From Rhodes to Africa : The Jews who built de Belgian Congo
Sergio Itzhak Minerbi
This is the amazing adventure of some Jews from the Island of Rhodes, in the eastern Mediterranean, who emigrated to the then Belgian Congo and had tremedous success in their business. The Jews in Rhodes spoke Ladino, a Jewsih dialect based on Spanish, and had their own customs, institutions and food. At the end of the 19th century many left the island because of their poverty and emigrated. On this background some cases will explain best the saga of those Jews.
The first story is that of Salomon Ben Atar, the youngest of ten children who at the age of twelve left Rhodes as a stowaway to Ismalia (Egypt). There he started selling cigarettes in the port and after two years he had enough money to call his older brother Moshe to come and join him. Later it was the turn of his brother David and Salomon set out again for an unknown country “of gold and diamonds”.
When he reached Beira, the main harbor of Mozambique, he estblished the first shop for white people. When the local government built a bridge over the Zambezi river, Salomon received the concession and made a fortune out of the British Army passing over, “his” bridge for the Boer war (1899-1902).
Then he associated with a Romannian Jew and went to Umtali (Rhodesia) , where he again opened a shop. At the age of 33, he went back to Rhodes with 50 000 gold sovereigns to marry Rahel Notrica, of a rich family. They spent three years in Cairo where two children were born, but their furniture shop was a failure. Salomon sent his family back to Rhodes and he himself returned to Umtali.
But his brother Moshe had also married in the meantime and there was no longer room enough for both of them. Salomon took the train north, till the last station.
Then he proceeded on foot with local porters and he reached the new town of Elisabethville, in the Belgian Congo, from the south. The local Governor told him that the workers of the “Union Minière” and of the railways did not want to receive Belgian franks because there was nothing to buy.
After a short period of market research, Salomon decided to return and did so some months later bringing goods and some relatives with him. They sold all their goods on the first day and started a flourishing business. During the First World War, Salomon organized the supply of the Belgian Army on the border with Burundi, using piraguas on the river, the only avaible line of communication. In 1926 his son Gabriel, who told me this story, joined his father and eventually continued and developed shops and textile factories.
A second case is that of Simon Israel who started working at the age of 15 in the textile shop of Salomon Alhadeff in Rhodes. Three years later, in 1928, he went to Congo on the trail of his relative, the a.m. Salomon Ben Atar. He worked for Maurice and Joseph Alhadeff in Albertville and in the early thirties he went to the province of Kasai, till then almost closed to any white men. The construction of the railway gave a great push to the economic development of the Kasai province, which became a major supplier of agricultural products for the whole of Congo. Being one of the few white men around, he succeeded very well.
Another story is that of Leon Hasson and his brother Asher. Their sister preceded them and married Daniel Israel; they are the parents of Clement Israel; they are the parents of Clement Israel who is today the President of the Jewsih communty in Kinshasa. After the second World War the Hasson brothers started importing goods from the United States and Great Britain. When in 1947 they opened a big shop in Kinshasa, the capital of the Belgian Congo, they admitted local people, which was unusual in these days. Today the Hasson brothers operate shops, factories and river ships in a big integrated enterprice.
It is my intention to continue this research and I will be most gratefull to anybody who will provide me with additional information on the subject.
Sergio Itzhak Minerbi
Former Ambassade to Belgium and Luxembourg
and in addition to his various activities in the Israeli Foreign Service,
Dr Minerbi is a researcher of contemporary Italian Jewry,
and has recently completed a comprensive study on
the Vatican, the Holy Land and Zionism: 1895-1923