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Reasons for the move from Eastern  Europe

Tuvye was one of 40,000 Jews who immigrated to South Africa between 1880 and 1914, the majority from Eastern Europe, particularly Lithuania.[i] Contrary to popular memory, most came in search of economic opportunity, and not because of pogroms. We see hints of this in Tuvye’s letters.

In one letter Tuvye described his economic plight prior to departure.

We have lost our own money (and had to go to) the Gemilut Chesed[ii] – and had to pay interest on the debt, and this…. meant ‘loss of face’ but we had to endure being caught by the coat tails and not be able to move forward.   (20.3.1900)

In an undated letter he grumbles

It would be nice if I would not be criticised by everybody. We owe everybody and we pay nobody! But my hopes are strong that the Lord will come to my aid, and that we will pay our debts and for ourselves we will make a better living than before.

Because of broader processes of change – the disruption of the traditional patterns of economic life,  a rapid increase in the size of the Jewish population, political instability within Russian empire -- emigration became increasingly attractive.

Julius Brutzkus (future Minister for Jewish Affairs, Independent Republic of Lithuania) reported in 1911 that two-thirds of the Jewish population earned their living by serving as “‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, coachmen, brick makers, and other servile capacities. Poverty was endemic, sanitary conditions extremely primitive. More than one third of the Jews depended on charity; money forwarded by relatives provided some with their sole income .”[iii]

Tuvye’s family were not hewers of wood or drawers of water - they had a small shop and dealt in flax, rye and potatoes and pastured cows on farms in the area but business was poor and he was unable to support his family. He was in debt, had pawned possessions and borrowed money from his parents. He wrote to them:

I am very sorry and feel ashamed that after so much expense and trouble that you have endured from my youth, you still have now to carry my burdens. At the moment, I have very little money to spend, and I suppose you have lent money to my wife. (4.6.1901)


Many could not imagine a prosperous and stable future for themselves in Lithuania. A letter to him, written in 1914, paints a vivid picture of such attitudes weeks before the start of World War One interrupted emigration to South Africa and threw eastern Europe into turmoil.


It rains every day. It is cloudy and humid weather and dark. The mud is thick. When a horse gets into it, he cannot get out. And so we trudge along in the dark reactionary Russia, which is soaked in water and mud up to the neck. And restrictions and accusations as high as the head. May God have mercy on us Russians, and dry up the swamps, as well as the physical and spiritual conditions on us Jews. (7.11.1914)


[i]  Saron, G.  “Jewish Immigration 1880-1913” in Saron, G and Hotz, L. The Jews In South Africa: A History, (Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1955),100. The numbers leaving each year  were not consistent and depended on both internal and external factors. Emigration slackened  after the end of 1882 with the change of administration in Russia but continued with lessened volume during the rest of the 1880s. There was a second peak in the 1890s beginning with rumours of new anti-Jewish measures in the spring of 1890 and intensifying in March 1891 after further expulsions. There was a further peak in emigration in 1896 when further economic restrictions were announced. Another upward trend began  in 1899. Lipman, VD A Century of Social Service: 1859-1959: The Jewish Board of Guardians, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1959), 78. This ended with the outbreak of the South African War.  Emigration peaked again in 1902 after the War, slowing with the introduction of the Cape  Immigration Restriction Act of 1902 and ceasing during the 1914 – 1918 War. The arrival of Eastern European Jews was prohibited by the 1930 Quota Act and that of German Jewish immigrants by the 1937 Alien’s Act.

[ii] Gemilut Chesed means bestowing kindness, but in this instance, it refers to a charitable society that lends money to those in need, regarded as an act of kindness superior to almsgiving because a loan does not humiliate the recipient. However Tuvye felt humiliated by having to receive a loan.

[iii]  Greenbaum, Masha,  The Jews of Lithuania: A history of a remarkable community 1316 – 1945 (Gefen Jerusalem),  200

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