The Varied and Colourful Life of
Henry Barclay (Z′′L)
There are VAJEX members who can tell intriguing tales about their life and experiences, but very few can top the varied and unusual twists and turns of life compared to Henry Barclay.
His optimistic and positive outlook on life is like a breath of fresh air, and when talking to him, the enthusiasm he radiates is like a strong life force, illuminating the room he sits in.
Born in Lwow, Poland on 11th September 1914 as Henry Burzynka, he grew up in a traditional, secular Jewish home. Finishing his studies in a gymnasium in his home town, he was very aware of anti-Semitism and prejudice through his school years. “Insults and physical threats were part and parcel of my school years, being both short in stature and Jewish, but I was a fast runner, so usually got away before anything too unpleasant happened to me,” Henry says to me with a grin.
As the situation because more unpleasant, he decided that enough was enough, and it was time to leave Poland, and he left in 1935, emigrating to France. “As I did not speak French when I arrived, I set out to learn as quickly as possible.” Enrolling in the Insitut de Chimie in Caen, he graduated with a Diploma in Chemical Engineering in 1939.
After completing his Diploma, he obtained a position managing a sugar factory for a few months, and later volunteered for the French army, but not being a French citizen, finished up in the Foreign Legion. The possible option was to serve in Northern France or Indo-China, but he found himself shipped to Morocco. While his ambition was to drive tanks, in good old army fashion was assigned to the cavalry instead. Assigned a horse, Henry says, “I don’t know who got the bigger fright, the horse or me.”
After serving three years, at the fall of continental France to the Germans, his unit was demobilised and he was assigned to work on the Trans-Sahara Railway where he learnt a new skill using a pneumatic drill to break up rocks. Several months later he was sent back to Vichy France, but as a returned French soldier, his Jewishness did not pose any serious problems.
He obtained a position as an industrial chemist masking beauty products, including hair creams, and even black boot polish that was sold to the German army. As the war progressed and Vichy France came increasingly under Nazi influence, Henry decided it was prudent to move on, and escaped across the Pyrenees to Spain. Caught crossing the border, he was arrested and sent to the Miranda de Ebro Concentration Camp. Never one to take things lying down, he staged a seven day hunger strike protesting against the poor living conditions.
Released in May 1943, he went to Madrid where he learned Spanish and worked in a dry cleaning plant. A few months later he was sent to Portugal, then Gibraltar and a few months later was shipped to England.
Arriving in Scotland, it was suggested that it would be beneficial to change his name to one that would blend in the new environment. This led to his transformation to Henry Barclay. Resuming his military career, he joined the Free Polish Army, but through a series of misadventures, was arrested as a suspect spy. Taken to London for intensive interrogation, his innocence was established and he left the army in October 1943, joining the work force once again in his field as an industrial chemist.
He met his future wife, Charlotte, they married and his son Michael was born in 1945. In his spare time he became involved in the Scouting movement, a connection that would last for many decades.
Another chapter was opened in Henry’s life in 1956 when he decided to pull up stakes and emigrate “Down Under”. On arrival he found a position with Fibre makers in Bayswater, initially as an industrial chemist, and later manager of the nylon plant. In 1975 he retired after 19 years. Not one to sit idly around, he joined a family firm of Roger David as a salesman, also became a Mason joining the Lodge of Tradition.
But his many other activities have kept him fully occupied over the years and brought him many accolades for selfless service.
Back in 1959, he and Harold Nathan formed the 24th Camberwell Scout Group, under the auspices of the Leo Baeck Centre, the first Jewish Scout Group in the Eastern suburbs. One interesting sidelight was the ecumenical spirit at its opening, when Rabbis Jacob Danglow and Herman Sanger jointly officially participated at the formal opening. This was the first time such a ceremony was performed jointly by a Liberal and Orthodox Rabbi.
Henry served as Group Scout Master for 15 years and on retiring was given the singular honour of being presented with a Medal of Merit by the then Victorian Governor, Sir Rohan Delacombe. Adding to his multi-faceted talents, Henry began oil painting as a hobby and joined the Malvern Arts Society. As well as this, he took up the hobby of collecting clocks.
Sadly, in the year of his and Charlotte’s Golden Wedding Anniversary, Charlotte died, leaving Henry devastated. A few years later he met Bella Szmerling and they married in 1994, starting a new and happy chapter of his eventful life.
He took up further education learning new languages and skills, and he now speaks Polish, English, French, Spanish and Hebrew.
Henry is a born optimist and takes life’s hurdles in his stride. His philosophy can be encapsulated by one of his quotes: “Digging the Trans-Sahara Railway, while everyone around me was complaining, I saw it as an experience. I always try to make the most of any situation that I find and make life enjoyable.
A committee member of VAJEX since 1996, Henry is a true inspiration to everyone around him, and at 90 years young, continues to make travelling through life a positive and enjoyable journey.
(This article was written in 2004. Henry passed away 22nd February 2009. May his dear soul rest in peace.)