Roza van Gelderen and Hilda Purwitsky
Roza Van Gelderen and Hilda Purwitsky, a devoted same-sex couple, represent the “New Woman” who came of age in the 1920s. Purwitsky overcame the double handicaps of poverty and gender to obtain a university degree. Van Gelderen became the first Jewish principal of a government school in Cape Town, South Africa. World travelers, collectors, patrons of the arts, journalists, and teachers, they dedicated themselves to helping Eastern European immigrant children adapt to new lives. With Van Gelderen at the helm, the pair not only demanded equality with men but flouted authority at every turn, whether the Cape School Board, the Cape Jewish Orphanage, or even the Nazi Party in Austria. Born before their time, however, their progressive ideas were not tolerated, and in 1940 Van Gelderen’s school was effectively closed down.
Roza Van Gelderen and Hilda Purwitsky were a rare example of an openly same-sex couple in Cape Town’s conservative Jewish community. Beginning in the 1920s they played a central role in the community as teachers, journalists, and patrons of the arts. They were also associated with a wider group of talented and educated women that included Sarah Goldblatt, the literary executrix of the Afrikaans national poet C. J. Langenhoven, as well as the celebrated South African artist Irma Stern.
Van Gelderen’s Family & Education
The more socially prominent Van Gelderen was the dominant member of the pair. Born in 1890 into a prestigious Dutch Jewish family on her father’s side, she was related to the famous German poet Heinrich Heine. She was the special protégée of the Reverend (non-ordained rabbi) A. P. Bender, the leader of Cape Jewish society in those days. The family first came to South Africa in 1897, when Van Gelderen was seven years old, and settled in Durban in Natal. Unable to tolerate the heat and humidity, the family returned to Holland a few months before the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 and settled in Leiden. In 1903, when Roza was twelve years old, the family returned to South Africa and settled in Cape Town.
In Cape Town Van Gelderen first attended Vredenberg, a very exclusive English private school, but with the decline in the family finances, she was sent to the old Normal College. After completing Standard Six (Grade 8), she left school to do her Third Class Teaching Certificate (Elementary School Teaching Certificate), at the Teachers’ Training College. In 1910 she returned to the College to complete her Kindergarten Teaching Certificate, finding that this was her métier.
Purwitsky’s Family & Education
Eleven years Van Gelderen’s junior, Hilda Purwitsky came to South Africa from Lithuania in 1901 as a small baby, the second of seven children of penniless Eastern European immigrants. The family first lived on the top floor of a double story house in Strand Street in central Cape Town with Malay neighbors downstairs. Her father was the only Jewish blacksmith in Cape Town. Her mother ran a grocery shop in Camp Street.
As was not unusual for Jews at the time, Purwitsky began her formal education at the Sacred Heart Convent in Somerset Road and continued at the Hebrew Public school in Gardens in Upper Mill Street. Forced to leave school in Standard Five (Grade 7), she was desperate to further her education, but doing so was beyond her parents’ means. At the age of twelve or thirteen, she faked her age and enrolled at the Teachers’ Training College, where training was free and students were given a monthly allowance. After three years, she completed her Third Class Teaching Certificate. Her first job was in Woodstock teaching Standard Three (Grade 5), and she also taught for a while at the Hope Mill School (the former Hebrew Public School). Desperate for a permanent job she determined to go back to Training College to get her Second Class Teaching Certificate, but for that she needed a matric (High School diploma) for which she studied privately. After successfully passing her Second Class Teaching certificate examinations, Purwitsky secured a permanent post in the junior section of the Hope Mill School. It was there that she first met Roza Van Gelderen, the kindergarten teacher at the school, who took her under her wing, and their great friendship blossomed from there.
In June 1926 Purwitsky went to London for a year under the League of the Empire Interchange of Home and Dominion Teachers exchange system. While she was away, the Hope Mill School was divided into separate girls’ and boys’ schools. The girls remained in the Normal College building in Buitekant Street, and the school was renamed the Central Girls’ School, while the boys moved to Hope Lodge in Roeland Street. On the recommendation of Reverend A. P. Bender and Professor Fred Clarke, Van Gelderen was appointed principal of the girls’ school, the first Jewish woman to become principal of a Government School in Cape Town. On Purwitsky’s return, Van Gelderen requested that she be transferred to her school. The two ran Central Girls’ School together. When Purwitsky decided to get a university degree, they reorganized the school timetable and bought a car to make this possible.
