Calling all Mancunians

Unraveling the mystery of Manchester House, an edifice on Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus with an intriguing history.

SURI AND Antony Ordman take a closer look at the building that bears their hometown’s name. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
SURI AND Antony Ordman take a closer look at the building that bears their hometown’s name.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Had it not been for a chance deviation, Hebrew University’s Manchester House may have remained under wraps. Actually, that and a naturally inquisitive mind nurtured by the parents of a certain Boaz Ordman.
I recently popped along to the Givat Ram edifice, which houses the Department of Mathematics, where I met Suri and Antony Ordman, who made aliyah from the eponymous city in northwest England a full 37 years ago. As I spent a large part of my misspent youth in Manchester and had never heard of the university building, I asked Suri, Boaz’s mother, how it had remained the Hebrew University’s best kept secret – unknown to Mancunian olim and, ergo, the second and third generations as well.
“I have no idea,” she says with a smile. “Everybody I have spoken to, and I have spoken to many people – all from Manchester – not one of them knew about it, and that includes people who work here!”
The “it” is the crux of the whole mystery, referring to the fact that the two-story Building 69, across the expansive lawn from the venerable National Library of Israel, owes its existence to the generosity of a large number of Mancunian Jews. When Boaz, a PhD student at the university, strayed from his beaten path between the library and the parking lot, he espied the plaque with the names of 87 people who had shelled out to help make their Zionist dream, at least partially, become a brick-and-mortar reality.
Suri jokingly suggests that the university left-field system of numbering doesn’t exactly help the cause. “Nobody knows where Building 69 is because it comes after Building 66,” she laughs.
Be that as it may, Boaz didn’t bother about the numerical order of things on the campus, but began to explore the ground-floor foyer when he came across a large metal plaque on one of the walls, which went some way to explaining the origins of the building.
“Boaz wandered around and he suddenly sees these words – Manchester House Erected Through the Generosity of the Manchester Jewish Community,” Suri recalls.
It also happened to be an auspicious day.
“It was October 18, my birthday, and as Boaz looked through the names [of the donors], he suddenly sees the name of my dad, S. Hytner – Sidney, or Shimon, Hytner.”
That was quite a discovery, and quite a present for the birthday girl.
“Boaz texted me and said that grandpa wants to wish you a happy birthday,” says Suri.
There’s more familial content in the roster.
“That was his uncle, Morris Hytner,” Antony interjects, pointing to M. Hytner Esq., one name up. “And that’s my grandfather, A. Nadler,” Suri adds. “And there are lots of other people we know here.”
A LETTER, written by Weizmann shortly after he joined the University of Manchester teaching staff, in which he expresses his dream of gaining a degree from a Jewish university in a Jewish state. (Credit: COURTESY OF THE SHAPELL MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION)A LETTER, written by Weizmann shortly after he joined the University of Manchester teaching staff, in which he expresses his dream of gaining a degree from a Jewish university in a Jewish state. (Credit: COURTESY OF THE SHAPELL MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION)
BOAZ DULY took a picture of the board and sent it to his mother.
  “We recognized, I’d say, three quarters of the names,” Suri says. Chuckling, she adds, “It’s like going to a Jewish cemetery in Manchester – they’re all dead.”
  Considering they did their Zionist bit back in the early days of the state, that is perfectly logical.
The Ordmans were more than a little intrigued, and began to dig into the possible whys and wherefores behind the building named after their hometown in England. Mind you, Antony originally hails from Pudsey, across the Pennines in the county of Yorkshire, but he, like me, relocated to the Red Rose county of Lancashire at some stage.
“Someone must have put together a committee, to raise funds for this,” Antony posits. “How did it all come together?”
The Manchester House project, Suri notes, was an all-inclusive effort by the wider community.
“Look at these names. There are Sephardim, from the Queenston Road shul in South Manchester, and there are people from North Manchester. This is not a homogeneous group of people.”
The Ordmans’ interest may have been piqued, but there was still little to show for that in terms of actual facts on the ground. The gentle shove into down-and-dirty action came from Suri’s stepmother, Dorine Hytner.
“She came for a visit and she said we were talking about it a lot, and why don’t we go along to see what this Manchester House is all about ourselves,” Suri recalls.
And so it came to be, as the three of them got themselves over to the university campus.
In fact, the donor board represents a veritable Who’s who of the Manchester Jewish community of around 60 years ago. One of the most famous figures of the Mancunian Jewish contingent of that time was alderman – member of the city council – Abraham Moss, whose name is followed by the letters J.P. – Justice of the Peace. His role in creating the building is impressively acknowledged in the form of a bronze bust opposite the donor board, with a plaque on the wall that signifies that the hall is dedicated to his memory. Herein lies yet another blood tie in the fascinating Givat Ram building story.
“That was my uncle. My uncle Abs,” says Antony. “I was waiting for Suri and Dorine to finish looking at the Donor board. I was looking around and suddenly I see this geezer over here. I thought, this guy looks familiar. And here he was – my uncle!”
The list of supporters also features other Jewish mayors of Manchester; members of the Marks family, scions of the cofounder of the global Marks & Spencer retail clothing empire; and Sidney Hamburger, who served as mayor of Manchester’s neighbor, Salford, and was knighted for his services to the public.
