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Lithuanians dominate Jewish community in South Africa

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 steam...my 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. 

At the same time, the Lithuanian Jews in South Africa collaborated with the appartheid system, except few isolated leaders as Helen Suzman, Joe Slovo, Nadine Gordimer. mainly because they were communists.

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