top of page

Norman Lourie - Zionist extraordinaire

South African born Norman Lourie was the proverbial man for all seasons. Founder of both Habonim and Maccabi South Africa, poet, war correspondent, pioneer film producer and finally a successful hotelier in Israel.

First Habonim camp held in South Africa - Parys 1933

The Lourie Family

Norman and his older brother Arthur were born and raised in a Johannesburg home steeped in Zionist values and ideals. Matriarch Regina Lourie served as the 2nd chairperson in 1905 of the South African Ladies Zionist Society which had been established a year earlier. Harry Lourie. their father, was actively involved in promoting the sale of shares in the Jewish Colonial Trust (JCT) as early as 1901. The JCT had been established for funding of Zionist actvities in Palestine, effectively becoming the first Zionist bank and later a major shareholder in the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which eventually became Bank Leumi. Harry Lourie was one of the early directors of the Palestine Enterprise Corporation or the Binyan Company, as it came to be known. This company was established by South African Jewry in 1922 to fund the construction of housing in Palestine. Arthur led the way to becoming involved in global Zionism by moving to Britain in 1933 at the age of 30, where he served as the political secretary to the Jewish Agency in London for the next 15 momentous years. Arthur first worked under World Zionist Congress president Nahum Sokolow and from 1933 onwards, under Chaim Weizmann, who had replaced Sokolow. The Jewish Agency for Palestine was the representative body of the Jewish residents during the British Mandate era. Arthur enjoyed a stellar career as an Israeli diplomat from 1948 onwards, which culminated in him serving as Deputy Director General in Israel's Foreign ministry from 1965 until his retirement in 1972.

Norman Lourie

Arthur Lourie

The Common Thread - South Africa, Boy Scouts and Habonim

While visiting London in the late 1920's Norman Lourie came under the influence of Wellesley Aron, later assisting the latter in establishing the Jewish youth movement, Habonim (The Builders) in 1929. Habonim was based on the Boy Scout Movement started by General Sir Robert Baden Powell who brought the idea to Britain after returning from military service in South Africa in 1903. During the Anglo Boer War (1899 - 1902), Baden Powell was in command of the Mafeking Garrison, which was kept under siege by Boer forces for 217 days. During the siege valuable service was rendered by the Mafeking Cadet Corps, composed of young white boys who assisted the military authorities by doing sentry duty, acting as messengers and working as hospital orderlies, freeing soldiers for combat and other duties. The embryo of the idea of the boy scout movement grew from Baden Powell’s experience with the youngsters, and the Boy Scout movement was born in Britain in 1908 after his retirement from the army.

General Sir Robert Baden Powell in South Africa 1896

Wellesley Aron

Wellesley Aron who had been an active boy scout during his youth in Stepney, became involved in working with disadvantaged youngsters from London’s East End while a student at Cambridge in 1921. This experience made him aware of the positive impact scouting had on their troubled young lives. After experiencing anti Jewish prejudice which resulted in the end of a love affair with a non-Jewish girl, Aron decided that the time had come for him to move to Palestine where he would be among fellow Jews, doing so in 1926. He returned to Britain to work in the Zionist Council offices a year later at the request of Chaim Weizmann, where he was able to put his idea of a Jewish Scout Movement into practice, with Norman Lourie as the co-founder of the youth movement..

Norman Lourie founds the Habonim group

The founding principles of Habonim included the encouragement of Jewish youth to develop a knowledge of and a love for their Jewish heritage, blended with the scouting ideas of inspiring an enjoyment of camping and other outdoor pursuits. Habonim went further by teaching its members modern Hebrew combined with traditional Jewish songs and dances. The objective was to encourage Aliyah in order to bolster the small Jewsih population in Palestine. Summer camps which became a feature of Habonim globally, were initially held on farms to teach the youngsters the rudiments of agriculture in preparation for life in Palestine. Norman Lourie returned to South Africa shortly after being involved in the founding of Habonim in Britain, and by 1930 had established the first Habonim group in Johannesburg. The movement proved so popular that it grew rapidly and by 1933 there were branches in cities and towns across South Africa.

