Ari’s great-great-grandfather Harry (my Grandad) was born on 22 May 1908 in Hackney, London. I think I got my love of words from Harry, and I treasure the books I inherited from him which have his pencilled notes in the margins, as well as two that he gave me as presents: a lovely small hardback edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in 1968 and Three Men in a Boat in 1973 (which says in the front ‘An unbirthday present from Grandad’). I remember playing word games with him (Boggle?), and being told off for wishing I had letters I didn’t have! We shared a delight in interesting words and definitions. I think he must have been interested in family history too, although of course I never asked him the questions I should have.
Here’s Harry with me as a baby (with Claire Bruyère):
And at my graduation:
And at my wedding in 1986:
Harry left so many documents behind him that there is no shortage of information to compile his life story. I have many letters of his, to his father, his wife Judy, his children, and to newspapers, as well as two or three versions of his autobiography, school reports, and certificates of various kinds.
The address on his birth certificate was 179 Amhurst Rd (which was described as ‘a Victorian mid-terrace, typical of much of the housing stock within Hackney and that which gives the borough its coherence and integrity’. It sold for £1,350,000 in 2018. In 1904 the property was being offered in the London Standard as a freehold investment bringing in £45 p.a.).
Harry was their first child. His earliest memory, according to his autobiography, was from 1910, when ‘my father took me, perched on his shoulders, to watch a street procession which, I learned later, was the funeral cortège of King Edward VII on its way to Paddington Station for burial at Windsor. I can remember soldiers marching in the street, some men (possibly police) on horseback, and music, presumably a funeral march’.
Here is Harry in 1910.
He writes, ‘The next thing I remember is undergoing a tonsillectomy. I was three years old. The operation was carried out by our family practitioner, Dr Feldman. I had to lie down on the scullery table. A mask was placed over my head. It had a metal grill front, and it was on this that the doctor poured some drops of chloroform. The next thing I knew was being ordered under the bedclothes when I was found playing on the bed.’
In the 1911 census the family can be seen at 69 Aden Grove in Stoke Newington. I think this might be that house:
Here is Harry in 1912:
In August 1912 Harry’s brother Bernard was born.
Harry says that ‘it must have been in 1912 when my maternal grandmother travelled from Lithuania to visit us. She stayed about a week. I have a dim recollection of her, the only one of my grandparents I ever saw’. (This would have been Fannie’s mother, Sarah Nisman. I don’t know how she would have travelled to London from Minsk but I haven’t found any records of this trip.)
On Harry’s fifth birthday, ‘my father gave me a tricycle, a wonderful present of which I was proud. One day I had been cycling along the pavement and then left the tricycle in the front garden while I went into the house. When, some minutes later, I emerged, the tricycle had disappeared. I was both heartbroken and angry. I remember thinking I would like to strangle whoever had stolen my treasured tricycle. My father reported the loss to the police. A couple of days later a policeman arrived at the house with the missing tricycle and holding by his ear the miscreant, a wretched-looking boy somewhat older than myself. He was dressed in rags, and like most poor children in those days, went barefoot. “Do you want to prosecute?” the policeman asked my father who, turning to me, asked if I wanted the boy punished. I looked at the miserable child. My anger evaporated. I felt nothing but pity for him. So I said “No”. The policeman slapped the boy’s ear and let him go.’
Harry went to a kindergarten near his home and then a Board School in Stoke Newington when he was six. He remembered this May Day celebration where he was the page boy:
Harry mentions that his father’s brother Nathan had come to live in England (he was living with the family in the 1911 census), and Nathan and Meyer used to take Harry to Hyde Park to listen to the speakers on Sunday mornings. ‘I used to stand on a chair and wave my arms about saying “Sparliament, Sparliament”! My interest in politics thus began at a very early age’.
In 1912 the family moved to No. 12 Fairholt Rd, Stamford Hill.
Harry’s autobiography also solves the mystery of this photo from 1913:
He notes that ‘it was in 1913 too that one of my father’s sisters, my aunt Laiky, visited us for a week or two. My recollection of her is faint but I have a photograph of our family in which she appears. Aunt Laiky, her husband, and her two children were killed in the gas chambers in the 1940s’. So this must be Laiky at the back on the right, and Nathan is at the back on the left.
In 1914 the family went to Margate on holiday, where Harry went bathing with his parents, using a bathing machine to change into their bathing costumes. ‘My mother’s costume covered her completely, as was then customary. I clearly recall seeing a news placard one morning as we went down to the beach. It announced “War declared on Germany”‘.
In 1915 they left London, to avoid the air raids, and went to live in Pinner (Kenmure, West End Ave). At age nine, Harry was sent to Ascott House School, a Jewish boarding school in Brighton, for two years (although Meyer was an atheist, he wanted his sons to have a knowledge of Jewish culture). ‘My father, when he visited me, used to warn me not to believe the myths, but nevertheless to acquaint myself with Jewish traditions’.
Advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle, 1905
In the school holidays Harry went to London with his mother, often ending up in the ice-cream parlour at Selfridges, and sometimes going to the cinema.
At eleven Harry became a day boy at Colet Court in Hammermith, which was the prep school for St Paul’s. He travelled by train each day from Pinner, changing at Baker St. He was given the nickname ‘Longshanks’, as he was tall for his age. ‘I was on the “modern side” at school, which meant that I continued with Latin but avoided Greek’. Harry then sat the entrance exam for St Paul’s School, and was admitted at age twelve. His reports were quite good – his teachers commented that his work was untidy, and that he was handicapped by absence, but he ‘works steadily and intelligently’, and was ‘not brilliant but conscientious’.
Harry in 1919:
He says ‘I started on the modern side, but, as I was especially good at maths, was soon transferred to the army side where the syllabus included so-called higher mathematics, which in those days meant trigonometry, statics, dynamics and calculus. We were encouraged to join the OTC [Officers’ Training Corps]. I disapproved of military training, but the alternative was two hours of dull physical training in the gym each week. So eventually I did join the OTC, and rather enjoyed parade-ground discipline. We went on route marches, had field days on Barnes Common, and I did a week in camp at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain, where we slept, six in a tent, on straw-filled palliasses. It was during that week that I listened one evening to someone reciting “Gunga Din”. I was greatly moved by the poem and was soon reading Kipling, both verse and prose.’
(I wonder if Harry gave me my copies of Puck of Pook’s Hill and Just-So Stories?)
This photo was taken in 1921, the year of his bar mitzvah.
Harry left St Paul’s when he was refused leave to accompany his parents on a business trip to the US. After returning from the US, he went to a school in Neuchatel, Switzerland for two years. Here he learned to dance. He lodged with the family of one of the schoolteachers, Monsieur Schnapp.
This is the text of a letter Meyer sent to Harry in April 1925:
It may be humiliating for a matured man to acknowledge, but I have to confess that my parting with you at Neuchatel left a void in my heart that nothing but your being near again to us can fill that void. You are however in a position to mitigate to a large extent that gnawing feeling and namely by your consistency in correspondence (at least twice a week), by your own honest assurances that you will take care of yourself and by your determined attempts to act manly in everything you do and that you are discarding and will continue to discard some of your childish and, shall I say, obdurate habits. For the present mamma and I desire you at once to arrange with Mrs Schnapp for your having extra milk as we feel that after your cold and after your suddenly taking up again intensive work you certianly do need extra nourishment and, H, remember that even Mrs Schnapp, a total stranger to you then, remarked, when we first visited her, upon your pale appearance. I arrived home this afternoon and found everything in order and everybody well; mammy was as is natural, all a-questioning me about you and all anxiety upon my mere mentioning the LAKE, so that in this latter respect I want you particularly to respect mammy’s feelings (your Dad is turning a bit old womanish as I am not a little anxious myself about the lake). I had rather a bad crossing and if I have the time and inclination I may try in my next letter to describe the crossing graphically. Love from all to you and remember me to Mr and Mrs Schnapp. PS please note my way of addressing you: Mr and not Master.
Your ever loving Dad
Harry spent eighteen months at LSE studying Economics, but then Meyer had a heart attack and was unable to work. Harry felt that he had to support his parents and younger brothers. By 1930 Harry was involved in his father’s fur and skin business, as this letter shows:
Mummy insisted that I should write to you at Interlaken, and I just wrote the evening before you left Interlaken so that the letter could not possibly reach you. … Things at home are as usual everybody being well; last night we were at Usiskins who made an affair with a marquee in the garden to celebrate in England Isidor’s wedding there were all the usual crowd of young and middle aged people with dancing and card playing until 3 a.m. You can imagine that I am very tired now. As regards business since you left: I have sold to A. Wetstein the small opossum ? 3300 at 2/3 the firsts and 1/6 the II total amount £94, to Greenberg 1296 opossum part old lot and part new total amount £280, to Berliner 2400 various Siberian squirrels total amount £350, to Clayton 412 musquash @ 3/-, to Kipernick 120 of the white skunks @5/6, to Pertschuk part of the Blk & Sht skunks on 10% basis total amount £195, to Uncle in NY our semipalatinsk fitches on a 7% basis total amount £620, to Cohen the job buyer the rejects of the opossums at 1/-, to Koffman (the dealer) 600 thin striped II squirrels at 1/8 about 5 or 6 white foxes at a few various odd small sales. Tobias delivered the 2400 opossums and they came out simply marvellous & much better than not only the 3300 but than the 100 sample; we cannot help making a profit on these; on the other hand Rice delivered most of the squirrels of Wulfsons and they are very disappointing. It was a bad buy; this demonstrates that we must not be influenced by other people’s opinions and doings.
By this point Harry and Judy were about to announce their engagement, and this is where I will leave Harry for now.
Ari, this is how you are related to Harry: