Jewish Affairs

District Six and portrayals of Jews in the memoirs of those removed from there


(Author: Gwynne Schrire, Vol. 76, #3, Spring 2021)


In February 1966, the apartheid government announced that it was going to apply the Group Areas Act to District Six, a suburb with a long history of mixed race residence. Esther Wilkin who grew up in District Six remembered that ”All around were the sounds of people, hundreds upon hundreds, Jews, English, Afrikaners, Coloureds, Indians, Malays, all concentrated in this one area.”[1]

At the time of the proclamation 56% of the district’s property was ‘White’-owned, 26% ‘Coloured’ owned and 18% Indian owned.[2] There was massive public protest, to no avail. The bulldozers were moved in and the residents were moved out, to be relocated into houses in the sandy Cape Flats far away from their jobs, their neighbours and their close-knit community.

The bulldozers move in

Alas for the apartheid planners. There were no private buyers for this valuable land close to the city as the land was regarded as   tainted. Within a few years, all there was to be seen was desolate scrub. Only a few churches and mosques remained behind in the wasteland. Plans to turn it into a multi-million rand suburb for whites had to be abandoned and as a face-saving plaster on an inflamed sore, the  Government built a few projects like police housing and a white’s only technical college. To this day fifty years later much of it still stands bare, a neglected eyesore subject to anger, frustration, ageing homeowners, court cases and broken promises.[3]

Although the houses vanished, the memory remained, preserved in paintings by artists like Kenneth Baker, Gregoire Boonzaier and John Dronsfield,  novels like Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night (1962), Richard Rive’s ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six (1986), which became a school text book, Rozena Maart’s Rosa’s District Six (2004) and musicals like David Kramer and Taliep Petersen’s District Six: The Musical (1987), Kat and the Kings (1998) and District Six Kanala (2016) . District Six became an idealised utopia of multi-racial and interfaith harmony and co-existence, while the Jewish involvement was forgotten or viewed through stereotypes of landlords and shopkeepers.

When there was a newspaper report that the District Six Museum was considering purchasing the Sacks Futeran building (now the Athol Fugard Theatre) the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies contacted the then acting curator offering to place in the museum a panel giving the history of the Jews in District Six as there was so little evidence of them in the museum. The curator replied that there was very little information about Jews in District Six.

Such professed ignorance was startling, as at the turn of the 20th century thousands of Eastern European Jewish immigrants had made their homes in that suburb. When this writer interviewed Esther Wilkin in 1996[4], she told her “At that time (1920s – 1930s) if you walked in certain parts of Cape Town like in Woodstock or District Six you would feel as though you were in Europe – the shop signs were in Yiddish, Yiddish was heard in the streets, everything was in Yiddish. Immigrants felt that they had left their shtetls behind only to come to a Yiddish country.”

Now the Museum established to keep the memory of District Six alive had blotted out the memory of its Jewish residents. Information sent to her giving such information remained unacknowledged, as was a copy of the Jewish Affairs journal,[5] containing an article with detailed footnotes from a memoir written by Harry Schrire, who had born in District Six in 1895, describing his child hood escapades. The Kaplan Centre also mounted an exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum about Jews in District Six in 2012.

The Schrire family, Cape Town, 1911. Back, from left:  Sam, Annie, Harry, Max. Seated:  Gela with David, Yehudi Leib with Isidore, Rebecca with Theodore (Credit: C. Schrire collection)

This writer was faced with similar lacunae of knowledge when working on committees as a representative of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies to plan interfaith events in District Six. To counter this, when the Holy Cross Church celebrated its centenary, she spoke about this on a panel and photos from the Jewish Museum exhibition were displayed. A similar talk about Jews in District Six was given at a District Six Reconciliation walk on Reconciliation Day. Faced with the pain and dislocation of the forced removals, the presence of Jews seemed to have got lost in the background.

Former political prisoner and a member of the Human Rights Violation Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Hugh Lewin, commented that “for most of the witnesses, those pre-1976 events were ancient long-forgotten history…It was a useful if sobering reminder of how quickly contemporary history moves on and how quickly the stories of the past, even the recent past, are forgotten.”[6]

Was the absence of Jews a generational memory failure, another example of how quickly the stories of the past are forgotten, or were the residents at the time also unaware that they were sharing the suburb with Jews?  This article will be looking at books written by four people who had experienced  the results of the Group Areas expulsions – Richard Rive, Hettie Adams, Gloria Kube and Linda Fortune –  to examine whether they mentioned Jews and if so, how.

