Eli Rabinowitz

Personal Journey's From One Photo to Journey's of Research and Discovery


 Orla Folk School II 1920, with teacher Moshe Rabinowitz, pictured bottom left.

All I ever have known is that:

I am named after my great uncle Moshe:

Moshe died in a motor accident, six weeks before his planned wedding, the date of his death is unknown, but is sometime between the late 1920's and early 1930's.

Then a photo given to me in 2011, changes everything.

I first become interested in genealogy in 1992, when a cousin jots down, on a piece of scrap paper, the seven names of my paternal ancestors. The result is the discovery of my connection to the Katzellenbogen rabbinic family tree through my great -great grandmother, who appears in Neil Rosenstein's book, 'The Unbroken Chain.'

My second boost comes from 2001, when a Hungarian politician makes contact via Saul Issroff in London, resulting in some unusual revelations on my maternal side, including two secular Muslim second cousins, who are actually halachically Jewish living in Istanbul.

In 1887, my zaida, Nachum Mendel, born in Orla, a small village in North-eastern Poland, near Bialystok, in the Grodno district. His original family name is Skarasjewski, but he changes it to Rabinowitz, to escape being drafted into the Russian army. In the early 1900's my zaida leaves for Brest-Litovsk, where he studies at the Brisk Yeshiva under Rav Chaim Soloveichik. Nachum Mendel then travels to Palestine, marries Chana Cheshe Miriam Herison in 1905, and migrates in 1911, to Volksrust, a 'dorp' in Transvaal, South Africa.

My dad, Zvi Hersh (Harry) is the first of his family to be born in South Africa in 1914. His two older brothers were born in Palestine. By 1919, the family has moved to Cape Town, where his two sisters Rachel and Sarah, are born, with Sarah, the youngest in 1927. The family is joined by Nachum Mendel's younger brother, Moshe Zalman in 1921, and later by his sister Chana.

On 8 November 2010, a Polish researcher, Wojciech Kononczuk of Warsaw, makes contact after seeing my post on Jewish-Gen Family Finder. His family also comes from Orla, the same Shetl as my grandfather. Although not Jewish himself, Wojciech is writing a book on the Jews of Orla. There is no Yiskor book for Orla, so I volunteer to write and manage the Orla Kehila Link for JewishGen, the first of my 57. In May 2011, I visit Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, all for the first time.

On my way home to Australia, I visit my last surviving aunt, Sarah Stepansky, in Jerusalem. Sarah presents me with the above photo as a reward for my enthusiastic interest in our family history. I was the first of my family to make the journey back to Orla in over 90 years. The school photo contains the following information: Orla Folk School II in Yiddish on the front, and 1920, written on the back. My great uncle Moshe is identified by my aunt Sarah, as the teacher in the bottom left of the photo.  

I scan the photo on 7 June 2011, and email it to my family, as well as Wojciech. On 25 July  2011, Wojciech emails me that he has received a photo from Mary, a researcher in London. Mary is researching the Lacki and Lichtzier families, also from Orla. She sends him the photo as it has Orla on a banner In the photo. Mary doesn't know the names of the people in the photo, but on seeing it, Wojciech immediately recognized the teacher in the top left as the same person in the photo I had sent him in June, namely Moshe Rabinowitz.


Moshe Rabinowitz - Orla Class Photo - top left

The puzzle starts falling into place when Wojciech tells Mary that the man's name is Moshe Rabinowitz. She responds that a Moshe Rabinowitz from Orla was engaged in South Africa to Paula (Polly) Lichtzier from Orla, a member of the families she is researching. Mary adds that Moshe was killed in a motor accident six weeks before his planned wedding to Paula.

On making contact with Mary, she provides me with the name and address of Ray Hengy, who lives in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. Ray is the daughter of Paula and Joe Pinn, the man whom Paula subsequently married, sometime after the tragedy. Ray also sends me a series of photos, including Paula with her late fiancÚ's family. It is somewhat eerie receiving photos of my family from a stranger in Germany.

Ray provides me with more details of what she knows about Paula and Moshe. Apparently, her mother maintained a close relationship with Moshe's family in Cape Town after Moshe's tragic death.

