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.
One hundred not out - that is some achievement. I salute you, Dad. Happy birthday.