Tuesday 7 November 2017

Jack Geras 1912-2013 by Adèle Geras

Because November was his birth month, (he was born on November 14th, 1912); because his life was bound up with Russia and its history; because I have just met up with relations I never knew I had (see PS) and because I think it's very interesting piece of oral history, I am taking the liberty of reprinting, just as he wrote it, my late husband's piece about his own father, Jack Geras. This appeared on normblog, on Jack's 100th birthday in 2012. We celebrated the occasion in Greek restaurant in East Finchley. It was fabulous lunch, and my younger daughter even brought her three-year-old son from a nearby nursery to celebrate with his great-grandfather. Jack, a Leftie his whole life, was thrilled to bits with his birthday card from the Queen and also (somewhat more surprisingly!) with one from Iain Duncan Smith.

I remember Jack as a very charming man; handsome, intelligent, stubborn, argumentative. His  Russian accent never left him and he spoke like a more educated version of Sergei from the Meerkat advertisements, which when I see them, always make me smile. I got on with him very well as I did with my mother-in-law,  Beryl, who'd been Jack's first wife. He wouldn't have been an easy chap to be married to, that I admit, but life would never have been dull.

I used to tell him he would never be forgiven by me for dumping a whole knapsack full of moonstones which he'd picked up while he and his fellow soldiers were in the Western Desert! The gemstones were, it seemed, too heavy to carry in that heat....

And here is  interesting but probably irrelevant fact: my  own daughters are married to two brothers, just like Jack's aunts. Also, take a note of Samuel Harris, mentioned in the piece below. My postscript will explain the connection I've recently  made with this branch of the family.

Jack Geras at 100


This post is a tribute to my father, who turns 100 today. The above picture of him was taken a few years ago, on an earlier birthday, though I don't remember which one.
In February 1993, I asked my dad to tell me something about his family history and I took notes on what he said. With his permission I am reproducing these notes below to mark the day. The conversation took place shortly after I began reading widely about the Holocaust, and that explains the nature of some of the information I elicited; I hadn't talked to him in any detail about the fate of his family before.

