AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BERNARD WEINRONK
Born 1870. Deceased 1942.
I was born at the end of July in 1870,
in the little town of Mestizka - Okmejan in the neighbourhood of Sawli,
in the province of Kowna, South Russia, on the ninth day of the Jewish
month of Av. My birth took place on the saddest day of the Jewish
calendar - the 9th day of Av (Tisebeav).
My father used to come home to Okmejan
only once a year as he had big contracts in the north of Russia.
At the age of 6 my mother, by name of
Sprinze, one of the best, good-hearted and noble souls God has created,
was requested by my father to come to him in northern Russia. He came
half way to St. Petersburg to meet us, and I remember him at the St.
Pietersburg station as a handsome young man of about 35 years, happy and
witty. As mentioned I was then six years of age and my sister two years.
We remained three days in the Russian capital, and each day the
Izwostzick took us round to see the sights of St. Pietersburg. We then
took the train to Ribings, from there by steamer to the town of
Zeropewitz, where I remained with my parents for twelve months, then,
owing to certain differences my father had with the Hebrew Congregation
about my Hebrew education, he sent me back to Okmejan - to my mothers
brother (uncle Zelig Myburgh). The Hebrew teacher went home to Wilna,
his native town, taking me with him as far as Popilan, where some of my
grandmother's relations took me the twelve miles distance to Okmejan.
I remained with my uncle, aunt Golda
and my grandmother Hoda (or Hilda) for three years, during which time my
father used to send 100 rubles a year to pay for my board and lodging
and education. I was treated unkindly by my aunt Golda but this my
parents did not know. I was often hungry - my good grandmother, a tall
slender woman, was a widow of about forty and used to receive from my
mother (her daughter) pocket money, and she often fed me when I was left
My parents in the meantime had moved to
a large town called Wologda, where there were two Hebrew teachers and a
large Hebrew congregation. Wologda was a typical Russian town, with a
Gubernator and in extent as large as England and France taken together.
The population of the town was 40,000 and the Province 1,000,000.
In the year 1880 my little sister Dina
died in Wologda at the age of 6; my parents, being very downhearted,
asked me to go to them and a foreman in my father's works took me there.
I remember we travelled a whole week, changing trains frequently. We
passed through Dinaburg, Wittepesk, Smolensk, Mookwa, Jaraslav on the
Volga, and at last reached Wologda, which borders on the Province of (Archangelesk.
I found there two new little sisters, one of 2 years old and another
only a few months - three years later there was another arrival - my
only brother Simon, now junior partner in my business, the Handy
Furniture House, 65 Princes Street, Port Elizabeth.
From 1881 to 1890 I was a diligent
reader of the only weekly "Yiddish" paper in Russia which catered for
six million Jews - called the "Yiddise Volks Blatt" issued in St.
Petersburg. This paper, which I read and re-read every week (now in my
home bound in book form) made a great impression upon me. The pogroms of
1881, 1882, 1886 and 1889 - (the Vreme Pravela of Ignaties) revealed the
tragedy, the degradation of my Jewish brethren - of the whole Jewish
race. I felt in full the words of the Poet, How I longed to get out of
that Hell - out of Russia
"No longer to hide my Jewish race
for fear of torture or disgrace
No more to expose my soul for sale
and beg the air that I inhale."
I attended the Russian schools until I
reached the age of fourteen years and commenced reading a great deal -
the Russian classics and other works translated into Russian -
Shakespeare, Ruskin, Le Monou, Necrassoff, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and a
lot of French novels, even Pal-de-kak. Vologda, like most Russian towns,
lived a Bohemian life and was very immoral. I was proud, full of
dignity, bashful and reserved and kept away as much as possible from
Bohemian life. I was romantic between the age of seventeen and twenty
years, without however of any incident. At twenty-one I was taken as a
soldier into the Russian army and sent to Grodno (South Russia). I was
the only Jew amongst 2,000 Russian recruits, and became very popular. We
stayed four days in Moskva on our way to Qrodno, called Alexanderskay
Polk, near the Kremlin. I was treated badly by my Dodka - my Superior in
the Kazarme, but this is the fate of every new recruit or soldier.
I decided to leave the country, which,
because I was born a Jew, treated me worse than any dog. I felt I was as
good as any Russian, and even better than some. After six weeks in
Grodno, I left the town never to return, and three weeks later I arrived
in Limerick, Ireland. To relate all that happened, how I passed the
Russian frontier, what I lived through, etc. etc., would fill a good
My cousins in Limerick and Cork did not
play the game, they were very unkind. I told them I wanted nothing from
them and that I would pay for board and lodging as I had with me
sufficient money. I only wanted them to show me how to start in life,
but it was left to Jews unrelated to me, but of the same town (Akmejan),
and who new my parents well - to educate me as to how to start in life.
When I arrived in Ireland I knew only three words in English - yes, no
I began travelling with sponges, cheap
jewellery, and pictures. Many a day I covered 20 to 30 miles, always on
foot, with a load of 80 to 100 lbs. weight. I travelled to nearly every
town and village in Ireland - the length and breadth I may say of that
green and beautiful country. The Irish people were very good,
particularly the Catholics. I met in Ireland many Jews from Russia. I
also met and travelled with two brothers who are now the biggest
furniture dealers in South Africa.
I mastered the English language within
twelve months. In 1893 my father, mother, sisters and brother Simon
arrived in Limerick, Ireland. They came for the reason that they were
sent out by the Russian government from Vologda because they were Jews.
They appealed to Ignatius (Vremans e Pravela). Any chief of police could
send them out of Russia without giving cause or reason - perhaps in this
case the Chief of Police was not sufficiently bribed. The same thing
happened twelve months before in Moskva, where 40,000 Jews were ordered
to leave within 3 weeks. They had either to go to the South of Russia or
clear out altogether from Russia. Most of those Jews were born, educated
and well-established in Moskva. Deputations were sent to the Czar's
Ministers, but it was of no avail. The Czar left it to the Chief of the
Holy Synod of Russia - Pobedonoschef. At least they made a concession,
namely, that the Jews of Moskva were to pay ONE MILLION RUBLES to
Pobedonoschef, for which an extension of 3 weeks to 6 months would be
granted, BUT they must leave Russia - and go to Hell - I mean
anywhere!!! Where? - a people without a country. Thus our family left
Russia for good, where, for 200 years and more, our parents and
great-grandparents had lived. I assure that my father, mother and
children were as good as any of our non-Jewish people in Russia, and my
father was not in business but had a trade in his hands, having worked
all his life in the building trade.
Will those who are not Jews and who may
read this have sympathy and understand the great Jewish tragedy? Oh how
I yearned for
A Jewish Land, a Jewish Home,
No longer all the wide world to roam,
No longer all the earth to tramp,
No longer bear the servile stamp.
Will anyone understand why I dedicated
my life to Zionism. Perhaps as my wife often said, I was not a success
in life because I gave my mind and time to Zionism more than to my
personal concerns. Remember, my life's story bears out the story of
millions of my brethren in faith.
I had a great hope to go to our old
Land - Palestine, our's by the will and promise to our first Father and
Patriarch Abraham, as it says in the Holy Bible. This is the Land Canaan
- now Palestine, in Hebrew caEretz Isroel - The Land of Israel. I will
give to thee and thy children and children's children for ever and ever.
We lived there and had the Jewish Kings and Prophets, and although we
are divorced - temporarily, from our inheritance, we have prayed for the
last two thousand years three times a day:-
May it be Thy Will, Oh God, that we may
live to see with our own eyes in our own days, the return to our Land,
Eretz Isroel, to Thy City Jerusalem, and to Thy Sacred Place - Zion -
that we may be privileged to serve Thee in Peace - Amen.
Such and similar are in our every day
prayer. Peace! Peace! is our slogan - our pass-word.
