Ju­dith Se­gal

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My Mother was a Refugee from Rus­sia

The Ed­war­dian bureau, which once must have been a grace­ful ad­di­tion to my par­ents’ liv­ing room, is now tucked away in our spare bed­room. In its draw­ers is the col­lec­tion of fam­ily mem­o­ra­bilia amassed by my mother, Es­ther. This in­cludes mem­oirs writ­ten by both Es­ther and my fa­ther at the be­hest of their older grand­daugh­ter, and doc­u­ments such as de­gree cer­tifi­cates, death cer­tifi­cates, and iden­tity cards from the 1940s. There are also ob­jects, many of which evoke ques­tions. A pa­per bag con­tains soft pink leather baby boots, but whose were they? There is a yel­low­ing news­pa­per cut­ting with the cryp­tic text: ‘110109 – bring clothes; 321606 – poorly; 247565 – sta­ble.’ It has been ex­plained to me that this dates from the time when my el­dest sis­ter had scar­let fever and ended up in an iso­la­tion hos­pi­tal. In the ab­sence of wide­spread own­er­ship of phones, the hos­pi­tal used the lo­cal press for in­form­ing rel­a­tives of pa­tients’ progress. But which par­tic­u­lar number refers to my sis­ter? No­body now re­mem­bers. Pho­tos are jum­bled to­gether in the bot­tom drawer. Who is that re­mark­ably ugly-look­ing baby? Who is this one in the odd-look­ing pram?

There is at least one photo in which I can iden­tify all the sub­jects. It is a stu­dio photo of three small chil­dren, dressed in the fin­ery of a by­gone age, hold­ing hands and stand­ing in front of an in­con­gru­ous pas­toral back­drop, watch­ing the birdie. The girl in the mid­dle, of about two years of age and smil­ing shyly, is Es­ther. To her right is her brother Misha, older by a cou­ple of years, look­ing straight at the cam­era with a grave re­gard. To her left, with his baby curls and round baby face set off by a large lace col­lar, is her cousin, also called Misha, but Misha Malenky, lit­tle Misha, to dis­tin­guish him from the other, Misha Bol­shoi, big Misha. Un­like the other two, who stand con­fi­dently with their feet point­ing straight ahead of them, Misha Malenky ap­pears to be on the verge of tears and stands with his feet at an an­gle, as though he is go­ing to take flight at the first op­por­tu­nity. I find this

photo the most poignant of all those in the drawer be­cause I know that, within ten years or so, the whole com­fort­able mid­dle-class world of these chil­dren is to be com­pletely over­turned.


The photo was taken a year or two be­fore the start of the First World War in the small town of Babryusk, in Be­larus, White Rus­sia. The mu­si­cal Fid­dler On the Roof por­trays White Rus­sian Jews as scratch­ing a sub­sis­tence liveli­hood and liv­ing in con­stant fear of pogroms. Ac­cord­ing to Es­ther’s mem­oir, this was not true of her Jewish fam­ily. She records her fa­ther and pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther as hav­ing been pros­per­ous tim­ber mer­chants, leas­ing large tracts of for­est and ex­port­ing tim­ber. She does not men­tion pogroms.

At the on­set of the First World War and the ad­vance of the Ger­mans into White Rus­sia, the mem­oir re­lates that the fam­ily moved to Baku. Baku, then as now, is a port on the Caspian Sea, and a boom­ing oil town, an Azer­bai­jani Dal­las, if you will. Here, the fam­ily pros­pered, ac­quir­ing both a tim­ber yard and a wharf from which to ex­port and im­port tim­ber, es­pe­cially from Per­sia, across the Caspian. The fam­ily lived as Jews, but Jews ed­u­cated and im­bued with the Euro-Rus­sian tra­di­tion in which France was con­sid­ered to be the epit­ome of civilised life. Governesses were em­ployed to teach the chil­dren French, and also English and the pi­ano.


My mother tells me some sto­ries of that time. There is a rid­dle which ex­er­cised her greatly: ‘Where in the world are the pop­u­la­tion so clever and well-ed­u­cated that even the dust­men speak French?’ It’s only when I am an adult that I re­alise that she uses French phrases in her day-to-day con­ver­sa­tion far more than one might ex­pect, given that she never lived in France.

‘An­gelique, mouche-toi!’ she com­mands as she no­tices what we eu­phemisti­cally call the dew-drop hang­ing pre­car­i­ously from my nose.

‘Il faut souf­frir pour être belle,’ she says to me, when I moan in protest at her de­ter­mined drag­ging of the comb through the tan­gles of my hair.

There is also her recol­lec­tion of go­ing up on a stage to play the pi­ano from mem­ory. As she starts to play, she re­alises that she doesn’t re­call what comes next, and flees from the stage in tears. This anec­dote deters me from ever play­ing the pi­ano in pub­lic my­self.


The two rev­o­lu­tions in 1917 were fol­lowed by a Civil War with the Bol­she­vik Red Army fight­ing the anti-Bol­she­vik White. Baku was fought over bit­terly: was all that oil go­ing to be White or Red? Es­ther’s mem­oir de­scribes the hunger dur­ing the White Army’s siege of Baku, and also the pe­cu­liar taste of the drink­ing wa­ter which, since the pipes bring­ing spring wa­ter into the city had been cut, was now im­ported from Per­sia in tankers which had pre­vi­ously trans­ported oil.

