As another lockdown Passover begins, I’ve been reflecting on this Passover story that dates back nearly a century, to the late 1920s. My great-grandmother’s cousin Babtsy arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband Moishe and four children at the end of their long journey from Kiev, which at that time had recently become part of Soviet Ukraine.
Babtsy and Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodorkov in 1919. The town’s Jews had been rounded up and herded to a sugar beet factory beside a lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained for several years, living with Moishe’s parents.
Owing to a mixture of errors, misunderstandings and delays, it took three and a half years from the time they first lodged their application to emigrate to Canada to their eventual arrival in Winnipeg. Remarkably, our family has around 50 pages of documentation relating to this process, consisting of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division in Winnipeg, its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization in Ottawa. I have written about this in a previous article, which you can read here.
Once Babtsy, Moishe and their children finally arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Winnipeg, they asked the station master to call the phone number of Babtsy’s cousin Faiga. Faiga had been the first member of our family to leave the Russian Empire for Winnipeg back in 1907 with her husband, Dudi Rusen, and one of her brothers. Dudi was an ambitious young man. Once in Winnipeg he bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. He worked hard and after a while had raised enough money to buy a truck, then within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company. Faiga and Babtsy had not seen one another for more than 20 years.
Faiga and Dudi, with their children and grandchildren, were in the middle of a Passover Seder when the station master rang on that spring evening. Dudi answered the phone and told him to put the newly arrived family in a taxi and send them straight to his home at 107 Hallett Street. To great excitement, everyone budged up around the table to make space for the relatives from the Old Country so they could join the Seder, and celebrate this latest escape of Jews, to a new Promised Land, alongside the ancient exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
This Passover story is narrated in the following clip by Monty Hall, the host of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal. Monty was Faiga and Dudi Rusen’s grandson and was at their house that evening during Passover. In the video, Monty describes his tremendous excitement at reading my book, A Forgotten Land, and discovering that it was about his own family. Monty contacted me after he read the book and we had a long telephone conversation, during which he recounted this Passover story to me.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September 2017 at the age of 96.
I recently heard about an extremely unlikely link between the crazed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and my home county of Cornwall, an idyllic rural backwater at the furthest southwest tip of England.
After 85-year-old Lana Peters died in Wisconsin on November 22nd 2011, the true identity of this elderly and unassuming lady came to light. She was none other than Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva, Stalin’s only daughter, and had previously been a resident of Cornwall. Here she moved between the industrial town of Redruth and the coastal village of Mullion on the county’s southerly Lizard Peninsula, where my family and I spent our holidays last October before being shuttered again into lockdown. In Mullion, Svetlana lived in sheltered accommodation and one of the few people who knew her real identity was the local doctor.
Svetlana had defected from the Soviet Union in 1967 at the age of 41, denouncing communism and initially moved to the US. She moved home many times during her life, seeking to escape from the glare of publicity.
Her upbringing was disturbing enough to unhinge even the most loyal of daughters, as Svetlana lost one member of her family after another to the whims of her increasingly paranoid father. Aunts and uncles were summarily jailed or executed as enemies of the people and when Svetlana was six years old, her mother Nadia committed suicide. Svetlana grew up understanding that Nadia had died of appendicitis and only discovered the truth ten years after her mother’s death. Her brother Vasily died of alcoholism at the age of 40, while her half-brother Yacov died in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp – after Stalin refused a prisoner swap – having earlier failed in an attempted suicide.
Stalin nicknamed Svetlana Little Sparrow and photographs from her childhood show her sitting on the lap of an affectionate father, a little princess at the court of the Red Tsar. But when, as a teenager, she made the mistake of introducing her boyfriend – a Jew no less, and 22 years her senior – to her father, he was charged with spying for the British and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, where he perished. The relationship between father and daughter soured and Stalin never met Svetlana’s first husband and only met their son, his grandchild, for the first time when he was four years old. Still, Svetlana was at Stalin’s birthday party in December 1952 – where he humiliated her, as had become his custom – and attended him at his death the following year.
Once Stalin’s crimes were officially denounced, his acolytes and relatives – including his daughter – lost the wealth and prestige they had previously enjoyed and Svetlana took her mother’s surname, Alliluyeva, and became a teacher in Moscow.
Svetlana refused to be bowed by the horrors of her upbringing, but shared something of her father’s temperament, switching from charm to rage at the flick of a switch. She led a frenetic life, marrying four times and repeatedly moving from place to place to avoid publicity. She had to throw off her minders to escape from the Soviet Union in 1967 – leaving her two children behind – to defect to the US, where she was greeted by fascinated crowds at Kennedy Airport and was feted in New York and Washington, where she denounced Communism and the Soviet regime.
Svetlana made a fortune from the memoirs she wrote, but subsequently lost all her money and spent the last thirty years of her life in poverty. She moved to the UK in the 1980s but struggled to settle in one place. She defected back to the Soviet Union for a spell, but clashed terribly with the son she had abandoned, who remained an avowed Communist. Svetlana then returned to America before finding herself back in the UK. She tried and failed to settle in both Cambridge and London, where her misery and inner turmoil resulted in an attempted suicide by jumping off London Bridge in 1991. And then to Cornwall, living a quiet life and subsisting mostly on the dole, before moving back again to the US, to settle in a retirement flat in a small dairy town in Wisconsin.
Her remarkable story is told in the 2015 biography Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.