The mystery of Kenneth Saffer’s JNF certificate is solved

  • JNFCert3
When Steve and Irene House arrived at the home of Rabbi Adam Saffer, the questions which had plagued them for almost a decade could finally be answered. A name on a certificate which had hung in their dining room for 10 years was going to be given a face, a personality and a home.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 12, 2018

For Saffer, an uncle he had never known was coming home, after having been the subject of fixation for people who were complete strangers to him.

Unbeknown to him, a piece of his family history had been almost 50km away for the past 10 years and was now coming through his door. Little did he know that his family’s history had captivated people he had never met, and that this meeting would prove nothing short of extraordinary.

“If someone contacted me and said that they had found something that belonged to my family years ago, my excitement would be indescribable,” says Irene. “If a part of my history could be given to me, I’d want it more than anything.” Although her determination ensured that she eventually found the owner of her discovery, the journey was a long and trying one.

When she and her husband, Steve, visited a car-boot sale in Walkerville in 2008, Irene did not expect to come away with a mission. But as fate would have it, when she scoured the goods on offer that day, she found something that captured her attention immediately. It was a small Jewish National Fund (JNF) certificate, issued to one Kenneth Michael Saffer on the occasion of his birth and the purchase of a tree in Israel in his name. “I thought it was beautiful,” says Irene. “It simply had to come home with me, and I had to find its owners.”

After paying the princely sum of R5, she took it home and began her search. While the certificate hung in its frame on the wall of her dining room, Irene tried every avenue she could possibly think of in order to return the certificate to its owner, or at least his descendants. “The number of times I tried my luck with the phone book are too many to count,” she laughs. “There wasn’t a single Saffer in there whom I didn’t call. But no matter how many of them I spoke to, no one had heard of Kenneth. Neither had any of the Jewish schools I contacted.”

She explains how difficult it was to describe her mission to people. “Everyone immediately assumed I was trying to sell them something,” she laughs. “They couldn’t believe I was trying to give something back to its owner.”

Her relatives and friends were also sceptical. Although her husband shared some of her enthusiasm, others were at a loss as to why she was so determined. “My children thought I was absolutely mad,” says Irene. “Many of my friends said to me: ‘You’re not Jewish, so why on earth are you doing this?’ I had to return it, and that was that.”

Years passed, Irene had little luck and admits that her hope flagged from time to time. It was in May this year, however, that her hopes were rekindled when her son brought home a copy of the SA Jewish Report. “My son walked in one evening with the newspaper, thinking it may help. I took a chance and decided to try my luck.”

It paid off. After receiving a call from Irene two days later, the SA Jewish Report set out to help her locate Kenneth Saffer. Turning to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the newspaper’s call for help was directed to Naomi Musiker, the organisation’s archivist.

It was later that week, however, that Saffer’s sad fate was revealed. On researching biographical news cuttings, Musiker came across a tragic article from The Zionist Record of 19 January 1973, which relates to the deaths of two children of Isadore and Rae Saffer, prominent Johannesburg Zionist supporters. Kenneth Michael and his sister, Pamela Saffer, had both died in separate accidents in 1963.

According to an obituary published earlier that month, Kenneth Saffer, a prominent Wits University student, died at the age of 19 in an accident while hiking in the Drakensberg mountains.

With this information, the SA Jewish Report turned to social media community platforms in the hopes of finding a living relative of the late Kenneth to return the certificate. However, when posts on sites like the Johannesburg Jewish Community Forum and Johannesburg Jewish Mommies yielded no response, other search methods were called for, and anyone with the surname Saffer was sought out and contacted.

Initial results included Minnie Saffer, who, aside from being related to Kenneth through marriage, suggested we contact Kenneth’s niece, Dr Shoshana Saffer. After contact with Shoshana yielded no results, it was Minnie’s husband Anthony – Kenneth’s cousin – who suggested the newspaper make contact with Shoshana’s brother, Rabbi Adam Saffer. He happened to be Kenneth’s nephew.

And finally, after weeks of searching, we were able to contact Rabbi Saffer, and arranged for him to meet Mr and Mrs House at his home in Glenhazel on 4 July 4, more than two months after our search had begun.

“My father is two years older than Kenneth,” explains Rabbi Saffer. “After Kenneth and his sister Pamela were both killed in separate accidents in the same year, my father preferred not to talk about the tragedies. When I was growing up, he would never speak about his brother.”

One of five siblings, Saffer is the son of Dr Israel and Sheila Saffer, both in their 70s and now living in Israel. Showing us photographs from his late uncle’s school days, Rabbi Saffer explained how it was his mother, Sheila, who had filled in the blanks of his family history for him. She had quietly told him about his father’s late siblings. “Dad never opened up about either of them,” he explains. “Thanks to my mother, I patched the family history together and came to know about the aunt and uncle I never knew.”

Rabbi Saffer confirmed what the articles from the archives had indicated, and explained how his grandparents had founded Kiryat Moriah, a youth centre in Jerusalem, in memory of their son and daughter. “Kiryat Moriah is still going strong, and my father still visits there often. While he won’t talk about his late siblings, they’re still a part of his life.”

Now the rabbi’s uncle has become a part of his life, and his memory will remain cherished for years to come. Rabbi Saffer plans to keep the certificate found by the Houses, along with other family history memorabilia.

Irene couldn’t be happier. After living on a smallholding for years, she and her husband are scaling down, and she expressed her happiness at having brought the story to a close before they move.

Looking at the photographs of Kenneth, she says: “He was such a nice-looking chap, and I am so glad I know what he looked like at last. His certificate has been hanging in our dining room for 10 years, and now he has come home at last.”

How the certificate found its way to Walkerville remains a mystery, but that investigation will probably be another story entirely.


  1. 2 Anthony Saffer 12 Jul
    1 am pleased Minnie and I could solve the mystery 
  2. 1 Jp 13 Jul
    lovely story!


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