My First Five Years

 

I was born in August of 1943 in Shanghai, China of Russian émigré parents during the Japanese occupation of the city between the two revolutions , the Russian and Chinese.    My mother’s family travelled from Vladivostok to Manchuria to the city of Harbin where my grandfather was sent as an administrator for Russian government in the early 20’s. Their sejour in Harbin was never alluded  to it seems that Shanghai being a more cosmopolitan city  therefore was more prestigious to be from it.   This ended with the Japanese invasion in 1932 and family decamped to Shanghai which was being administered by European interests, most White Russians living in French Concession. The Marecheks also came to Shanghai from Vladivostok   where the families did not know each other having  moved in different circles, they owned a   luxurious hotel though were for the most part musicians  but  in the “Terror” that ensued during the Bolshevist  incursion to Siberia they  as others  fled in  panic thoughtlessly by ship to China.  I say thoughtlessly because as musicians they would have been better off with the Communist regime were they would have had secure preparation in the well funded conservatoriums.  The arts  being a vehicle of propaganda were supported by the government  with the exception when bourgeois ideology was suspected but music had no ideology and could hide much as witnessed by Shostakovich  but others like Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin because of their class chose not to risk this patronage and  went West usually landing in Paris.     But I suppose  the Marecheksapart from being musicians had ambitions of being entrepreneurs  witnessed by the hotel in Vladivostok and later in Shanghai Czech restaurant beer hall.   They lost contact with a grandfather and other relatives during the dispersion of populations, the fate of generations thus disrupted.  Babushka Baranovskaya being a gypsy was able to find her relatives though because of the intermarriage she was ostracized. I saw a photo of a very dark woman in a nun’s habit and learned it was her Sister who became an Orthodox nun.  On a more personal level my parentage was disputed from the onset due to my Mother’s reputed love affairs  though  she was  discrete to a fault even using her husband  Stasik as cover and he  his innocence easily lent himself to this.  He went so far as to complain when the young Italian naval officer  stationed in Shanghai , Cieno stopped coming to our home due to my Mother’s attempt to salvage her reputation.  I have heard of comic eye rolling between the sisters, Tamara and Sarette  at his ingenuousness at a  relationship that was amorous  transparent to all. This must have happened before the Japanese occupation of the city and years before my birth and was retold to me by my Aunt Tamara ,  my mother’s younger sister who often acted as decoy for my mother’s amours.       My   mother’s young lover, Anatole, reputed to be my father and perhaps of my brother’s   Tonichka’s   who died shortly before I was born  and whose death made my birth possible,   was also of Russian descent born in what was then called Manchuria.    I  would  say  his family was of  the small bourgeoisie of the Volga region though his mother had pretensions of belonging to the nobility as many Russians were wont to do when their veracity was hard to disprove in their exodus to the West. I never met her my reputed Grandmother but heard she was informed of my existence when she was already old and dying.

The impetus to tell my story so late when most of the principles are dead is just that,  no one to be aggrieved by it except my siblings and my tiredness of carrying it around .    Anatole is still living in Australia last I heard but doubt he would be much affected by this tale of our families having made an escape from our midst.   Holding on to ghosts  in a city so quickly swallowed up by modernity that only in my memory I see the alleys and secret gardens  of  childhood, the scents, sights, a vanishing mirage, but still mine.  Recently my imagination and memory were excited by a book  about Shanghai I purchased for my brother and a statuette of Kuan-Yin in jade similar to the one  I saw, to whom my Mother, Sarette was offering incense.   I must have surprised her lighting candles at dusk  wearing  pale green silk  flowing garments , and nodding to the  godess, said to me,    ” You will do this also as you grow  and she will protect you.”    An admonition I did not heed soon enough but was my first glimpse of worship to a deity.  I was probably close to three years old and don’t recalled ever having  stepped  into a church as of yet but nevertheless it felt like a genuine connection to the mysteries of the universe, to unseen forces.  I’m grateful for this space before the induction to Christianity for it gave my imagination and consciousness space to develop more freely.  Grateful too for my first religious exposure was to a female deity, chtonic,  more  organic form of worship  than the later male sun, sky gods of which Christianity as a derivative of Judaism belongs.

