Separate lives

In Holocaust Memorial week, Dan Carrier is greatly engaged by the diaspora story of Nadia Ragozhina’s Jewish family

Thursday, 28th January 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Marcus and Adolphe

Marcus and Adophe

BROTHERS Adolphe and Marcus Neyman were teenagers growing up in Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century. But against the backdrop of the Great War, the close siblings would head in opposite directions – one east to Russia, the other to Switzerland – to carve out new, very different lives.

How Marcus’s great granddaughter, Nadia Ragozhina, pieced together their lives and that of their daughters and granddaughters is at the heart of a stunning personal history, Worlds Apart.

Nadia, a BBC World News journalist, uses the story of these two Jewish émigrés as a starting point to track the lives of her family. Shaped by the turmoil of 20th-century Europe, this is a social history that mirrors the experiences of millions in Europe and Russia.

The genesis of the book started many years ago, in Nadia’s family home in Moscow. She would pore over her grandmother’s fading photos, curious as to who the old-fashioned faces peering sternly at the camera were and wondering what had happened to them.

“The ladies, with their elegantly feminine dresses and immaculately styled short hair, looked like poster girls for the 1930s,” she observes.

“The men were dapper in appearance and confident in their posture.”

As a child, she learned the women were her grandmother’s cousins and lived in Geneva with their husbands.

“The mysteries of what my grandmother didn’t know about them, and the questions she could not answer, haunted me,” writes Nadia.

Many years later she was to set out to discover more – and her research would eventually reunite two branches of her family divided by war.

The family in Warsaw

Her story starts with Adolphe and Marcus in Nalewki Street, Warsaw – a thoroughfare with a market that was at the centre of the city’s Jewish community.

The brothers’ father, Nachman, had emigrated to America, never to be heard of again. Much as their father saw no future in Warsaw, the young men dreamt of better lives elsewhere. When Adolphe fell for fellow university student Marie Malach they moved to Switzerland where she had family. Adolphe and Marie would settle in Geneva and found a successful watch-making firm.

As his brother headed west, Marcus went east – motivated by a belief that the Soviet Union would usher in a new, equitable society.

“He had matured into a determined young man,” writes Nadia.

“He followed political developments in Russia and abroad with great interest.”

With work hard to come by as the Great War swept across the continent, he was one of 500,000 Jewish people who signed up to fight for the Russian Imperial Army.

Marcus won medals for bravery – but became disillusioned with the Romanov empire. As Communist thought swept through the Russian army, Marcus saw a brave new world emerging. In 1918, he moved to Moscow to help build the new workers’ state.

Nadia traces the experiences the brothers lived through, and what became of their families. Her diligent detective work reveals how Marcus’s work ethic at first helped his family settle in a new country – but then found himself considered politically suspect. Marcus had set up a market stall in Moscow, a private enterprise allowed under Lenin’s New Economic Policy. But when Stalin scrapped the NEP in 1928, it spelt trouble for Marcus. He was now considered to be the workers’ enemy, a member of an exploiting class. Arrested, he was sent into internal exile.

Nadia Ragozhina

Meanwhile in Switzerland, Adolphe had applied himself to learning the trade of watch-making – and while he was not much of a craftsman, he was a brilliant organiser and visionary businessman. He soon found a home for these talents, and with the help of friends, established his own watch-parts firm.

While Nadia has to make educated guesses in terms of the inner passions of her relatives, where she has turned to assumptions, she does so with readable confidence and calmness.

Her thorough research is married to a novelist’s eye for storytelling. Where she has no hard facts to draw on, she puts herself in the shoes of those she writes about. The result is both a compelling personal history as she traces their lives, their passions and loves, and explains key facts discovered along the way.

We learn of Great Aunt Eva – the daughter of Adolphe – and how she fell in love with an Antwerp diamond seller, Stanis Zousman. She left the safety of Geneva to be with him – and was caught in Belgium as Nazi Germany swept into western Europe. As if war hadn’t complicated things enough, Eva’s turmoil was not helped by her falling in love with a violinist called Simon Chaikhine in the months after she agreed to marry Stanis – nor by a passionate, though brief affair with a family friend.

This trial of emotional strength, set against the daily fear of deportation and murder, is compelling. What happened to Eva and the men she loved is particularly timely in the week we mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

“The story of our family is not uncommon,” she writes. “Tragically, families are still being separated around the world.

Political ideologies interfere in people’s lives, making them flee towards greener horizons. Once there, they lose the connection to their native land and to their loved ones.

“They struggle to survive and sometimes they succumb to their injuries – physical and otherwise – inflicted on them by their oppressors and persecutors. But it is by remembering events of centuries gone by that we can hopefully avoid making the same mistakes.

“It is by writing about the experiences of our ancestors that we keep their memories alive, and their lives remembered.”

  • Worlds Apart: The Journeys Of My Jewish Family in Twentieth-Century Europe. By Nadia Ragozhina, Silver Wood Books, £11.99.

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