The last of the great romantics.
Harry Zeffert was born in Stoke Damerel (Plymouth), the fifth of thirteen children of Israel Zeffert and Amelia Morris (alias Malcha Schocken from a wealthy German family that owned department stores and a publishing house. He was registered as plain Harry Zeffert and if he was in any way outstanding as a child it was not recorded.
However, the family emigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa, when Harry was in his late teens, and there he came into his own. Somewhere along the way he added the Mortimer to his name. According to Professor David Zeffertt, his great-nephew:
‘My mother told me that the "Mortimer" came from the family name of someone who had fallen in love with him - Lady Mortimer, my mother called her - who said that she would leave him money if he took her name.’
It is equally likely that Harry invented the story and merely adopted the name because it sounded good, just as he gave his father’s name as Disraeli Zeffert in the South African ‘who’s Who’.
While still young, Harry transferred his activities to Rhodesia, where he got his first taste of action. David Zeffertt again:
‘Harry (at times Mortimer) Zeffert fought against the Zulus in the Bambata rebellion - a nasty little affair in which the white side displayed a barbarity matched only by the consummate cruelty of the home team who were given to skinning their prisoners alive a la the Romans. I believe that our Harry was put up for the Victoria Cross (source, family lore; confirmed orally by a military historian whose name escapes me.) It was said that he would have got it but for the fact that the Bambata war was characterized as civil strife.’
When not galloping around on horseback preserving the British Empire for her Imperial Majesty Victoria Regina, Harry worked as an auctioneer. Was he successful at it? He would certainly have had the gift of the gab. However, duty and adventure soon called him back to action.
Paul Kruger, President of the Boer Republic, realised the British were beginning to be a serious threat, so he imposed restrictions on them. The large Jewish population of Joburg attempted to improve relations by inviting Kruger to dedicate their newly built synagogue. Kruger accepted the invitation and dramatically struck the door with his cane and demanded it be opened ‘… in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!’ Perhaps as result the Boer War was inevitable.
Harry leapt once more into the saddle, first as a humble trooper, but soon gained rapid promotion to sergeant, lieutenant and then captain. He led his troop at the relief of Ladysmith – could we have won without him? Maybe, but his reputation grew and grew, so it was natural that he should be given the command of the guard of honour that greeted the funeral cortege of his great hero, Cecil Rhodes.
It was soon after the war that Harry married the love of his life, Rose Glaser. That was probably as difficult as any of his campaigns.
‘My mother told me that when Harry was about to get married, my grandfather, "no paragon himself but a handsome devil who turned women's heads", had found it necessary to warn the parents of the bride to be about his brother. He told them that Harry was "no good" and that the intended marriage should be called off. Well, it was not - an admonition like that would have been like cheese to a mouse for a young girl looking into Harry's sharp blue eyes- and the ensuing marriage ended up in the divorce courts at the instance of his injured wife, Rose.’
Harry’s granddaughter Elaine Goldberg said that it was Rose’s parents forced her to divorce him, though the two remained in love for the rest of their lives.
Nevertheless Harry did not have to wait too long for his next taste of action. WW1 took him to many fields of action as captain again.