Notes from conversations of 10-11 February 1993
Dad's mother and father were Etta (Ethel) and Meyer Ger, born in Shadowo, Lithuania: Meyer in 1869, Etta three or four years later. Etta's maiden name was Klevanski (deriving from the small town of Klevan). Her father was a bookkeeper and died before Dad was born. Dad has some memory of his maternal grandmother, however.
Etta had twin sisters, who married twin brothers. The son of one of these couples played a role in the defence of Leningrad against the Germans, and was made a Hero of Leningrad. Dad met him on his visit to Russia in 1972. The daughter of the other couple was living at this time in Stettin (Szczecin) on the Baltic.
Dad's paternal grandfather, Meyer's father Jacov, was a wallpaper manufacturer when wallpaper was still made by hand. In the late 1890s he established a factory in Minsk. He died before Dad was born, Dad's paternal grandmother after that in about 1919.
Meyer's elder brother, Chaim, went to South Africa and changed his name to Harris. In the 1880s or 1890s, by now established as a grocer, he joined a pioneer column in Mafeking and went to Salisbury; he was on its first town council. He died in 1912. Another uncle, Samuel went to Toronto in the 1890s, also becoming Harris. He may have been a soapbox leftist. He was in any case a tobacconist and evidently quite well-to-do, because when Meyer later lost his factory, Samuel sent him £100, no mean sum at the time. Meyer had two sisters as well, one of them (surname Tigger) also going to Toronto, in about 1927. The other went to Africa, and she was in Nyabira in Southern Rhodesia when Dad arrived in August 1928 to work in Shabani.
The Harris in Rhodesia (Chaim) had been a very wealthy man, owning a goldmine at Shamva and land in Salisbury. He married a younger woman. After he died, she in turn married a younger man. They sold the mine and lost or misused the wealth. The Harris children went to England.
Dad had three sisters, all older than he: Rachil, born in 1900, Sonya in 1904, and Tsila (Celia) in 1908. The family lived in Minsk throughout the Revolution. They had a wonderful apartment. During the Civil War, first the Germans and then the Poles occupied Minsk. Pushed back by Budienny, the Poles burned down the industrial area of the town before leaving, destroying the wallpaper factory. Meyer now set up a hardware business, but things became increasingly unpleasant for him. He was accused of being a speculator, arrested at a club he belonged to, and spent a month in prison. In 1920 a decree was passed allowing wartime refugees to return to independent Lithuania, and the family, though not actually refugees, took advantage of it to return in 1921. They travelled by train, in goods wagons, and settled in Panevezys.
Ger was now changed to Geras, the endings -as and -is being usual for masculine names in Lithuania. Meyer died not long afterwards: in 1923 from pneumonia.
The two older girls, Rachil and Sonya, were members of the Left SRs. Rachil went to the University at Kovna, and Sonya (who had earlier studied at a musical conservatory in Kiev) did also. Both of them were in the Faculty of Humanities. They became Marxists. The Communist Party was illegal and their activity, accordingly, conspiratorial. As the parents had hoped the move to Lithuania would help integrate the daughters in the Jewish bourgeoisie, this was unwelcome to them. In 1926 Rachil stood as a candidate for a CP-front party. The Social-Democrats won the election and there followed a political liberalization, the growth of trade unions, a hopeful revolutionary mood - and a coup by the army. Rachil was arrested and released on bail. Sonya, too, was arrested, in 1927.
Rachil was sent to a camp for political prisoners. Dad used to take food parcels to her, sometimes carrying secret correspondence. On one occasion he was detained and interrogated, but nothing was found. Discovering his involvement, however, his mother now wrote to relatives in Southern Africa and Canada, in order to get him away. He saw Rachil but not Sonya - now in prison in Siauliai (Shavli) - before he left. Soon afterwards, Tsila was also arrested. Unable to stand the punishment, she gave names, and when she was let out on bail, her comrades sent her to Coventry. Under discipline, her sisters apparently also did so. Forfeiting bail, she and her mother moved to Latvia; they settled initially in Libau. Rachil subsequently escaped from the prison camp and went to the Soviet Union. Sonya contracted tuberculosis, and was released in about 1933. From Southern Rhodesia Dad corresponded with all of them regularly and sent money.
Dad's mother and Tsila were in Riga at the time of the German invasion, Tsila meanwhile having got married and had two children. They were all murdered. Sonya was in Kovno; she was now Joffe through marriage. They took to the roads and she was killed fleeing. There is, or was, a memorial to her husband in Kleipeda (Memel).
[Note: According to Martin Gilbert, 80 per cent of the Jews of Riga were murdered in November and December 1941: they were 'taken to pits in the nearby Rumbuli forest, and shot'; the 'few survivors were put into a forced labour camp'. The Holocaust, pp. 229-30.]
Dad first became aware of the genocide against the Jews in the closing stages of World War II, through press reports. He remembers once in Rome trying to see if he could get any information about the fate of his family. He learned more about the Holocaust in 1945, demobilized and back in Rhodesia; both from the press and from survivors. In 1947 or 1948 he found out from Rachil, who had re-established contact with him via a cousin in Johannesburg, what had happened to his mother and sisters. There were some more details but he has not retained them. He had to establish a new life and went through a period of personal difficulties.
Rachil asked him to stop writing during the anti-Semitic campaign of the early 1950s in the Soviet Union. She was sent into internal exile in Karelia and prohibited from living in the towns there. This ended with the death of Stalin when contact between them was again resumed. Dad saw her in 1972. She had been married and divorced and was Rachil Ger, with one daughter, Galina (then deceased), and a grandson, Ergali, whom Dad met. Ergali's father was from Kazakhstan and had been killed in a 'mining accident' (possibly a nuclear explosion) in the Urals. After she was rehabilitated, Rachil settled in Vilna. She came to visit Dad in Leningrad, staying there with a maternal cousin, Lozick, and also in Moscow, staying with another maternal cousin, Freda.
Information added later: When Dad was born in 1912, the family lived in a house on Rakovskaya Street (10/1) in Minsk: they lived there until 1921.


