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27 December 2011

The Mosenthal Family of South Africa, London and Kassel, Germany



Recently I was able to attend the annual meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. While there I took the time to again visit one of my favorite places, Willesden Cemetery. Walking the grounds of this beautiful place, always causes me to ponder not only my own ancestors but it also helps me remember all of the Jewish people and the legacies they left behind.


This blog has in the past touched ever so slightly on the history of the Jews of South Africa, however that visit to Willesden Cemetery in London has led me to spend more time studying the area and its great people. As I was walking the grounds, I came across a headstone that I don't recall seeing on my earlier visits. That headstone (shown below) is of Otto Mosenthal, son of Adolph and Henrietta Mosenthal who was born in London on 13 December 1857 and died in Kimberley, South Africa on 17 November 1881.


In the area surrounding resting place of Otto, were the graves of his parents. The headstone of Adolph, not only provides us with his dates of birth, 12 Apr 1812, and death, 21 Jul 1882, but also adds his place of birth, Kassel, Germany. All of the information obtained from these stones intrigued me. I wanted to know what caused a man born in Germany to marry, move to South Africa, where a child was born and then return to London, where he died.

In an earlier post I talked about the earliest Jews in South Africa, people such as Benjamin Norden, in whose house was held the first service in Cape Town. In studying the early history of South Africa, you quickly find that the first Jews, such as Norden, began arriving in the early 1830's. Many of these first Jews were the merchants who built the foundation of many future commercial enterprises. One such group, were the Mosenthal brothers, Adolph, Julius and James. James, was the first to arrive in Cape Town, where he went to work for a relative, Mr. Kilian, as a clerk, but within a few years, after the death of a wife, he returned to Kassel. Then in 1841, he returned to South Africa with his brothers. By 1842 the brothers had set up their first business, Mosenthal and Brothers, in Port Elizabeth.


Trading in many cities in the interior of the country, the brothers became traders in wool,hides and ostrich feathers. In the mid 1850's the brothers travelled to Asia, where upon their return they introduced the first 30 Angora goats to South African. This became another very successful buisness for them.


Over time the Mosenthal's business grew and expanded throughout South Africa. They became a major influence in many cities. They were very loyal to their friends and family, often bringing them in from Kassel to work for them. It has been estimated that almost half of all the Jews who arrived in South Africa between the forming of their business and the early 1870's came for one reason, to work for the Mosenthal's, many of these from Kassel.


The impact left behind by the Mosenthal is incredible. In addition to their business, various members of the family served in politics and civil service. They were instramental in establishing many public services, such as libraries. Later in life, Adolph and his wife returned to London, where they also had families. Many members of the family became quite wealthy, son Henry (Harry) died on 12 January 1915 in London. His will probated on 13 March 1915 at the Principal Probate Registry left an estate valued at over 500,000 pounds.


The records of the Mosenthal family are being added to the Knowles Collection and will be available soon, some in the Jews of Great Britain database, and some in the Jews of Africa and the Orient database.

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