In serving Zionism I was only doing my
duty as any OTHER good Jews do.
We answer Mother to Thy Call
We come, we come, thy children all
From North and South and West we hail
To build Thy own, to Plant thy Vale.
Thy wounds to heal, thy shame to drive
from Foreign Lands we hasten Home -
0, Motherland, we come, we come.
My father came to Ireland with money -
I believe 3,000 to 4,000 Rubles. At that time (in 1893) I had been about
18 months in Ireland, knew the English language, the life and business
of the place, and helped my father to establish himself in business,
under new conditions. A few years later my father managed his own
affairs and started for myself. 5 or 6 years later we became British
subjects. To become a British subject there are two essentials - namely,
to have been resident in the country for five years and to have a clean
record and not once to have been concerned in a court case, even of a
civil nature; in other words one must prove himself a law-abiding,
peaceful, honest and hard-working citizen. So we, the rejected and
persecuted in Russia, became worthy adopted children of the British
Empire, respected and protected under the "British Flag". The cost was a
small consideration - 5 pounds to the Home Office and a further 2 pounds
and ten shillings covered other necessary expenses - in all amounting to
seven and a half pounds.
In 1898 I married. On the 17th January
will be the 30th Anniversary of a happy marriage. We have eight children
(4 daughters and 4 sons) all, thank God, alive. Three were born in
Limerick, Ireland, three in Johannesburg and two in Port Elizabeth. My
eldest daughter is married in Johannesburg, my eldest son has his own
chemist shop in this town, and is doing a good business. My youngest
child, a son, is now 13 1/2 years - but I must turn to my earlier
In 1903 I decided to seek better
pastures by going to South Africa. My wife had a well-to-do brother in
Pretoria, and in Johannesburg a rich brother-in-law. The lure of gold,
diamonds and sunshine brought me like many others here to South Africa.
An incident occurred before I left
Ireland, which is worth recording. I was presented by the Jewish people
of the two congregations in Limerick (the two congregations were hostile
to one another but made truce for the time being to honour me) with an
illuminated Address (now in my dining room) and a Gold Medal for twelve
years communal and Zionist work. A party of 40 or 50 gathered together
in the Treaty Hotel, Thomas Street, Limerick, on Friday afternoon, and
the great illustrious Irish patriot - the eminent John Daly, the Phenian,
the mayor for many years in Limerick - presided. I can never forget his
wonderful oration. This great Irish patriot was kept for 14 years in
Portland Prison for a political crime for which he was said to have been
a party. No King, not even Julius Caesar returning home after conquering
France received a better reception than John Daly did when he returned
to his native town. The mayor of the town resigned immediately and John
Daly became chief citizen. I am proud that such a man should have
presided in my honour.
I left my wife sufficient money for
nine months. I spent 60 or 70 pounds on new clothes, among which were
three overcoats, as I had been told that clothes were very expensive in
South Africa, and, with my letters of recommendation from the Wholesale
Houses with whom I had dealt, particularly from McBeans and Cannocks,
the leading House in Limerick, I sailed on the "Gaika" arriving on the
2nd August 1903 in the Cape of Good Hope.
Being a British subject I had no delay
whatever in proceeding to Pretoria, where I opened a business. After 9
months, as I was making no progress, I sold the business and went to
Johannesburg. Three months later my wife and three children came to
Johannesburg quite unexpectedly; from the sale of her furniture she had
realised sufficient money to enable her to join me in Johannesburg. The
reason for coming out so unexpectedly was this - the French Government
became aware that the schools, over which they had no control (Convent
Schools) were encouraging monarchism amongst their students - this being
against the Republic of France. The Government issued an edict or order
that they (the Government) must have a representative in such Schools.
