down and read this remarkable book right through on Sunday
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.
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':
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.'
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.
book also draws on the research and publica-tions of Errol
follows is a brief description from the book cover and which, I
believe, does singular justice to the contents:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1903 he lands in Mombasa with two ponies, a sack of potato
seeds, twenty-five pounds and the clothes he stands up in.
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.
as he and his bride, Sarah, land in the Kenyan colony, the First
World War is declared.
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.
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.
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
humble man of immense personal stature, ALB, as he was known,
stood out; even against the vivid eccentricity of colonial
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.
factory boy, soldier, farmer, hustler and trader, Abraham Block
was best known for his ownership of the Norfolk and Stanley
the anti-Semitism that had marred his own life, Abraham abhorred
all forms of discrimination and treated European, Asian and
African entirely alike.
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.
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.'
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
Jack was surprised by the Beiles sisters.
and Valerie Beiles were beautiful, intelligent, charming and
possessed of more domestic attributes that even the most
exacting of Jewish mothers could desire.
they had something else; they knew Africa.
understood what Jack meant when he spoke of the smell of new
rain on African soil;
could envisage the mango pink of the sun as it sank; and
too loved the haunting call of the rain bird as it trilled its
insistent, it - will - rain, it - will - rain.
Beiles sisters came from his world; they were almost family.
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.
since what Doria wanted out of life was Jack, they were
very end of 'Abraham's People' has another happy surprise, an
edited interview [circa 1955] with ALB himself: a sort of
history' of the Block clan.
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
'Abraham's People - A Kenyan Dynasty'.
Jane Clare Barsby.
2014. Illustrated with photographs. Pages 432. Available in