There were earlier memories that might challenge credulity I remember many things before I could speak the earliest of which I puzzled out for years… One memory was of my first birthday where my Mother took me to a studio of a photographer who was bent on my holding a somewhat grimy panda bear, I don’t think I could speak as of yet but I  remember my thoughts clearly that this was not my bear  and struggled to push it away.   At the end the photo has the bear not in my arms but as a compromise on the bench.  But stay with me,  another and earlier memory I was laying in a white metal crib not mine, feeling very full a sensation like consuming  icecream, looking at dingy curtains in very long windows from floor to ceiling, proportions that were institutional, such as   hospitals. I knew it was not our home but I could hear my mother’s voice near and somehow this scene was repeated and it had a boring familiarity.  Later when I was six years old and in another continent we went to pick up a beautiful Polish child in a refugee camp and my mother told me in Russian, that that was my “milk sister”.  I puzzled this information for years but then I pieced together that that scene in the hospital was when my mother donated milk of which she had an excess.  This was an example of  my mother’s  complex nature, egotistical and vain on the one hand and of profligate generosity on the other. She would take me to a Russian club bearing food and gifts for the children of White Russians, letting me not so subtly know that these were less fortunate than us and them as well .  My Baba, Antonia, my mother’s mother-in-law was banned from the club because while everyone was signing a hymn to the murdered Czar she loudly  praised  Stalin accompanied with an arm raising salute. She made it clear she was a woman of the people and Stalin had put their house, Russia in order. These were chasms between the two families, my grandfather having been sent as an administrator of the then remote Russian outpost of Harbin though by profession he was a diamond cutter.  After the war the residents of Harbin long suspected of being White Russians or infiltrators were not allowed back to the larger cities in Russia but had to reside in small provincial  towns .   This was a mute question for my grandfather who  long  before settled in Shanghai and had no intention of going back to Russia  having made a promise  to his daughter, Tamara  in her crib, that he would make a good life for her in freedom far from Czarist Russia and in 1938 made good his promise emigrating  with his younger  daughters  to Southern California leaving my mother, his eldest to run his various businesses as best she could, awaiting the Japanese army  which was marching inexorably toward Shanghai; more exactly were posted in the outskirts of the city being held back by the European sentries but barely.  But this was  years  before I was born  but was the context of the circumstances of my birth. A memory that contradicts  the timing of these events is  being served a flaming dessert to table by the “povor” gimpy chef in my grandfather’s house.  The only explanation I have come up with is that my Mother kept up the elaborate practices of her father table after he left for America.   Later I was given accounts of this amusing character and the delectable delicacies of his cuisine but what made the family wildly titter was his romance with the beautiful if tiny hunchback   sister of my father,   Bohuna.    My Grandfather wanted Vera who already heavy set young woman to learn culinary arts and spent a small fortune sending her to a French culinary course taught by Cordon Bleu in Shanghai.   Every week he would ask her, “ Verochka, what did you learn to make?” And she would invariably answer with great solemnity. “Riz a la Imperatrice!” Vera never became a cook but certainly a great gourmand and as far as Riz a la Imperatrice  she never mastered it and I made it for her in many of my visits in her old age to her delight. My Grandfather once a year wanting to make an appearance on the Jewish holidays at the Temple in Shanghai would try to bribe his children to accompany him for a $100 dollars a virtual fortune in the 30’s but had only one taker, Tamara. This came to a unfortunate end because she giggled throughout the services. He took her behind the temple and slapped her soundly so ended the family’s incursions to the temple.

Due to the uncertainties of my birth I have developed the habit of calling both men my father or by their name depending   whom I   addressed.  Few people have caught on to this collapse of identities despite both men having different professions and living in different continents .   Stasik a  musician violinist  living in Caracas, Venezuela  and then Canada and Anatole  a spy against the Soviets all through the Fifties in Germany and then a social worker in the prison system in Sydney, Australia.

