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The Jewish Community of Pilgrim's Rest Eastern Transvaal

 by Batya Jaspan, March 2002



The first place where gold was discovered in South Africa was in the Eastern Transvaal in 1868 and in Pilgrim's Rest in 1873. A few years after the end of the Second Anglo-Boer war in 1910, my father Baruch Dredzen came from Latvia to Johannesburg and after a few years started a store in Pilgrim's Rest, serving the local mine workers and the small village that was developing. Traveling salesmen would become one of the main links with the outer world. The Jewish salesmen would be the connection with the other Jewish communities of Sabie, Lydenberg, Nelspruit, Graskop and other small isolated stores and families in the area. In the early thirties it was decided to build a synagogue in Pilgrim's Rest, to serve also nearby Graskop and the small outlying families of the area.

There were 10 Jewish families living in the area at that time.When looking through a list of Synagogues in Southern Africa  in the S.A.-SIG website, I recalled the Synagogue of the Pilgrim's Rest Jewish Community of the Eastern Transvaal. There is no synagogue there now, but I, Batya Jaspan, née Celia Dredzen, and my cousin Ronnie Dredzen were born in Pilgrims Rest and know some of the story of this community. My Aliyah was in 1949 to Kibbutz Tzora together with my husband, Zvi. Ronnie, son of Lazer and Lily Dredzen, came to Israel with his wife June (Shefts) in 1998, to Bet Shemesh, which is adjacent to Tzora.

The shul was built on a slope so that it was raised off the ground at one end. The entrance with two adjacent small rooms was on ground level and paved. The exterior walls and roof were of corrugated iron and the interior was paneled with beaverboard. Each window had a Magen David etched in the centre pane. Bowl shaped porcelain light fittings hung by chains from the ceiling. The entrance was at one end and the Ark at the other. Seating was around the walls.

Pilgrim's Rest Synagogue, 1940. Greatly enlarged photograph
from the corner 
of a tiny 'snap' taken with a Baby Brownie box camera.

The community grew and at its 'greatest' was composed of 10 families. Their occupations were in General Stores serving the mining community of the village, a Pharmacy, a watchmaker, a News Agent and Tobacconist, and a Mineral Water works. As the gold reserves were gradually depleted, families started leaving. The last Jewish family left in 1960. The last mine was finally closed in 1971.

In 1960 the shul was dismantled and the materials sold. it was decided to send the Sefer Torah to Israel where two of the community's children had settled. That was in Kibbutz Tzora, to where I, Batya Dredzen (now Jaspan) and Tzippie Meyer (now Bannet) had settled after our aliya in 1949 and 1952 respectively. In 1961 at a ceremony to mark this event, the Sefer Torah was presented to this community.

The photograph, taken at the dedication ceremony at Kibbutz Tzora, shows Mr. and Mrs. Dredzen, the Sefer Torah and the new ark that was made in Tzora. The inset is an enlargement of the plaque at the bottom of the case.

When I visited Pilgrim's Rest in 1995 I found part of the foundation of the synagogue on the edge of the new widened highway, built to replace the narrow windy road through the village. I met the curators of the Museum in Pilgrim's Rest. They were most interested to get details of the structure of the synagogue from me and from my cousin, Ronnie Dredzen, who recalled much of its detail.

The old Dredzen store and home is now part of the Pilgrim's Rest Museum. When visiting the house I was most amazed to see one item in particular that was exhibited on a table in one of the rooms. It was a letter written in that period in pencil by my late brother, Chone Dredzen, from his boarding school in Johannesburg to his father, asking for money to pay for the Hebrew lessons he was taking.

Most of Pilgrim's Rest is a Museum Village today, commemorating this early pioneering mining community of the Gold Rush. On either side of the main street the old shops, hotel, post office, bank, and some houses are part of the museum. In the Bank, there was a ledger of specimen signatures for accounts held. When paging through it I came across the 1922 signature of my father, Barnet Dredzen, my uncle Lazer Dredzen and other residents of the village who I knew. There were also entries for: the "Zionist Society of Pilgrim's Rest" and the "Jewish War Victims Fund", both dated 5 May 1922!

The Jewish community kept together and kept their Jewish traditions as far as they could. They would go on outings and picnics together, visit each others homes, keep the chagim, and kasha their meat even though it could only be bought from a non-kosher butcher. I recall that era with much nostalgia, often wondering if our children will also view their early years in their new community, Kibbutz Tzora, in our new land, Israel, as I did in the old.

Pilgrim's Rest:

Isaac Aronowitz


Chaim and Bertha Chaitow

News Agent and Tobacconist

Barnet and Doba Dredzen

General Store

Lazer and Lily Dredzen

General Store

Leon and Tania Feldman


Lewis brothers, the


Meyer and Ray Lewis

General Store

Israel Meyers


Itzik and Rachel Meyers


Mersh Miller


Jack and Lily Steckoll




Leiba and Luba Berkowitz

Mineral Works



Mr. Melamed


Julius Meyer


Julius Miller


Nomi Metz


Israel and Dasha Rabinowitz


Sam Shagam


Sophie Shech


Annie Shein


Salesmen and the visitors who came to the village from Johannesburg on behalf of Jewish and Zionist organizations that I remember:

  • Okkie Abrahamson for Keren Kayemet.
  • Israel Katz (Ketzele). Particularly his Rosh Hashana songs at the table.
  • Abie Katzenellenbogen from Pretoria.
  • Mr. Sher of Johannesburg, whose son Itzik Sher was years later my 'chanich' in Habonim.
  • Dr. Zeitlin, a religious man. Visited all in the area. Gave a talk in the shul.

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