If we think of it at all, most of us think of Jewish migrants from the Russian Empire either side of 1900 as having fled the persecution and poverty there for the safe shores of USA. However, this is not the whole story. The passenger lists in BT27 help to illuminate the lesser-known story of the Jews from Russia who travelled to South Africa.
These migrants came especially from the region around Kovno, now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. They travelled via a port such as Libau (today’s Liepaja in Latvia) on ships bound, via the Baltic Sea and (after its opening in 1895) the Kiel Canal shortcut, for English east coast ports. From there, they travelled overland, usually via London, to Southampton to embark for the Cape.
This movement of people was not accidental: a whole business existed to cater for them, from the ticket agents in the Kovno area, to shipping lines such as the Wilson Line shuttling between Libau and Hull, to the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter in London which housed and orientated many of the trans-migrants, to the Castle Line and the Union Line which specialised in the route to the Cape. And like any successful movement of people, it became self-perpetuating, as the new South Africans sent home letters, and money, encouraging others to follow suit. The first South African census in 1911 indicates a population of 47,000 Jews, most of whom were Lithuanian Jews or “Litvaks” who had arrived since 1892, which also means that a great many of those Americans with Litvak ancestors are likely to have kin who travelled to South Africa.
The image shows one page of an alphabetical 1896 passenger list from the Union Line’s Athenian. Alongside the miners on the gold rush, you will see Jewish surnames such as Cohen, Ginsberg, Grabowski and Greenbaum. Notice how the passenger list at this date had a column charmingly named “Foreigners” and how this is more populated than those for the English, Scotch and Irish.
Sources and further reading
Dr Nicholas J. Evans, ‘Libau and the Evolution of Port Jewish Identity, 1880-1914’, in Jewish Culture and History, Volume VII, Numbers 1- 2 (2004), pp. 197-214.
Aubrey Newman , ‘The Union Castle Line and Emigration from Eastern Europe to South Africa’:
For more about the Jewish community in South Africa, visit: