tried hard to earn some money – often in short term partnerships. He bought old bags, he bought old bottles, he worked as a stevedore at the docks, he worked as a glazier, he sold eggs. After struggling to manage in Cape Town, by June, 1901 Tuvye had moved to Malmesbury. Family lore has it that Tuvye walked from Cape Town to Malmesbury.  He initially opened a bakery with a partner.     


Further, what shall I write you about business, that you ask about in all details, and you take umbrage if I don’t give you all the details. One adds water and one adds flour and one bakes and one sells and you bake again in the same place every day and the results one only knows later when God will grant us success... One must have patience and there are no excuses so don’t ask questions and don’t feel insulted because I myself don’t know what’s going on. (6.8.1901)

When that venture failed, Tuvye dispatched eggs and poultry from Malmesbury to Cape Town. He had established good relations with the villagers and with money saved and money borrowed in late 1902, he opened a general dealer’s shop in the Malmesbury Main Road. For a license that cost £3 a year he could sell a broad range of products.


So I keep also shoes, clothing, all ready made, as well as all kinds of spices and other articles, including stationery and toys, and so I make a living in the shop. Up to now, my sales have amounted to £70 to £80 a month, and for the future I hope to improve. (29.3.1903)


The following week he told Taube he also stocked 


all kinds of spices, tea, sugar, coffee, sardines, all kinds of herrings in tins, soap, candles, paraffin, oil, flour, potatoes, bread, cigarettes and cigars, confectionary, chocolates. I have also got cotton material for making clothes, jackets, vests and pants. Readymade suits for men and ladies. Various kinds of harmonicas, mirrors, pins and safety pins, and many things. (5.4.1903)

Finally, later in 1903, he had saved enough to bring out Taube and his children from Lithuania to Malmesbury.

Until then, his letters are filled with despondency because he could not earn enough money despite his best efforts.


[i] A newcomer, still green about the ears.

[ii] The siege of the diamond mining town of Kimberley by the Boer forces from the Orange Free State and the  South African Republic lasted for 124 days from 14 October 1899 – 15 February 1900.  On 27 February 1900 General Piet Cronje who had begun the sieges of Kimberley and Mafeking was defeated at the Battle of Paardeburg, surrendering with 4,150 of his men after being surrounded by Lord Robert’s troops.

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