Anne Hailes: Belfast’s Russian tailor weaves a captivating story
Last month, it was reported that the Kremlin was trying to shut down the Jewish Agency of Russia, a Zionist organization that helps Jews emigrate to Israel.
Some believe it is to try to stem the “brain drain” caused by the mass emigration of Russian Jews since the start of the war in Ukraine.
History tends to repeat itself. In 1881, 17-year-old Philip Leopold saw a bleak future in his native Ukraine and came to England and put down roots in Leeds.
With his knowledge of Russian flax and flax, he worked in the “chiffon” trade using the oldest woven fabric of mankind, the basis of the famous Jewish fashion houses.
Two of his closest friends were fellow Jew Michael Marks and his partner Tom Spencer.
His story is fascinating and takes the reader of Geraldine Connon’s book The Russian Tailor of Belfast through not only Philip’s family history and the history of Belfast’s Jewish community, but also a social history of the city.
Geraldine’s great-grandfather came from Leeds to Belfast in 1920. He and his wife Rose, also a Russian Jew, settled down and developed a large business and an influential family.
His tailoring business flourished, especially during the war years when his company got an order for military uniforms and when it was a crime to have too many pockets in a suit and to make trousers reverse was frowned upon.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
The community was one of the most influential in Belfast. In 1914, Otto Jaffa was the largest flax exporter. He held many civic offices, including that of German Consul in Belfast and was the city’s first Lord Mayor.
Sadly, anti-German sentiment – but not anti-Semitism – drove him from his home on Antrim Road in Belfast to London, never to return.
There are many lasting tributes to the Jaffa family’s influence on Belfast, including the bright yellow Jaffe Fountain, now in Victoria Square, which Otto commissioned in honor of his father Daniel Joseph Jaffe, who died in 1874 .
During the 1920s, P. Leopold and Son had a lucrative government contract to manufacture prison and military clothing, so they were well placed to take advantage of a surge in demand at the start of World War II.
Geraldine discovered a story full of drama. In 1940 life was good, but in September of that year Philip’s son Sonny received an urgent call to a meeting in London where he was privy to top secret military intelligence that would lead to a drastic uprooting of the company’s workshop.
“The ultimatum was: ‘Get out of Belfast or lose the contract – Belfast is going to be bombed.'”
So months before the Belfast Blitz of 1941, this highly classified information from Downing Street led to the closure of their Donegall Street workshop and their relocation to Dromore, Co Down.
Two disused factories became dispersal factories working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making British Army uniforms.
When Geraldine started her own deign business in the early 80s after Charles and Diana married, as interest in fashion design exploded, she had no idea how she was following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather.
Since then, she has taken haute couture design and tailoring to a new level.
DURING THE FIRST CONTAINMENT
In 2020, the fashion designer found herself with more free time and when her mother Beryl fell ill, she came to live with her daughter. the two, who had always shared a close bond, spent time together and their memories became intriguing.
“Mom started telling me all these stories about her family and I realized that if I didn’t record them, they would be lost forever,” says Géraldine.
The two worked closely together to record a remarkable story not just of the family, but of years of conflict, political turmoil and daily life in the city.
Once completed, Geraldine read the full book to her mother overnight just before she died in March this year.
THEY ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING IMPORTANT
She approached a number of publishers. One of them immediately telephoned, saying that he received more than 2,000 manuscripts each year and was committed to publishing no more than 100.
“I asked when they would decide whether or not to take The Russian Tailor, only to be told, ‘That phone call, that’s it.
“When Belfast’s centenary was announced and articles were written from the city’s perspective, I decided to write about people who want to live and work together peacefully.
“I thought writing about a family would make it easier to understand and with the years of confinement I was free to focus on collecting history and finding my family roots.”
Penultimate weekend, at the funeral of Dr Leslie Leopold, the family’s Belfast patriarch, Geraldine met many of her relatives who had traveled to honor this figurehead of the Jewish community. The Russian tailor will be a revelation for many of them.
WHAT SURPRISED GERALDINE THE MOST IN HER RESEARCH?
“That my mother had kept it to herself all these years,” she explains.
“When she came to live with me, she was 89 years old and she brought with her boxes and bags full of letters and cards.
“It took a month to sort through this wonderful treasure, and it was a joy to sit with her and listen to her memories.
“Then it was my responsibility to pick it up from there – 46,000 words typed with just one finger.”
The book is a delight to read and features short chapters, the author’s own poems and a library of historic photographs.
“It’s not an emotional book but it’s a book written from the heart”, says Géraldine.
Although available on Amazon, The Russian Tailor has yet to have a local launch. When it does, it will be a red letter day.
:: The Belfast Russian Tailor by Geraldine Connon and Beryl Connon is published by Clink Street, £12.99.