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Bert Maskey (Barnett Masansky) - a biography by his grandson David Mason
The photograph is a Photoshop restoration from Barnett’s Alien’s Identity Book.
To go back to his beginning, Bert Maskey was born ‘Barnett Masansky’ in 1893 in Wilna, Russia, the youngest of four brothers. The Masansky family were reasonably well-off Jewish silk merchants with contacts in London, Germany and Baltimore. Bert had a good education and was fluent in Russian, German, French and English. The family had liberal tendencies; one of Bert’s brothers was active in the socialist movement and possibly a member of the Bolshevik party. In 1907 Bert was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for distributing pamphlets belonging to an elder brother. Family contacts managed to get his sentence reduced and Bert was smuggled into exile, first in Germany and then to north London, arriving there in 1911 or 1912, and spending time living in the Hackney and Highgate areas.
Then along came the First World War. Bert was conscripted on 16th September 1916 into the Royal Field Artillery and trained as a driver. There is no written evidence that he served in France, but according to family, Bert did serve in France and was wounded twice. To support this version of his history, his army pay book notes that he ‘disembarked’ on 30th March 1917 before being appointed Battery Barber on 1st May 1917 and where he spent the rest of the war billeted on Blackheath in south east London. Because he spoke fluent German, he was also used to question German POWs. However his attendance at socialist meetings of the prisoners and his encouragement of the POWs he interviewed to join these groups led to his hasty demobilisation in 1919 (according to family memories) although the last entry in his Army pay book is April 1918.
On 22nd February 1918 at Brentford Registry Office Bert married Sarah Ellen Boon, daughter of a coal miner from Talke in Staffordshire. Sarah was usually known as Sally. Both were listed as living at 540 High Road Chiswick. After the war, they returned to the Stoke-on-Trent area before moving to Moreton Street, Manchester. Bert and Sally had two sons – Boris born in 1920 and Leon born in 1922.
Under the conditions of the Aliens Order 1920, British women, who married aliens, lost their UK citizenship and were forced to carry a Certificate of Registration booklet. So Sarah Ellen Boon, born in Audley Staffordshire, became a Russian national required to show her alien’s certificate whenever ‘the Police or an Immigration Officer demand its production’. In itself, an interesting indication of the legal status of women in the 1920s.
However sometime in 1924, Bert began a relationship with Hilda Wild (sister of Sam Wild, later commander of the British Battalion, International Brigade) and they had a son Albert, born in 1925. For the next decade, Bert lived in two houses, swapping and changing between the two, although the impression is that he spent more time with Hilda than Sally, especially after the early 1930s when the separation between Bert and Sally became permanent. After some difficulty, Sally applied for and won exemption from registration as an alien on 3rd February 1933 and once again became a UK citizen. It seems a legal separation from Bert was thus complete.
The decade 1916 to 1926 began with the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, included the Russian Revolution, the war between the Red and White armies, the creation of an independent Irish republic, the civil war in Ireland, the Spartacist revolt in Germany, the first Labour government in 1924 and the general strike of 1926. Anybody living in that decade, especially of a leftish persuasion, would see it as a time of opportunity for significant change in the status quo. Conversely, the defenders of the status quo would see it as a time of extreme danger when their position needed to be defended at all costs.
During the 1920s, Bert ran his own barber’s shop and, after he joined the Communist Party in 1922, the shop became the unofficial headquarters of Cheetham CP and YCL. All the comrades listed in the sources have fond memories of gathering there to discuss with Bert the latest political developments and campaign arrangements.
Apart from day-to-day activities centred around the shop, Bert Maskey was also involved in speaking at public meetings in the Free Trade Hall. Russian sailors, moored in the port of Manchester, were invited as guests of honour and sat on the platform. Bert acted as interpreter and temporary host. His connections with international working-class movements were greater than that. His home acted as a safe refuge for comrades attempting to escape political persecution by illegal passage to North America. Leon Mason maintains that Bert was helped by a brother who had left Wilna for Baltimore. His barber’s shop also became an unofficial library and bookshop for foreign socialist literature. Bert was also responsible for helping to collect money for the first Workers’ Loan to Soviet Russia, selling stamps at a shilling a time.
This level of activity soon brought him to the notice of the authorities, especially Detective Chief Inspector Alexander Duncan King of Special Branch. Mick Jenkins wrote of “ .. the harassment by the police, it went on nearly all the time, but it was not too severe. King knew everybody among the left and among the Jewish people.” Sam Wild added: “Bert was harassed by Inspector King and the police. This harassment increased during the time Bert teamed up with my sister.” In 1924, Bert was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton prison awaiting deportation as an undesirable alien.
Fortunately for Bert, all the potential recipients of a left-wing Jewish/Russian/Lithuanian refused to accept him. The Soviet Union labelled him as a trotskyite because of the activities of an elder brother who had remained in Russia. Poland refused him too. So Bert was released from prison and put under an alien order. The surveillance and house searches increased. DCI King became a more frequent visitor to his barber’s shop and not merely to get a free shave and haircut.
Bert’s political activities did not diminish, despite economic problems caused in part by his gambling. When he lost his barber’s shop in a game of cards, he got a job in the barber’s section at Lewis’s and joined and was active in the shopworkers union. When the Depression left him unemployed, he became heavily involved in the National Unemployed Workers Movement, playing a leading role in the October 7th 1931 demonstration in central Manchester.