Some novels and plays about District Six feature Jewish stereotypes, as landlords and shop keepers like the Jewish landlord Katzen, “a small Jewish shopkeeper with  his walrus moustache”, in Buckingham Palace District Six[7] Katzen was  referred to throughout as  stingy or a miser, although he gave gifts of second hand furniture to a tenant and was invited  to their celebrations. When the Group Areas bombshell falls, he goes to meet with his tenants to explain that he had escaped from Hitler’s Germany and his parents had been killed in Auschwitz: “In Germany they treated me as an untermenschen. Here they force me to be part of the Herrenvolk.  But I cannot forget what they did to us in Germany. So my heart is with all the untermenschen whoever and wherever they are.”[8]

He was refusing to supply the Group Areas officials with information about them nor would he sell his houses to white people. If his tenants moved out, the houses would stay empty. Soon after, he is admitted to i.c.u. in hospital. His tenants try to visit him, but were sent away by Katzen’s neglectful lawyer son from Johannesburg who ignores Katzen’s promise to them, and sells the houses when his father dies.

Rive turns  the stingy  landlord stereotype on  its head, referring to it in words while showing through Katzen’s behaviour and treatment, how unfair the description was. Katzen was bullied and intimidated by the petty thief living rent free for fifteen years in one of his houses and his shop had been burgled six times in six weeks.

Three of the books are written by women who had lived in District Six –   William Street, District Six by Hettie Adams and Hermione Suttner – Hettie was moved to Mitchell’s Plain; Living in Loader Street: Reminiscences of growing up and life in Loader Street before the forced group removals of July 1966 by Gloria Kube and Ruby Hill – Gloria was moved to Manenberg; The House in Tyne Street: Childhood Memories of District Six by Linda Fortune – she was moved to Hanover Park.

William Street, Loader Street and, Tyne Street – once all  within walking distance – now they and their neighbours were separated from their schools, their shops, their houses of worship, their community by vast distances and expensive taxi rides. Before they knew their neighbours – now there was a sense of anomie stuck among strangers and a violent gangster culture.

These writers had all lived through the evictions. In their books, they want to pass on their memories, both of the evictions and of happier times. As the Canadian author of girls’ stories, Lucy Montgomery[9] has said – “Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” They are not trying to score political points but to focus on their lived experiences – their childhood, the warmth and comfort of family life, the eccentricities of relatives, neighbours, friends and skollies. The poverty that accompanied their lives is sanitised, and normalised, just part of their lives. When Jews appear as part of daily life, they emerge as individuals, not stereotypes.

Gloria Kube, Linda Fortune and Hettie Adams each put down for the future the memories they have not lost and look back with nostalgia at their childhoods and how their lives have changed. Kube’s book was published in 1988 twenty years after the removals, Fortune and Adams’ books appeared in 1996, thirty years afterwards – but in each book, the pain is still present.

So how do these women remember Jews when they appear in their reminiscences?

A. As fellow victims of the Group Areas Act

Hettie Adams remembered Mrs Ofsowitz: “She spoke and acted just like one of us, she wore takkies and long dirty dresses and could she swear – she too had to get out. And she was white; she cried so much.[10]

Linda Fortune remembered Mr Leonard, a very kind old man, who was a wizard with a soldering iron and whose speciality was repairing primus stoves. He frequently did not charge or asked them to send him some vegetables or repair his shoes instead.

“In the end most of the people replaced their primus stoves with gas cookers, because there was no longer anybody to repair them because Mr Leonard and his wife had received a visit from the Group Areas and asked to produce their identity documents. When it was discovered that he was in fact a German immigrant and his wife a white Boer lady, they were told that they could no longer stay where they were.

‘We have no intention of leaving District Six as my wife and I have been living here in this house in Clyde Street ever since the second World War” he told the official. ” I love District Six and I and my wife have come to respect and love the people around us. We are part of the community.”

“The man from the Group Areas told him that he was only doing his job  and he was there to see that the government orders were carried out.

