When Elena Ragozhina discussed her family with friends, she would occasionally joke that her grandfather had one brother – and she was a descendent of the idiot.
Those brothers, Adolphe and Marcus Neyman, were born in Warsaw at the tail end of the 19th century and lived diametrically opposed lives after leaving the Polish capital as ambitious young men and seeking their fortunes elsewhere.
If I were to tell you that one of them, Adolphe, headed west while the other, Marcus, headed east, prizes would not be given for successfully guessing which of them ultimately enjoyed a comfortable life and which endured a tough, unjustly cruel one.
Yet as Elena’s daughter and Marcus’ great-granddaughter, Nadia Ragozhina, shows in her beautifully written, touching new family memoir “Worlds Apart” – about the two branches of her family – no Jews on the Continent were ever far from tragedy as the 20th century unfolded, whichever way they headed. Indeed, an alternative title for the book could have been “The Worst of Both Worlds: Nazi Death Camps and Soviet Gulags.”
If you can imagine a personal family history whose contrasting lives wouldn’t be out of place in a Herman Wouk or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel, you’ll get a sense of how rewarding “Worlds Apart: The Journeys of My Jewish Family in Twentieth-Century Europe,” to give it its full title, is.
The book became something of an odyssey for Ragozhina after the disparate branches of her maternal great-grandfather’s family finally met a decade ago in Geneva. That was when she first heard tales about what Adolphe’s daughters, Eva and Eugenia, experienced during World War II – when one of them lived in occupied Brussels and the other in British Mandatory Palestine – and saw how two ideologically driven decisions had led to such radically different lives.
When she combined this with her grandmother Anna’s stories of living in the Soviet Union through the bleakest days of communism (you know, as opposed to all those cheery ones), Ragozhina knew she had a story to tell.
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Adolphe had migrated to Switzerland in 1905, changed the family name to Neuman and, after several years working at others, established his own successful watch factory in Geneva.
Marcus, meanwhile, took another geographical option and headed for Russia, where he served heroically in the Russian Imperial Army (one of some 500,000 Jews to fight for Czar Nicholas in World War I), before pursuing his own entrepreneurial dream and setting up a fabrics stall in a central Moscow market. However, the death of Lenin and rise of Stalin was soon to turn that dream into a nightmare.
While recounting the two families’ fortunes, for this reader at least, “Worlds Apart” is particularly excellent at highlighting the grim realities of life in communist Russia. For instance, “Nepmen” like Marcus, who helped kick-start the Soviet economy after World War I (the term derived from Lenin’s New Economic Policy), were later exiled from their families for having the temerity to succeed financially (his brother-in-law fared even worse, being detained in Siberian gulags for 17 years).
Then there was the “condensation” policy, which saw a family like the Neymans being forced, literally overnight, to share their spacious four-room apartment with several other families in 1920s Moscow. In later years, this would lead to kvartirni vopros, or “the apartment question,” where ordinary Russians would try to obtain larger apartments from the state as their personal circumstances changed.
Nadia Ragozhina, 35, emigrated to England from Russia in 2000 and now works as a senior producer for BBC World News in London. She also found the time to travel across Europe – if you can imagine such a concept in our quarantined times – to visit the places where her extended family lived over the years: from Warsaw, where the story began, to the likes of Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Swiss backwaters and Moscow. The distant Russian city of Ufa (surely the most onomatopoeic-sounding place in the world) remains on the to-do list.
In an interview with Haaretz, she talks about belatedly getting to know her extended family, why comparisons between the two families’ experiences are impossible and that niggling “What if…” question.
What compelled you to write “Worlds Apart”?
“When I first connected with my Swiss family and started hearing the stories of what Adolphe’s daughters had lived through during World War II, that was the first time I realized that our story could be a book. Genia lived in Mandatory Palestine during the war, cut off from Europe and her family, not knowing what was happening to them and increasingly worried about her sister Eva, who was living in occupied Brussels. In the meantime, their cousin Anna, my grandmother, was in Ufa, having been evacuated from Moscow.