The two close friends, Bert Maskey and Sam Wild, left Manchester in 1936 for Spain to defend the democratically-elected republic against Franco and his fascist rebellion. Dolores Long (Sam Wild’s daughter and named after Dolores Ibarruri) has written about this friendship between Bert and Sam: “Bert Maskey was more political than my father. Bert and my dad became friends and when the Spanish Civil War broke out Bert decided to go to Spain. He was much more politically aware at that time than my father and he explained what Spain was all about and why democracy was at stake, and that what was happening in Spain could be happening in the whole of Europe. He persuaded my father to go with him, so my father went out to Spain with just a kind of gut feeling that there was something wrong with the world. Sam and Bert Maskey went out to Spain together, and Bert Maskey was killed very early on in the war, which was a real loss to my father, but my father through his experiences in Spain became much more political, that was where he really began to form his ideas.”
Sam Wild sent me a letter in 1980 in which he wrote about his friendship with Bert. “Bert and I left for Spain together after being ok’d by the CP organiser George Brown.” They went to London to be met by Robbie Robson in King Street and given travel documents to Paris where they were met by comrades who helped them onto the next destination in their travels – the Karl Marx Barracks in Barcelona. (this postcard was sent to Bert in 1936 by a Brigader from Manchester). Sam continued: “We were in the same group until we arrived at the IB training base in Spain. We separated when Bert was transferred to headquarters as an interpreter with his knowledge of Russian, French and German. Bert was killed on February 12th, on the first day of the Battle of Jarama. I was wounded on the same day. I had a great liking for Bert and nobody knew him better than me.”
Bert Maskey died in the Arganda Bridge olive groves, Jarama, on the 12th February 1937. Sam Wild was seriously wounded in the same battle. 300 IBers fought in that same battle; only 42 survived. Their sacrifice prevented the fascist rebel army from gaining a strong access point on the road to Madrid, helping to ensure that Madrid did not fall to Franco until after the Republican surrender in 1938.
Boris Mason, his eldest son, remembered the night Bert left for Spain. Bert had come round to see Boris before he left and they went off together to see friends, out on a tram, came back on foot. Boris said that it felt a very peculiar situation. Bert seemed to know what he was letting himself in for. Leon Mason was present when Bert told Sally that he was going to Spain, expressing the opinion that ‘perhaps it might help us to sort something out’.
Bert Maskey’s death was announced in the Daily Worker on May 10th 1937, although a few days earlier the Manchester Dependants Aid Committee had organised a memorial meeting in the Coliseum, Ardwick Green in honour of Bert and eight other Manchester men who had fallen at Jarama. The speakers included Sybil Thorndike, and David Ainley recited a poem. Bert’s name was on a banner at a 1938 May Day parade, mis-spelt as it is on the memorial plaque in Manchester Town Hall!
The collective comments of family members who knew him describe him as five foot seven tall and powerfully built, not easily roused but with a violent temper. He was a competent boxer with a powerful punch and always carried a Danish flick knife. In complete contrast to all of this, he was very charming and kind, always neatly dressed with a clean collar every day. But what did his comrades remember about the man? David Ainley, who knew Bert from 1923 onwards, remembered he still spoke with a slight accent and was a lively man, always willing to spread socialist propaganda amongst his customers. Sam Wild described him as ‘short, stocky and fair-haired; an avid reader, a great talker, a good mixer and a bit of a gambler on the side’. Joe Norman, another ex-IBer, knew him as a hard man, hard in the sense of tough in the struggle, a real socialist. Joe said ‘Bert was a legend before I came into the movement’.
May Day banner 1938
What’s in a name?
The problem with my grandfather is that he had so many different versions of his name. Bert Maskey, as most people knew him, was born ‘Barnett Masansky’ and that’s the name which is on his Aliens ID card. On the memorial plaque to IBers in Manchester Town Hall, he is named as ‘Bert Maiskey’ a historical legacy of a Daily Worker typo. A 1938 Manchester Mayday banner has him as ‘Bert Masky’ as does a memorial raised in Spain immediately after the Battle of Jarama. His alias, on his Aliens identity card, was ‘B Mason’. His army papers, from the First World War list him as Barnett Misansky; he altered this to ‘Masansky’. I also have a copy of a Jack London novel from his personal library which he signed in his own hand in October 1922 as ‘B Masansky.
On 25th May, at the Sacred Heart Community Centre, over 50 people of all ages met to celebrate Albert Wild’s 90th birthday. Everybody in that centre was a relative of the two men, Sam Wild and Bert Maskey, who left Manchester in 1926 to fight for justice, freedom and democracy in Spain. Albert, Bert’s son with Hilda, sang the Patsy Cline classic ‘Crazy’, as a duet with Fiona Cox, Bert’s great-granddaughter with Sally.
I think Barnett Masansky would be very happy with that as a memorial.
Conversations with his sons: Boris Mason, Leon Mason and Albert Wild.
Boris and Leon had a less than brotherly and mainly antagonistic relationship. During my childhood, I can remember meeting my Uncle Leon on fewer than a dozen occasions. For them both to come up with similar stories about Bert’s life, independently of each other, for the periods both before and after his coming to Britain, in my judgement lend credibility to theirevidence. As far as I know, Boris and Albert never met. Boris was packed off to his grandparents in Talke in 1924 and did not return permanently until the early 1930s. Leon had a fight with Albert at an event organised in the late 1930s for children of IBers, accusing Albert’s mum of stealing his dad. I look a little like my Uncle Leon and the first time I met my Uncle Albert, at the unveiling of the IB memorial in Manchester Town Hall, he confused me with Leon and reminded me of the fight we never had!
Correspondence from his contemporaries: Sam Wild, Joe Norman, David Ainley and Mick Jenkins
Other: Dolores Long and Mike Wild (internet sources) and Edmund Frow
Daily Worker 10th May and 19th August 1937.
Maurice Levine ‘Cheetham to Cordova’ page 39, published by Neil Richardson.
George Brown ‘Greater Manchester Men Who Fought in Spain’ page 60, published by Greater Manchester International Brigade Memorial Committee.
All the historical facts in this biography have been confirmed by at least two of the above sources