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Coastweek-- Abraham and Sarah Block visiting Nairobi for a shopping expedition by mule cart 1908.

The Colourful Life And Times Of Abraham Lazarus Block

Coastweek-- I sat down and read this remarkable book right through on Sunday morning.

My wife has it open on our bedside table and is slowly progressing with a solitary chapter every evening or so: she should be through by the New Year.

The ability to digest this fascinating Block family history in one sitting requires a familiarity with much of the rich Colonial background to the story, and it is recommended to the interested reader that they might first scan through the following before even attempting their ascent of 'AP':

'The Kenya Pioneers' by Errol Trzebinski, 'Pa-radise Found - The story of the Mount Kenya Safari Club' by Lucinda de Laroque, Jim Corbett's 'A Princess becomes a Queen' and Jan Hemsing’s two books 'Nairobi’s Nor-folk Hotel, the First One Hundred Years' and 'The Nyali Beach Hotel Mom-basa.'

Jane Clare Barsby's ex-cellent 'Abraham’s People' is based loosely on the story of the life of Abraham Lazarus Block and draws on a range of information to in-clude his own memoirs, those of his sister, Lily Hailer, and his grand-daughter, Ora Hirshfeld.

The book also draws on the research and publica-tions of Errol Trzebinski.

What follows is a brief description from the book cover and which, I believe, does singular justice to the contents:

'Abraham’s People' traces the journey of the Lithuanian-Jewish Block family from its time of persecution under the Russian Tsars to its position as the founder of East Africa’s famous hotel chain, Block Hotels.

The story begins in Lithuania in 1849 with the birth of Samuel Block and follows his progress through the pogroms of Russia’s ‘Pale of Settlement’, his marriage to Ettel, and his eventual flight to South Africa.

Conscripted in to the army of the Tsar at the age of twelve, Abraham Lazarus, Samuel’s only son, is smuggled out of Russia aboard a cattle ship bound for England.

Desperate to escape the sweatshops of Leeds, Abraham follows his father to South Africa; but he must fight the Boer War before he can be reunited with him.

‘Port-hopping’, carcass humping and ‘schmussing’ for a living, Abraham is inspired by the dream, expertly painted by the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, of joining those bound to establish a new Jewish homeland in Africa.

In 1903 he lands in Mombasa with two ponies, a sack of potato seeds, twenty-five pounds and the clothes he stands up in.

Resourceful and determined, likeable and capable, Abraham spends the next sixty years trading in everything from pigs to carpets, and from mattresses to land. Refused by his first love in Leeds, he marries in Israel rather more by default than intention.

But as he and his bride, Sarah, land in the Kenyan colony, the First World War is declared.

The last man to remain mounted in the East African Mounted Rifles, Abraham survives the war and, while all around him struggle through the post-war depression, he ensures that he is always in the right place and at the right time to make money.

He buys land, he delivers milk; he equips safaris, he herds cattle, he provides wartime supplies, he sells dustpans; he even rears ostriches until, eventually, he acquires his first and Nairobi’s finest hotel, The Norfolk.

An iconic figure, Abraham Block was often to be found standing on the steps of his many and varied business concerns, with his hands clasped behind his back, observing the world he had helped to mould.

A humble man of immense personal stature, ALB, as he was known, stood out; even against the vivid eccentricity of colonial Kenya.

Surviving two World Wars, the Mau Mau In-surgency and the establishment of Kenyan inde-pendence, he was a founder member of Kenya’s Jewish community and instrumental in creating a refuge for those fleeing the Holocaust of World War II.

Refugee, factory boy, soldier, farmer, hustler and trader, Abraham Block was best known for his ownership of the Norfolk and Stanley hotels.

Transcending the anti-Semitism that had marred his own life, Abraham abhorred all forms of discrimination and treated European, Asian and African entirely alike.

A contemporary of Denys Finch Hatton, he was a pioneer of Kenya’s safari industry; and he counted Kenya’s most famous colonial figure, Lord Delamere, amongst his many friends.

Abraham and Sarah were succeeded by their own ‘people’: Rita, Jack, Tubby and Ruth Block, who went on to extend and consolidate the Block Empire, stand alongside the famous figures of Kenyan Independence, and establish a dynasty that now spans the globe.'

Author Jane Clare Barsby strings along this often complex story with deft commentary detailing the family progress, as per this example on how Abraham's sons Jack and 'Tubby' perceived their future wives:

'Even Jack was surprised by the Beiles sisters.

Doria and Valerie Beiles were beautiful, intelligent, charming and possessed of more domestic attributes that even the most exacting of Jewish mothers could desire.

But they had something else; they knew Africa.

They understood what Jack meant when he spoke of the smell of new rain on African soil;

they could envisage the mango pink of the sun as it sank; and

they too loved the haunting call of the rain bird as it trilled its insistent, it - will - rain, it - will - rain.

The Beiles sisters came from his world; they were almost family.

Doria, the elder sister, had the polish and style of a Hollywood starlet, and the determination of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted out of life.

And since what Doria wanted out of life was Jack, they were perfectly suited.'

The very end of 'Abraham's People' has another happy surprise, an edited interview [circa 1955] with ALB himself: a sort of shortened  'oral history' of the Block clan.

Lavishly illustrated with black and white photo-graphs this volume is highly recommended for anyone wishing to further their knowledge of this unique dynasty and their major contribution to the development of both commerce and industry in pre-independent Kenya.

Title: 'Abraham's People - A Kenyan Dynasty'.

Author: Jane Clare Barsby.

Year: 2014. Illustrated with photographs. Pages 432. Available in Kenya bookstores.

Remember: you read it first at !


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