George Spira (1917-2011)
George Spira was born on 17 June 1917 in Kassa/Kaschau/Košice, a historic and industrial city in Slovakia, then part of Hungary, but incorporated in Czechoslovakia in 1920. Košice, on the river Homad, had a late 14thc gothic cathedral, a university, a museum from 1872, an iron works and a tradition of bell-founding. George’s great grandfather Shapiro (otherwise Spira), a Sephardic Jew, was born in Spain but moved to Germany, then to Slovakia. George’s grandfather, Armin Spira, was born in 1854 in Sabinov and was a timber merchant, supplying sleepers for railways. George’s father Adolf (1887-1944) was an accountant to a wine merchant and liquor manufacturer in Košice, becoming the director after the owner, named Perenyi, was killed in an explosion in one of the cellars. Adolf then traded in headscarves, bought by local peasants, and kaftans exported to Transylvania (part of Hungary until 1920, now in Rumania). His wife Margit Loebl (1893-1944), daughter of Lipot Loebl, a school master from Martali, and Riza Kremsier (1869-1964), had an uncle Imre Kremsier , (the family came from Kremsier (Kromeřiž, in Moravia) who changed his name to Madarasz (fowler or hunter in Hungarian). He dealt in wholesale suiting material in Vienna, then established a silk mill in Sopron/Ődenburg, employing Czech textile workers with whom Adolf Spira had made contact through his business. A subsidiary factory was established in Mohacz, and in 1918 Madarasz established another silk mill in Varaždin, Croatia (still in Hungary until 1920) and later in Jugoslavia.
Margit bore two sons, Laszlo (Laci/Leslie) on 26 October 1915 and George, and as children they helped the business by making ties. Margit played the piano well, and was keen to give them an appreciation of the arts, taking them to the magnificent theatre in Košice, where George particularly remembered the conductor Karel Nedbal (1888-1964), who created pantomimes for children. Education in natural history was provided by a local tailor, called Hlavacs, a keen naturalist, hunter and dog breeder who took them foraging for berries and mushrooms, and taught them about wildlife roaming in the woods. In the winter they went skiing and skating.
George left school at seventeen and from 1935-7 attended a technical college at Rýmařov/ Römerstadt, in Moravia/Sudetenland, where all the teaching was in German, and where he lodged with a Roman Catholic German family. He had wanted to be a lawyer, but under the influence of Imre Madarasz he studied the technical aspect of textiles. During the holidays he spent time with his younger cousin George Madarasz (1921-2001) who later studied the chemical side. The boys would spend a month working in one of the family factories and were then paid by Imre to have a month’s holiday together.
Employment and the Second World War
Early in 1938 George Spira went to work in the Madarasz silk factory in Varaždin, but later that year was ordered back to Košice to join the Czech army. He was demobilized shortly afterwards, in October 1938, after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Nazis and this part of Slovakia was returned to Hungary. He then made his way to Budapest to see his uncle, Joseph (Joska) Lendvai, married to his mother’s sister, Erszebet, and managing director of the Madarasz mills in Hungary after the death of Imre Madarasz in 1936. Joska was also a guardian of George Madarasz, and he arranged for George Spira to go to Rüti, Zurich, where jacquard looms were manufactured. Such looms were already familiar to him in Hungary. Although unpaid, George gained further experience with these looms, which had been invented in France by Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) in 1804. Controlled by a chain of punched cards, they facilitated the automatic production of cloth of unlimited variety. When George was declared a refugee, after Czechoslovakia was invaded in March 1939, he was given two weeks to leave Switzerland. Consequently, an engineer at Rüti sent him as a fitter with a consignment of six looms which he delivered to West Cumberland Silk Mills (WCSM), established in 1938 in Whitehaven and financed with Madarasz money. He started work there on 1 April 1939, living in digs with Mrs Logan at 1 Victoria Villas, Hensingham. She helped him to learn English and he lodged with her until he married in June 1948. Later Mrs Logan was viewed as a grandmother figure by his son David Spira, who called her ‘Logie’. West Cumberland Silk Mills was later famous for Sekers Silk, named after one of the founders Miki Sekers (1910-1972; DCB).
