Jewish Pioneers Memorial Museum Port Elizabeth South Africa

The Port Elizabeth Orthodox Hebrew Congregation was formed in 1903; members were mainly Eastern European Jews who came to South Africa after severe pogroms and persecution in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. On 12 December 1912, Rabbi J.L. Landau consecrated the Raleigh Street Synagogue.

Location: Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Monday, December 27, 2004

Grey Shirts Trial

Dr David Scher
Echoes of David Irving - The Greyshirt Trial of 1934 by David M. Scher

The recent landmark case in England which exposed David Irving’s falsification of history and his obsession with ‘denying’ the Holocaust highlighted once more the often bizarre accusations and conspiracy theories levelled against Jews over time. In this regard, the blood libel in Damascus in 1880,
The Dreyfus case in France in 1894 and the Mendel Beilis blood accusation case in Russia in 1911 stand out. A less well-known yet equally disturbing case occurred in South Africa in the 1930’s. This was the so-called ‘Greyshirt Case’.
Dr David Scher is a senior lecturer at the Department of History, University of the Western Cape. He specialises in political history, and has published extensively on pre- and post 1948 South African politics.
The recent landmark case in England which exposed David Irving’s falsification of history and his obsession with ‘denying’ the Holocaust highlighted once more the often bizarre accusations and conspiracy theories levelled against Jews over time. In this regard, the blood libel in Damascus in 1880,
The Dreyfus case in France in 1894 and the Mendel Beilis blood accusation case in Russia in 1911 staid out. A less well-known yet equally disturbing case occurred in South Africa in the 1930’s. This was the so-called ‘Greyshirt Case’.
The bald facts of the case are as follows.
During the early 1930s, a number of ‘Shirt’ organisations arose in South Africa, deeply influenced by the spread of Nazi doctrine. Foremost amongst them was the South African Christian Nationalist Social­ist Movement, popularly known as the Grey­shirts, founded by Louis T. Weichardt in October 1933. The movement numbered at its peak some 2000 members. The core of Greyshirt ideology was racist anti-Semitism. Following the German Nazi model, the Greyshirts claimed that inter alia Jews were an Asiatic, anti-Christian and inassimilable race who were inherently anti­social and parasitic. Moreover, they were organised internationally in a world con­spiracy that aimed at global domination.
At a public meeting held in the Market Square of the small town of Aberdeen in March 1934, Harry Victor Inch - one of the Greyshirt leaders - announced that he possessed proof of a secret plot by the Jews to destroy the Christian religion and civilisation. He then proceeded to read from a document which, he stated, had been stolen from the Western Road Synagogue in Port Elizabeth and that it bore the signature of its rabbi, the Rev. A. Levy.
The document followed closely the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet of some 70 pages purporting to be the actual minutes of 24 speeches made by Jewish leaders during the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
The pamphlet detailed a satanic plot by Jewish/Zionist conspirators to conquer the world. Alleging that Jews controlled much of the world’s finance, the media, the edu­cational institutions, the court systems and many of the world’s governments, the Pro­tocols claimed that the Jews indulged in all forms of trickery and deceit to tighten their hold. They deliberately spread diseases and immorality to weaken Gentiles, and did not hesitate to use murder and terrorism to destroy all religions except their own. Jews were striving to establish their own autocracy based on a false Messiah, the “Son of David”, and posed a fiendishly devious omnipresent peril to the rest of mankind.
Since the Greyshirt document implica­ted a specific individual - the rabbi - and not only the Jewish people collectively, it provided a rare possibility of exposure in a court of law. The Rev instituted a libel action. Levy with the support of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies against the three Greyshirts involved - Johannes von Moltke, at the time leader of the South African Gentile Socialists, David Olivier, editor of Die Rapport, the official organ of the South African National Socialist Movement and Inch, the Eastern Cape leader of the Greyshirts.
The stakes in the case were high. Thanks to Nazi propaganda, the Protocols were being paraded world-wide as an insidious and vile plot by international Jewry to undermine and overthrow western Christian civilisation. Many thought the documents authentic, with all its awesome implications. For their part, the Greyshirts were openly arro­gant and defiant. Von Moltke issued the following challenge in a speech at Port Elizabeth on 13 April 1934:
If the Jews dispute the truth of the contents of this document, let them prepare a charge of theft against any person. Then the Judiciary of this land will be able to decide what occult movement belongs to Jewry.
The trial, which opened in July 1934, was heard in the Eastern Cape Divi­sion of the Supreme Court in Grahamstown before the Judge President, Sir Thomas Graham. The local and over­seas press gave great prominence to the court proceedings. F.G. Reynolds K.C. (later a judge) assisted by Will Stuart (later a so-called ‘Native Repre­sentative’ in Parliament) appeared for the Rev. A. Levy of the Port Elizabeth Western Road Synagogue.
Levy claimed £2000 damages from each of the three leaders of the Greyshirt Movement, namely Inch, Von Moltke and Olivier. The defen­dants led their own defence.
In his address, Reynolds referred to the document in question “as of the foulest nature:” He pointed out that Inch’s description of the interior of the Synagogue, from where the document was supposedly stolen, proved that he had never been in it at all. In his evidence, the Rev. Levy noted that all papers were kept in the vestry, where there was a safe. No papers were kept in the synagogue itself.
Inch had claimed that he had seen a man named M. Lazarus coming out of the synagogue. There was only one man of that name in Port Elizabeth. The synagogue had no relations whatsoever with M. Lazarus. The docu­ment in question was headed “Copy for M. Lazarus” - an odd referral as Lazarus never attended the Western Road Synagogue. To much laughter, the Reverend pointed out that the Hebrew letters of the top of the document meant ‘kosher lePesach’ - a phrase always appearing on articles of food or drink and never applied to literature! The letter R in Hebrew on the document looked like a D. This and a great many other things signi­fied that the writer of the document knew nothing at all about Hebrew.
Some of the exchanges were tragically absurd. Thus, Von Moltke asked the Reverend, “Do the Jews keep two sets of Talmuds, one to produce in Court and one for them­selves?” On another occasion, the Reverend asked who in truth was “likely to use my synagogue for secret purposes?” to which Inch replied, “Who is likely not to? Didn’t Jacob use camouflage to get the birthright?”
A key witness was the great Zionist leader, Nachum Sokolow who was visiting South Africa at the time.
Nachum Sokolow, a great Zionist leader, visited South Africa at the time of the trial and acted as a key witness.
Sokolow, a contemporary of Theodor Herzl, was linked directly with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion since he attended the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, the venue where the Protocol: were supposed to have been promulgated. He showed that there was nothing secret about the Congress - on the contrary, it was open to the public and some eminent Christian scholars were present. The so-called Protocols had already been exposed as a fraud in the Times of London in 1920.
Before being ruled out of order, defendant Inch referred Sokolow to Jewry’s alleged control of a wide range of spheres ranging from the press to the film industry. With regard to the latter, Inch asked Sokolow, “Do you agree with the posters of half naked women, which are exhibited for our children to look at?”
Witness, “I am not a great admirer of nakedness (laughter)”.
A key witness was Professor Dingemans, Professor of Afrikaans at Rhodes University College. A philo­logist and a Christian, he was also an authority on the Hebrew language. Dingemans had made a careful and independent examination of the document and had concluded that it was not that which it pretended to be - namely, a secret document drawn up by an educated Jew. He pointed out the defective Hebrew characters and weird incongruities between the Hebrew words and the purpose of the ‘lectures’. Referring to the words in Hebrew ‘Fit for Passover’, Dingemans said that if he delivered a written attack on a group and inserted at the top of his lecture the words ‘sterilised milk’ an impar­tial critic could only say that the heading was somewhat incongruous with the purpose of the lecture.
The document, said Dingemans, was “clumsy and unconvincing ... a glorious mess”. He had no hesitation in saying that it was below the attainments of a pupil of standard eight whose home language was Afrikaans.
Another important witness was Mark Lazarus. A leading member of the Labour Party in Port Elizabeth, Lazarus was not, in his own description. “A ceremonial Jew”, nor had he been a member of any Jewish congregation, including the Western Road Synagogue. He had never had anything to do with the document alleged to be a “copy for M. Lazarus”. The witness was cross-examined at great length by Inch and there were some acrimonious exchanges between them. Supporting evidence revealed that a photograph had been taken of Lazarus at a bowling tournament in Cape Town on 17 March 1934, the day Inch alleged Lazarus had been at a meeting at the Western Road Synagogue.
