BBC RADIO 3, RON GEESIN, UNCLE SID, AND CHOPPED LIVER IN KOVNO…

Like one of those ingenuous celebrities at the beginning of an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are”, it turns out that I too have carried a deeply ingrained misconception concerning my ancestry.  In my case, while I knew that my maternal grandmother’s family were Litvak, I had always believed them to be Latvian Litvak, probably hailing from Riga. But then, a few months ago I published a post on my grandmother’s brother, the violinist Sidney Marcus, and that sparked off a chain of communications and discovery which revealed my quarter Litvak self in fact hails not from Riga in Latvia, but from Kaunas (Kovno) in Lithuania.

While, in and of itself, this is of no great interest to anyone except me and my close family, the story of how I was disabused of my misconception, and by whom, is truly surprising and worthy of repeating here…

As happenstance would have it, one morning, about two weeks after I published my post on Uncle Sid, making mention of his prowess on the musical saw (in addition to the violin – he was first violin of the orchestra at Covent Garden in the late 70’s/early 80’s), I was listening to Georgia Mann’s “Essential Classics” show on (BBC) Radio 3, when she played an old recording of someone playing the musical saw. The recordings had been sent to her by the composer Ron Geesin (famous for everything; from his work with Pink Floyd on the album Atom Heart Mother; his movie and TV scores, including for Sunday, Bloody Sunday; and a vast, eclectic and innovative body of work; plus being probably the world’s foremost authority and best selling author on the adjustable spanner!). Both Georgia Mann and Ron Geesin wondered if anyone listening might know the identity of the mysterious saw maestro, and even as I was listening to the piece, it occurred to me that it was almost certainly Sid. Thus, I immediately emailed Georgia, who then put me in touch with Ron, who after further research, using additional leads I was able to provide him with, confirmed that the eerie sounds on that old recording were indeed being produced by my late great uncle. Subsequently, I am the proud owner of all six Parlophone sides (of Sid), nicely restored digitally by Ron.

In addition to being an all round mensch and hugely gifted, Ron happens to have a voracious interest in musicology and music-related history; and wanting to learn more about Sid and his life and career, he turned up some revelatory facts about that branch of my family – including the fact that they originated from Kovno and not Riga.

Ron managed to turn up this copy from the 1921 UK Census, which revealed that Sid’s parents (my great-grandparent both hailed from Kovno – interestingly, in these chilling times, described here as being part of “Russia”). Of added interest was that my great-grandfather, Max, was a musician in the Regents Hotel Orchestra, then the largest hotel in Europe and known as the “palace for the people”. While I always knew that Max was a professional musician, like his son Sid, and that the Marcus branch of the family were mostly highly musical, it was exciting to learn where he actually plied his trade.

Funnily enough, I have never been to Riga, but in 2009 I did visit Kovno (or Kaunas as it more commonly known today) and although I found it interesting and highly photogenic (see below), I was oblivious of the city’s relevance to my ancestry. Had I been aware, imagine how I might have felt when at the hotel in Kovno, I was confronted with chopped liver as part of the breakfast buffet – chopped liver that looked and tasted exactly like that which my grandmother Becky (Sid’s sister) used to make every Friday for our Shabbat dinner. Now I know why!

Charming downtown Kovno (Kaunas) in 2009. So far as I know, all four of my grandparents’ families moved away from their respective homes in Lithuania, Galicia and Russia (in the case of my father’s family to South Africa) around the turn of the last century, and primarily as economic migrants, rather than fleeing persecution.

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