“Why don’t you go back to Germany?” the official asked.

”Why would I go back there? When I was there all I thought about was to get out of the country because of what happened while I was there, all that persecution under Hitler.  Now I see you want to do the same thing here with your dammed forced removals. All the time my wife and I have lived in Clyde Street, we have been happy and contented.”

The official only said, “if you do not move out within the given notice period of three months, we will come and move you personally. “

”Mr Alex, “old Mr Leonard said to dad, “My wife and I are too old to put up a fight… So I asked the official if we could be allocated a house out on the Cape Flats so that we can still be amongst the people of District Six. The man told me that number one, I am White and so is my wife, and number two, there is no guarantee that the people from Distinct Six are all going to the same area. They will be moved to places like Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Netreg, Lavender Hill, Retreat, Steenberg, Hanover Park and Belhar. Now, Mr Alex, I never heard half of those names of the places he mentioned, I might as well be dead.”

“To calm him down, Dad took out a bottle of Old Brown Sherry. Mr. Leonard left our house when the bottle was empty. A few days later Mr Leonard came back to our house to inform my dad that he and his wife had decided to rent a flat in Green Point. Every Saturday Mr Leonard and his wife came back to visit their friends in District Six. They never went home empty handed.”[11]

Morris Mazel and Mogamat Benjamin
‘The Jews of District Six; Another time another place’, South African Jewish Museum

Although District Six was zoned for whites, neither Mrs Ovsowitz (? Mofsowitz?)  nor the Leonards were allowed to stay there – possibly because of slum clearance and the bulldozers. As the second generation gained the educational qualifications their parents’ sacrifices had made possible, they moved out of District Six,  first up the road to Maynard Street, Gardens, Vredehoek and Devils Peak and then to the  suburbs. But by the 1960s there were still a few elderly Jews, like Katzen, living in District Six who were affected by the Group Areas removals. These are Jews as fellow victims.

B. As landlords

Hettie Adams writes ‘Our house belonged to whites, Jews, there was a lot of Jews, and when I was older I used to go and pay the rent once a month. I had to walk to Castle Bridge and just where it turns off, that was where there was an office.”[12]

Gloria Kube recalled, “We paid rent to Dr Barrett, a Jewish doctor in the building, number 67 Loader Street. We were six in one room, eventually they renovated the building and we moved to a much bigger room in front.”[13]

Linda Fortune[14] was more negative. “Some people in District Six owned their houses but I knew that most of the property belonged to Jewish landlords who did not want to sell their property to coloured people. Often they were not even prepared to talk to their tenants, let alone come to have a look at the place! And if the landlords did get around to doing any kind of renovation the rent went up. So the properties were left to deteriorate more and more, giving the government more and more of an excuse to move out the people.”

She feels that Jews were partly to blame for their removal because they did not spend money on repairs. Her hostility might be a more accurate indication of attitudes.  Linda, an education officer at the District Six Museum wrote her book herself. Hettie and Gloria were in domestic service and their memories had been filtered through the pens of their white employers, the Jewish, Hermione Suttner (who Hettie refers to as Madam) and Ruby who interviews Gloria.

C. As shopkeepers    

Hettie Adams identified shopkeepers as Jewish,  Portuguese or Indian  but they also saw  them as neighbours, went to their houses and ran errands for them and knew something about the Jewish shopkeepers and  their religious traditions. This is an indication of shared communication and interest in each other:  “The Gordins had the Golden Bakery. It was so called because old man Gordin who was from Poland first went to settle in America. He was only there a few days when he heard about gold in South Africa so he caught the ship; he landed in Cape Town and never went on to the Transvaal to look for gold.  He made bread instead. His wife could not speak English, only Yiddish and even though she could not write her name, she was at the till of their bakery. They lived in Hanover Street, but when their house got too full with their children, two sons rented rooms near us. One son became a surgeon, Often I had to take for Aunty Titus her unbaked bread to put in the Gordin’s oven when their own bread was finished. They charged two pennies for big loaf and a half a penny for a small loaf. There were bright pink and yellow cupcakes, very tempting on the shelves at the bakery, so we sometimes ran with our baked bread when it was finished and instead of paying for the baking, we ran out the back door and came back into the shop and bought a cookie. I think the Gordins knew but they never said anything.’ [15]

