The second Litvak migration

The history of the Jews in South Africa has certain parallels with the history of most of their Lithuanian ancestors.

The Baltic Litvaks

Early in the 14C, Grand Duke Gediminas had invited Jews into his Duchy because they were literate and numerate. The ‘Rothschilds’ amongst them became his financial advisers; many others, tax collectors. In the 16C, they comprised 10% of Lithuania’s population. By 1897, they were more than 35% – 755,000.[i]

Two-thirds had emigrated before the German invasion in the summer of 1941. Many had lost their occupations after the railway line between Moscow and Vilnius opened in 1860. Hoteliers, leather-goods workers, wheelwrights, horse traders and others, scattered along the coach routes, lost their business to the railways.

After the Shoah, the Soviet census of 1959 recorded fewer than 25,000 Lithuanian Jews – 1% of the population. By 1993, the number was down to 6,000 or fewer.[ii]

The South African Litvaks

Most Litvaks migrated to the New World, but some 15,000 went to South Africa following the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1884). Often registered on entry as ‘miners’, they were commonly, however, dealers in miners’ necessities.

The post-World War II election of the apartheid government did not adversely affect only ‘non-whites’. Everyone, one way or another, emerged damaged – Jews financially secure – but socially, emotionally and morally damaged. The comfortable lifestyle under the Afrikaner government led, for most Jews, to the unethical acceptance of apartheid.[iii]

Since the 1950s, the Jewish population has diminished by two-thirds, a parallel with Lithuania’s loss prior to 1941. By 2005, from the 1950s peak of around 120,000, the number has fallen today to around 50,000.[iv]

Migration splits families twice. Educated youngsters leave for those countries where their professions are needed. Siblings separate – and parents and grandparents are left behind.[v]

Just as so many Baltic Litvaks transplanted into the mainly Anglophone world, so South African Litvaks are following suit, numerically and geographically.

David Pyke and Joan Medawar have described Hitler’s Jewish ‘gift’ to Britain and the US. As Sir Ian Jacob said after the war, explaining why the Allies had won, “Our German scientists were better that their German scientists.” Similarly, apartheid has made an intellectual gift to the anglophone world and to Israel.

The 2001 Australian census had recorded 576 South African-born Jews, with a rise of 2% per annum to 637 by 2006. Over the next decade, the annual rate of increase was 34% per annum. According to the 2016 Australian census, which includes religion and country of birth, 12,092 people identified as having been born in South Africa and being Jewish. This current snapshot excludes, of course, the thousands born before the 1930s, (my parents and many of their friends) who migrated to Australia in the 70 years since apartheid began, and who have died here.

A significant generational difference between the second and third generations of South African Jews and their Lithuanian grandparents was the achievement of professional qualifications.[vi]

This, and the running of successful businesses, were hallmarks of these Jews, over-represented in all fields of endeavour. Dates of emigration varied according to internal political events, the emigré’s age, and when they qualified.

Five waves can be identified:

  1. 1948-50, a small wave in response to the election of the Nationalist Party; many settled in Perth, Western Australia – closer to their parents;
  2. 1961-63, following the shootings of blacks in Sharpeville and Langa, a larger migration;
  3. 1977-1978, after the shooting of black schoolchildren in Soweto, a major wave; many to Sydney and Melbourne, as with later waves;
  4. 1986-1988, during the conscription era of the undeclared wars in Angola and Mozambique; and
  5. after 1989, with the release from gaol of Nelson Mandela presaging the election of the African National Congress government.

A trickle has continued, both of young people and of parents of those who had migrated earlier.

Not all settled in their first country of choice. Many gained higher qualifications in the UK, moving then to the US, Canada or Australia. Although South African Jews were strongly Zionistic, Israel posed a language obstacle, especially for health professionals and lawyers. Some moved on to the USA.

The remaining Litvaks

Half of those now remaining in South Africa are beyond reproductive age[vii] and the small immigration from Israel is unlikely to significantly increase the population.

The future is uncertain in the face of mounting anti-Semitism and the continuing loss, by emigration, of close family members joining emigrant children – now mainly in Israel 26%, the USA 21%, Australia 20%, and the UK 20%.[viii]

David Graham has already pointed to a significant intention to emigrate. “43% say that they have considered leaving South Africa permanently in the past year (2019)…  57% have close family (parents, siblings, children, grandchildren) who have left South Africa.”

I suggest that, similarly to the way in which we view the place of Lithuanian Jews in world history, if we are to consider a realistic perspective on South African Litvaks, then our focus should be on their future in their diaspora, not on the dwindling numbers remaining.

[i] Levin, Dov, 2001, The Litvaks: a Short History of the Jews in Lithuania, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem


[ii] Alperovitch, Simon and Isroel Lempert, 2001, Jewish Community of Lithuania, second revised edition

booklet, Vilnius: the Jewish Community of Lithuania.

[iii] Goldberg, Dan,  Ha’Aretz, 29 Jan 2013.

[iv] Graham, David, The Jews of South Africa in 2019.

[v] Aviram-Freedman E. Making oranges from lemons: experiences of support of South African senior citizens following the emigration of their children. 2005. MPsych thesis, University of the Western Cape.

[vi] Tatz, Arnold and Heller, Worlds Apart: The Re-Migration of South African Jews

[vii] Graham, ibid

[viii] Graham, ibid.

About the Author
Dr Peter Chester Arnold OAM is the Past President of the Association of Medical Students of South Africa, General Practitioners' Society in Australia, and the Australian Medical Association, nationally and in New South Wales, as well as the Deputy President of the New South Wales Medical Board. He's also authored more than 50 pieces each in the British Medical Journal and the Medical Journal of Australia, and more than 100 articles for Australian medical newsletters/magazines. He's a professional editor for more than 30 years on politics, sociology, medicine, history and Holocaust studies.