On 24 August 1934, Judge Presi­dent Sir Thomas Graham, with Mr Justice Gutsche concurring, delivered a lengthy judgement. The court unequivocally accepted the evidence of the plaintiff, Rev. Levy and his wit­nesses and denounced the documents as a forgery. No such document had in fact ever existed in the synagogue and it was clear some Greyshirts for their campaign of hatred had deliberately concocted the false document. £1000 damages was awarded against Inch, £750 against Von Moltke and £25 against Olivier, with costs in each case. Following the evidence which he had given in the case, Inch was subsequently criminally indicted and was found guilty of compiling a forged document, making false state­ments in affidavits and of perjury. He was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.
The case was significant for a number of reasons. For the first time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - which continues even today to be a bestseller in the Arab world, in much of Eastern Europe and Russia and among fringe groups throughout the West - was brought under judicial review. The defendants claimed that the Protocols was a genuine document, while the plaintiffs contended that it was a notorious forgery. The Judge President declared:
The author of this literary forgery (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) was one Maurice Joly and shortly after the publication of this pamphlet (which was originally a political lampoon against Napoleon III); he was arrested by the Emperor’s police and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. It would thus appear that the Protocols are an impudent forgery, obviously published for the purpose of anti­-Jewish propaganda.
In the almost seventy years since the judgement, much has been written about the Protocols, including Norman Cohn’s justly acclaimed 1967 work, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Grahamstown judgement remains, however, a landmark decision, which has stood the test of time and has proved an important declaration in intellectual and moral honesty, much like the recent Irving judgement.
Of course, the judgement did not deter the Greyshirts and Nazi-like organisation in their insidious campaign, but - as Pierre Ferrand has written - the Protocols were not addressed to people using their reason in any way:
It is based on an age-old tradition of ‘Satanising’ Jews to use Joel Carmichael’s phrase, and it is a superficially secularised version of what he has called ‘mystical anti-Semitism’. It is an incantation of fear and rage.
Such magical texts do not need to make sense or to have any literary merit. Nor do the faithful require any scholarly evidence proving that they are genuine. They work as mantras, which, as we have the though by hypnosis, stir up hatred. They reinforce belief - in this case, the myth of a worldwide conspiracy against the rest of mankind by the mysteriously powerful and infinitely wicked Jews who ought to be destroyed root and branch.
The Greyshirt case was, of course, of supreme importance to the Jewish community both in Port Elizabeth and generally. Initially there was some division among Jews as to how to deal with the Greyshirt threat. There were those who believed in ignoring the matter entirely as it would die off in the course of time. Others opposed a policy of inaction and felt that a stand was necessary.
In the event, the Greyshirts set out to be deliberately provocative, hold­ing meetings where Jews were openly reviled, to opening an office in Port Elizabeth where the Swastika was brazenly displayed. A number of phy­sical confrontations occurred between Jewish youths and Greyshirt members.
Matters came to a head with the publication of the fraudulent docu­ment and the subsequent civil and criminal trials and convictions of the miscreants. The result of the legal actions vindicated the views of those who believed that inaction and silence were harmful to the community.
With the collapse of Nazi Germany, the Greyshirts and other quasi-fascist groups all but collapsed. It is of in­terest to note that Von Moltke later became a Nationalist Member of Par­liament. The Jewish MP, Morris Kentridge, once recalled with some amuse­ment that Von Moltke frequently buttonholed him in the lobby of the House of Assembly to explain that he had been misled by Inch and was a great friend of the State of Israel! Louis T. Weichardt, the founder of the Greyshirt Movement, was appointed Senator by the Nationalist govern­ment. He declared that he had never been against the ‘Jewish race’ but only against the actions of certain ‘Jewish communists’. Not a single Jew, he opined, had suffered through his actions.The passage of time has, perhaps dulled our senses to the dangers posed to our community by anti-Semitic falsifiers of history. The Irving and Greyshirt trials are useful reminders of the need for vigilance and unity.


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January 27, 2015 at 10:02 AM  
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February 1, 2017 at 4:16 PM  

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