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Jewish Livingstone, I presume

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A statue of David Livingstone. (Ron Csillag photo)

When in Livingstone, Zambia, one thing should be dealt with straightaway: The “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” business.

Fortunately for the traveller, hints are all over this dusty, ramshackle town, some 475 kilometres southwest of the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Statues and plaques of its namesake identify Dr. David Livingstone as a Scottish physician, explorer, missionary and vocal abolitionist of the slave trade. He was the first European (read: white man) known to have crossed Africa from coast to coast, and he re-named the jaw-dropping Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders”) waterfall, just 10 kilometres outside town, as Victoria Falls for his Queen (there’s little reason to come here other than to see the falls and then proceed to a safari in Botswana or Zimbabwe).

Sensational news soon reached the British Isles that Livingstone had vanished into the heart of the “dark continent.”

Dispatched to track him down was Welsh-born Henry Morton Stanley, intrepid reporter for the New York Herald. A PR genius, Stanley claimed to have immortalized his historic find with the now-famous greeting, delivered with dramatic flourish, in November 1871.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the locals have a slightly different take.

If the phrase was uttered, they say, it was in a completely different context. When Stanley found his man, Livingstone was said to be in a sorry state – emaciated, racked with malaria and dysentery, nearly unrecognizable. Plus, he was the only Caucasian living in a local chieftain’s village near Lake Tanganyika. So the greeting more likely arose out of a mix of shock and sarcasm.

Livingstone died two years later and his memoirs did not recount the event.

Now, on to Jewish Livingstone.

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There is an organized Jewish tour of the town with a local who’s clearly enamoured of the subject. Even so, you can dispense with it (highlights, if you can call them that, are the local cinema, once owned by Jews, and formerly Jewish-owned shops that served whites only).

Best to get yourself to two places: the Gateway Jewish Museum, located within the Railway Museum on Chishimba Falls Road, and the Jewish cemetery, a narrow, well-maintained plot of land on Nakatindi Road.

Lions seen on a safari in neighbouring Botswana (Deborah Berlach photo)

The jam-packed, highly informative museum tells the story of a country that is home to one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Africa.

Jews first came to Zambia from Lithuania at the end of the 19th century, when it was still the British colonial outpost of Northern Rhodesia. Many settled in Livingstone, then the capital, and established a community in 1905.

The Livingstone Hebrew Congregation was formed in 1910, and the first synagogue, with adjoining mikveh, was consecrated in 1928 (closed in 1972, it’s now the Church of Christ, and a Star of David is faintly visible on the blindingly white facade).

The community’s origins are traced to one family, the Susmans. Brothers Elie and Harry Susman fled pogroms in Lithuania and arrived in the region in 1897. They got a toehold by selling homemade ginger beer on the train platforms of Bulawayo.

Eager to expand, they set out in 1901, in the throes of the Boer War, on a 400-kilometre trek across the Zambezi floodplain to seek the local king’s permission to do business. It didn’t go well. Blackwater fever had killed 24 of the outing’s 28 men, and Elie Susman was near death with it.

The sympathetic King Lewanika provided a raft to take Susman to the nearest clinic, in Bulawayo. His instruction to the oarsmen was simple: “If Susman dies, you die.” Elie survived, barely. Years later, the same fate befell his brother, who was administered gallons of millet beer, sip by sip, to flush out the fever.

In Africa, history tends to be in living colour. So it is with the Jews here.

The brothers settled in Livingstone. Elie would go on to co-found a South African retail concern called Woolworth’s, and the pair grew wealthy through cattle ranching and copper mining. Elie’s son, David, went on to become a respected businessman who was badly wounded in Israel’s War of Independence. He married into the Marks and Spencer retail empire and greatly expanded Woolworth’s.

The Holocaust era saw both South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) enact tough restrictions on Jewish immigration. Northern Rhodesia did not – and there was another Jewish influx.

So, Livingstone’s Jews were both economic migrants and refugees who flourished despite acute social and geographical dislocation.

The Galaun family did well in soy beans, dairy products, and coffee, while the Grill clan pioneered entertainment in Livingstone with the town’s first cinemas. New immigrants were greeted by Joe Furmanovsky, one of the few taxi drivers in the 1920s.

Among the most influential Jews was Simon Zukas, who played a key role in Zambia’s struggle for independence from Britain in the 1950s, and went on to two posts as a government minister after independence.

As for the cemetery, the last Jewish burial took place in 1970 and the grounds fell into disrepair. In 1997, the Council for Zambia Jewry and the African Jewish Congress carried out extensive renovations. Names on the tombstones include Shapiro, Wolff, Diamond, and Levinson.

The restored Jewish cemetery in Livingstone. (Ron Csillag photo)

By the early 1960s, the community peaked at around 1,000 Jews. But after Zambia won independence in 1964, numbers began to dwindle, part of a larger exodus of whites from the country. Today, there are fewer than 50 Jews left, almost all in Lusaka.

But as Oxford historian Hugh MacMillan, author of Zion in Africa: The Jews of Zambia, put it, “it’s a tiny population that has been, or was, influential beyond its numbers.”