Santa Pelham, who did so much, passes at 97

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Santa Pelham – a legend in her time, who gained world-wide acclaim with her commissioned memoir “Santa’s Story” and its one-woman dramatic adaptation performed by her diva daughter Aviva Pelham (Sulcas) - passed away in Cape Town on the last day of Chanukah at the age of 97.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Dec 22, 2015

'Sang like the Von Trapps!' 

“She died on the Festival of Lights, the light in her having inspired all with whom she came into contact,” a heartbroken Aviva told SA Jewish Report.

Santa was born in Knapsack, Germany in 1918 to Polish parents who moved to Germany during the First World War to replace soldiers on the front. With her parents, Simcha Meilach and Maita Erder and two brothers Leon and Chaim, (the younger of whom was born as the result of Maita having being raped by a Nazi), she moved to the industrial town of Beerenrath.

Pelham Aviva  and her 96-year-old mother, Santa

RIGHT: Aviva and her 96-year-old mother, Santa Pelham  - Photo supplied

Illiterate, though highly intelligent, Maita sold soap to workers and the family built up a business until anti-Semitism got out of hand. Santa, as a Jewish child of five, was refused milk at school and was accused of killing Christ.

Apart from that, the family continued with its Friday night traditions, passed on down the generations. But in the middle of one Shabbat dinner, the Gestapo and a policeman came for Simcha who was taken to a penitentiary and tortured despite the policeman’s objections. Simcha refused to leave until the prayers had been completed.

The family was then on the run – to Spain as other doors in Europe were shut. But Santa stayed on to complete her schooling and joined them a year later. “As it turned out, they should have remained in Spain as the Spanish Jews escaped persecution. My grandmother sold linen in various villages to eke out a living. Later, as refugees, they landed up living in one room in France.” 

The boys were offered passage to South America with the help of ORT but their mother did not want to split up the family.

Then a member of the French Jewish community came forward, offering Santa a “shidduch” with a man, Jack Pelham, who lived in Salisbury (Harare) in the former Rhodesia. In his proposal, he offered to buy her shoes, a new dress and a cinema ticket.

Pelham santas-story book coverTo escape the mounting attacks on the Jews, Santa accepted and travelled alone by ship from Marseilles, down the Suez Canal and along the coast to Beira (Mozambique).

LEFT: the cover of her famous book, Santa’s Story     - Photo book,  supplied

Jack Pelham was too impatient to wait for Santa’s train to Salisbury and met it in Beira.

Santa, preparing to meet her intended, had her hair in rollers and cold cream on her face. She opened the door to a knock on her compartment and there stood Jack. They were married 10 days later in June,1939.

Meanwhile, Santa’s family was murdered in Auschwitz. Even Chaim, being half German, was not spared. But Leon survived after being in a POW camp.

Alone, save for her stranger husband, Santa, settled down to life in Salisbury. But it was a low ebb in her life. Both she and Jack spoke several languages – he taught her Yiddish. Gradually Santa resumed her life. But tragedy struck again when she lost her first baby Barbara at the age of five months.

She joined WIZO and participated in community activities and gave birth to three more daughters – Ruth (Steiner), Naomi (Jaff) and Aviva. Jack was a successful businessman. Santa was delighted with her eight grandchildren and just before her passing met her 17th great-grandchild.

Went to university in her 60s

The family settled in Cape Town where Santa enrolled in UCT in her 60s, majoring in religious studies, and was awarded 98% for her French oral.

She used to give shiurim, assisting converts and even “frum” people, who flocked to her lessons. Jack died in 2002 at the age of 91.

Santa continued her Yiddishkeit and was renowned for her Shabbat dinners and, of course,  her singing. “Our entire family sang – we were like the Von Trapps!” Aviva said.

“Santa’s Story” performed by Aviva and her klezmer band was a hit throughout South Africa and abroad and, despite her age, Santa would sing before the curtain came down.

She was sought after by a German archivist and the family travelled to Beerenrath, where a street was named after Santa’s parents. Her story is one of courage, perseverance, talent and achievement.

For further information on Santa Pelham go to


  1. 4 RENEE Bersin 26 Dec
    Morris and I were extremely fortunate to attend the last performance of Santa's Story at the Theatre on the Bay , in February this year, whilst visiting from Australia. We were seated in the front row with Naomi, Ruth and Santa that night and they all remembered Morris from Salisbury. Naomi & Ruth told their mom that it was Puxi BERSIN from Salisbury! We spent a lovely evening reminiscing about the times that Morris visited their home in Salisbury! We have fond memories of Santa , we even had the opportunity to hear her sing that night. We wish Ruth, Naomi ,Aviva and their families all a long life! You are in our thoughts during this very sad time.
  2. 3 Jeanette Airey 27 Dec
    My husband Roger and I together with my cousin and wife (Malcolm and Minnie Macfarlane) attended the performance at Theatre on the Bay Saturday 14th February 2015 (second last performance I think it was).  It was the most wonderful show and singing by both Santa and Aviva bringing us to tears at times. At the end of the show we had a photo with Santa and chatted to her which was so inspiring and I chanced on this site tonight wanting more information because I was reading the book she signed for me that night and so I learned of her passing a few days ago.  Our deepest sympathies to the family at this very sad loss.  May the G_d of Israel be your comfort.
  3. 2 Jeanette Airey 27 Dec
    I tried to submit a photo of myself with Santa but I couldn't get it to go??...........

    Send it to [email protected] and we'll
    put it up for you with pleasure.
    Any other news, users?
    Please send to same address.

  4. 1 Rabbi Selwyn Franklin 25 Feb
    A chance exploration into South African operatic history, allowed me to learn about Santa's passing. Although Eileen and I have lived in Sydney since 1988, we remember Santa and her family with great affection; her story is certainly the triumph of the spirit. I am grateful to Suzanne Belling for allowing us to remember Santa for the person she was; the epitome of the Eshet Chayil.


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