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.