“I just imagined a map of Europe and I could see how all the world events were affecting different parts of my family in different parts of the world, how they all suffered because of what was happening.”
I was amazed at how unusual it felt to have a real-life story in which one character chooses to “go west” while the other goes east. Have you met many other families with that narrative?
“Well, that’s exactly it, I’ve never met another family with that story. I’ve read so many amazing Jewish memoirs, different stories, many involving the tracing of ancestors, reconnecting families and finding distant cousins. But I’d never heard of or read a story where two narratives run in parallel like they do in mine, where two families lose touch only to make contact again so many decades later. That’s what makes my story so unique and why I knew I had to write a book about it.”
It feels like something of a personal odyssey for you, visiting the places where your extended family lived. Which cities/towns stood out for you? And how easy was it to find the old family residences?
“I absolutely loved discovering all the places. Visiting Warsaw was heartbreaking because Nalewki Street, where Adolphe and Marcus spent many years growing up, doesn’t exist anymore. I was able to work out where it used to be and visited some of the old Jewish streets that I could find, but it was heartbreaking to see Jewish life wiped out in the city.
“I really loved visiting Antwerp. That was the only place where we weren’t sure exactly where Eva lived. I knew the name of the street, but Eva’s daughter, Anita, didn’t know the number. All I had was a blurry photograph and I was determined to find the building. So I got on the tram, and I had vaguely reconstructed where the building would be because I knew that it was a very long street, and when Eva and [her husband] Stanis moved in in the early 1930s, it had only just been built.
“The buildings at the beginning of the street were much older, so I got on the tram and stared out of the window. I jumped off when I saw that the architectural style changed. I was amazed that it didn’t take me that long to find the right building from the photograph. I felt like a real detective on that trip.”
A question you ask in the book is: “Is it ever possible to compare people’s experiences in different circumstances?” What’s your answer at the end of the process?
“No, I don’t think it’s possible. It was always a widely held belief in my family that we were on the unlucky side, that Marcus had drawn the short straw, went the wrong way, etc., and that the family would have had better luck in the West. That was even before we made the connection with our Swiss family and learnt about their lives and what they had actually lived through. And I completely understand where my mother and grandmother had been coming from, having lived through the Soviet years and the experiences they’d had.
“But when I started researching the book and interviewing my Swiss cousins, I had already spent 10 years living in the United Kingdom, so I knew I was in a unique position to be able to see and identify with both sides – which actually makes comparison really hard.
“And who I am to compare? Who is anyone to compare? If your husband is killed in Auschwitz for being Jewish, which is the case for one of the members of my family, does that compare to the life of misery and lack of food and freedom in the Soviet Union?
“If you can’t freely communicate with your own brother because you fear arrest for yourself and your family, how does that compare to not being able to communicate with your own daughter, who is only in her early twenties and has found herself living in a foreign country far away and is a single mother to her own child while her husband is at war? How do you draw that line? I didn’t want to do that.
“I think both families had an incredibly difficult time, during different decades maybe, but I don’t think one should equate and compare – it’s not a competition. I wanted to understand the story of both brothers as well as each of their daughters and granddaughters for what it was, with its own tragedies and successes.”
Personal diaries seem to be an important resource for those trying to uncover family histories from the early 20th century. Did you always know there would be family diaries to draw from, and how did it feel reading them?
“I didn’t know at the beginning that there were diaries, and it was the most thrilling discovery being told that they existed and that I would be able to read them. It felt amazing to be able to read them. They were written to be read. Eva wrote them for her descendants, which she mentioned several times – which also meant that I had to exercise a bit of caution when I was reading them: She wanted to present her story in a certain way.
“Reading her diaries was a fascinating experience because she’s also the only member of the family, a direct cousin, who had passed away before we reconnected the family. Also, the book would have been completely different without the diaries. All of part two is pretty much based on the diaries – I wouldn’t have had such a vivid account of Eva and her family’s ‘holiday’ near Dunkirk when Belgium was invaded [by the Nazis]; I wouldn’t have known at all about the circumstances under which Eva left Brussels, with Stanis staying behind. It wouldn’t have been half the story without the diaries, and I am so fortunate to have been able to read them and learn more about Eva.”
