SAUL ISROFF is dedicated to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain.
A founder member of the organisation in 1992, the
current president hails from Port Elizabeth,
A retired dermatologist, Saul particularly
researches Lithuania due to family connections to
Linkuva and Marijampole.
He is project director of the Centre for Jewish
Migration and Genealogy Studies at the University
of Cape Town's Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies.
Elsewhere, he is involved with Jewishgen Inc - a
subsidiary of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in
New York, a member of the board of governors and
deputy chairman-elect at the International
Institute of Jewish Genealogy, Jerusalem.
Saul - who emigrated to London in 1980 - is also
co-founder and chairman of the Genealogical
Society's Southern Africa special interest
"I grew up in a reasonably observant, Orthodox
environment and moved to Johannesburg after my
father, David, died," he recalled.
"The other big thing for me was growing up in
Habonim from seven to 18. I went on camps and
"People came from all over southern Africa - from
the Congo downwards."
Saul, whose sister Judith lives in Israel,
settled in north-west London and was involved in
a number of business ventures.
His interest in genealogy started in childhood
when listening to his grandmother, Chana Dvora,
talk about Lita (Lithuania), his family and
"She lived on a farm in South Africa since 1905,
but in a remote area some 100 miles from a city
and never mastered English, speaking a garbled
mix of Yiddish, Afrikaans, English and Russian,"
"A kind and warm person, Chana Dvora spoke about
her parents and described a little wooden house
they had lived in Pamusha, now Pamusis near
The fall of the Soviet Union and establishment of
an independent Lithuania made research
Saul attended a Jewish book fair for a talk by
Sallyann Amdur Sack on Russian Jewish archives in
The visit led to his role in the formation of the
Genealogical Society with Graham Jaffay elected
its first chairman.
Other founders included Michael Hanney, Doreen
Berger, Dr Anthony Joseph and George Rigal.
"We started small with around 20 members, but
grew rapidly into the hundreds and now have
around 1,000 members," he said.
"We started developing meetings outside London in
Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Leeds, Leicester
"The society grew, we held an annual conference
and an international conference in 2001, which
attracted around 800 people."
In terms of discoveries, Saul found the tombstone
of his great-grandmother Grunia Girs in Linkuva,
The search began after Saul had been shown a
school register for 1941 showing names of Jewish
children crossed out in red ink with the dates
when they had been killed.
He was taken to mass murder sites in the forest
of Dvariulai and Veselkiskiai.
Armed with a photo taken by his father of his
great-grandmother's tombstone when he went to
Lithuania in 1923, Saul located a Jewish cemetery
with the most recent tombstones dated 1939.
"There are no maps and no burial registers," he
"Few people in the town even knew of the
existence of a Jewish cemetery."
Saul stumbled over a gravestone, partially
covered in grass.
"The bricks had disintegrated and only the
granite stone was still intact," he recalled. "It
was as if I had been guided there by an invisible
"We cleaned up the stone, rubbing it with fine
sand and said kaddish. This gave me a sense of
connection to my family and their past."
Saul discovered his grandmother had three sisters
in Lithuania killed in the Holocaust.
"She and her brothers went to South Africa, four
of her nephews also came later," he said.
"No one spoke about the family who were killed,
but I had heard all their names over the
"Grunja Z, one of her nieces, my father's first
cousin, survived the Siauliai and Riga ghettos,
Stutthof and Dora Mittelbau concentration camps.
"She made aliya from Riga in the early 1970s.
After many years of talking to her, I filled in
pages of testimony on her behalf for Yad Vashem
Subsequent visits to Lithuania, where Saul saw
more than 100 of the estimated 230 mass murder
sites, led to a research project with Dr Rose
Lerer Cohen, of Jerusalem, and the publication of
The Holocaust in Lithuania: a Book of Remembrance
Saul has also edited two volumes of Jewish
migration to South Africa and co-authored a book
on destroyed European communities.
His research on Jewish cemeteries with
photographs is online.
"It's not just a matter of collecting names and
listing families," he said.
"The information is a tool for understanding
Jewish history, for educating the younger
generation and a broadening of an understanding
of what it is to be Jewish.
"Jewish genealogy has also grown among non-Jews
who had Jewish ancestors two or three hundred
As for future plans, Saul was enthusiastic about
"We are working on a World Jewish Relief project
on the Kindertransport, whose members want to
know more about their families," he said.
"One of the difficulties is that younger people
do almost everything on the web and those
particularly with young families don't have the
time to come to meetings.
"There is an imbalance in membership, but there
is a lot of interest from schools.
"We work with Jewish day schools on family
"Applying modern technology to genealogy will
only develop and help families in the future.
"The prospects through technology is