SURI ORDMAN’S parents Sidney and Miriam Hytner, in the 1950s. (Credit: WOBURN STUDIO)SURI ORDMAN’S parents Sidney and Miriam Hytner, in the 1950s. (Credit: WOBURN STUDIO)
EFFORTS TO unravel the Manchester House mystery picked up pace and the Ordmans began putting out feelers, trying to track down as many former Mancunians as they could. Perhaps someone of the next generation, or even the next after that, could shed some more light on the pioneering undertaking.
The names of Sidney and Agnes Balcombe have pride of place at the top of the Donor board, as does that of Adolph Cassell. The dedication to the Balcombes was made by their son Fred, Andrew Balcombe’s father. Cassell was the latter’s maternal grandfather. “I should have been called Adolph too, but it was during the [Second World] War, so they thought it was ‘slightly’ inappropriate,” says 76-year-old Andrew Balcombe, with a wry chuckle.
Unlike the Ordmans, Balcombe has a clear recollection of the event in question. “I was in my teens [when Manchester House came into being]. I know it was very important to my father. I know he was at the opening, with various people. By the position on the plaque I would have thought they [Balcombe’s grandparents] were among the biggest donors.”
The Fred in question was, in fact, a local VIP too. “My father was lord mayor of Manchester,” Balcombe notes. “There were six Jewish mayors of Manchester.”
It seems that the Manchester Jewish community, which numbered around 30,000 in the 1950s, was a bastion of Zionist endeavor, and the proposed building on the then-brand new Givat Ram campus was right up its alley.
Balcombe hopes more people will recognize the efforts of the northwest English community to help consolidate Chaim Weizmann’s dream of establishing a university in the new state of Israel following an event, which is being organized by the Ordmans, to salute those who supported the Hebrew University. The gathering is due to take place in Manchester House on July 7 at 6 p.m. Prof. Eli Lederhendler, of the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, will give a talk, but it will mostly be about former Mancunian Jews and their offspring, getting together to share their memories, exchange information and, hopefully, to shed more light on the fund-raising venture.
“We will also have a tefillah, and say El Malei Rachamim [the prayer for the souls of the departed],” Antony explains.
The 1950s donation drive was helped by the presence of a high-profile VIP. Weizmann moved to the UK from Russia in 1904 and became a biochemistry lecturer at Manchester University. He lived in Manchester for 30 years. In 1915, he discovered that acetone could be produced from starch from such plants as maize and potatoes. Acetone, as luck had it, was a key component in the production of cordite which was sorely needed by the Allies in the First World War. That bought him friends in higher political places in Britain, and it is said that led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Weizmann, Israel’s first president, was, of course, a major mover and shaker behind the global Zionist movement, and the eventual declaration of the state of Israel. He was also a good friend of Alderman Moss and members of the Marks family. Weizmann also dreamed of a Jewish state with a university where all Jews could study. This was at a time when there was a quota system in Europe for the number of Jews who could attend academic institutions.
FRED BALCOMBE, one of Manchester’s six Jewish Lord Mayors to date, attended the official opening of Manchester House. (Credit: MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS)FRED BALCOMBE, one of Manchester’s six Jewish Lord Mayors to date, attended the official opening of Manchester House. (Credit: MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS)
IT ALL ADDS UP. “I think people should know that Manchester, from the days of Chaim Weizmann, was a remarkably Zionist community – an extremely generous Zionist community, and a very focused Zionist community,” Balcombe points out. “I think that’s different from London. There was a lot more wealth in London later on, but I think it was much more diffused. This [project] was a very focused support for the Hebrew U, at a very early stage [of the state].”
Balcombe, who made aliyah around 10 years ago, says he had a strongly Zionist upbringing. He made his first visit on a student trip here in 1958. He says his remembers the new university building, although it was probably still under the construction. The Manchester House Einstein Institute of Mathematics was, in fact, officially opened on June 5, 1960.
“My father got the first plane out here during the Six Day War and we all gave blood for Israel,” Balcombe says. He is looking forward to the July 7, and hopes it helps to spread the word and to give the visionary supporters their due. “Suri is at the center of this, and I think it is a remarkable tribute, especially to their relation Abs Moss.”
None of this may have happened had Boaz Ordman not serendipitously dropped by.
“I felt that it was as if someone had said to me, this is your chance to do something for my father,” says Suri, “and to find other Jews from Manchester and their families.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to find out, of these donors, how many of their descendants made aliyah?” Antony adds. “I doubt that any of those donors, in their wildest dreams, would ever have thought they’d have children and grandchildren studying at the Hebrew U.”
While the July 7 event should make for a heartwarming reunion of sorts and a fitting tribute to the donors, the Ordmans are looking forward to hearing from more olim from Manchester and their offspring about their own stories, and whether they, too, have a personal connection with Manchester House.
SURI ORDMAN points to the name of her father Sidney Hytner on the Manchester House donor board. (Credit: BARRY DAVIS)SURI ORDMAN points to the name of her father Sidney Hytner on the Manchester House donor board. (Credit: BARRY DAVIS)
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