Oudtshoorn cemetery desecrated again
The Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape Board) described “terrible scenes at the Oudtshoorn Jewish Cemetery” in a Facebook post on Wednesday, 24 August, “where more than 30 graves have been desecrated and vandalised. The tombstones have been pushed over and smashed in.” They shared photographs of graves with the headstones knocked over, cracked, and broken.
The chairperson of the Oudtshoorn Hebrew Congregation, Bernard Herman, told the SA Jewish Report that his own parents’ graves had been damaged even though the headstones had been laid flat. He says most of the damage in this incident was in the old part of the cemetery. “About ten stones in that section have been broken. Some of them are 100 years old and irreplaceable.”
Cape Board Executive Director Daniel Bloch says, “In this particular case, it would seem that a group of hooligans have simply run amok in the cemetery. There’s no rationale to explain this behaviour as it also occurs in non-Jewish cemeteries. However, acts of antisemitism cannot be ruled out without a thorough investigation. We know it’s antisemitic when we find spray painted images or antisemitic wording in and around the cemetery [which wasn’t found in this case].”
Cape Board Country Communities subcommittee head David King says the incident will be investigated. He says more than 10 000 people have seen the Cape Board’s Facebook post, which means that people really care about vandalism of Jewish graves. And he points out that small Jewish communities around the world face the same problem.
Herman says the perfect storm of crime, drugs, and homelessness leads to vandalism in cemeteries. “Drug addicts get a kick out of it and they also see cemeteries as a place to loiter or steal,” he says. “The Christian cemetery across the road has also been vandalised, and is in much worse condition.”
Herman felt devastated on discovering the damage in various sections of the large cemetery on Sunday, 21 August. He was visiting the cemetery with well-known former businessman and ostrich farmer, Jack Klass, who was visiting from Australia. His parents, Benjamin and Gladys Klass, are buried in the cemetery. After seeing the destruction, Klass arranged for his parents’ headstones to be laid flat, and this work has already been completed.
“On Thursday night, [18 August], everything was 100%,” Herman says. “We had the garden service there, so it probably happened on Friday or Saturday night.” He points out that the community has gone to great lengths to secure the site, including installing barbed wire and laser beams, both of which were stolen. It’s now investigating the installation of security cameras. “There’s a “beautiful 1.8m stone wall” around the cemetery, Herman says, and there’s still security at the tahara house.
About 300 of the 800 graves in the cemetery have been laid flat, which makes it more difficult to damage graves. The remaining work would come at enormous cost. Herman says some families have already contributed to repairing the latest damage or to laying gravestones flat. However, “some have responded that they will wait until their parents’ gravestones are knocked down before they pay for them to be laid flat”.
Small Jewish Community Associations spiritual leader and national director, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, says laying gravestones flat is the only long-term, sustainable solution to a problem that plagues many cemeteries. The Western Cape country communities are overseen by the Cape Board, Silberhaft says, so he cannot intervene.
But he advises the congregation to sell assets to help with costs. “I’ve been imploring them to do this for the past 29 years. It’s a massive cemetery, it has great Jewish history in it, and it’s a pity that there’s vandalism. It must happen. I implore all communities not to wait for this to happen to their cemeteries, and to start setting the stones flat soonest.”
Herman says people visit the cemetery from all over the world as hundreds of South African Jewish families originated in the town, and he hopes they will donate towards the costs.
In 2020, 33 gravestones were vandalised in the Oudtshoorn Jewish Cemetery, and 125 gravestones were found smashed in the Bloemfontein Jewish Cemetery. That community began laying flat its 1 300 gravestones from funds raised by former members now living locally and abroad. Sixty-three gravestones were vandalised in a Jewish cemetery in Wellington in the Western Cape in 2018. “The last act of vandalism within a Jewish cemetery in the Western Cape was March 2021 in Hermanus,” says Bloch.
“The Cape Board works closely with the active Jewish communities like Oudtshoorn as well as municipalities around the Western Cape to ensure that Jewish sites are maintained and secured,” he says. “We’re thankful that the Oudtshoorn community has dedicated members on hand to look after and repair any damages. In areas like Ladismith, Riversdale, Beaufort West, and others, there’s no active Jewish community, which is why the Board has close relationships with those specific municipalities to ensure our heritage and history is preserved.”
Oudtshoorn’s once thriving Jewish community was established 140 years ago. One of its most prominent spiritual leaders was Reverend Myer Woolfson, who served the community for almost six decades, and died in 1947.
Writing on Facebook from the United States after the recent vandalism incident, former Capetonian Elan Berman said, “I’m sad to learn that the Oudtshoorn Jewish Cemetery was again subjected to vandalism. Once known as the ‘Jerusalem of Africa’, the town is now home to very few Jews. It’s sad to see an assault on the memories of those unable to defend themselves. My family’s history in South Africa began in this town, where my great-great-grandfather [Reverend Myer Woolfson] served as spiritual leader for 59 years. He and many relatives are interred here.”
Woolfson’s family is now spread out around the world. One such relative is Blake Andrew, who grew up in Zimbabwe and was raised Christian. In early 2022, he found out that his grandmother was the daughter of the late Woolfson, but ties with the family were cut when she married a Christian man. Andrew’s story reverberated around the Jewish world, and he connected with many long- lost relatives, including Berman.
Andrew describes the vandalism as “absolutely horrific”, and says he hopes to visit Oudtshoorn and its Jewish cemetery soon on a trip to connect with his long-lost Jewish roots.
Herman is wasting no time repairing the damaged graves. “Thanks to the amazing work of Bernard and his team, the repairs to the tombstones are almost complete,” says Bloch. “However, the repairs to the tombstones and the security upgrade will come at a high cost. The Oudtshoorn community welcomes any and all donations towards the restoration of the Jewish cemetery. We also encourage you to share this with others. Oudtshoorn has a rich history, and many South Africans living locally and abroad will have a connection to this community.”