As a Czech friendly alien, George was exempt from war service and was promoted as Air Ministry Inspector in charge of parachute production. In 1941 he joined the Home Guard, and was put in charge of the Pica unit, near Distington. In 1943, being fluent in German, Hungarian and Slovak, he was commissioned and sent to Altcar training camp, near Liverpool, for intelligence training, despite protestations from Miki Sekers. In 1944, after D Day, he was detailed to London to interpret the interrogations of prisoners brought from Europe, and raised to the rank of Captain (temporary) in the Border Regiment.
After the War
In 1946 George learned that his parents had died during the war and it was later understood that they had committed suicide in Košice rather than be taken to Auschwitz in February 1944. From Laci Fischer, who worked at the paper mill established at Cleator Moor by Alexander Engel (b.1901), George had news that his brother Laci had survived the war. The Engel, Fischer and Spira families had all lived at Košice. George needed to renew his Czech passport before travelling back there in 1946, but this was refused at the Czech consulate in London. John Wilmot, M.P. (1893-1964), Minister for Supply in the Labour government (later Lord Wilmot and chairman of WCSM), was able to intervene and a British passport was issued on the same day, enabling him to visit both his brother, and his parents’ grave, in Košice. Leaving Košice in 1947, with some difficulty he reached Budapest, via Miskolc, to find his maternal aunt Jolanka Kemeny, living in Buda. Here too he met Aniko Szego (1928-2012), the daughter of Jolanka’s best friend. Soon afterwards, when Aniko passed through London with her family in December 1947, on her way to visit her brother Tibor in Canada, they met again. He took her to visit Whitehaven, they became engaged and were married in Toronto on 8 June 1948. Sailing back on the SS Mauretania nearly broke the bank, but George bought a bungalow, Morven, on the Egremont Road in Hensingham (for £1,300) and with furnishings sent over from Hungary, which contained well-concealed jewellery, they set up home with the help of Lenke Engel, who made the curtains.
Life in Whitehaven
A son David was born on 24 October 1949, but a second son, Richard, died after 2 months and Aniko was so depressed that she needed psychiatric care, which involved electric shock therapy in Manchester. Another son, Andrew, was born on 4 February 1963. David and Andrew went to school in Hensingham, Harecroft Hall, and then St Bees School.
George, as the chief technical engineer, collaborating with the designer Bill Hamilton, played an important part in the production of the fabrics which Miki Sekers sold with such flair. But when WCSM became a limited company in 1955 George felt that his contribution to the success of the company was not being recognised and he applied for, and was offered, another job in Norwich. Tomi de Gara had not passed on the news of George’s resignation to the board, but on learning of this Miki offered him a considerably higher salary, and in exchange for Morven provided Chapel House, a larger property with a walled garden, also on the Egremont Road. George was also then appointed as a Director of WCSM. In 1969, amidst falling profits at the mill, a struggle for control of the company resulted in the resignation of Miki Sekers. A sale to John Blackburn, managing director of Vantona, the second largest textile company in England, was considered, but this was opposed by Jean Baudrand, Miki’s French son in law. George fell out with Baudrand for various reasons, not least for the way Miki had been treated, and he took a job at one of Vantona’s mills in Bolton.
Life in Bolton and Germany
George commuted from Whitehaven for a year before moving to Bolton in 1971. A few years later Vantona was taken over and the Bolton mill was closed. George then worked for a new spinning company Gemmill and Dunsmore, in Preston, where he was sales director, but effectively held the second most senior position. The hollow spindle spinning technology, introduced from Bulgaria, was developed very quickly and within two years they were awarded The Queen’s Award for Enterprise: International Trade (Export) in 1980. George was then engaged by the German company Spindelfabrik in Süssen, Baden-Württemberg, which supplied parts for machines using new high speed spindle technology. As their sales representative and technical advisor, he was involved in extensive travel in North and South America. His son Andrew Spira later worked for the company in Süssen.
George retired in 1987, aged 70 and wanted to move back to Cumberland, where he had enjoyed fishing, shooting and country life, but Aniko was less keen as both their sons were living in Australia. They moved to Sydney, where there was a sizable Central European, Jewish community. Here he died in 2011, having had a long and successful life in which he had introduced and developed a range of technical improvements in the British textile industry. At his request his ashes were scattered, by his son David, where he used to fish on the river Derwent.
- Family information from David Spira
- Whitehaven News, 26 January 2011
- Margaret Crosby, Sekers: A Story Woven in Silk, Whitehaven News 3 July 2009