Central Girls’ School
The Central Girls’ School was non-denominational and former pupils recall that Van Gelderen took the Catholic girls to mass on Fridays. Moreover, in pre-Apartheid days, it included so-called “Coloured” (mixed-race) girls, such as Valerie Desmore, the first Coloured artist to exhibit at a gallery. It also attracted the flood of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came into South Africa to beat the Quota Act of 1930. In 1936 the school moved to a new and larger building in Vredehoek. Fearful of the dangers of excessive conformity from their encounter with the Hitler Youth movement on a trip to Germany and Austria in 1933, Van Gelderen and Purwitsky modeled their school along the lines of A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, which they had visited in England. At a time when strict discipline was the rule, their school had no rules, but the children were expected to honor the principles that govern the mutual trust and consideration in any community.
In the morning, pupils studied the normal school subjects. But in the afternoon program, children in Standards Four to Six (age ten to fourteen) were allowed to choose among regular academic subjects, the arts, and commercial and practical subjects such as cookery, sewing, and gardening. There was a debating and a journalism club that produced a regular Friday newspaper. Sex education was introduced, quite revolutionary in those days.
For those girls who were unable to cope scholastically, Van Gelderen and Purwitsky introduced a system of parallel classes that focused on teaching the girls practical skills that would equip them for a job. Van Gelderen also took a great interest in the children’s physical as well as mental well-being. She convinced doctors and dentists to give their services for free. Homework was eschewed, as it was regarded as an unnecessary extension of the school day that could more profitably be spent in active play and exploration. While this worked well with children from advantaged backgrounds, it aroused the ire of the Cape Jewish Orphanage, which transferred their children to a different school as a result. Holidays were encouraged even during the school term, as they broadened the pupils’ horizons. Van Gelderen and Purwitsky also organized evening classes in English for immigrant parents, many of whom barely knew how to read or write English.
Despite glowing praise for the school in annual Inspector’s reports, in 1940 the Cape School Board decided to amalgamate the Central Girls’ School with the Boys’ School, Hope Lodge, for reasons of economy, as both schools had been losing pupils for some time. As a Departmental rule forbade women from being appointed principal of a co-educational school, Van Gelderen was automatically prevented from continuing in her post. Purwitsky and Van Gelderen believed that this was a deliberate maneuver on the part of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a conservative Afrikaans Nationalist organization that held sway on the School Board, to get rid of Van Gelderen and her progressive ideas. None of their methods were ever adapted at any other schools. In Purwitsky’s words, “our school was an isolated phenomenon, a small miracle that manifested itself once and never again.”
Journalists and patrons of the arts
Purwitsky and Van Gelderen were also prolific journalists, writing under the pseudonym Rozilda, on topical and historical themes, both serious and lighthearted, in the local English, Afrikaans, and Jewish press. From 1924 to 1927 they contributed a regular column to the “Page For Women” in The Cape Argus. Their columns reflect their day-to-day lives, the cultural landmarks of the city and its diverse ethnic groups, and social issues. Defying gender stereotypes, they covered the 1925 heavyweight boxing match between New Zealander Tom Heeney and South African Johnny Squire.
The teaching of art was one of Van Gelderen’s passions. In 1941, she opened a children’s art studio in Buitekant Street in Cape Town, known as The Yellow Windows Studio. She supported and promoted immigrant artists, such as Wolf Kibel, who came to Cape Town in 1929, and Irma Stern. Over the years Purwitsky and Van Gelderen amassed a fine collection of art that included original posters, lithographs, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, South African art, and the Impressionists. They bought a valuable collection of African artifacts and beadwork and built up a collection of Middle Eastern artifacts, and Van Gelderen accumulated a large collection of old glass perfume bottles.
Van Gelderen and Purwitsky shared a bungalow at Bakoven along the Atlantic coast. The nature of their liaison is typical of the homoerotic relationships between female teachers at girls’ boarding schools of that era. Close family members remember them making no secret of their relationship and enjoying shocking people with their feminist views. Whether Van Gelderen and Purwitsky were lesbians in the modern sense of the word cannot be established. However, there can be no doubt that their relationship conforms to the broader definition that “Women who love women, who choose women to nurture and support and to create a living environment in which to live creatively and independently are lesbians.” (Jennings, xv) However, in a newspaper article on single-sex boarding schools entitled, “School Lovers or School Friends,” Van Gelderen strongly advocated co-educational residential schools as being the healthiest way to avoid such “perversion.”
And in an article entitled “The Superior Girl: Why Does She Remain Unmarried,” published in The Cape Times on April 23, 1927, Van Gelderen posited that the intellectual young woman’s pursuit of knowledge suppressed or sublimated her sexual urge; only when it was too late, at the age of 30-35, did she wake up to the fact that she had sacrificed a home and children for a career. She concluded that “Nature has produced the superior woman in order that she may give her full quota to the racial stock, but man, who has not yet learnt to think of women in terms of equality, will not give her the opportunity.”
In their various exploits during their travels, Van Gelderen and Purwitsky enjoyed a freedom undreamed of by married women. On a visit to Austria in 1933, they entered a shop selling all sorts of Nazi propaganda and purchased two postcards of Hitler, which Hilda proceeded to tear up in front of the amazed shopkeeper. The incident was written up in the The Cape Argus on October 14, 1933.
Purwitsky on occasion conducted liaisons with men. She was associated with Sholem Schwartzbard (1886-1938), the Yiddish poet and assassin of the Ukrainian leader, Symon Petliura (1879-1926). While on a tour of South Africa on behalf of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to promote the Algemeyne Yidishe Entsiklopedye (General Jewish Encyclopedia), Schwartzbard suddenly passed away at Van Gelderen and Purwitsky’s bungalow in Bakoven on March 3, 1938. He was buried at the Woltemade Jewish cemetery in Maitland in Cape Town. Thanks to Purwitsky’s persistence, in 1967 his remains were transferred to Israel, where they were re-interred in the cemetery at Kfar Avichayil near Natanya.
Van Gelderen passed away on the December 7, 1969, at 79 years old. Purwitsky lived on another thirty years. She died in 1999 at the age of 98 years.
Belling, Veronica. “Recovering the lives of South African Jewish women during the migration years c.1880-1939.” Ph.D. diss., University of Cape Town, 2013. Available: http://hdl.handle.net/11427/10013
“In and Around the Peninsula: The End of the Evening Classes.” S. A. Jewish Chronicle, September 5, 1930, p. 580.
Jennings, Rebecca. A Lesbian History of Great Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500. Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007.
Purwitsky, Hilda. “Educational Pioneer, Art Patron, Connoisseur: Roza Van Gelderen was a Unique Personality: She Fostered Talent Wherever She Found it.” South African Jewish Times, January 2, 1970, p. 3.
Rozilda, “A Cape Town Jewess Among the Nazis: Incident in a Vienna Shop,” Cape Argus, October 14, 1933.
“School Lovers or School Friends,” [Cape Times or Cape Argus], March 4, 1930.
Van Gelderen, Roza and Hilda Purwitsky, “Homework and the Modern Child,” Rand Daily Mail, July 1, 1937.
Van Heyningen, Christine. “Notable Death.” Trek: The Family Magazine for All South Africans, Vol. 5, No. 13, December 19, 1940.
Van Zyl, Leonie. Sarah Goldblatt: Letterkundige Administrase van C.J. Langenhoven. M.A. thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2003.
Vicinus, Martha. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920, London: Virago, 1985.
Hilda Purwitsky, interviewed by Noreen Sher, May 1981, Kaplan Centre Oral Interviews, Special Collections, University of Cape Town (U.C.T.) Libraries, BC 949.
Hilda Purwitsky papers, Special Collections, U.C.T. Libraries, BC 707.
Hilda Purwitsky and Roza Van Gelderen papers, Special Collections, U.C.T. Libraries, BC 1271.
Oranjia, Cape Jewish Orphanage, Special Collections, U.C.T. Libraries, BC 918.
Yvonne Verblun, Telephone conversation with author, October 2019.
A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School, available http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/pages/index.html
Afrikaner Broederbond, South African History Online, available https://www.sahistory.org.za/organisations/afrikaner-broederbond
Crutchley, Jodey, Teacher Mobility and Transnational ‘British World’ Space: the League of the Empire’s ‘Interchange of Home and Dominion Teachers’, 1907-1931, Article in History of Education 44(6) 729-748 November 2015, available https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283705672_
Valerie Desmore, available https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Desmore
Wolf Kibel, South African History Online, available https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/wolf-kibel