But to return to Shanghai  I  have  memories of being wheeled in a navy blue pram which later I knew to be English and which in turn I wheeled around my sons in a similar one  in New York City at Columbia’s campus. I recall my thoughts then, the wonderment at the Art Nouveau green copper roofs of Shanghai, the sight of these to this day gladdens my heart as   presaging   all things  that were  promising.     I  knew my mother to be some kind of exotic princess different than I, who  was  merely an ordinary  child,  blonde and green eyed like the other Russian children in the nursery school. I suppose I sensed her foreigness,  her difference from Russians  in small subtle ways but it became clearer by an attack I witness from a great-aunt,  Manya on my Father’s side pushing her down spiral stairs when she was attempting to visit my baby Sister Kamila whose care had been taken over by our paternal grandmother, Antonia orBaba as we called her. The epithet she called my Mother in Russian was a derogatory one referring to her father’s  Jewish ancestry though his  mother’s  name was Russian, Chaliapin like the famous bass singer, but what made her truly exotic in my eyes was that her mother, my grandmother was a Russian Gypsy.  Only in the last four years more than fifty years later we  came to  discover she had tenuous claim to being  Russian  having found  amongst old documents  in my brother’s house her birth certificate as  having been born in Kashmir, India.     My mother was disdainful as I was proud of Babushka  Baranovskaya’s  Roma ancestry doing her best to distance herself from her and to appear supra European in her manners and dress. This was not difficult for her due to her French convent education and acquisition of 6-7 European languages .  She told me she was cajoled in to learning Italian in her convent by Catholic priest who said Italian was spoken in heaven which led later for her great love for Italian culture, the city of Florence and the mnemonic feat of being able to recite all three books of Dante. She had inclination toward the 18th C. being well versed in the works of Voltaire,  Daudet  and the earlier Montaigne who she was fond of quoting, she was a great admirer of Napoleon and loved to quote him and from him she imbibed the notion  that genius  was self-made and was not dependent on class.  But she bore all the accroutrement of class in her manners and speech. As an example she could not resist the class connotation of the chivalrous  sport, the hauteur it gave her despite being deadly afraid of horses , attire , kid gloves, boots from Hermes brought from Paris at such a cost and trouble in the 30’s.  Even through the war she managed to acquired the best leather goods from Milano and Paris being  well  groomed  or “bien soigné” was a religious edict to her and not to wear  a perfume in public was akin to appearing nude.. She participated in plays and was given to writing poetry and plays for Russian émigré  literary circles.  The cultural level of Shanghai was heady visited from such luminaries as Pavlova, The Ballets Russes , Italian opera, violinist like Heifetz and Menuhin who were then young men and who Stasik met. He often confided that were it not that he was not Jewish he might also have had a career as they.   There were those who in musical circles had a high opinion of his musicianship, Uncle Futera explained that the Marecheks were violinists like others were bakers, it was a family trade but that Stasik was the genuine thing, a virtuoso.  But despite his musicianship I think his meek and mild manner would not lend itself to a musical career.  He  absent mindedly often forgot to collect for his services whether a performance series or retooling music for orchestras by the time he did was told that his wife had already collected! And this would have been more understandable if they lived together but he continued his bachelor habit of living with Baba , his mother, because she took care of his concert clothes and fed him his favourite dishes.                                                                                                                                                                            My Mother was alarmed when I found a way to escape my Amah’s care and sneak out to play with Gypsy children who had exciting skills to teach me unlike European children which I found dull.  My Mother explained to me the cause of her fear was that I might be kidnapped by the Gypsies if they found out my heritage for it seems they had proclaimed a  very powerful  edict that  the first born of this couple, of my  grandparents, should be kidnapped in revenge of the loss  of my grandmother, and  would be heeded by all clans in three continents. The cause for this curse was the elopement of my  Gypsy  grandmother  who was  a singer in The Roma Theatre in Moscow  and as such contributed  to her family’s finances with my Grandfather who ran away with her as his bride to Siberia to escape her family and I expect his,  and where almost immediately  in Krasnayarsk  my mother was born.

My grandfather’s children and I suppose my mother as well would reproach                  him saying “ Papa, how could you marry a Gypsy?” And his famous response ,  which  I used as in first page of an unfinished  novel based on the family saga was:  “Oh, but you did not see how her hips made her skirts twirl as she walked!” and the rapt expression in his face that accompanied that statement .  He did not deviate much from this answer but did say that he had been an apprentice diamond cutter and met her in a Moscow train station, probably the same they ran away  in  East to Siberia.     They later established themselves in Vladivostok which was then an outpost akin to the Wild West and where I suppose the Jewish community was more tolerant of the young couple and where my Gypsy grandmother had to convert  to Judaism to marry my Grandfather. She was sponsored by  a certain  Kooperman who became her godfather and who must have been very important and kind to her for she spoke about him with excited whispers, proud of their connection.  The  conversion , I think  was  superficial  giving her merely a means to marry my Grandfather  and thus achieve standing in the community.  All she would say about her wedding was the necessity of being immersed in the waters of the mikhvah ,  the ritual bath which  seemed to have impressed her the most about  the event.     Babushka continued to celebrate all Russian Orthodox holidays and she was reputed to be particularly lavish in her celebration of Easter, the festivities which are the most stressed by Russian Orthodox Liturgy.   She named her first born Sarah, which I assumed was a concession to her husband being a biblical name but have since discovered that The Black Sara is a  revered Gypsy saint with a devoted following amongst the Roma.  The other daughters were given conventional Russian names,  Tamarah Vera , Nadzeshda  and Lubov .  There was a son, Yasha who amongst the colourful   sisters got short shrift although he was adored by his mother and when she died his sisters in their hysteria and feuding forgot to tell him for two whole days.   But here I wish to recognise and mention baby Nadhezhda who died in Babushka ‘s arms  in her swaddling clothes on the long and bitterly cold train ride to Manchuria.  I was touched and wept  that almost a 90 years later that the  Siddha Guru,  Chidvilisanda  chose Nadia for my cousin’s daughter’s name as if recognising that baby, unknown to most of the family, kept in veiled silence by her mother due to the painfulness of the loss.  I heard she carried the dead baby for days and it had to be wrenched from her arms. Never heard about the child’s burial…  A more farcical   counterpoint to that arduous journey, where the trains did not connect, Babushka had to choose between riding on a mule or transporting  her china on its back.   She  chose in  pride of possession her china and had to walk hundreds of miles  making use of her gypsy  nomadic conditioning for the trek .  When I finally saw that china eighty years later crated and  some examples displayed in my Aunt’s Vera’s house in L.A. it was disappointingly  plain , white and frog  green without any mark in the back about its provenance.   I made  despective remarks about the design of  Babushka’s china due to her Gypsy lack of sophistication to my Uncle Yasha  then in his nineties he reproached me saying that his mother wept hot tears whenever a single piece of the voluminous set was broken.