In May 2012, I meet Ray and her husband Heinrich in Warsaw, and together with Wojciech and my wife Jill, we travel to Treblinka, Orla and Bialystok. Ray shows me something she is wearing. It is the engagement ring that Moshe had given to her mother. Ray wears it on special occasions. The ring was treasured by her mother throughout her life, as the physical memory of Moshe.

In May 2013, I visit Ray and Heinrich in Freiburg. We search for more photos of Moshe and Paula, and we find a framed photo of them on the wall. However, I am still missing dates and details of the tragic circumstances of Moshe's death. I ask two of my cousins whether they have any further information. They give me one clue: they remember that their dad, my uncle Isaac, recited the mourner's kaddish for his uncle Moshe each year, on the second last day of Pesach.

I check the website of the Cape Town Jewish Cemeteries Maintenance Board for any deaths or burials in Cape Town with the name Moshe Rabinowitz or similar. I find one Morris Rabinowitz, but for some strange reason, the date is shown as '-0001.' The information I was hoping for was missing. I call the Chevra Kadisha in Cape Town and I am given the date of 4/9/31, which is nowhere near Pesach in the Hebrew calendar. I check my IPhone's Pocket Luach, transpose the date to 9/4/31 and voila. It is the second last day of Pesach 1931.

I get back to the Chevra. They find their error, update their database and give me the correct details and the location of the matseva: Woltemade/ Maitland Cemetery (Gate 8). Those who know Cape Town well will tell you that it is not safe to visit the cemetery alone. The Chevra assigns a security guard, affectionately called Dovid Ben Yok, to accompany me. I take photos and have the inscription interpreted by my cousin Hadara Boczko, daughter of Sarah. 

Now armed with a date I ask Jocelyn, and Tammy at the Gitlin Library in Cape Town to be on the lookout for any articles around this date. The library has an excellent collection of old Jewish newspapers bound in folders. Jocelyn finds a report in the SA Jewish Chronicle from April 1931. Jocelyn and Tammy suggest I visit the National Library to check the microfilms of the two local newspapers. The Argus and The Cape Times. I find the accident reports. I also locate the Death Notice and other legal documents at the Western Cape Archives in Roeland Street. I am now in possession of other vital details that allow me to follow up. I visit the scene of the accident, 82 years after it happened.

Knowing that Moshe was a teacher at the Wynberg Talmud Torah at the Wynberg Synagogue. I find out that Moshe was also the secretary at the shul. An excellent source is the book 'A Monument to the Generations,' written by historian Dr David Scher and Lionel Scher, a copy of which can be found in the library at the Kaplan Centre, UCT.

Wanting to research further and keen to connect with descendants who may have more to contribute, I meet Paula's extended family in New York, Toronto, and Israel. Robby Gordon, Glenna Gordon, Rose Kamnitzer and Michal Itzkaki. Rose Kamnitzer in Toronto has a collection of family photos from her parents Berl Liadsky and Bella Lichtzier, Paula's sister. Berl was also Moshe's good friend. They corresponded by postcard after Moshe arrived in South Africa in 1920, until Berl arrived in 1929. These photos in Rose's collection were taken in Poland and South Africa and are special in many respects.


Left to Right: Moshe with his nephew Isaac, with niece Sarah, Paula, an unknown man, and Berl Liadsky

My journey of discovery, starting with a photo given to me in Israel, has taken me to Germany, South Africa, Poland, USA, UK, Canada, and back to Israel, with updates to my research findings in each destination. It has been the subject of my lecture at the IAJGS35 conference in Jerusalem in July 2015, and at subsequent venues and presentations in South Africa and Australia.

But my search isn't complete.

The details of the driver of the vehicle in the fatal accident are still of interest. The newspaper cutting tells us that Mr. M. Katz was the manager of the Mowbray Hotel. I've tried accessing the archives of the company that once owned the hotel, the bus company most likely involved in the accident and consulted various Cape Town historians. So far, I have struck out on these. I am still hopeful that more leads will come my way.

And so to be continued............

Copyright: Eli Rabinowitz, first published 30 November 2015. This edited version, by Chris Webb, Holocaust Historical Society,  September 15, 2020