Family Article

Book of a Lifetime (the Shooting Star by Hergé)

A Tape Recorder in Central Asia

Tools of the Trade 

Family Article

When I was twelve I ran away from home. Admittedly not for very long – a day and a half, and not very far – to the neighbours who lived at the bottom of the hill. They had a small farm where they bred New Forest ponies for young girls to have as safe mounts for riding on; they had a smelly old black Labrador called Sinbad; they wore tweedy things and watched the racing on television on Saturday afternoons; they cooked roast dinners on Sundays with Yorkshire pudding. They were English.

‘Why can’t I be English?’ I said to my mother.

‘Because you just can’t,’ she said, unhelpfully.

‘But I want to be.’

‘Well, you can’t be,’ she said.

‘Well then, will you learn to cook Yorkshire pudding?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘But one day you’ll be glad. Glad about the Yorkshire pudding and glad about not being English.’

‘I won’t be – ever,’ I said, as I prepared to run away. ‘You’re wrong.’

She was right, but it took me years fully to appreciate why. The moment came in, I think, 1985, when my own three children were together in our kitchen one afternoon and all of a sudden their faces seemed briefly to belong not to the people most familiar to me, but to strangers. Two of them shared a look, the third was quite different, (not surprising once you know that they have different fathers). The older ones had green eyes but olive skin; the youngest, eyes so dark they were almost black but very pale skin. ‘Where do you three come from?’ I said, fortunately only to myself. And realised that for all they were in many ways typical North London kids, what made them physically who they were was Hitler and Stalin: if it hadn’t been for this pair of dictators competing to outdo one another in tyranny, my children’s grandparents would not have criss-crossed the continents as they did, meeting and marrying the people they did, resulting in the extraordinary international mix that sat at our kitchen table that afternoon. That moment was like the starting gun for the three novels I have written that have drawn on the lives of those grandparents.

My father was a German Jew from a secular but not intellectual family, who thought of themselves above all as Germans. His father had fought for Germany in WWI and had a queasy distrust of the Ostjuden with their strange clothes and disconcerting ways. But by the 30s it began to be clear who was acceptably German and who not, and in 1935 my foresighted grandmother sent her two sons out of the country, the elder to the USA, the younger – my father – to England. At the time he was fifteen, knew no English but brandished German school reports that got him into the City of London School. His gift for languages took him to Oxford on a scholarship and there he pretended to be as English as everyone around him. What the scholarship couldn’t provide the Quakers did – stepping forward to help Jewish refugees as they did so many others.

But once Britain was at war attitudes changed and by the summer of 1940 the War Cabinet and a compliant press had convinced themselves that German spies must be skulking among the refugees from central Europe. “Collar the lot!” was Churchill’s phrase and so, shortly after his 19th birthday, my father was arrested as an enemy alien, class C, and deported on the HMT Dunera from Liverpool docks to a camp behind barbed wire in the Australian desert where there was nothing but ribbed red sand to every horizon.

The journey was dreadful partly because the ship’s prisoner-passengers were not told where they were going, partly because over 2000 men aged between 16 and 60 were locked below decks for six weeks when there was space on the whole ship for only 1000, above all because the behaviour of the British troops guarding them was appalling. But once they had disembarked and been transported by rail to the camp near Hay in New South Wales, they found that despite its harsh environment this camp, like all the others where Jews were interned, provided a better education than any number of years of Oxford University. Professors predominated.

My father’s experience – the relocation to London, the arrest, the ship and the internment, gave me the outline of my second novel, ‘The Sandbeetle’, although I was never to get the details from him because he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. It was only long after he had died that I was able to track down others who had been interned with him and learn from them what had happened. My most valuable informant was a historian called Klaus Loewald, who had also been 19 at the time. He was in the same barrack as my father and the two of them decided to teach themselves Russian out of a grammar book, although there was no way of knowing how the language was pronounced. When, a couple of years later, after the internees were finally released and my father returned to his studies in Oxford, he put it about that he wanted to carry on with his Russian, and was duly directed to the student Russian Club. Its president was my mother.