Sarette, my Mother  contended  that she was hidden in a French convent to escape the threat of kidnapping as the first born of this couple and since she escaped this fate the next generation was also vulnerable because according to her ,Gypsy memory is long.   All this she told me as a cautionary tale but it had the opposite effect of its intent, the prospect enchanting me. To be kidnapped in caravans and to learn to sing and dance and tend to horses seemed so full of romance and adventure. We actually had a Great –Uncle   Josef Futera , Baba’s brother who did just that was reunited later with family having become an accomplished gypsy violinist.    When my mother came out of her hiding in the French convent  in Tientsin she  was so wild and uncontrollable that my Grandmother Baranovskaya took the unusual step for the times, even for Shanghai ,of settling her in her own flat;  this she said defensively was necessary so that her younger daughters would not be corrupted by her example.   I heard of those days from at least three or four sources, her Sisters Tamara and Vera, and then the little hunchback aunt,  Bohuna, and Great-Aunt Dusia .   It was said Sarette had various lovers and collected poets and musicians. My Aunt Vera said that the living room would have strewn bodies wall to wall from the previous nightclub revelries.    The first order of business was to get croissants and chocolates for breakfast and poor Vera had reason to regret early morning incursions to Sarette’s flat for she was easily preyed upon to procure these.  She would go to any lengths to get chocolates. One night she saw a well known arsonist slinking past  Cathay Flats on 818 Bubbling Well Rd and beckoned to him,  inveigled him to bring her 2lbs of Swiss chocolate at once or she would announce to the street that she saw him in the vicinity of the warehouse he was contracted to burn down. This would be more amusing if the repartee between them could be repeated in Russian, I never tired of hearing this story  retold as a child and can still imitate it.

I have heard different versions of how my Grandfather made his money in Harbin and in their relocation to Shanghai but since I suspect the source to be malicious will not repeat it here. My Mother gave me a funny anecdote in their life in Vladivostok and it sounds like they a comfortable upper- middleclass existence.   I will recount the incident due to the paucity of details of their life in Russia though there is extant a portrait of Sarette sitting on a garden bench I believe she was 14 years old.    It seems that she had been rude in the morning  of her birthday and Babushka decided to punish her by letting her stay behind  with an old Aunt during the picnic birthday celebration .  Sarette, who was easily bored was very bored  in the company of the old aunt and conceived a mischievous  plan of escape.    It seems that in the orchard there was a barren apricot tree that had not borne fruit in ten years.    Sarette carefully with wool string hung stewed apricots  on the tree from a  compote and ran with the news to the old woman who was so overcome with emotion and being part blind could not see the trick, that she lifted the punishment and allowed her to join the other children on the  birthday picnic.  She would have earned amongst giggles another punishment.    This paints a portrait of a happy normal family but it had dark undercurrents of sexual jealousy and cultural  differences  that  were a deep and unabridgeable chasm between the Gypsy way  full of strictures and taboos and my Grandfather’s acculturated  liberal Russian habits.   Grandfather was deeply fond of his daughters and was free in his display of affection and Babushka would beat them in places under their skirts that would not be detected, all except   Sarette as she grew  taller than her mother and  Luba   yet to be born.    According to Tamara she being the most beautiful one and as her father’s favourite would get the brunt of her mother’s jealous rages until one day Sarette about fourteen or fifteen came  with a Russian three-pronged whip a “nagaika”  in hand whipped her Mother to exhaustion, all the time cursing her and telling her that she was  putting an end to  the abuse.   This is a seminal anecdote told to me by Tamara who witnessed it and who adored Sarette as her defensor against the cruelties of her mother and reluctantly confirmed by Vera who did not like to remember anything unpleasant.

My own view is that Babushka had she married within her culture would have been held in check by her mother-in-law and her extended family and in that milieu she would have not developed these abusive propensities. My Grandfather’s gentle liberal ways were ill suited to hold at bay the destructive tendencies of his wife and he shares the responsibility for his denial  and  reluctance  to deal with it.  There were anecdotes later about his womanising in the cabarets of Shanghai and Tamara who would see him on her own secret sorties  would collude with him,  an alliance which further exacerbated  the malaise within the family.   I heard that Babushka was the real business brains and would negotiate fiercely in her husband’s stead saying, “Oh, my husband would never agree to this proposal and I dare not bring it to him due to his weak heart.” With an appropriate moue and  gesture of hand to heart. This was entirely a fiction that she used  to  control and  keep the family together as well.   Sarette could not dream despite her love affair with Anatole and of her husband dalliances to divorce, all because her fear of endangering her adored father’s health.

My mother like most ladies of her class was too busy for the ordinary ministrations of  childhood  with constant tea parties and  afternoon majjong  playing, beauty and massage appointments  but when she appeared scented and dressed on her way out for the evening  she could soothe away any distress like a fairy princess from a Russian fairy tale that at that age I imbibed like mother’s milk… The one who was always there was my Chinese amah.   I sadly never knew her name , with the careless  sense of entitlement of childhood her function was enough of a  name,  yet she served our family for two generations having been my older siblings amah as well.