There are some really powerful descriptions of Marcus’ time in Moscow as a Nepman and how the family suddenly went from living a comfortable life in the early ’20s to a communal one. Was that post-Czar era and the “condensation” policy one you knew a lot about when you started writing the book, or something you were taught at school in Russia?
“I actually knew a lot about communal apartments. My grandmother [Anna] lived in one well into her adulthood, my mother lived in one when she was a child. It was so common; it would have been impossible not to. We knew about them because they became part of folklore and because it took people a lot of time, sometimes decades, to get out of them.
“This didn’t need to be taught at school. I left Russia when I was 14 so I don’t think I actually got to Soviet history on the syllabus. But I read a lot of books growing up, a lot of biographies of artists, dancers – they had all grown up in communal apartments, so there was no hiding that.”
Your grandmother, Anna, says a very telling sentence when you’re interviewing her for the book: “We didn’t think about the future. We had to get through the present.” It seems like books like yours and, for example, Hadley Freeman’s “House of Glass,” about another Jewish family leaving Poland, show that Jews are at another point in time – one where it’s important, and possible, to think about the past…
“I think Jews have always been very good at considering the past! But yes, I know what you mean. Personally, for me, knowing where my ancestors come from is a privilege. I think it is important to know their stories, but I also generally think that we need to know the history better to understand our world better.
“My interest is always in history and what we can learn from it. I think that compared to 100 years ago, the Jewish community has come a long way, has lived through a lot, and it is incredibly important to preserve those stories for the next generation – and to pay tribute to those who didn’t make it.”
Tell us about that occasional sense of “If only…” from family members about Marcus’ fateful decision – your mom’s jokey reference to being the “descendent of an idiot,” for instance.
“During our very first meeting in Geneva, [Genia’s daughter] Ariane put on some old family videos to show us. That was a complete culture shock for my mother. She had grown up in the 1960s and ’70s. In her youth she traveled all around the Soviet Union – she went hiking in the Carpathians, she went kayaking in the Caspian, she was a very active woman. And from all the stories, she had a great time.
“But that ‘What if...’ had always been there, and suddenly in Geneva she is seeing family videos – they didn’t have video recorders in Russia until the ’90s! – of the family in the south of France, on the Riviera, wearing glamorous hats, also enjoying Venice.
“I think that was the biggest ‘What if…’ moment for her. She suddenly imagined that it could have been her going on holiday to Cannes instead of Odessa. And it was a shock for me to see her react like that as well. I really didn’t expect that side of her – she was always the glass half-full person, not half empty.”
Finally, how important a part does Judaism play in this story?
“It’s a tricky one, but I don’t think Judaism plays a very important part actually. Jewish identity is much more important. Marcus and Adolphe didn’t grow up in a religious household and after Marcus came to Moscow, there was no religion in his life. It was not a part of the Soviet identity, and so even after his death that remained the case in the family.
“For Adolphe, it was very different. His wife, Marie, came from a religious family and after their move to Geneva they reintroduced some of the practices that had been lost during their first years in Switzerland. But I think, again, Jewish identity was more important.
“For his daughters, especially Eva in Belgium during the war, survival as a Jewish woman was key, preserving her Jewish family and friends, not getting killed for being Jewish. I think that’s much more of a thread: identity. What it meant to Eva – she had refused to wear the yellow star and wore a Swiss flag on her lapel instead; she felt she was Swiss amid the onslaught.
“For my grandmother, she was Jewish, identifiably so in the Soviet Union, yet her identity was completely Soviet. For me as well, I knew I was Jewish growing up but knew so little about what it meant. It was a journey I undertook after moving to the U.K., discovering what it meant to be Jewish and finally reconciling to a mix of a British-Jewish-Russian Londoner.”
“Worlds Apart: The Journeys of My Jewish Family in Twentieth-Century Europe,” by Nadia Ragozhina, is published by SilverWood Books and is out now.