“A Family Affair” by Nadia, Paris

Borders July 14, 2011 02:06

topic: BORDERS medium: TEXT

as shared at a PenTales event themed “Foreign Affairs”

Listen to the Story!

In the 1930s, just as the situation in Russia was seriously deteriorating under Stalin’s iron grip, Ella was 17 and studying at a Geneva university. The 1930s were difficult times for everyone. Ella’s parents were getting very worried for their family in Moscow. Ella’s little cousin Anna was born only a few years before the purges started, but they were getting less and less information out of the Soviet Union.

But Ella was young, and finally her life took over. That year she fell in love. His name was David and he came from Palestine. His parents had left Russia in the 1920s. After her studying was completed, she decided to follow David to Palestine. Her father was very much against it. He was increasingly preoccupied by the lack of news from his own brother, and he hated the idea of his younger daughter leaving Europe to go to another turbulent region. Palestine that year, 1934, was not calm. Churchill had just made a trip to the region – visiting Lebanon and Syria under the French rule, and touring Palestine. The visit coincided with a spate of night-time Arab attacks on Jewish villages, which often culminated in the destruction of orchards and crops – eliminating the livelihood of many Jews at the time.

But there was nothing anyone could do. Ella went to Palestine. Her daughter Alona was born in 1937 in Tel-Aviv. In 1939 Ella’s husband David enrolled in the British Army. He fought in the North Africa campaign, travelling all over the region, from the Libyan and Egyptian deserts, to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Whenever his regiment was moved and stayed closer to home, Ella and the baby would come and
stay with him, from Beirut to Cairo, Ella followed her husband. But most of the time Ella was feeling increasingly isolated. David was away, Alona was spending her first years without a father, and what’s worse, news of her family in Europe were scarce. She was worried sick about what was going on in Europe. Mail was censored, and rumours not encouraging.

As the war drew to a close, at the 1st opportunity in August 1945 Ella took Alona and got on the 1st ship, an English military ship going to Europe. They crossed the Mediterranean and eventually came back to Geneva to be reunited with the family. Ella had intended to only leave for the summer, little did she know though, they never made it back to Palestine.

David stayed in the army until 1948. For another 2 years after that he tried to convince Ella to come back. The thought of leaving her family again was too much, the taste of isolation that she didn’t want to experience ever again, the solitude that was too threatening for her to go back. She stayed in Geneva.
Alona grew up and became fascinated with her family history, drawing up family trees, and trying to connect all the dots. She quizzed her mother about her experiences and wanted to know all the little details about their travels with she was little.

After Alona’s grandfather died in 1966 there was no way to find out more about his brother in Russia. The family preferred not to talk about them anyway. The trauma was still very fresh, no news ever came after the war, so they had to assume that the family perished either in the gulags, or has fled the country. It was not an unusual story; they knew most people had lost contact with the relatives in Russia.
In March 2010 Alona received an email. She had forgotten all about this website she had joined a few years back, trying to unite all her half brothers and sisters on an internet genealogy page. The girl in the email told the story of Anna, her mother’s cousin. Alona couldn’t believe her eyes. The email told Anna’s story. When the war started, Anna and her mother were evacuated from Moscow. They went all the way to
Ufa, 1400 km SE of Moscow. They stayed there during the war, Anna only a teenager at the time, she signed up to go to university to study modern languages, helping her mother earn a little bit of money by doing chores every night. The conditions were terrible.

After the war they came back to Moscow, Anna’s father was alive, working at a university and trying to remain optimistic about the future. As well as Ella, Anna grew up knowing that she had cousins in Switzerland. Such an exotic location! And so far away! But she had no news, no way of getting in touch with them. With time, her memory faded and only upon the insistence of her grandchildren did she agree to write down the story of her life, with as many names and details. It was her granddaughter who eventually went on a genealogy website, to see whether stories about people being reunited after decades were true. This is one of those stories.

Ella is still alive, she is 97, Alona is 71. And Anna is 87. Anna is my grandmother