She was always  there  behind  me , stubborn steadfast I never looked at her directly if I could  help it  but knew she was there to insure my safety. I don’t think I   even liked her.  I was reported to have to  cross  the  boulevards  of Shanghai even Avenue Joffre  with my hands  tightly crisscrossed under my  armpits rather than hold her hand.  My Mother questioned me about this and I gestured that she cleaned her snot with her hand (an ordinary practice of Chinese of her class), and I would not touch it.   My Mother was amused at all signs of my   independent  nature  but  amah and her ways were formative in ways that took many years to uncover.  I think she taught me Chinese ways  of  being , the impassive “moon face” I still know how to put on. She often rescued me from the tedium of endless afternoons   in the International Garden of the French Concession where she was instructed   to take me to, to be seen by the other Europeans and their nannies. She refused to wear a nanny’s uniform  and continued in her cheongsam, Chinese dress with high collar in defiance of my mother standing up to her which very few people did. She would take me to the Chinese quarter outside the French Concession in a rickshaw and visit relatives while I entertained myself with various objects or watched gold fish in a pond or played with turtles or caged cicadas or warbling birds.   I believe my Mother suspected these outings because of what I would unexpectedly say in Chinese or a furtive alien   gesture and  I overheard her speculate about this to other adults but she did little to suspend our outings. I even suspect that Mother was a little afraid of Amah herself and chose her battles.

My brother and sister were much older and led separate lives ,my brother  living with his Marechek  grandparents because he resembled them and they took over his care though my mother paid for his expenses in his private school.  My eldest sister Angela  was  not  well supervised and later because of my Mother’s neglect was adept at negotiating bootlegged goods in the black market.  Angela told me of one scene with Mother which has stayed with me that in a winter afternoon she saw Mother having  tea  with a man and she pressed her face  against the vitrine  of the pastry shop staring longingly at the pastries they were consuming  and when Sarette saw her she came out and slapped her  face saying, ” Are you spying  on me?” This scene has haunted me more than I can say, though I could recognise that Sarette could have acted this way; it was not the treatment I received from her. Yet conversely I was told by Stasik ,my Father that when Sarette was in Paris and Angela became sick with some ordinary childhood illness she immediately dropped everything to get back to Shanghai and attend to her like an ordinary devoted mother. Such was the contradictory traits of her character.    My father’s mother Baba told me that they rented in the summer a cabin in Tientsin where my sister Angela was left in French convent as a boarder and not picked up for holidays like other children. Once as they took a walk on the promenade the saw a file of nuns and amongst them a single small child, Angela!  She recognized them and ran over clung to them. They succeeded in getting permission to take her with them to their rented cabin. Baba told me that my maternal grandparents owned a luxurious villa with view of the sea in Tientsin and they did not bother picking up their eldest grandchild for an outing. There was a difference in means between the two families if not class. My Father’s family were musicians mostly violinists for generations though my Grandfather, I hesitate to call him that, became a hotelier in Vladivostok before the Revolution , and in Shanghai ran a restaurant with Baba my putative grandmother.  There was no love lost between him and me and I learnt it graphically when on a walk when we two we ahead of the others and while sat on a can which he would great accuracy kicked off from under me. This small cruelty clued me in to his lack of regard for me and I took care after that not to find myself in his company alone. I saw the contrast on how he doted on my brother and younger sister Kamila the lines were clearly demarked on who was his family.   I seldom stayed in  Marechek  house knowing that I did not belong and yet these were my siblings. They spoke a foreign  tongue which to my Russian ears sounded guttural and uncouth. An opinion I held my entire childhood which my mother tacitly encouraged. She even went so far to say before she died about the Czech language “ It’s a pig language refuse to speak it!”.   The main activity I remember happening in the Marechek  household is eating into a state of stupor and obsessive chess playing that lasted days all other living activities ceased in the fever of competition.   It was reputed that a chess move was named after this , Marechek  but I never bothered to confirm this having not derived any pride in the accomplishments of this man, Bohumil  Marechek petty tyrant of children.  I also heard that he threatened members of the family  who planned to attend my  parents wedding due to his disapproval of the marriage.  Many years later perusing an  family album in Canada I came upon a photo of an old beaky old lady and asked Bohuna  the  little hunchback aunt, who she was and was told me that she was their grandmother called Israelka, and I inquired doesn’t that mean, “ Israelite?” Bohuna  answered, ” That’s what the whole village called her. “  So she must have been Jewish!” I answered.  After a thoughtful pause she said,” Yes perhaps, that’s why my cousins in Czechoslovakia hid her through the war in a grainery ,  she survived the war.”  It was stunning that an Anti-Semite would hide his own Jewish  ancestry but not unheard of, Hitler himself was reputed to having Jewish roots.   There was an older brother of my father, Rudla, a cellist an anomaly in this family of violinists  who died at age 26 of acute alcoholism , an accomplishment of sorts. My father Stasik told me that the most terrifying moment of his day was if he woke up and smelled his father’s cigarette smoke which meant he was late starting his violin                         practice.

