Ed Stoddard, Reuters, June 12, 1998

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Casino magnate Sol Kerzner, the late communist Joe Slovo and veteran anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman make an unlikely trio but they share one thing in common. Aside from making a big impact on South African public life, this colourful cast is all of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. "Within the realm of public personalities here, you have a lot of Baltic Jews and their descendants, especially Lithuanian Jews," Tony Leon, head of the small liberal Democratic Party and himself partly of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, told Reuters. "We are quite a little mob here," said Suzman, who for 13 years was the only anti-apartheid voice in the whites-only parliament. Like their Old World ancestors, whose ranks included wealthy capitalists, zealous Zionists, prominent religious scholars and committed communists, South Africa's Litvaks, as Lithuanian Jews call themselves, have spanned the political spectrum. On the left stands Slovo, the former head of the South African Communist Party, who was born in Lithuania in 1926 and came to South Africa at the age of nine. On the right stands Kerzner, a flamboyant businessman who built the casino resort Sun City in a black homeland and founded the entertainment and leisure giant Sun International. The Baltic Jewish community in South Africa also includes Nobel prize-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer, whose father came from Latvia.


Lithuanians dominate the Jewish community in South Africa to an extent seen in no other country, even their former home. "We have around 80,000 to 90,000 Jews in South Africa, and about 80 percent of them are of Baltic descent, most of them from Lithuania," said David Saks, an historian and researcher at the Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg. "We probably have the most 'Lithuanian' Jewish community in the world," said Saks, whose own grandparents came from Lithuania. This ratio even exceeds that of Lithuania itself as most of the Baltic state's small Jewish community, now numbering a mere 5,000, comprises immigrants who arrived from different parts of the Soviet Union after World War Two.

The war devastated Lithuanian Jewry, once a leading centre of Jewish thought and culture. Historians estimate that 94 percent of the country's pre-war Jewish population of 220,000 perished in the Holocaust. The capital Vilnius, once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, was home to a thriving community of 60,000 Jews, with more than 90 synagogues and the biggest Yiddish library in the world. Aside from one functioning synagogue, few traces of its rich Jewish past remain. "South Africa is more Litvak than Lithuania itself...when Jews from Lithuania look to South Africa, we see our culture and society have been preserved there," said playwright and novelist Mark Zingeris, one of the few Litvaks remaining in Lithuania. "Here, the Litvak culture was all but destroyed by the Holocaust and 50 years of Soviet rule. But it has lived on in South Africa," he told Reuters by telephone from Lithuania.


The public activities and politics of South Africa's Litvak community were rooted in the Old World but flourished in the soil of oppression and opportunity found in the New. The reformist streak of Lithuanian Jewry, which faced anti-Semitism and repression at home, was carried on by a host of anti-apartheid activists. "Many of the Lithuanian Jews who arrived in South Africa in the late 19th century were fleeing repression in Tsarist Russia and so they were keenly aware of injustice," said Saks. "Those who came after also faced anti-Semitism and the Holocaust." "The striving for social justice for everyone is a very Litvak trait. It has carried on uninterrupted in South Africa," said Zingeris.

Other less altruistic immigrants, reared in a strong entrepreneurial tradition, were lured by gold, discovered in 1886 on the spot where Johannesburg now stands, and the opportunities offered by the booming economy built around it. "One of my great-grandfathers came from Lithuania in the late 19th century with nothing but the freedom to trade," said Leon, whose party is firmly in the pro-market camp. "He started a bag and bottle business and turned it into a huge company in one generation." "I evolved my activist politics under my own father left Lithuania at the turn of the century to escape anti-Semitism, pogroms and service in the tsar's army. But he was not a radical chap," said Suzman, a part-time member of the South African human rights commission. "He came to South Africa simply looking for a better life." Back home, Lithuania's small surviving Jewish community continues its diverse tradition of public and private service. Several of its members are prominent businessmen while the one Jewish member of Lithuania's parliament, Emmanuel Zingeris, heads its committee on human rights and minorities.