Geddy Lee’s ‘My Effin’ Life’: a tale of personal evolution
As a little boy, Geddy Lee would lie in his darkened bedroom and fantasise about killing Hitler.
And no wonder. His Polish Jewish parents, Morris and Mary, met and fell in love as teenagers in the Majowka labour camp in Poland, before being transported to Auschwitz where they barely survived.
Now 70 and one of the world’s most renowned bass players, having performed with Canadian rock megastars Rush over five decades, Lee knows just how precarious their existence was amid the unimaginable brutality and horrors of the Holocaust.
It is a story of love and survival he recalls in his thoughtful, deeply poignant new autobiography, My Effin’ Life, already a bestseller and a million miles away from the typical ego-laden rock star memoir.
Rush, who sold more than 40 million albums over a 38-year recording career, naturally play a huge part in Geddy’s story, but his parents’ escape and the impact on his childhood defines him.
Indeed, the first half of My Effin’ Life focuses on his parents.
It was the offer of a piece of bread that first brought Morris Weinrib and Mary Rubinstein together in 1939.
Determined to help the young girl, Morris bribed a guard to give her work in his unit processing liquid iron.
Later he paid for shoes for her.
Astonishingly, their love was to endure for the next six agonising years until they married and emigrated to Canada.
There, Mary constantly recycled in forensic detail her early life which included their later transportation in cattle trucks to Auschwitz on July 28, 1944.
After surviving both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Geddy’s parents were married in the guards’ quarters of the latter camp following its liberation by British forces on May 5, 1945.
Geddy, now 70, recalls: “It made me angry to hear what they’d seen and suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I’d wish that Hitler would magically appear in front of me so I could vanquish him myself with brute force.”
While his father never talked about the horrors of the war, his mother almost couldn’t stop.
“My mother spoke as if telling these stories to her kids was the most natural thing in the world. I can tell you that it wasn’t, yet it seemed somehow OK at the time,” Geddy continues.
During their four months at Auschwitz, Mary, her mother and sister lived in constant fear of the gas chambers.
- Support fearless journalism
- Read The Daily Express online, advert free
- Get super-fast page loading
She and her sister also had their blood taken by a team working for Josef Mengele, the sinister SS chief medical officer in charge of selections.
At one point Mary’s sister told Mengele himself that she couldn’t give any more blood.
Recalls Geddy: “He turned to her and replied coldly, ‘What do you need blood for? We need it.’ In her mind, sharing with her children this six-year nightmare was not just a way of passing her own history along to us, but a way that we could help the world ‘never forget’.”
After surviving Auschwitz and Birkenau, Mary carried the legacy of these brutal formative experiences for the rest of her life, even having reached the safety of Canada.
“My mum always kept her front door locked,” Geddy continues.
“She never got over that fear that someone could come in and take you away. It stayed with her. We would tease her and say, ‘Why are you locking the door?’”
When, in 1995, Geddy took Mary, then 70, back to her childhood home in Poland for the first time since she was a girl, he watched this vivacious and outgoing woman’s confidence evaporate.
“We hopped out of the car and wanted to take a picture of her home, but she was rattled beyond reason and thrown back in time,” he recalls. “She was remembering too many things. We said, ‘Don’t worry’. But she feared for our lives, just getting out of the car.”
As a young girl, Mary had witnessed her father Gershon being forcibly removed by the Nazis. When her mother dared to ask why, she was smacked in the face.
As Gershon was marched off amidst the desperate cries of his family, Mary ran after them and took hold of her father’s arm, refusing to let go until the soldiers beat her into submission, leaving her unconscious in the snow.
Later that day, a family friend who worked for the police confided in the family that Gershon was due to be transported by train that evening. Mary ran to the station with her cousin and found her father shackled and waiting for the train.
“While he quietly pleaded with her to run away before it was too late, a German soldier came up and stabbed at her hand with his bayonet, piercing the skin on her thumb, and yelling at her to get out of there,” writes Geddy in his captivating autobiography.
“She looked back at her father, never to see him again.”
Inevitably, the desperate situation in the Middle East this autumn has made a searing impression on Geddy, who says: “As a Jewish person I’m afraid of the rise of anti-Semitism. Apart from the hostage-taking and the hostility, Hamas has intentionally set in motion a terrible situation with horrible parallels that are unfortunately reminiscent of the times my parents lived through.”
Indeed, when Geddy and his siblings were children, inevitably Mary used to show them the scar on her hand.
But the damage inside was every bit as real, and it grew deeper after the sudden death of Morris in Canada aged just 45 when Geddy was 12 years old. Geddy – born Gershon and whose name is derived from his mother’s Polish pronunciation of his Anglicised first name, Gary – believes that, like many other Holocaust survivors who died young, his father had been fatally weakened by the conditions in which he had been forced to work as a young man.
His father’s death, he recalls sadly, “took up all the oxygen in the house”.
“My mother was so in love with my dad, and they survived so much together. Finally, they came to the new world, had three children, and found a living. When he died she was inconsolable.”
Weighed down by a sense of duty, he felt cut off from his friends until the day, aged 13, that he bought his first guitar from a neighbour having begged his mother for the ten dollars required.
“When I emerged from that year of grief and duty I was desperate to catch up and learn about every song I had missed,” he reveals.
“I was desperate to buy records, and hang out with friends who talked about anything other than duty. It was a huge reaction to being sequestered after my father’s passing.” He and the guitar disappeared into his room while he figured out how to play it.
“It changed my life. It set me down my path, and I realised I could figure out a song. It was the first thing I could do well and it seemed kind of easy. I liked that feeling.”
At school, he met Alex Lifeson, with whom he formed Rush, and he found himself writing songs that spoke to his sense of alienation.
By this point, religion had no place in Geddy’s life.
“For me, those stories cast deep doubt on the existence of a higher power – certainly one with an ounce of compassion – and on the very point of religion,” he tells me, still “amazed” that his mother came out of “such a horror show” with her faith intact.
“My father was not a religious person, but he pretended to be for my mum,” says Geddy.
“During the war it must have been very hard for them to maintain any belief in a higher power, but when they found each other they felt it was their obligation to return to the faith to try to replenish the culture.”
“They were very dedicated to rebuilding a new family in a new land. It was very important to raise their children as believers, and it was hard to accept that I walked away from the faith. I embrace my Jewish culture, and love so much about it, but God is not one of the things I love about it.”
He shed religion at the age of 14. “I had been the good son, but after that I went along with the Woody Allen theory that God was
When Geddy left school at the age of 16, his mother nearly had a heart attack.
“I would come home super late at night after playing bar gigs or in some high school 300 miles to the north. My hours were increasingly hard for her.”
He says initially she tried being a parent by attempting to advise her son, but when his first record was cut, her entire attitude changed. “It was an actual, physical thing and it proved I hadn’t lost my mind.”
“And then, when she saw me on television for the first time, that was a huge moment for her. She could then turn to her friends and say, ‘Well, he’s an entertainer’. And that legitimised it. She was my biggest supporter for the rest of my life.”
Mary died in 2021, two weeks before her 96th birthday.
“She could have been my booking agent,” Geddy adds.
“She wanted to call up my manager and yell, ‘Why’s he not on the radio more?’ She became the prototypical Jewish mother. She was a remarkable person.”
- My Effin’ Life by Geddy Lee (HarperCollins, £30) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Geddy is appearing in Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Glasgow, Portsmouth and London starting on Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit rush.com/geddylee