Volatile Attractions Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and Managing a Music Legend

Early Days (1925-1957)

Israel "Saul" Holiff was born on 22 June 1925, the youngest of three children, to an immigrant Jewish family in London, Ontario.

His family's early life was marked by hardship. His father, Joel, a Ukrainian advocaat (an occupation similar to a lawyer), immigrated to Canada in 1913 to avoid enlisting in the army. He hoped to send for his wife, Esther, and two young daughters, Schuncha and Ann--only three years and a year and a half old respectively--shortly thereafter, but although he completed their applications, attained visas, and sent money for them three times, Russian authorities would not permit his family's departure.

In that time, the shtetl outside Kiev where Esther and her daughters lived was targeted at least half a dozen times in pogroms (violent raids perpetrated against Jewish populations in the Russian Empire in the late 1800s and early 1900s). During one such attack, the house next to the Holiff home was set on fire, and the family fled to the fields bordering the village. Tragically, Schuncha was shot by a Cossack on horseback and died from infection a month later.  

Joel, Ann, and Esther Holiff in London, 1917

Esther and Ann did not arrive in Canada until 1921, and in that time they endured further adversity. Their village was subjected to sudden raids, and they lived in severe poverty, forcing Esther to make liquor in their basement to earn money (which was illegal, so Ann stood watch for the gendarmes). Through her resourcefulness, she managed to accrue some valuables by the time she and Ann were finally granted leave to travel to Canada, but their belongings were stolen in a train station on their way from Kiev to Hamburg, leaving them with almost nothing. It was a devastating blow. Nearly penniless, they then had to journey three weeks by ship until they landed in Montreal, Quebec, where they were forced to have their hair cut and washed with kerosene to treat the lice everyone had contracted on board.

But finally, after almost eight years of separation, they were reunited with Joel: Ann met her father for the first time, and they all settled into the home he had readied for them on Rectory Street in London, Ontario. Morris was born two years later, in 1923, and Saul two years after that.

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