The story behind the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home

  • AstridBroll
It was a family tragedy that spurred the establishment of the South African Jewish Orphanage - the first such institution in the country - known today as the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home.
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | Nov 02, 2017

It began when Astrid Broll’s mother was born on September 10, 1902. Three days later her own mother, Astrid’s grandmother, died. Her grandfather was unable to cope with his other eight children and placed them in Nazareth House, a Catholic institution.

The new-born infant, named Anne after her deceased mother, was given to a family who changed her name to Elma Jacobs and raised her as a Catholic.

The eldest child, 12-year-old Sophia, was deemed to be too old for the orphanage so she was sent on her own by ship to the Norwood Jewish Orphanage in London. She stayed there until she was 18, then returned to South Africa at which point she changed her name to Vera.

“I remember meeting her for the first time,” Astrid recalls accompanying her mother on a visit to her sister. “I was a little girl of five or six. Her husband was a tailor in Eloff Street in Johannesburg in one of the old ‘broekie lace’ buildings.“When the Jewish community heard about the seven Jewish children who had been placed in a Catholic institution, they immediately took them and placed them in a rented house in Hillbrow and that was the beginning of Arcadia,” officially opened on September 8, 1903.

“They were there for a short while,” she says. “They did offer my grandfather (Benjamin Samuels) a house and help to take the children back - they wanted the children to be with the father obviously - but he said he couldn’t.”

Astrid had no idea what had happened to him until very recently, when she discovered that he had gone to the United States and remarried.

Also in 1903, Max Langermann donated four stands in the Johannesburg suburb of Kensington, with the idea of establishing an orphanage. With this in mind, it was decided that the house in Hillbrow be only temporarily rented and a matron, a cook-general and a “native servant” engaged, the then-named South African Jewish Orphanage being under the overall supervision of the Jewish Ladies’ Communal League.

The house proved to be too small for the growing number of children, so a new building was erected on the Kensington stands and in October 1905, 20 orphans moved in. In 1922, the committee heard that Villa Arcadia in Parktown, designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1909, was for sale and it was purchased for 30 000 pounds to house the orphans who had by then grown to 81.

Meanwhile Astrid’s mom was blissfully unaware of her origins and the fact that she was Jewish. “She had never been told that she was adopted - her mother and father subsequently had three children of their own, so she was the eldest.

“She went to church, had a cross over her bed, but was always interested in Jewish affairs. She went out with Jewish men, went to Jewish art exhibitions.

“When she was 21 and still living with her parents, her biological sister Ada came in through the gate - she looked a lot like my mother - and said: ‘Are you Elma? Well, I’m your real sister.’”

Ada had searched for the whole family, no easy task as they had all been adopted from Arcadia by different parents.

“Of course there was a big upset - her adoptive parents came and explained the situation to her and she was devastated. The younger ‘siblings’ then changed their whole attitude towards her, both because she was Jewish and possibly because her ‘mother’ had always favoured her above the others,” Astrid surmises.

Elma then embarked on a mission to connect with her true siblings. Her brother Louis had been adopted by the Goldman family of Springs and in the last five years, Astrid has connected with his two daughters, her first cousins, one of whom lives near her son in London.

At the age of 29, after two prior engagements, Elma married Astrid’s “very frum” father, William Leslie Kerby (originally Ludwig Kopelowitz), who was 22 years her senior. “He went to shul twice a day every day of his life,” Astrid recalls.

Of her mother’s siblings, Astrid met Louis, Vera and Ada. She also remembers going to visit her mother’s adoptive family, with whom her mother maintained contact, despite their change in attitude.

She remembers her mother keeping a strictly kosher home.

In spite of the fact that she only met her biological family at the age of 21, she had no trouble integrating with them.

“When I met my first cousins in London for the first time, we just connected immediately,” Astrid recalls.

Astrid’s mother went to school until standard five (not uncommon for the times) but “basically educated herself. She was a very cultured person.

“She was a great art collector, as was my father, and was a patron of the arts, introducing young artists to the right people. That’s how they knew Herman Wald,” she says, referring to the well-known sculptor among whose works are the memorial to the Six Million in West Park Jewish Cemetery and the Stampede in central Johannesburg.



  1. 3 David Solly Sandler 07 Nov
    The story of the establishment of The South African Jewish Orphanage and the Samuel Family  is fully told in 100 Years of Arc Memories and More Arc Memories compiled by David Solly Sandler - [email protected]

    The South African Jewish Orphanage owes its establishment to the Jewish Ladies’ Communal League, which in 1899, began its activities among the small Jewish community which had ventured into Johannesburg
  2. 2 Geoff Phillips 15 Aug
    Resending... UPDATED AND CORRECTRD... Please advise receipt.  Thankyou.

    As follows:  

    Not sure if seeing your wonderful article tonight was by accident or by design.....

    Your post ironically followed my reading an unusual post from....

    JUNE 14th 2013,  2.08pm

    As follows:

    "Did you keep silkworms in a shoebox when you were growing up? According to Wikipedia, South Africa is one of just a few countries where kids keep silkworms as a hobby!"

    All of 2 days ago, I found this old Silkworm post which included a question on the preponderance of S.A kids who had the silkworm fetish growing up.

    I was one that did.... and it prompted me to respond with a "side-story" about a wonderful memory that - now... tonight, (August 14th, 2018)  - because of this historical account of the South African Arcadia Orphanage, I found myself rivited in your content and my memories prompting me to add "the rest of the story" below and too long to include before.

    Below is my Silkworm response... followed by what would not have been included had I not seen this marvelous historical chapter of Arcadia. I was then compelled to add the "unfinished" segment of memories so vivid in my mind's eye.

    Silkworm Memories:

    I did...for years.... and these incredible images bring back memories of a story I created for my Kids, Grand-children & other kids I put to bed with a story at night about .... Solly, the #Silkworm.

    I had my shoeboxes filled with leaves - sometimes cabbage leaves! -  in my home in #Illovo   on #4thAvenue and got all my #mulberryleaves from the #Rabinowitz's - an incredibly wonderful husband and wife -  with no kids and who were sponsors and patrons to the #ArcadiaJewishChildren's Home ... the only #orphanage in #Johannesburg.  I still have great memories of picking those luscious mulberries from her tree and feeding those wonderful silkworms until they began spinning their cocoons for conversion into egg-laying moths for the next generation. 

    Thanks for the "wormorries"...

    Arcadia Memories:

    Why unfinished?

    It so happens I was at Saxonworld Primary School in 1959/60 and had friends in Mrs. Milne's lclass who were at the Arcadia ophanage.... and - sad to say - I never got to know those kids that, years later, left me regretting my lack of reaching out to them.

    It was Sylvia  Rabinowitz (? I think Sylvia),  whose warm hello's when passing our corner house , shared part of  the orphanage with me and was interlectually too young to understand about the incredible institution I knew too little about.

    As time passed - some 45 years since leaving SA., I recall the "House " on the way to the top of Oxford Road that I wish, to this day,  I had had a stronger relationship with my schoolmates and was a visitor at Arcadia on 2 occasions I vaguely remember.

    I hope that my story reaches Leonie and others who will reach back at this stage of our connected lives.

    So glad to have found these 2 oddly-connected stories...Best wishes always!

    Geoff Phillips
    San Diego

  3. 1 Elaine Alge 29 May
    I am trying to get hold of the Book on the Orphanage in Johannesburg.  My late father and his brother both went there.  My fathers name was Morris Ring then changed to Morris Slater.

    Many thanks

    Elaine Alge


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