“Other times I was sent to Mrs Blecher to buy portions of chicken. We also got eggs from her. We improvised songs about Mrs. Kaplan and Mrs. Gordin.[16] Once Lizzie and I took chickens to be slaughtered for the Gordins, It was the end of the Sabbath and the Jewish people wanted chickens for their Sunday lunch. There was a yard next to the house and in the yard two big drums filled with cement … a plank was across them and on the plank big nails. Mr Shapiro would take the chicken, tie the feet together, hold the wings then quickly cut the chicken’s throat and let the blood drip out. The light from their dining room shone through the window and onto the chickens and that yard and there were feathers everywhere, and all the people waiting for their fowl to be koshered. If I could paint, I would paint that picture of the Saturday night at the slaughterer with all the mess, the blood and the feathers and then they would give us a tickey if we would hose down the yard. I often think: The Shapiro family’s son could study and became a doctor just from them killing chickens.[17]

“There were two bioscopes. I like the National bioscope better than the one Mrs Kaplan had. Hers was only a twopenny bioscope but we sat on long benches and she pushed us up with a long stick, prodding us closer and close together, we were so squashed, but we shouted and screamed there too. .. And we shouted as we saw different people come in: ‘There goes the baker’s son’ and ‘There goes the chicken woman’s daughter’ – they were Jews.”

Gloria Kube also identified the shop owners as being Jewish. Their house doctor was a Jewish doctor, Dr Cedrics. The man who ran the dairy was Jewish. So was the butcher.

“The man was short with a lekker bleskop[18]. A short guy. Also a Jewish guy. At the time, all the Jews had the shops. He used to sell milk, butter, cheese. I can remember his wife was also there in the dairy. She was a beautiful woman, short.

“In the morning before I go to school, I had to go to the butcher. He was a Jewish butcher so he was open at that time. And I use to go and buy bone pieces, there was a lot of meat on… I had to put the money down there (6 pence) in the mornings so that in the afternoon when school is out I will know there will be meat for us…Yes he was a good Jewish man, a very good man. He used to help us a lot. There were times when work was slack in the docks and my father had no work and my mother had no money to pay for the previous week’s meat. And we could go back to the butcher and he would supply us with more meat for the following week. Nowadays you can’t do that. You don’t get anything for nothing. The butcher shop was in Somerset Road next to the fisheries and then a café, Mr Berman’s café. And we would go into the café to buy toffee and we would buy a tickey or penny’s worth of crumbs on a roll and that would be our lunch  …I can also remember there was a Jewish shop on the corner that sold clothes,  mainly baby stuff. It was very cheap and we used to buy things there also.[19]

When she moved to Manenberg for a time, she would go to Hanover Street and do her shopping at the “Rooikop Jood.”[20]

Hanover Street, District Six, 1964

Fortune is the only one who, with two exceptions, names shops without labeling them as being owned by Jews.[21] One reference is negative “this one old Jewish shoe shop close to the Star bioscope whose owner never changed his shoe display in the window. With time, some of the leather faded in colour, but nothing else ever changed.”

The other reference is to their favourite shop, which was also run by the “Rooikop Jood”.

‘’The tall good-looking shopkeeper with his fiery head of hair and his assistants knew all their customers by name. They knew all the children’s parents. They also knew what brand of item to give to which child as some families bought only certain brands of food. The Rooikop Jood was a wizard at adding up. Even when they were later used all over the place, he never got a calculator. On the counter, there were always large sheets of brown or white paper. He would tear off a piece and scribble our prices down, and add them up in no time. He never made a mistake. After you paid for your goods, he would hand you your change together with the slip. Once home, we would first check our items and then do our own addition. It would take a lot longer and eventually we would be satisfied that the Rooikop Jood was right. The Rooikop Jood was also famous for his snoekmoorties.” [22]

Her lack of labelling shops as being Jewish owned might be deliberate. Even the reference to the Rooikop Jood has a sting in it- although his calculations were always correct they did not trust him and always checked the bill when they returned home. Their friend Mr Leonard has also been deracinated. Nowhere does she hint that he is Jewish although his comments appears to confirm this: “Why would I go back (to Germany)? When I was there all I thought about was to get out of the country because of what happened while I was there, all that persecution under Hitler.”