She was the sixth of eight children of Russian parents, but the first to be born outside Russia. Her grandfather, Mikhail Rodzianko, had been the last President of the Imperial Duma, the Russian Parliament, under Tsar Nicholas. Come the Revolution, there was a price on his head and the whole family had to flee. Along with many other Russians they went south to Serbia, which was welcoming and, above all, also Orthodox (my mother’s family were very religious: one of her brothers was to become a bishop). They settled eventually in a cramped little house on the banks of the river Tisa, and the children went to Russian boarding schools suitable for the minor gentry. Everyone and everything around them was Russian and their old nanny who had travelled with them did not believe she had come abroad at all.

In 1939 my 19-year old mother came to London among a group of young women selected because they were steeped in the music of the Orthodox liturgy. They’d been invited to make the journey by an Englishmen, Sidney Gibbes, who had earlier been tutor to the haemophiliac Tsarevich, the heir to the throne. Shaken by the murder of the royal family he’d converted to Orthodoxy, and became a monk henceforth to be known as Father Nicholas. My mother was always convinced that his desire to establish an English-language Orthodox church in London was not born of any urge to proselytise but because he longed to preach, and his Church Slavonic wasn’t up to it. London locals dubbed Father Nicholas’s choir the Belgrade Nightingales, but it’s anybody’s guess how well they coped with the liturgy in London as the only English words my mother, and quite possibly the other girls, knew were ‘Tveenkle Tveenkle Leetle Starr’.

She had arrived on a Nansen passport – the document that the Norwegian explorer and diplomat, Fridjof Nansen, had persuaded the world’s governments to accept for stateless people – and took a job as a cleaner in a convent in Shoreditch. But on the outbreak of war the convent was evacuated to Oxford (as indeed was Father Nicholas’s Church), and there a careful young academic gave her lessons in English. Then she too won a scholarship to the University. Every Saturday evening, Father Nicholas would show up at her college gates, his beard spreading over the chest of his cassock, and a long staff in his hand. The Belgrade Nightingales had scattered and he needed to know if she would be in church tomorrow, as by now she was all that remained of his choir. She, meanwhile, had lost religion but become the president of the student Russian Club…

So one set of my children’s grandparents has been brought together. But what of the rest? Poland next, and the woman who was to be my first mother-in-law – and whose life-story gave me the backbone for my most recent novel, ‘The Officer’s Daughter.’ She was indeed the daughter of a professional soldier who, during WWI, had found himself having to fight for Germany (at that time Poland was divided between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia). But after that war, when his country had re-gained its independence, he had fought the Soviet Union in the Russo-Polish war of 1919-1920.

In 1939, as WWII was about to begin, the officer’s daughter was camping in the far west of the country with a group of Girl Guides. When Germany swept into Poland there was no chance of getting back to their home town of Poznań, so they were sent east to Wilno, then a Polish city, soon to revert to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. There they sheltered in a convent and went to a local school. Within weeks, in accordance with the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east and the country was divided once again between the Germans and the Russians. My mother-in-law was arrested out of her convent for the crime of being her father’s daughter, and sent as a prisoner to a logging camp in Siberian Kazakhstan near the border with Mongolia.

In June 1941, much to Stalin’s astonishment, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and many, though not all, of the Polish prisoners – of whom there were about 1.2 million – were amnestied so that the able-bodied men could form an army and fight alongside the Soviet army to repel the new invader. But the general who was to lead the Polish troops, Władysław Anders, had himself been imprisoned by the Soviets and maintained that his men would never accept fighting with the very people who had so recently locked them away. So he arranged to evacuate as many Poles as he could, civilians as well as soldiers (starving, and sick with typhus and cholera), out through Central Asia and into Iran where large numbers of them died on arrival.