There was a great fight but the government had the support of the people
and became masters of the situation. Many good staunch Catholics left
As in every trouble under the sun, the
despised and defenceless Jew is blamed - so it was in this case. Father
Creagh, a native of Limerick and a member of the Jesuit Order, who was
in Paris and saw the struggle, came to Limerick. It was not long after
the Kishinev pogrom or massacre. Father Creagh preached a sermon at the
Holy Father's Chapel to about 7,000 or 8,000 Irishmen to the effect that
the Jews were the cause of all troubles. The speech was full of poison.
Afterwards hundreds went up and kissed his garments and said - "Father,
shall we kill them?" "Nay" he said, "Don't kill them, it will be the
worse for you. Starve them. Drive them out." I was told this and that
the sermon appeared in the press.
The great and noble Irishmen, Catholics
and Protestants, who were struggling for Home Rule got alarmed. I was
told that about 6,000 English soldiers in the Limerick barracks were
ordered to be ready to suppress any violence.
Father Creagh was right. There was
often spasmodic violence. God Bless England for the freedom she gives to
all religions and fairplay to everyone. The Chief of Police received
instructions that no Jew should know that he was being watched - 50
yards from his house, his children and himself - wherever a Jew went - a
private detective followed (The Jewish people in Limerick did not know
that). I a Jew went into a house a detective waited at a distance of 50
or 100 yards, so I have been told. There were a few assaults. My poor
old father, being then over 60, went one Sunday morning to the synagogue
for morning service. When returning a tall Irishman with a big heavy
stick aimed a blow at his head and would surely have killed him, but a
detective and police ran up; my father dodged the blow, but he fell on
his back and the ruffian managed to hit him on his knee, breaking his
kneecap. He spent 6 weeks in bed through this. The man was arrested and
the magistrate put that gentleman under observation, as he was thought
to be not quite sane - a great uncle of his WAS insane.
My poor old mother went to live with
her married children. She was one of the best women, both as wife and
mother, that God ever created. She too was knocked down near my wife's
house (I was in Johannesburg then). My wife, hearing her cry "Gwald,
Gwald", rushed to her assistance. Many people had seen this outrage. My
wife followed the ruffian to his house, at the back of our house in
Wise's Lane - called "Wise's Field", but they could get no witness. All
knew who it was. This is typical Ireland, they mix politics with civil
Twelve months after the above incident
my father and mother sold everything and went to Jerusalem, Palestine,
to end their days, where they lived happily for 6 and eight years
respectively and were buried side by side on the Mount of Olives -
within two miles of Solomon's Temple.
At this time my wife took fright, sold
the furniture, as already mentioned, and joined me in Johannesburg. In
the seven years of our residence in Johannesburg my wife presentedme
with three more children.
I have given much time as well as
thought and deed to the cause of Zionism. No-one, more particularly my
wife, knows a tenth part of what I have done on the quiet for Zionism.
Just as France fought in the Great War and sacrificed her best element -
the youth of her country - so that future generations should enjoy peace
and prosperity, so I too felt that I should sacrifice the comfort and
ease of my family in helping to build up the Zionist Ideal - the
aspiration and prayer of our people for 2,000 years - and so that our
children should have their own home - not by favour, but by right and by
justice - our Old Homeland -Palestine - and be a Nation among other
Nations, having a place under the sun.
I worked in those years with Harry
Grauman, Chaimowitz, Benzion Hersh, Jannower, I. Abrahams, and many
In 1911 I left with my family for
Pietersburg, Northern Transvaal, as manager and operator of the
Pietersburg bioscope, in which position I remained for nine months,
after which I secured a position as chief operator to the newly built
Grand Theatre in Main Street, Port Elizabeth, with promises of better
I arrived in Port Elizabeth on 8th May,
1912, took a liking to the town and the people, and on the 14th of May
the local Grand Theatre was opened with films and vaudeville turns. John
Lawson was the first company. I was the only Jew. The late Mr. Brewster
was the manager. I was treated very unkindly by one of the directors
present; he wanted to get rid of me. I showed things up too much. Any
improvements I wanted were not approved of. I had an old converter
(dynamo) which did not give sufficient amperes (light) to screen a good
picture, particularly if the film was a dark one. I had to turn the
handle, which a little motor could have done without any extra expense.
