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Jewish roots lost and found in South Africa



Edith Henderson (née Phillips) grew up in the southern suburbs of Cape Town never knowing that her great-grandparents were Jewish. Now living in London, she has finally uncovered the fact that her Jewish grandfather came to South Africa from England, where somewhere along the way, the link to Judaism was lost, until she uncovered her grandfather’s name and past in January 2023.

Her own father died when she was 16, and with him, any link to his Jewish past. Henderson herself wasn’t raised Jewish, and it was never mentioned that her father’s father and grandparents had been Jewish. All that remained was family lore that her grandfather used to joke that he was “a London Jew”.

Writing on the Facebook group Jewish Genealogy Portal on 10 January 2023, Henderson said, “I’m 69 and living in the UK. I was born and schooled in Cape Town. I recently established that my grandfather had a Jewish burial in Durban, South Africa. I wasn’t raised in the Jewish faith, so this was news to me when researching the paternal side of my family.

“I have limited knowledge of the Jewish faith and practices, and I’m struggling to establish what his name would have been on his birth certificate,” she wrote. “According to his death notice, his Hebrew name was Hirsch ben Avraham. Is there anyone that could guide me as to where and how I may find his birth certificate and Jewish name as I presume he may well not be Harry Phillips, as I knew him?”

Just four days later, Henderson shared an update, thanking people for their help, saying, “I’m overwhelmed. I received a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate on Friday, and admit to shedding a few tears.” In particular, Patricia Wilson from Israel helped her to track down documents in record time.

Henderson found out that her grandfather was born Henry (called Harry) Philips on 18 May 1891 to Arthur Philips and Henrietta Fulda. “They had a Jewish marriage in Islington, London, in 1889. Arthur died in 1895 aged 33. My grandfather was four years old, and an only child. At some stage after 1911, he and his mother arrived in South Africa. Henrietta died in Johannesburg in 1936.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from London, Henderson says she’s amazed at the assistance she received from all over the world. She has a big family on her maternal side, and has researched that family tree, but only recently decided to delve into her paternal side. Both her own father and his father died young, and the family was small, so information was difficult to come by.

When Henderson battled to find birth and death certificates, she decided to take the “London Jew” joke to heart and look at Jewish genealogy website JewishGen. It was there that she discovered his death notice, saying he lived in Durban, died at Addington Hospital, and was buried at Stellawood cemetery in Durban. His birth certificate showed that he was born Jewish. She also discovered his parents’ marriage authorisation, possibly their ketubah, which was “a revelation”.

She has now pieced more of her grandfather’s life together. He grew up in a 10-bedroom house in North London which his mother turned into a boarding house after his father died. He came to South Africa at the age of 19, possibly to “seek his fortune” or escape anti-Jewish sentiment. His mother remarried Herbert Marks, who was a mining engineer. They travelled together, and both later died in Johannesburg. “My grandfather was there as he signed the death notice for his mother,” she says.

Her grandfather was an insurance salesman. He had four children. Henderson’s father, Raymond David Phillips, was the eldest, born in East London in 1918. At some point, Raymond added an extra L to his name, which Henderson inherited. Another child, Herbert Terence Philips, was born in East London, where he lived and died. Henderson’s grandfather had two more children, possibly with another woman named Catherina Maas – Daphne Philips and Harry Lionel Philips, who have both since died. Henderson has since connected with Daphne’s family.

Henderson, meanwhile, grew up in Cape Town and attended Westerford School, where she had many Jewish friends. In fact, some of her closest friends are Jewish. Yet, she never suspected that she had Jewish roots. She later married a British man, returning to England where the story began. Both her siblings remain in South Africa, and she visits the country regularly.

But one mystery remains: the identity of her father’s mother – her grandmother. She doesn’t have a name or any information about this woman, who has been lost to history, and she hopes the Jewish community around the world can help her search for her.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ellenise

    Jan 9, 2024 at 1:35 pm

    Good day search great grand father Benjamin Waries original from Denai Spain met great grand mother Johanna Green Paarl married there but left cape too highlands north were stay due apartheid they move Pretoria he Jewish

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