At the time that the Bol­she­viks fi­nally gained con­trol of Baku, Es­ther’s fa­ther was con­duct­ing his busi­ness in Per­sia, and it was thought ex­pe­di­ent for his fam­ily, wife and four chil­dren, to join him. In peace­ful times, the jour­ney from Baku to the coast of Per­sia was an overnight boat trip. Now it was an ex­pe­di­tion, tak­ing about two weeks, dur­ing which the baby caught dysen­tery, and each of the chil­dren fell vic­tim to malaria. Even­tu­ally they were re­united with their fa­ther and spent a happy cou­ple of years in Te­heran.

But Rus­sia was still their home­land, and Es­ther’s mem­oir re­ports that her grand­fa­ther, who had re­mained in Baku in the be­lief that the flames of Bol­she­vism would soon die down, kept send­ing mes­sages that they should re­turn. And so they did, but to a life in which the fam­ily’s busi­ness and house were con­fis­cated, and de­nun­ci­a­tions, of friends, col­leagues, par­ents, sib­lings, were en­cour­aged. As the mem­oir re­lates:

Ev­ery­one was afraid of ev­ery­one else… The dreaded sound was the knock­ing on the door in the very late hours of the night or early hours of the morn­ing… [by] the se­cret po­lice. At that time, there were so many ar­rests that peo­ple be­gan to be aware [sus-

pi­cious?] of the fam­i­lies who hadn’t had the early morn­ing knocks.

Es­ther’s fa­ther was ar­rested and re­leased twice. When ru­mours reached the fam­ily that he was about to be ar­rested for the third time, they re­solved to em­i­grate. As Jews, Pales­tine was the ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion, es­pe­cially since the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion a few years be­fore had con­firmed the sup­port of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment for the estab­lish­ment there of a ‘na­tional home’ for the Jewish peo­ple.

Trav­el­ling out of Rus­sia in the af­ter­math of the Rev­o­lu­tion had to be done in se­cret. Es­ther’s mem­oir de­scribes the train jour­ney from Baku to Odessa:

If you have read Paster­nak’s Doc­tor Zhivago, you will re­mem­ber the jour­ney the fam­ily made when they left Moscow. Well, our jour­ney was some­thing like that. It lasted days and al­most at every main sta­tion, the train was shunted hither and thither and al­ways we had to wait for other trains either filled with sol­diers or de­por­tees to pass…

In 1923 or there­abouts, the fam­ily caught a boat from Odessa to Haifa, where they were even­tu­ally joined by some other rel­a­tives. Here, they lived the life of pi­o­neers. The cul­tured life that they had left be­hind was not for­got­ten. As soon as they could af­ford it, they bought a pi­ano.

One might imag­ine that they would have brought only the barest ne­ces­si­ties with them out of Rus­sia, but no. After my mother died, my sis­ters and I squab­bled over six sil­ver drink­ing cups used in re­li­gious cer­e­monies, and marked, as was the Tsarist cus­tom, with the date, some­time in the 1870s.

‘You have them.’


‘No, you have them, they are in­cred­i­bly ugly and will need pol­ish­ing all the time.’

‘No, you have them, you’re the el­dest.’

I do not re­call who lost the ar­gu­ment, but doubt­less the cups are now wrapped in a cloth at the back of a drawer, wait­ing to be be­queathed to the next gen­er­a­tion.


What be­came of the chil­dren in the pho­to­graph? In the early 1930s, Es­ther, armed with a diploma from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, ob­tained a teach­ing po­si­tion in Bagh­dad, Iraq, where she met, and even­tu­ally mar­ried, my English fa­ther.


Among the pho­tos in the bureau are small sepia snap­shots dat­ing from this time and show­ing my par­ents and their friends clam­ber­ing over ru­ins some­where in Me­sopotamia. Here, my fa­ther ac­quired a clay tablet on which is en­graved an in­scrip­tion in cu­nei­form, an an­cient writ­ing script. Brought up to be re­spect­ful of the arte­facts of his­tory, I am made un­com­fort­able by this ev­i­dence of my par­ents’ care­less at­ti­tude.

There is also some ta­ble linen beau­ti­fully em­broi­dered by my mother’s pupils in Bagh­dad and pre­sented to her as part of her trousseau. I take out the best pre­served ta­ble cloth and present it to Es­ther’s older grand­daugh­ter on the oc­ca­sion of her wed­ding.


Misha Bol­shoi be­came a suc­cess­ful en­gi­neer and lived the rest of his life in Haifa.


I am thir­teen years old, a sullen teenager whom noth­ing and no­body can please, and Misha Bol­shoi is vis­it­ing us in Hull for the first time since I was born. We are stand­ing by the sink, I am wash­ing up and he is dry­ing.

‘You haven’t done a very good job here,’ he says, hand­ing me back a plate. ‘You’ve left soap on it, give it an­other rinse.’

I feel re­sent­ful that he, who is to me a com­plete stranger, is treat­ing me like the niece I am. I meet him sev­eral times af­ter­wards, and am al­ways pleas­antly sur­prised by how well we get on. ‘What­ever hap­pened to Misha Malenky?’ I ask my mother.

‘They told him ev­ery­thing was OK in Rus­sia, he should go back, and he went. He was im­pris­oned and his fam­ily was sent a death cer­tifi­cate stat­ing that he had died of a heart at­tack.’

We are silent. We both know what it means for a man in his twen­ties to be cer­ti­fied as dy­ing of a heart at­tack in Stalin’s Rus­sia.

He was shot.

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