While on my mother’s side my Grandfather had a staid department store and fabric store, a haberdashery.     Sarette, Mother after his departure to America  opene a bookstore in Shanghai,  Globe Bookstore   on 858 Avenue Joffre  with luxurious leather bound books ,parquet floors both a lending library. This is how Sarette met Anatole after a return from Paris and Italy she found that a certain young man was holding on to an excessive amount of books .  She went herself to collect the books and impose fines but was charmed and felt pity seeing how humble his quarters were and forgave them.   This was told to me by Anatole  forty years after her death in Sydney, Australia.    But even before opening bookstore,  Sarette at  at 17 opened a boutique that sold handmade Italian dolls, porcelain hand painted faces with human hair. She was so particular to whom she sold these dolls and issued adoption papers to those that qualified. It is difficult to believe it was much of a business with so many restrictions. Later when I was 4 I/2 she took me to visit the doll maker in Milano.   Two dolls were made for me at her specifications but predictably  the dolls were placed out of my reach and could only be  played with only under her supervision.  I did not really care I had a serviceable rubber doll that could be bottle fed and even peed. Later this doll was used to smuggle my mother’s or should say Grandfather’s diamonds and became heavy indeed but was our bank in our travels  in Asia and through Europe , with periodic “operations” performed  by my mother as funds were needed. Once in Paris I told a neighbor about these and was promptly moved away to a whole new quartier.    Sarette loved Paris passionately and was proud of having a perfect Parisian accent.  We stayed next in a little exclusive hotel off the Avenue de L’Opera.   She took me to the Opera for many performances and back stage to meet Yehudi Menuhin supposedly a friend of Stasik which somehow embarrassed me, suspecting my Mother was exaggerating the link.  My mother made the rounds of Russian émigré circles many of whom she had known in Shanghai and was a contributor to their charities.   She loved Paris and introduced me to the pleasures of eating hot marrons in cones in winter, sugary crepes, the gardens of Tuillieries full of activities for children, marionette shows, concerts in St.Chapelle but best of all the decorations of the grand magasins were exhilarating particularly at Christmas.  I experienced in a few months a sense of having another childhood a French overlayed to the one in Shanghai.  She finally hired a young French nanny to give herself free time. I taught this nanny English and told my Mother that she should not pay her because it was an exchange of services.   I had a sense that she was seeing someone but she was customarily so discreet that I never caught sight of anyone but furtive glances at the opera or in crowded cafes.  Later after her death I read excerps from her diary in French of a passionate encounter. But not sure that it was the same young man on the Italian liner  followed us from Paris or another, who then  I saw  again on the elevator of the hotel at our arrival in Caracas and saw Mother sigh that I had not failed to recognise him despite their efforts at discretion.  I got confused and thought  for a moment Anatole had followed us. It would seem that Stasik and my brother Lee was of that opinion and caused some scene looking for him in Caracas shortly after Stasik arrived  from China. But actually it turns out that Anatole  had settled in Sydney, Australia with his mother and brother.

