News This week in History

Tob Cohen: This 1903 letter permitted his burial at Jewish Cemetery

Famous Jews include Abraham Block, the great-great grandfather of  Kenyan  Olympic swimmers Jason and David Dunford

Fortune hunter: The late Tob Cohen made his money in golf, medical tourism, hospitality.

By Shifa Mwihaki

Feature writer/Essayist

Slain Dutch tycoon Tob Cohen was buried at the Jewish Cemetery along Wangari Maathai Road in Nairobi’s City Park area this week. The cemetery is also part history of the Jews who began coming to Kenya as their ‘Promised Land’ in 1903.

Most of the land in Nairobi belonged to the Uganda Railway and the Nairobi Jewish Congregation applied for a burial site which was granted in June 1907-when the cemetery was consecrated.

Site for a synagogue, at what later became known as Kirk Road but is now Nyerere Road, was granted to H. Fein, president of the Jewish Congregation in 1908.  Lord Rothschild, now part of the richest banking dynasty in the world, sent £25 (Sh3, 250) as part donation for its construction which was completed in 1913 as historian Julius Carlebach informs us in  Jews of Nairobi 1903-1962

Famous Jews who made Kenya their home include Abraham Block, the grandfather of Geraldine Dunford, wife of Martin Dunford, owners of the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi. The Carnivore generates over Sh1 billion in annual revenues. Abraham founded the Block Hotels chain of which Mt Kenya Safari Club and the Norfolk Nairobi were once part. Abraham’s other grandchild is Jeremy Block, who runs Dormans Coffee in Kenya.

Kenyan  Olympic swimmers Jason and David Dunford are the great-great grandchildren of Abraham Block.

Till we meet again, love: Sarah Wairimu has been in custody over Cohen’s murder. It was the first time in Kenya’s history when a suspect was released to attend burial of a victim.

Then there are the Somens, who were driven here after the vagaries of World War I, beginning with Israel Somen, president of the Jewish Congregation who was elected Mayor of Nairobi in 1947.  

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 His nephew was the late lawyer Michael Somen whose sons Jonathan and David founded internet service provider Access Kenya. The Somens also ran the now defunct Hutchings Beamer, the only furniture dealer which was once listed at the Nairobi Securities Exchange.

Other influential Jews include George Vamos, the Israeli architect who designed the Jomo Kenyatta mausoleum at Parliament buildings in Nairobi. Not to be forgotten is Dr David Silverstein, an American-Jewish surgeon. He came to Kenya for two years in the 1970s, but over 40 years later, he is still the personal doctor of retired President Daniel arap Moi, former Attorney General Charles Njonjo and the late Bob Collymore.

Burning Spear: The Jomo Kenyatta Mausoleum was designed by Jewish architect George Vamos, one among many influential Jews who call Kenya home.

But at the time of the Jews immigrating to Kenya in 1903, there were tempers all over the Colony against them, as this letter reproduced from Jews of Nairobi 1903-1962, attests. It was written by Charles Eliot, the Commissioner of British East Africa of which Kenya was part. The letter was addressed to Lord Delamere, then emerging as the spokesman of White settlers in Kenya:

Mombasa,

September 3, 1903

Dear Lord Delamere,

With regard to the Jew, not only have I no wish to hinder you from expressing your opinions, but I will, of you wish, forward a statement of them to the Foreign Office if you like to put them in a suitable form. I am no anti-Semitic myself and do not share your objections to Indians and other non-English settlers, but I confess that as far as I understand the present proposal I view it with very mixed feelings.

But you must understand the importance of the financial question. This Protectorate alone costs the Government at home £256, 000 (Sh33 million at current exchange rates) per annum.

 If the settlers were the British they would be the first to protest against what they would a monstrous waste of money. As long as we go on this way we are always exposed to the risk that a radical Government may cut our vote in aid, and what shall we do then? We should simply collapse, and it is better to be supported by Jews than to do that.

Meanwhile, the best way of practically defeating the Jewish scheme is to increase the number of British immigrants. It is almost absurd for the present settlers to talk about their rights. They are so few, and as taxpayers so unimportant, that they can hardly logically claim to have a voice in deciding the destinies of the country against the Government which expends hundreds of thousands on it every year…

Yours Sincerely,

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C. Eliot

Imperial reckoning: Lord Delamere founded milk giant KCC. He was the great great grandfather of Tom Cholmondeley who died in 2016 and the Delameres began selling off their Soy Sambu ranch in Naivasha.

  Lord Delamere was opposed to Jewish Settlement in Kenya, mostly in the fertile White Highlands stretching from Mai-Mahiu (not far from his vast land in Naivasha) to Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County. They were to be settled via the Jewish Colonial Trust Ltd after a Zionist Congress in April 1903 chose British East Africa as the ideal place for the Jews. Israel only became a state later in 1948. While the proposal to settle Jews in Kenya was rejected, about 20 families snaked here and settled in Nairobi. They built their first synagogue in 1913 and have lived there ever since. They rarely intermarry, mingle or expose themselves and the reasons Kenyans were at sea regarding Jewish burial rites subjected to Tob Cohen’s 70 year old body.

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