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Slapoffskis in Oxford

by Harold Pollins

Originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no.192, September 2009

In the Pesach 2005 issue of Oxford Menorah I gave an account of a booklet written and published in about 1891 by Marcus Eleazer Ert Slapoffski (see M. E. Slapoffski of Oxford). I mentioned that there were two families in Oxford in the late 19th century with the name Slapoffski and both were in the music business. Despite their sharing the same name the families were not related to each other. Marcus was born in Holland whereas the head of the other family, Adolph, was born in Courland, the old name for Latvia. They were born in the 1820s and both landed up in Oxford in the 1860s but had met before then. At one time they had linked up as the ‘Hungarian Brothers’, giving concerts, of which a couple were reported in a Surrey newspaper in the mid-1860s.

But, you may ask, how did two men, the heads of the families, come to have the same surname? Marcus's grandson, Marcus Slapp (originally Slapoffski), wrote about his grandfather in a magazine and also wrote to me about him. He died early in 2005. His view was that Marcus’s name was originally Marcus Eleazer Ert and he had adopted the name Slapoffski when he joined up with Adolph. Marcus had a niece, Kaatje Ert, some thirty years younger than him, of whom he was the guardian and then the husband. In Oxford they had six children of whom three died in infancy. One of the survivors was Joseph who was sent to the Jewish Orphanage at Norwood when his mother died and later was apparently employed in the bicycle industry in Coventry, as a ’cycle finisher’. At the 1901 Census he was a lodger in what appears to have been a Jewish household in Coventry, the head and four boarders being cycle workers and the fifth a gas fitter. Joseph was the father of Marcus Slapp.

Marcus Slapp thought that Adolph Slapoffski was probably not Jewish, but he also thought, equally wrongly, that he was Hungarian. It is true that Adolph’s two wives were both non-Jewish. They were born in Australia to a British army officer but both were married to Adolph in England, the first apparently dying in childbirth. The marriage to her sister produced one child, a son, who married a non-Jewish woman in a church in Oxford. The son, Joseph Gustave, usually just called Gustave, followed in his father’s (and indeed his grandfather’s) shoes by becoming a musician. In 1900-1 the family emigrated to Australia where Gustave became renowned as one of those who introduced opera to the country.

Adolph died soon after arriving in Australia. He was buried in Melbourne Cemetery. His death certificate shows that at his burial the officiating minister was Rev Dr Joseph Abrahams, the minister of Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (and son of Rev Barnett Abrahams and brother to Israel Abrahams - both well known in Anglo-Jewish history). The death certificate also included the name of A. Solomon, the chazan of the community. Adolph was clearly Jewish despite his distance from the community.

One of Gustave’s children, Claude Leo, served in the Australian army in the First World War. Despite not being halakhically Jewish he was listed in both the British Jewry Book of Honour and the Australian Jewry Book of Honour. He died in 1951 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Woodend Cemetery in Victoria.

There remains one intriguing question. If it was true that Marcus Eleazer Ert adopted the name Slapoffski for purely functional reasons, to join with Adolph, why did he continue to use it, to pass it on to his children? A mystery, no doubt to confound and amuse.


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