Here I’m getting ahead of my story and my family’s lives in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of the city and the end of the war.   My Aunt Tamera told me an anecdolte  involving Sarette and her that was both amusing as terrifying.  Sarette who was by turns reputed to be extravagant and cheap by turns was bent on saving money on her laundry and was to boot enormously pregnant. She devised the plan to go to the outskirts of the city Hongkew district across from the Souchow Creek and already occupied by the Japanese.  Sarette hired a  rickshaw and inveigled Tamara to accompany her who at every step tried to dissuade her and due to the dangers to turn back. As they reached their destination Sarette noticed  how thinly spread were the Japanese sentries so she stood on the rickshaw surrounded by the bundles of laundry and screamed at the Chinese who were still not recovered from the horror of the Nanking Massacre  In perfectly idiomatic Wu  Shanghai dialect ,  “You yellow cowardly dogs, be men! See how many there are of you and how few of them, attack, kill them!”   And with these incendiary words caused a riot.    Needless to say the laundry was thrown off the rickshaw and they made their escape back  across the bridge to the French Concession .   Sarette  was forbidden to leave the house because the Japanese had heard of a European woman  who started a riot and were searching for her.                                                                                                            I was credited by my Mother making an important connection with a Japanese colonel and her astuteness in keeping her father’s businesses open during the occupation while other Europeans lost theirs.  I remember the incident clearly sitting in my Mother’s peignoir and playing with her perfumes and somehow breaking a crystal  bottle ,the shards of which cut deeply into my wrist.  Stasik, my father picked me up and ran with me to a Jewish Hospital during the curfew a dangerous maneuver at best Japanese sentries with bayonets  were on the streets on guard but the hospital would not admit me according to the story  because we were not Jewish . ( I don’t know if this was true or an example of casual Russian Anti-Semitism that permeated everyday  consciousness and parlance. I tend to believe the hospital was not allowed be open during curfew. ) But apparently  a Japanese Colonel in a jeep encountered us , and having heard that I was not being attended by hospital returned there and with me in arms he kicked- in the glass doors.   Stasik relished the retelling of this story choreographing farcically how the colonel while holding me kicked in the glass doors repeating in guttural tones the epithets he used. This incident led to the Japanese Colonel visiting  our family during my convalescence .  We, children had not been taught to fear the Japanese and were easily affectionate which the Japanese had not encountered in their invasions and it was a culture apparently very fond of children and lay the basis of a friendship with us. In addition the fact that Saretter unlike other Europeans took lessons for two years in Japanese language following their progression ,through Asia knew they would eventually occupy Shanghai.  This is how my Mother’s relationship with the Japanese started and which later led to political problems as the Cold War ensued before the actual war ended and while The U.S. was still were allies with the Soviets. My mother was not so much political or an ideologue of either side but simply an idealistic Russian patriot being an émigré with deep love for Russia, its language and culture.  Having been left with her Father’s business to  run with the impending invasion of the Japanese  she turned the  department store into a night club with Russian dancing girls a euphemism for their real activities. She had a room with a map where the Japanese troop movements were reported through the Russian girls and this information was passed to the Soviets through her partner a Russian song writer composer, Vertinsky and was a genuine contribution  to the Allies’ war effort .    But this is not how it played out she was suspected as a Japanese collaborator and a persona non-grata in the U.S.A. and could not join her family there until it was certified that she was dying of cancer in the 50’s and through the intercession of an American Ambassador in Caracas was given a humanitarian visa. She died there surrounded by her family in the City of Hope in May of 1955.   But going back  I remember my Mother taking me to the roof of our building and pointing to the sky dark with planes she wept crying out,      “ Americantzi!”  ( Americans). The city was so overjoyed at the end of the Japanese occupation , my Mother permitted young navy men to carry me on their shoulders on the streets that regaled me with candy  and in turn my mother fed them in her nightclub , Coconut Grove.  During this time of euphoria in the city there was mass repatriations  back to Russia or I should say the Soviet Union but among émigrés the word continued to be Russia, Rassia Rodina. I myself have lived through the Soviet era still waiting for Russia to be called by its name.  My Mother would go with  arms full of flowers  to wish her friends ‘bon voyage’ with me in tow and would weep bitter tears at not being able to herself go back to Russia.  It seems that Vertinsky now famous and given a hero’s welcome back to The Soviet Union by Stalin himself urged her to accompany him and receive in turn her recognition for her services but Saretter knew that her destiny was cast by her family emigrating to America and had no illusions about what it meant to live under Stalin.  In subsequent years I have followed the gossip of how Vertinsky though welcomed back a hero had to toe a very narrow line. I also followed the careers of his daughters wondering always and not without regret what my life and milieu would have been had my Mother returned to her homeland after the war.  I would have experienced having a country , and not being forever in exile.   I have had several passeportes in my life  Czech , Venezuelan and now U.S. which have been a matter of convenience and hardly of my choosing.  In recent years I’ve given myself  a description that at last identifies me aptly as  Russo-Chinese.           An amusing story told by Stasik about passeportes was when he took Sarette to an attorney to convince her to take his Czech nationality and passeporte.  Apparently she wailed and said it was a Nazi passeporte  Czechoslovakia being part of the Axis and she would rather die than accept it, when Stasick argued          “ But Sarothcka think of the children, your father is Jewish you will go to an internment camp with the children !”.   But she was obdurate and then he said     ” Think of your Father’s businesses you will lose them all!” Then that changed everything and she accepted the passporte  with alacrity with which we both travelled through Asia, Europe and then  to our destination Venezuela,  which I think she hoped to be a stepping stone to  real goal of joining  her family in California.   Sarette’s relationship to her Jewish ancestry  was ambivalent. She never told me point blank that her Father was Jewish and I had to learn it from others.  On the one hand she was known to smuggle medication and precious vials of penicillin sent from the U.S.A to the Jewish internment camp.   In 1943 18,000 Jews arriving from Europe and elsewhere were kept in the city of Honkew in an internment camp.  But although the conditions were dismal they cannot be compared to concentration camps in Europe.   Sarette arranged for deliveries of special foods for those delicate of health and on her body strapped medications which she smuggled with some peril to herself. But I never heard her publicly acknowledge her Jewish parentage. She was of a Catholic mystical bent and in her time in French Convent had secretly converted to Catholicism.  I never heard of Grandfather’s reaction to this but surely he must have known that this was the risk in sending his daughters to be educated in French convents.                                                                                                               But these are digressions back in Shanghai  shortly  after the war must have ended in the Pacific there were feverish preparations for my Brother and Sister to join my grandparents in Los Angeles. There was a studio family portrait, the only extant of all five of us in one place. My parents kept up the fiction of a marriage though I cannot say why they were unconventional people but I do recall an incident that my Gypsy grandmother flew from California to confront my Mother about her scandalous life which reached her ears through the gossip of the Russian émigré community. I was filled with wonderment because I thought my Mother, so powerful, and an adult was slapped by her mother.  I don’t remember much about the visit except the chocolates that came from the U.S. m&m’s, sprinkled on a chocolate cake. A practice I have kept up since on children’s birthday cakes. My Grandmother’s visit was whirl wind and she was not reputed to be effusive with small children or at least female grandchildren.   My parents led separate lives but had skirmishes occasionally and love affairs with each other. I witnessed a single fight between them and I uselessly defended my mother with a cloth belt and when Stasik noticed my attempts he was mortified and crumpled on the ground , weeping. I think he had been drinking. Another incident was told to me by Angela that after a fight mother crawled through a small window and left a trail of blood in the snow. This is as vivid a memory as if I had witnessed it but now I ask myself was there ever snow in Shanghai?  Or was it Angela’s desire to embellish. I was told by Aunt Dusia that their fights were notorious in one Sarette charged a rickshaw to follow Stasik to his Turkish mistress ‘s house were a spectacular scene played out.  This was in their early marriage and it was understood that Stasik in his tours like other musicians  would have mistresses and other casual liaisons  but it was not tolerable to Sarette in Shanghai.  In later years it appears they did not live together for ten years and though it was known Sarette had a lover, Anatole they did not live together.  In ane famous incident Anatole who was being used by Sarette as a manager of the nightclub she had converted from my grandfather’s  department store, Coconut Grove.   He apparently  attempted to shoot Stasik because he would not leave the premises .  What happened was murky Angela then 14 years old took credit in getting between the two men, years later my brother said he got between them with a knife wrestled from him by a Chinese cook. There seemed to have been a shot fired but missed its aim. There was another dramatic incident when I was kidnapped by Anatole. I was not afraid because he seemed familiar to me as one of my mother’s many hangers on barely a special one and I had seen him on many occasions before but don’t recall many conversations with him. I think we both ignored each other and knew we had to share my Mother’s attention. I recall his meeting with my Mother on park benches and other public places and never in any compromising situation only once I remember his being in our apartment but not alone.

