Background

You can exchange this cheque and avoid applications for loans until you have made your travel arrangements, because one usually does a favour and does a mitzvah before leaving home. When the time comes for you to leave … I ask you ‘please be careful’, and don’t waste your few roubles. Prepare yourself and travel with good luck and God will help. I have brought the most important things – a good wardrobe and a few chairs, and further, when I receive a letter from you, I’ll buy other necessary things in Cape Town. You must .. .do everything, exactly as I have asked you. All the books that I mention. My dear parents,  if she runs short of funds that you will help her I hope that I will repay you all. (27.10.1903)

This letter heralded the ended of four years of separation of Tuvye Kretzmar from his family. Tuvye Kretzmar came to South Africa in September, 1899, part of a substantial wave of Jewish immigration, primarily from the Lithuanian provinces of the Russian Empire, that began in the early 1880s. He left behind his wife, Taube and four children, David 6, Leah 4, Freda 2 and the baby Noah.  This was one of more than 100 letters and other documents relating to the Kretzmar family that have survived.

Before Tuvye left he agreed to write weekly to his wife. Taube was to do the same and they were to keep their letters to each other to serve as a diary.

Every week you should have your letter ready and send it to Moishe and he will post it to me together with Rachel’s letter [i] because we live together in one room and so our letters can go in the same envelope. (27.11.1900)

These Yiddish and Hebrew letters written to his wife and family between October, 1899 and October, 1903, provide us with a unique window into the feelings and experiences of the East European Jewish immigrants in South Africa in their first years. Her letters to him did not survive.

Contents

  1. Reasons for the move from Eastern Europe

  2. The Jews of Birzh in the late nineteenth century

  3. Tuvye’s letters – from 1899 to 1903

  4. The content of the letters

  5. The format of the letters

  6. Judaism and Zionism

  7. Afterwards – life in Malmesbury

  8. The letters and the translator

  9. What if Tuvye had remained in, or returned to Birzh?

© Kaplan Centre
Letters courtesy of Phil Kretzmar