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Story: Jacks, Harry

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Jacks, Harry


Soldier, plant pathologist, lecturer, forester

This biography, written by David J. Dobson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Herman Harry Jekeles was born at Dubauti, in the district of Cernauti, Romania (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine), on 5 August 1908. He was the youngest of five children of Jewish parents Mina Rosa Croon (Corne) and her husband, Manuel Jekeles, a farmer. Little is known of his childhood but it must have been affected by the First World War as German and Austro-Hungarian forces occupied most of Romania in 1916. Late in life he wrote several semi-autobiographical books, which include a highly colourful account of being a child soldier and a prisoner of war in a prison camp near Vienna. He claimed to have been rescued by the Red Cross and sent to a boarding school in Zurich before returning to Romania. However, the stories he published of his early life and war experiences, in particular, are embellished or fictitious, and he himself prefaced them with warnings about their veracity.

After the war he attended school in the provincial capital, and during the vacation learned about crop and livestock management on the family farm. He began studying science at university in 1926 and also had some military training. From 1928 he studied agriculture at the University of Nancy in France, graduating in 1932–33 with a diplôme d’ingénieur. He also studied for a diploma in administration. After returning to Romania he worked in agriculture and forestry. In the late 1930s, however, with the threat of war and the rising power of the anti-Semitic Iron Guard, he left his homeland.

Jekeles arrived in New Zealand on 12 June 1939. He settled in Hawke’s Bay and bought a small farm at Te Mata. On 4 August he changed his name by deed poll to Harry Jacks. The following month the University of New Zealand granted him the degree of bachelor of agricultural science in recognition of his French diploma. Six months later he was granted the degree of master of agricultural science. Late in 1939 he joined the staff at the Plant Research Bureau of the DSIR in Auckland.

When the Second World War began Harry Jacks was keen to enlist, and in March 1940 he joined the Corps of New Zealand Engineers. He served in Egypt as a temporary sergeant before undergoing officer training. After graduating he was commissioned second lieutenant and seconded to the HQ New Zealand Division as a junior staff officer. During the Greek and Crete campaigns he carried out intelligence and liaison duties. His dark appearance and foreign accent meant he often had difficulty identifying himself to New Zealand soldiers and sometimes felt in greater danger of being killed by his own troops than by the enemy. In May 1941, on Crete, he suffered concussion and a knee injury from a bomb blast and was evacuated to Egypt.

After convalescing he served as an instructor at the Combined Training Depot, Divisional Engineers. Men from the Yugoslav, Polish and Czech forces who had escaped from Europe had begun arriving in Egypt, and Jacks’s language skills – he spoke six European languages – were in demand. In August 1941 he was seconded to special duties with British Military Mission 209 as an instructor with the Royal Yugoslav Army. During this period he was promoted to temporary lieutenant and acting captain.

Over the next 10 months Jacks was involved in training commandos and possibly commanded a force of 20 British and Yugoslav men. In his ‘autobiographies’ Jacks wrote of erecting a wireless station at Tobruk (Tubruq) with a detachment of Polish soldiers and of leading a commando raid on Bir Hakeim to relieve a Free French group. He also claimed to have taken part in the raid on Scarpanto (Kárpatnos) Island which destroyed an Italian radio station. He was subsequently awarded the Croix de guerre and may have been recommended for the Polish Cross of Valour. He may also have taken part in aerial supply missions to Greece and Yugoslavia.

While undergoing parachute training he suffered severe spinal contusion and concussion in an accident. By April 1942, in Syria, he was experiencing dizziness and eyesight problems. His activities, and the fear of being captured, led to a chronic state of anxiety. He was again hospitalised and in October 1942 was returned to New Zealand for further treatment.

In January 1943 he returned to duty as an instructor in the engineering wing at Trentham Military Camp. After his promotion to acting chief instructor his earlier symptoms returned and from July he spent three months convalescing at Queen Mary Hospital, Hanmer Springs. In spite of this rest he was deemed unfit for further overseas service, and in May 1944 was posted to the reserve of officers.

Jacks had resumed work at the Plant Research Bureau in April 1944 and was appointed to the permanent staff as a plant pathologist 11 months later. He was naturalised on 14 June 1944, and on 1 December 1945 he married Helen Cranwell at Auckland. They were to have two sons and two daughters. In 1947, on a rehabilitation bursary, he studied at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, graduating in 1949 with a PhD from the University of London and a diploma from Imperial College.

Jacks returned to the DSIR in 1950, where he worked on the control of soil- and seed-borne disease in fruit and vegetable crops. He managed a certification scheme for plant-protection chemicals and tested spray materials. Much of his work involved routine testing trials and his peers considered he should have been carrying out more experimentation. Jacks’s difficulty in accepting this criticism was probably the catalyst for his departure to Massey Agricultural College in 1956.

As a plant pathologist his appointment to the Soils and Field Husbandry Department at Massey was seen as unusual. He lectured to dairy diploma students in soil science and supervised postgraduate students in soil microbiology. His own research looked at the influence of micro-organisms on the nutrition of pine trees. During his career he wrote over 200 scientific and popular papers and was a member of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, Microbiology Society (of which he was vice president), Institute of Agricultural Science, Grassland Association and Institute of Foresters.

Jacks had been a boy scout in Romania and he was appointed district commissioner of the Southern Manawatu District in 1960. He was president of both the Palmerston North branch of the RSA (1962–63) and the Manawatu Officers Club (1963), and patron of the Palmerston North branch of the New Zealand Ex-Prisoners of War Association. In 1962 he was appointed a justice of the peace.

Jacks retired from Massey University in 1969 and took up a position with the Forest Research Institute. Based at the Cawthron Institute, Nelson, he continued his trials on tree nutrition. In 1974 he retired to Havelock North. It was a difficult period: his marriage ended in divorce in 1975 and his eldest son, a veterinarian, had died in 1973. He continued working in forestry, on his own land and until 1986 as a consultant to Fletcher Forests on the nutrition, health and soil management of forests, in New Zealand and overseas. He gained satisfaction from the successful development of his own property and the companionship of German-born Elisabeth Freiwald, who shared his love of nature. During the late 1970s and 1980s his five books were published.

Jacks was a sensitive and complex man who came to New Zealand to escape political strife. He found it difficult to maintain lasting friendships and often seemed to be at odds with his colleagues, taking criticism of his work as a personal assault. His writings and poetry, published during his retirement, became a release for the many frustrations that seemed to pursue him. In his last years he became a semi-recluse. Harry Jacks died at Havelock North on 19 August 1994.

How to cite this page:

David J. Dobson. 'Jacks, Harry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5j1/jacks-harry (accessed 30 May 2023)