D As friends and neighbours: Leonard the primus man who enjoyed old Brown Sherry, They ran errands for the Gordins, the Shapiros and their back yard filled with blood and feathers, they knew about Jewish customs.

Esther Wilkin grew up in District Six, until her family later moved a few blocks up the road to the more prestigious Maynard Street. In the 1980s she used to address members of the Cape Jewish Seniors Association on her memories, her notes subsequently being donated to the University of Cape Town.[23]

Fish cart and fish horn

“Fixed in my memory are the noises. There was the noise of vendors hawking their goods on the top of their voices. Buy buy cheap, you need this or that, in different accents, the main language being Yiddish. From the coloured vendors came a mixture of Afrikaans and English. The cry of the knife and scissors sharpeners, the cry of the iceman, the vegetable cart, aartappels, drywe, piesangs, the blowing of the fish horn, the noise of the housewives as they gathered around the fish cart, not only to buy fish, but to exchange gossip. Many a shidduch was arranged around the fish cart. I know of three cases of Jews marrying “coloured” women and in two of the cases the women became Jewish and their children were part of the Jewish community. I went to school with one.  Jews were more civil to the “coloureds” of District Six than the English or Afrikaans as the immigrants had not forgotten their persecution in Russia

Four subjects do not a research project make nor can one draw valid statistical conclusions.  But unlike the next generation, these writers all knew that Jews lived and worked in District Six because they shared the same time and place. For them it was “not ancient long-forgotten history”.

Gwynne Schrire, a veteran contributor to Jewish Affairs and a long-serving member of its editorial board, is Deputy Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies – Cape Council. She has authored, co-written and edited over twenty books on aspects of South African Jewish and Western Cape history.


[1] Interview with Esther Wilkin, IN Shain, Milton (Convenor), The Jews of District Six; Another time another place. Exhibition opened  at the South African Jewish Museum, 11 November 2012,. Jewish Publications South Africa, Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, University of Cape Town in association with the South African Jewish Museum, 2012,81


[3]  Barnett, Naomi, The planned destruction of District Six in 1940. in Van Heyningen, Elizabeth, Studies in the History of Cape Town, vol 7, , Cape Town History project, UCT Press,1994, 189

[4] Schrire, Gwynne,  interview with Esther Wilkin 16.2.1996

[5] Schrire, Gwynne, Jewish Life in District Six Before World War 1: A Memoir,  In Jewish Affairs 63;2, Rosh Hashanah, 2008

[6]  Lewin, Hugh, Stones against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle,  Umuzi, Cape Town, 2011, 144

[7] Rive, Richard, ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six, David Philip, Johannesburg, 1986, 3, 149-153, 175- 186.

[8] Rive, Richard,op cit,  152

[9] L.M. Montgomery,The Story Girl

[10] Adams, Hettie,56

[11]Fortune, Linda,  105-111

[12] Adams, Hettie and Hermione Suttner, William Street, District Six, Chameleon press, Diep River, 1988, 7

[13] Kube, Gloria and Ruby Hill, Living in Loader Street: Reminiscences of growing up and life in Loader Street before the forced group removals of July 1966, Rue Publications, Howard place, 1996, 9-10

[14] Fortune, Linda, The House in Tyne Street: Childhood Memories of District Six, Kwela, Cape Town 1996, 77

[15] Adams, Hettie, op cit 27

[16] Adams, Hattie, op cit, 28

[17] Adams, Hettie, op cit,  35

[18] bald head

[19] Kube, Gloria, op cit, 38-40

[20] Kube, Gloria, op cit, 34

[21] Like the toy tea set from Mr Goldman’s shop at the top of Hanover Street, Goodman’s shop in the Sweeteries Building which sold the best peanuts, Waynik’s famous for their school uniforms, Bank’ hiring supply shop, Shrand’s shoe shop Edworks, the Rose & Crown bar[21] from where she had to fetch her father. The Bialls, whose daughters were this writer’s friends, owned the Rose & Crown.

[22] Fortune, Linda, op cit, 64-65

[23] The writer was the social worker and used to invite Esther to address the groups.  Her notes were subsequently donated to the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research and are stored in the archives in the Gwynne Schrire folder. BC1503