Mr. Black finds gold in the land of the Irish

In the late 19th century an impoverished Jewish Pole, armed with nothing but ambition, found wealth and prosperity after arriving in northern Ireland.

September 11, 2007 10:39
black store 88 224

black store 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The story of Isaac (born Schwartz) Black is one similar to many others as Jews in the late 19th century began to leave Poland to find a new and better life. Together with the difficulties of scraping a living in the small village of Kraznystaw, which was his home, Isaac decided that far away fields would provide him with more in life than to make trousers - a skill he learned when he tried to become more than a peddler. The spreading wave of anti-Semitism stemming from Russia gathered up many Jews in its flow and pushed them westwards. The target was mainly America but numbers of individuals and families ended their voyages in ports of the United Kingdom. However, when the ship he had boarded docked in Liverpool, the impoverished Isaac discovered that he did not have the five pounds sterling he required to disembark on the shores. He ended up back in Hamburg, where he decided to stay, work and try to scrape together the money required to purchase his passage back across the sea. Eventually he made contact with a Jewish organization that decided to assist him with a ticket for the passage, the necessary disembarkation sum and even a new suit. As luck would have it the first ship he could get a passage in was en route for Belfast, Northern Ireland. He took his chance, boarded and arrived in Belfast, where at the turn of the 20th century his new life began. At that time there were some one hundred Jewish families living there. The first Jews to come to Belfast were of German descent, affluent and well educated; they saw themselves as the elite. In fact, Otto Jaffe, President of the Jewish Congregation actually became mayor of the city and also established and financed a school for Jewish children. These founding members of the community were involved in both the linen and ship building industries and apparently looked down their noses at the new Russian and Polish immigrants from their Anglicized perches. So there was Isaac, young and ambitious, wanting better things from his life. He decided against tailoring trousers and did what his ancestors had always done - peddle - and that is where he started in a horse and cart. He concentrated on improving his English and made contacts both within the community and among the local vendors. Isaac had three positive assets - he was ambitious, honest and charming. One day a connection stopped his cart in the street. "Listen Isaac, there is a shipment of straw furniture from Mallorca in the port and the man who ordered it is unable to pay the money required to free it. Why don't you take it over?" And that is what he did with a loan from the Ulster Bank - with whom he worked for the rest of his life. Isaac rented a small shop (see picture) and went into the furniture business proper. Meanwhile he had an arranged marriage with Sarah Tunis who had been brought out of Galicia to Leeds by her brother Dov. In his memoirs, written in the 40s, Dov wrote, "Isaac - a true Zionist, unlike those who are satisfied merely to donate when asked. He invested a large part of his capital in Eretz Israel but this was not all. Year after year he traveled there to see the product of his investment for himself and to physically take in its beauty and glory. It is certain that today he would have no regrets about his capital investment, when all countries are closed to Jews and only Eretz Israel has remained faithful to them - even in difficult times. His decision was not based on accounting principles but more a casting of his bread upon the waters." Isaac and Sarah had five children - three sons and two daughters. After completing initial education at the Otto Jaffe School they were sent to the best of Belfast's academies. Isaac's business flourished, as did his private life, and he was eventually able to purchase a mansion and beautiful cars. Two of the sons obtained law degrees and the eldest daughter went to finishing school in Switzerland. He loved to travel but his number-one destination was Israel. Isaac always cherished the Zionism he had been imbued with during his childhood years in Poland. In the late '20s, on one of his wintertime visits to Palestine, his travels took him to meet the Hassidim of Lublin who had founded Kfar Hassidim and he donated the money for them to build a much-needed mikva - the remains of which are still to be seen. His life was cut short in 1947 by lung failure but his memory and the tales of his life remain vivid for his family descendants. This summer brought the family progeny together for a second reunion, held this time in Northern Ireland, which turned out to be apt as after almost a century the business founded by Isaac was to close. Representatives of four generations gathered for a long weekend of reminiscing and bonding. Coming from America, England, Israel and Belfast the family met where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea in a small seaside town that was one of his favorite Sunday afternoon destinations with Sarah for afternoon tea. One of the highlights of the visit was a tour of old family homes, places of learning and communal sites. Tales of the past and memories of growing up flowed through the microphone as the bus wended its way across County Down and stopped for sandwiches in the board room of the main branch of the business. Only two of Isaac's grandsons eventually remained in Belfast, trying to keep the company afloat - even when the main shop, situated in a prime Protestant area, was the target of planted fire bombs on three occasions. Now Belfast moves forward once again - there is massive development and change, which was held in check by the war waged between Protestants and Catholics. Subsequently, it has proved too difficult a task to compete with the multi-national companies who have opened branches in and around the city. European unity has also enabled many migrant workers to come into the United Kingdom in search of work, and again the Polish language is heard in the streets of Belfast - this time however it is not sprinkled with Yiddish. Along with the changing scene the Jewish community has dwindled away, as just 40 families in Belfast remain where once there were 300. An enthusiastic Israeli contingent made up one-third of the Black descendants at the reunion and the decision was made not to wait another 25 years before having the next get-together. It would be in Eretz Israel, as Isaac would have wanted.

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