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The Kretzmar letters and the Translator

When Dr Julius Kretzmar  moved to Wynberg, Cape Town, he looked for someone who might be able to help him translate his father’s letters, which were written in Hebrew and Yiddish. Having been born and educated in Malmesbury, his Yiddish and Hebrew were basic and not adequate for the task. He was fortunate to meet Nathan Stein who led the weekly Mishna learning group at the Wynberg Synagogue.

Nathan Stein[i] had studied at the Plungyan yeshiva, in Lithuania, coming to South Africa in his teens when his father, Rabbi Ephraim Menasseh Stein, became Rabbi of the Worcester Hebrew Congregation. A keen Zionist, Nathan later moved to Palestine, returning to South Africa in 1939 when his wife, schoolteacher Nechama Meirowitz, a Rabbi’s daughter, lost her job because at that time married women were not allowed to teach. [ii] They settled in Wynberg opening a general dealer’s store.

Nathan Stein was a devout student who studied the Talmud or Mishna whenever possible.  He was able to read the Talmud upside down, from right to left or from left to right - a skill acquired in his Lithuanian youth when there were not enough books to go round.  He had published scholarly articles in the local Jewish press, including Barkai, South Africa’s only Hebrew journal, as well as in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Jerusalem and in Dor Ledor, Jerusalem.


Translating the letters was not a straight forward task: they were handwritten on flimsy paper, often with no date or place, and with odd pages out of order, as the letters had got jumbled over the years.  Not only could Nathan translate the letters, but he was also able to source many of the quotations sprinkled through the letters. He also provided explanations for some of the concepts and words translated. 

In the translated letters, his explanations are identified by being enclosed in round brackets and written in italics. Comments by this editor (Gwynne Schrire) are identified by square brackets.


[i] Information courtesy of his daughter, Dr Sorrel Kerbel nee Stein, London, by email 4.1.2020 

[ii] This writer’s mother also lost her job as a school teacher as soon as she married.

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