As the men recovered their health in a series of hospitals and hospital camps where they were treated by Persian doctors, the Anders Army was formed and departed to fight alongside British, rather than Soviet, forces. My mother-in-law married one of those Persian doctors and went to live with him in Bombay, where he became the Director of the Polish Hospital in the wealthy district of Colaba. Two sons were born to them there and during the monsoon season, the family would holiday in the foothills of the mountains to the north of Tehran.

In time the older son was sent to England so that he could be enrolled in an English prep school, then all the rage among the Persian nouveaux riches. In 1953, my mother-in-law came over to visit him, bringing with her an empty suitcase that she intended to fill with beautiful and expensive garments from Harrods. But before she could go shopping, she received a telegramme from her husband divorcing her, because he intended to marry someone else. She had one son in boarding school on the south coast of England, the other, out of reach and only four years old, in Tehran. She had no profession, and nowhere to live.

Initially she took a job as a chambermaid in an hotel, and her son, my first husband, had to grow up in the boarding schools he attended because there wasn’t a home to go to in the holidays. We met as students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the revolutionary 60s. Our two children are consequently one quarter German-Jewish, one quarter Russian (Orthodox), one quarter Polish (Catholic) and one quarter Iranian (Muslim). The green eyes come from their Polish grandmother, the olive skin from their Iranian grandfather. So what of the grandparents of my youngest child?

When Britain and France allowed Hitler to march into Czechoslovakia in 1938, the country’s Jewish population did not know exactly what was coming their way – nobody yet had any idea – but they were not sanguine either. Among them were Dr and Mrs Rothbaum, who encouraged their two sons, both young adults, to leave Prague and head for sanctuary in England. (The rest of the family remained behind, and every one of them perished in Auschwitz.) The younger brother joined the British army while the older one, already a qualified doctor, found a job in a hospital in Rochdale. He took lodgings with an eccentric and self-absorbed Englishwoman eight years his senior, and out of loneliness, maybe, he married her and they had one son. Her best feature, Dr Rothbaum always maintained, was her thick dark hair, which she seemed to have inherited from an Italian grandmother who, family rumour had it, had come to England at some point in retinue of Lord Byron.

Like his brother, Dr Rothbaum was a convinced communist who believed that the Soviet Union was the only hope for the future, for Jews in particular (how wrong he was), and in the building of a new Europe. So after the war both of them returned to a Czechoslovakia that would shortly become the Soviet Union’s most enthusiastic hard-line disciple. Together they decided that Rothbaum was now too German-sounding a name to take home and they changed it by deed poll to Rohan.

Back in their native land, the younger brother made his home in Prague working as a journalist for the main state newspaper Rudé Právo, while Dr Rohan moved his small family to the Moravian town of Valašské Meziříčí. His faith in the Party was undiminished, despite a period in jail. The Prague Spring of 1968 came, and with it the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, and still Dr Rohan clung to his beliefs, as he was to do for the rest of his life. (In the 1980s I used to visit once or twice a year as family plenipotentiary – my husband wasn’t allowed into Czechoslovakia and his father wasn’t allowed out, and during those visits I concluded that the old man must be the only convinced communist remaining in the country. We tramped the local mountains together and got on very well. As Dr Cerny, my father-in-law is incarnated in my first novel, ‘The Book of Wishes and Complaints’.)

There had been a family split. His journalist brother had lost faith in 1968, decamped and moved back to the UK. In 1971, Dr Rohan’s son – having British citizenship because he had been born in England – also left, to join the BBC World Service, which is where I was working when I met him in 1978. Our daughter, quarter German-Jewish, quarter Czech-Jewish, quarter Russian and quarter English – though don’t forget the Italian bit, doesn’t look like her siblings at all, and when she was born I was quite taken aback by the colour of her eyes and the paleness of her complexion. She has inherited the Italian hair.

Between them, those three sets of grandparents embody the turmoil of 20th century European history – ordinary people uprooted by forces beyond their control and tossed into cultures and languages they didn’t choose. For those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to have been born in more settled times, our parents’ and grandparents’ journeys provide some extraordinary stories. I’m glad I’m not English. It’s been a storytelling novelist’s dream.