In 2009 my Dad died. A year later I went on a world trip, inspired in a large part by him – his life, roots, travelling – as well as my some of my own preoccupations.
A key fact emerged about my father after he died, the revelation of which was a major event for me as far as understanding him belatedly. This previously unknown fact also played an important part in focusing my travels around him.
A few days after he died me I was told by my uncle that I had a sister I never knew anything about. My Dad had fathered a child with a woman he had been in a serious relationship with 10 years before he met my Mum, a woman close to his own family, who he had abandoned, heartbroken and pregnant in 1952. This created something of a family scandal at the time, which he himself was at the heart of. (This did something to explain the vagueness with which he always referred to his early life, and the distance he had always kept between our family and his.)
So in 1952/53, when he was 24-25, three things happened, which – as I see it now – drew a line through his life:
- His mother died.
- His daughter Jacqueline was born.
- He left the UK and went to the Far East where he lived for 7 years. From there he went to Canada where he met my Mum and had a family (including me). He didn’t return to the UK for 20 years (1972 when we came to the UK as a family, me and my sibs for the first time).
He never met his daughter Jackie. But I have been lucky enough to make contact with her and between us and my other siblings we have done a lot of healing, sharing and learning. Amazing to be blessed with another sister (especially one as cool as Jackie) at this great age!
This story then is what began to inspire my journey. And then there are some of my other lifelong obsessions, such as I have always wanted to track down my family history on my Dad’s side – East European Jewish ancestry… I have also always been strangely compelled by the Holocaust…I’ve always wanted to travel across America… So this then is the itinerary for my trip:
- Romania – a week or so tracking down my Dad’s mother’s family origins there
- Poland –Auschwitz, always wanted to go
- Berlin & South Germany – a few days with friends there & find out what Germany feels like
- Malaysia and Hong Kong – the countries my Dad lived after leaving Margie and Jackie in 1953, places he loved very much, see if I can find out why. Hong Kong – where he had a ‘bit’ part in the Orson Wells B-movie ‘Ferry to Hong Kong’ (he did!)
- Hong Kong to San Francisco, a flight which takes 11 hours but perversely you land 3 hours before you took off! My Dad’s best friend in Canada said my Dad was the only British person he knew in Toronto who had never crossed the Atlantic! (My Dad did the journey by boat in 1959, you don’t get the same jet-lag!)
- San Francisco – one of my favourite cities, beautiful city, a gay mecca, hippy & left-wing corner of the USA
- Travel across USA – San Fran to Ohio – via Nevada, Colorado, Chicago and more – the deserts, Rockies, plains, small towns, suburbia and sky-scrapers
- Ohio – to some very dear friends of my family, best friends of my parents who knew us when I was a very young child when we lived in Canada
- Over the border to Toronto – back to the beginning, the city where I was born
And Aberystwyth? Aberystwyth is where my father spent an important summer in 1951 – a summer acting in repertory theatre where he had a relationship with Margie. It is also – coincidentally and unbeknownst to me at the time – where I was a drama student for 3 years over 35 years later. And anyway no world trip would not be complete without a visit to Aberystwyth would it?
So the journey begins…
I started from my (more long-standing) sister’s house in Hertfordshire, an easier departure point for my first flight from Luton Airport to Bucharest, Romania. The drive to the airport went through our old home town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire which I hadn’t expected. Funny. I’m clearly going back, going ‘home’, the crossing and turning of circles. I lived in Hitchin from age 5-18, but driving through even now in my relatively short lifetime it is no longer a really familiar landscape. The part of me that walked there has gone, or is not accessible to me now. What can I hope to find of my ancestors – or my father – in physical evidence or spirit, in other lands from many years ago? As I set off I became aware that even though I can go to these places, the past is a country you can never go back to. (Who said that?)
The soundtrack to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ accompanied me in my head on my entire journey. I watched it several times before I came. ‘Anatevka’ was the song on the plane out, the final song in the musical, the love song to the village the community are leaving – ‘Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place… Looking for an old familiar face…’
I love ‘Fiddler’. For those who don’t know it, it’s the fantastic musical about a rural Jewish community in Russia at the end of the 19th century. Their lives and culture, old traditions being challenged, new influences like revolutionary politics, and underlying it all the anti-Semitism of the place and period. 1000’s of Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the UK, America and other places at the turn of the last century (escaping the Holocaust which followed 40 years later.) My ancestors were part of this emigration. My grandmother Polly was about 8 in 1904 when her family brought her from Romania to London. My grandfather was born in London but his parents were in their 20’s when they came, probably from Lithuania. Their story – mine and my father’s story – is the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ story.
It has fantastic songs, great Yiddish music, wonderful but poignant sentimentality and great Jewish sense of humour! My Dad was Jewish, but not in a religious way – he married ‘out’ – my mother similarly non-religious from Christian Lancashire working class stock. But he was Jewish in the cultural ways of many – politically left-wing, into travel, food (he made latkas on Saturdays), sense of humour, certain words he used (‘Don’t make such a magila about it.’ ‘Schmuck.’) I first watched ‘Fiddler’ with my Dad on the TV as a child and when I saw it again after he died I cried most of the way through.
‘Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place
Looking for an old familiar face…’
True enough, as I sat on the plane from Luton to Bucharest. Except this time I was making a ‘return journey’ – to a land my ancestors left behind without a backward glance. Even though it’s completely irrational I did have slightly mixed feelings about going ‘back’ to these places. A cousin of my father’s told me about his mother (my grandmother’s sister): “She never spoke Romanian and she never spoke well of Romanians.” Well fair enough in the circumstances. My great-grandparents generation had such negative experiences of their homelands by the time they left that they barely spoke of where they came from again in the west. They turned their children’s faces forwards, towards the future and opportunity, not back to a past of poverty and oppression. Looking back is an obsession of later generations (it’s clearly one of mine). Only a generation on even knowing which country the family came from can be lost making family history research frustratingly difficult. (I still don’t know where they’re from on my grandfather’s side.) Then 40 years later there was the Holocaust. So I tried not to worry that I might be rounded up as soon as I stepped off the plane, but, you know, it’s not a good history is it?
But this also interests me – I am travelling not just for the stories of ‘my own people’ (if I can even call myself that, being so un-brought-up in the Jewish way and not even having a Jewish mother!) – I am also interested in how such huge and cataclysmic historical events affect the peoples and nations where they have occurred. I am sure there must be a collective trauma in being part of these histories, as well as for those who suffer and survive them, a wound that carries an energy, wittingly or not, and I wonder how that manifests.
Such are some of my thoughts (and internal song-singing) on the plane over. I found however – on the plane and onwards – the Romanian people were a largely very friendly, helpful and obliging people (apart from the one who nicked my camera, but hell, that could happen anywhere.) They bore very well with my appalling lack of Romanian – or the competent use of any other language apart from English – and I received great help – to a stranger in a strange land – on my somewhat bizarre and specific tour of the country, bypassing (through lack of time) many of the highlights they’d prefer or expect me to be interested in.
I had begun.
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