Here and There

By Jillian Edelstein

This acclaimed photographer discovers a lost branch of her family, drawing her into stories of displacement that we all hold in common.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Emigration, Displacement and Struggle

I left South Africa thirty years ago in order to pursue my photographic career - and to leave the political landscape of South Africa that I abhorred. I had grown up with Apartheid.

I have used the camera in my life as many things - in my earlier career as a photographer on The Rand Daily Mail as a 'weapon' against the repressive regime, recording events that the public might otherwise have been ignorant about. Also as a creative release when I have battled to come to terms with my own feelings of isolation in a society that I felt ‘at odds with’.

And here I am again... wanting to tell a very personal story to help me fill the vacuum that has existed for many years both in my own South African family and between two long separated branches of the family. And at the same time tell a story that I believe has a much wider resonance as a microcosm of a thousand similar stories of emigration, displacement and struggle.

All my life I have had people query me about my heritage. “You must be Spanish?” “No.” “Greek?” “No.” “You’ve got to be Italian…” and on it goes as they study my thick, dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes. Finally I have replied Russian Jewish without any knowledge of what it meant. Russian Jewish is all I knew with certainty.

Both my great-grandparents emigrated from Russia. My maternal grandparents were very involved in my life but my paternal grandparents were a blank. I knew that they came from a shtetl somewhere in Russia. But that was all. My father never talked about them. On a recent visit to the cemetery where his parents are buried, I asked him why this was and he replied, “It never came up”. A man of few words, he never felt the need to discuss his ancestry with me. His parents had died before I was born. I knew that my grandfather had had two brothers. Charles, the eldest died before I was born. I had known his youngest brother Sascha well before he died in 1971 when I was 14. And that was that.

So it was with disbelief that I discovered from one of my cousins, at the time of a rare Edelstein family gathering in Cape Town in January 2002, that my grandfather also had a sister, Minna, the second eldest of the four children. While her three brothers left Latvia just before and after the First World War to escape pogroms and army enlistment, Minna stayed.  She survived the Russian Revolution, both World Wars, the persecution of the Jews and a trek that took her from Latvia, to Minsk and Belarus (in Siberia), onward to the Ukraine and then eastwards to Uzbekistan until she settled finally with her remaining family in the Ukraine where she died in 1957.

When I raised this with my father he replied, in a somewhat matter of fact fashion, that “Yes, Minna had children, one of them, Irmgard, only died in 1998. She had two sons and one of them, Victor, has visited South Africa and he has an email address. I can get it for you.” 

I was staggered. How could I have reached my early forties and still not have been aware of this Russian branch of my family.  It reaffirmed the absolute lack of communication in my relationship with my father. (I hasten to add that by the time my father died in October 2016 we had more than readdressed this sad state of affairs. We talked for hours on the phone, did road trips together and Skype calls bridged the gap of time and space as we could wave greetings to one another and delight in seeing one another’s physical form.)

I emailed Victor who was pleased to hear from me and in many subsequent emails gave me some information about his life. He lived in Dniepepetrovsk, about six hours south of Kiev in the Ukraine. The thing that ticked me most was the fact that Victor had been a professor of Science at the University of Dniepepetrovsk (specializing in solids), had quit his job, one of the highest paid at $16 per month and bought a small milk plant where he was attempting to manufacture kosher condensed milk products.

He was a wild boar hunter and ice hockey ethusiast. His son Dennis was the local rock star. I did not need much persuasion when he said  “come visit us”. I knew that I needed to do that, so, in December 2002 I went to the Ukraine. I wanted to understand what happened to Minna, why they had lost touch, what it had felt like when they re-established contact after something like fifty years. I wondered if they could tell me more of the family before and after they had left Latvia: their journey and survival. And naturally I was intrigued by the similarities - characteristically and physically - to their South African relatives.

The need to explore further came to me, not only when I learnt of Minna's existence, but also because of a still photograph. It is an image of one of my aunts in Cape Town who was part of an all women’s band called Ray Levin's Original Ladies Dance Orchestra in the 30s. It shows four women of Eastern European descent, dressed up in smart black evening dresses, posing with their instruments - a banjo, a violin, a piano and a set of drums bearing the name and logo of the band. Above them on the wall there are sixteen large buck heads, perhaps Kudu or Springbok, mounted on wooden plaques. The scene is an extraordinary example, for me, of the power of photography in evoking the atmosphere of a period, place and genre. The image depicts brilliantly Africa meets Eastern Europe, something that had always intrigued and puzzled me.

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