I shall now say a few more things. The above picture, with my dad on the left, has '1927' written in ink on the back of it; so he would have been 14 or 15. He has told me more than once that his mother sent him away to Africa in part so that he would avoid the problems encountered by his two politicized sisters. I've written something brief about this here and also about Dad's part in the war. Below is a picture of him in wartime. He is in the middle of the group.


In March 2006, he met up with a guy who had been in the same squadron as he was and also called Jack - Jack Ferera. I described the circumstances that led to their meeting in this post; and here is a picture of the two of them.


After the war my dad went into business in Bulawayo. He had a clothing factory for a period, then a button factory, and later one that produced foam rubber. His success in this last enterprise led in due course to a merger with Vitafoam in the UK. He and Mary and their two daughters, Etta and Nita, came to England in 1965, settling initially in Wilmslow. They then moved down to London at about the time of Dad's retirement in 1969 or 1970. He was admired and held in great respect by everyone he worked with.
Dad has also been, throughout, a good father to his children by both of his marriages - to Beryl, my mom, and then to Mary, who died in October 2004 - a man of great generosity, and with an indefatigable thirst for knowledge about political and economic affairs. I learned a lot from him, and we have talked politics (agreeing or disagreeing) from the time I first started to take an interest in the subject right up to today. Until his eyesight began to fail, he played a pretty damn good game of Bridge.
Here is a picture of Dad on my sister Sue's wedding day, with my sister El there, too, as Sue's bridesmaid.


And here, finally, is one of him at home, at ease, in his pomp.


PS.    A few nights ago, I had a lovely meal here in Cambridge with Norm's second cousin, Professor Bill Harris and his wife, Professor Christine Holt. They live in Newnham and we spent a very enjoyable evening discussing the connections between us, and the serendipity of living in the same place at the same time. Bill and Christine are neuroscientists and when I came home and looked them up on Google, I was in total awe of their achievements. Bill is the grandson of Samuel, who has the added lustre of being the founder of Toronto's first delicatessen. Norm was the grandson of Meyer, one of the three brothers mentioned above. We were all brought into contact with one another recently through the good offices of Jeff Rose, from Canada, who searched out the Harris genealogy and discovered hidden Gerases. Jeff is making a comprehensive family tree and it will be many-branched, and various. The Canadian branch changed Geras to Harris, which was probably sensible, but I for my part, having married into this family, am very glad to be a more unusual (if often misspelt and mispronounced) Geras.


Sally Prue said...

This post made a great impression on me when it was on normblog. How small it makes our problems look now!

Thanks, Adele, I shall return to the day with new determination.

Pippa Goodhart said...


Katherine Langrish said...

Wonderful, Adele! Thankyou. And I remember with much gratitude Norm inviting me to contribute to his blog, several years ago now. x

Penny Dolan said...

What amazing lives! A fine reminder of the lovely Norm. I'm glad you stayed a Geras, rather than a Harris.

Ann Turnbull said...

What an extraordinary family history. Thank you for this, Adele. (And I'm glad you stayed a Geras, too.)

Leslie Wilson said...

I too think Geras is better than Harris. I've often wondered about the provenance of the name, though. I read this with fascination and sadness. History does such dreadful things to families. Jack sounds like an amazing man, so that adds admiration to my feelings.

Celia Rees said...

I came to this late, but I'd like to join my thanks to those expressed above. What an extraordinarily moving account of one family's courage, suffering and survival. Thank you so much, Adele, for sharing this with us.