Habonim Camp in South Africa 1973/74

Norman soon became enamoured with a proposal by Ian Maltz that a South African team of sportsmen should attend the 2nd Maccabiah in Palestine, which was planned for 1935. The first highly successful Maccabiah had taken place two years earlier in 1933, in celebration of the 1800th anniversary of the Judean revolt led by Simon Bar Kokhba against the Jews Roman overlords. 390 participants from 18 countries had attended the inaugural Maccabiah, with the Polish team leading the medal standings when the event ended, an indication of the dramatic change in the Jewish Diaspora brought on by the Holocaust. Norman Lourie and Ian Maltz established an embryonic Maccabiah Council of South Africa in 1934, with Lourie as the first chairman. He later led a delegation of 19 athletes and 4 officials to the 1935 Maccabiah, where the South African team performed credibly by winning 10 gold medals, while finishing 7th out of 26 participating countries in the overall standings.

South African team at the opening of the 1935 Maccabiah

Following the return of the team to South Africa, the Johannesburg Maccabi Association was formally established with Norman Lourie as the founding president and Ian Maltz as the chairman. Maltz became a legendary figure in Maccabi history and later served as a very popular mayor of Johannesburg during the years 1958 and 1959. The need for sports facilities for Jewsih sportsmen and women resulted in the establishment of the Balfour Park sports grounds in Johannesburg, which served as a forerunner for similar Jewish sports centres in various towns and cities in South Africa. Unforunately all sporting activities were placed on hold a few years later with the outbreak of the Second World War, which South Africa entered as a member of the British Commonwealth on 6 September 1939, when prime minister Jan Smuts officially declared war on Germany.

Norman Lourie - War Correspondent

Military service with the Union Defence Force as a volunteer was to point Norman Lourie in a new direction when he was drafted as a filmmaker and war correspondent attached to the South African Engineering Corps. This led to him being posted to record and report on the activities of the Railway Construction Company which was engaged in laying the railway track from Haifa to Beirut, which I wrote about in my article on Rosh Hanikra. During his journey from Haifa to Rosh Hanikra, Norman passed through Shavei Tzion, a moshav in an idyllic setting on the Mediterranean coast. The moshav had been established in 1938 by Jews who had seen the writing on the wall and fled their homes in Germany, in search a safer life in Palestine. While passing through Shavei Tzion, Norman spotted a 12 room hotel that had been built on one of the moshav 10 acre plots, with the additional bonus of a small stream which ran through the property. He immediately felt a great affinity for the establishment and must have stored the details in his memory bank for future reference. Shortly thereafter he was advised to transfer to the Jewish Brigade who were participating in the Allied invasion of Italy.

Norman Lourie with the Jewish Brigade

Norman Lourie was with the Brigade in Trieste on 10 May 1945, the day of the German surrender after Hitler’s death by suicide on 30 April of that year. Lourie filed this verbatim account from one of the 200 survivors of what had been a 5,000 strong community before the Holocaust “At first the Germans took the wealthier members of the community and ultimately the poorer Jews. No one knows where they went. They have vanished. Many died on the trains on which they were loaded like beasts”. Norman filmed many of the traumatic and dramatic events of the progress of the Jewsih Brigade as they advanced through Italy. This brings us back in a full circle to Major Wellesely Aron who commanded a company in the Jewish Brigade that was instrumental in rescuing Jewish refugees who had escaped from German death camps. He was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1945 with the following citation. “Major Wellesley Aron proved himself to be an officer of outstanding merit who devotes himself wholeheartedly to the interests of his own unit and of the formation he serves“. Another snippet regarding the Jewish Brigade is that the senior Brigade Chaplain was none other than Reverend Bernard Casper, who as Rabbi Bernard M. Casper served as the Chief Rabbi of South Africa from 1963 to 1987.

Rev. (later Rabbi) Bernard Casper - Senior Chaplain Jewsih Brigade 1944

I would not be doing justice to Norman Lourie or his legacy if I tried to tell his story in one article, so I will end this week's article at this point. Next week we’ll be taking a look at Norman Lourie as a film producer, poet and hotelier after moving to Palestine following his demobilisation at the end of the Second World War.

Please forward this article to friends who might be interested

I hope you have enjoyed reading this post. If so please be so kind as to scroll down to "leave a comment" and post your comment. This will be greatly appreciated

Some comments from readers of my blog

Peter, I really enjoy your posts and have learnt so many interesting details from them. You make me long to spend a full year discovering the many fascinating places you mention. Regards & please keep Posting. Sue Jackson SA

An amazing history lesson. Thank you

Once again you have exposed history, in your usual attractive way.

Not sure what should come first : “Kol Hakavod”  or “Toda Raba”.

635 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Fascinating as always, thank you Peter! One has little comprehension of the sacrifices made by the forces in WWII, and it is interesting that such a disproportionate number were Jewish, they've never shied from doing their duty, and done so exceptionally, history is unequivocal about this.

bottom of page