Joseph Tennenbaum was born on 13 April 1926 in Merano, Italy to parents of Polish origin. His mother had one brother and his father had a number of step-siblings. His father fought in the Austrian army on the Russian front. His father studied metallurgy and was well read in Hebrew and secular subjects. He supplied material to paper factories. Joseph had an older sister Elena. They lived in Merano until Joseph was 8. He attended a non-Jewish school and his parents got on well with the neighbours. One of them took his mother into the country during the war and helped to save her. However he did experience antisemitism with name calling. He also had to participate in fascist parades at school. He was not good at attending school and would play truant. They lived in a first floor flat. His parents were religious. There were 2 synagogues and a Jewish Community of less that 1000.
At 8 the family moved to Milan, which Joseph described as a vibrant city in those days. He attended a non-Jewish School until Jews were forced by the racial laws to form a Jewish school. Joseph hardly attended, preferring to visit the cinema and wander the streets. In August 1939 his parents arranged through an Italian family, who had moved to England, for Joseph and Elena to come to Manchester. They travelled through Paris and across the channel. Joseph was taken in by Eli Fox and paraded like a pet. He did not stay there long. At the outbreak of war the children were evacuated and he was sent to Blackpool with the Jews’ School. He was given English lessons there. On return he went into the Cassel Fox hostel and found different jobs, first with garages and then elsewhere. He moved from the hostel and rented a room. He made friends with the Reich and Haffner families and went to Manchester Yeshiva for a year. Whilst there he registered it as a sports club to obtain a football. After more jobs, he obtained a place in Umist to study Optometry with the help of Joe Greenberg and Dr Lipson. He was allowed to enter even though he had no qualifications. He lived with his sister and with different families.
Once he qualified he worked in Dukinfield as an optician and then he opened a practice on Bury New Road but he was often not there. He was even unemployed at one stage. In 1959 he returned to Milan where his parents lived. His father had been interned during the war as a Pole and he and his wife had eventually made their way to Switzerland. In Italy he got a job with Salmoiraghi as a manager and contact lens consultant. He taught classes on contact lenses for 10-11 years and lectured all over the world. In 1970 he went to Israel for a year but could not manage and so he returned to Italy. He opened a practice and worked in most hospitals and was referred patients from clinics in Lyons and Barcelona. He also worked as a locum in Manchester every summer.