I remained with the company for fifteen months, and then I established
my present business, of which I am the senior partner - the Handy
Furniture House - my brother joining me in 1917.
The following is an incident which
occurred while I was with the Grand Theatre and is worth relating -
during the evening I used to operate; in the daytime I had to be in the
office for the sale of tickets and reserved seats. One day I had a very
nice elderly Jewish gentleman, who had his business in Main Street, and
was booking some reserved seats. He conversed with me for half an hour
or so (he has now retired from his business). "Pardon me", he said at
the end of our talk, "to what nationality do you belong?" My answer was
"Surely to the Jewish race." He was astonished. "Your name Weinronk,
your appearance and English do not imply that you are a Jew." He looked
carefully around to see if there was anyone nearby, then coming a little
nearer to me said "this is no prospect or place for you." "I realise
that" was my answer. "I have a wife and children and therefore cannot
ignore 25 pounds a month (in 1913 this was better than it is today).
"Look here", he said quietly and
deliberately, "I have 14 white people in my employ, some over 20 years,
and I have never made a mistake in judging a man's capabilities. You are
destined for bigger things than to operate or mark seats on a plan for a
theatre. My 14 men are good as gold and true as the stars. I can see",
he continued, "there is trouble ahead in this Grand Theatre. Should you
at any time be in difficulty or wish to establish a business you may
count on me." He shook hands and left.
Strange to say, 8 or 9 months later I
got the push. I had worked for 15 months and under 3 proprietors, the
last one being Schlesinger - the head of all the bioscopes under the
Empire TruSt. I called on my good friend and benefactor. I told him I
wanted no money, only credit for goods in his wholesale department. "As
much as you want" was his genial reply and thereupon he introduced me to
his manager. I have since done business with that firm to the extent of
thousands of pounds, and we are at present the best of friends. For the
last 8 or 9 years we have done no business with them as we IMPORT DIRECT
from all the factories in Europe and America.
During the first few years of the World
War I had a hard time, so much so that a meeting of all my creditors
took place at Messrs. Lawson, Brown and Brown's office. The position was
such that the creditors would have accepted any offer, 5 or 10 shillings
in the pound, but I insisted that they get 20 shillings in the pound,
and begged them to grant me a period of two years in which to pay off my
liabilities at the rate of 25 pounds each month to J.W. Jagger & Co. No
thanks are due to me, but I may say that I have managed so that each
creditor got his money.
Apart from business I led a very busy
life in the 16 years I have resided in Port Elizabeth. I have been
president of the Port Elizabeth Orthodox Hebrew Congregation for 18
months in succession, chairman several times of the Port Elizabeth
Zionist Society, established the Ladies Zionist Societies, the
"Daughters of Zion" and the "Jewish Ladles Zionist League", the first
with the help of my eldest daughter and the second with the assistance
of my wife. I have been a member of committees too numerous to mention.
I have taken part in the early stages of the North End Debating Society
I have been on the committees of the Ratepayers Association Ward VII,
also for a short time on the Library Committee of the North End Grey
School, Port Elizabeth Publicity Association, and many others.
My 5 books and albums, with hundreds of
cuttings and reports, addresses and articles etc. will reveal some of my
In Port Elizabeth my wife presented me
with two sons, so I am the proud father of 4 sons and 4 daughters. Three
of my children have carried away coveted bursaries, and so saved me a
few hundreds of pounds in education. As I have already mentioned, my
youngest child is a son of 13 years. I am at the end of my chapter and
ill in bed - and whether I shall be privileged to write more of my
life's works is in the hands of God. Good-bye, good-bye.
104 Cape Road, Port Elizabeth.
11th January, 1929.
Note: Bernard Weinronk went to live
in Palestine in 1941. He died about a year later. All his papers had
been shipped to Palestine; the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine
and all his papers were lost.
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