. My Sister Angela who must have known him better being so much older than I recounted a funny incident that she persuaded him to wear some Chinese amulets on a bracelet for protection and subsequently when he was nevertheless mugged by Chinese youths in the park  he ceremoniously tore them off one  by one and tossed them on the ground reproaching her much to her amusement.    To this day she mimics his impatient pulling amulets off bracelet one by one.      He took me to what seemed like a rooming house ran by older Russian woman and a child a couple of years older than I that serviceably pulled out her toys from a large carton box. I already had class discernment and looked down on someone who keeps their toys in cardboard boxes in disarray with loose playing cards instead of proper wooden toy chests.  I soon became bored with the situation and don’t think I spent more than one night and the next day there.                               The next afternoon I saw a policeman in the Shanghai  white  linen Summer uniform  approach I knew he was coming to take me home and ran to him. This incident also was never mentioned as was  the habit amongst the adults that surrounded me, but I held the incident close and puzzled at its significance. For a young man friend of my Mother’s who gave me scarce attention should bother to kidnap me.   Almost 40 odd years later when I again reconnected with Anatole in Sydney, he didn’t recallr it at all. I could practically draw the room and house, imitating his gestures  smoking , nervous movements,  linen suit  to jog his memory until he finally remembered  and was by turns incredulous and skeptical that I at that age could remember such details.  I learned from him that he and his family were bound for Australia and were interned in a refugee camp in the Philippines awaiting immigration to that continent. It also explains Sarette’s presence in the Philippines and her sudden absence leaving me in a luxurious hotel in Manila with a caretaker.  She rewarded me with vanilla ice cream served in a silver goblet and I must have uttered my first rhyme, “vanilla in Manila” sitting on a stool on at the bar.   My Mother made the most of this with praise at my cleverness.  This was the golden age of my childhood my Mother was without a nanny or amah and was taking care of me for the first time and was as attentive a parent as one could wish and I credit it to my psychic well being  which made me more resilient during tumultuous times when she was busy establishing herself and became preoccupied  with her businesses. I was independent and did not yearn for additional closeness but was aware that this was the view of our families who disapproved of how my mother cared for me.  My Mother’s solution was what she had herself experienced to send me to a good  Catholic boarding schools albeit for different reasons.   But this didn’t happen until some months after we arrived in Caracas and she was preoccupied with setting up her businesses where she saw great  opportunities .  By then she realized that due to her association with Japanese occupiers and espionage for the Soviets she was barred from joining her family in California.

We were picked by a launch  on a misty morning with only my father, Stasik and Kamila on the pier of the Whampoo so wide that it appeared to be the open sea and not just a river.    I knew it was a solemn moment this departure and that tense arrangements made to spirit us  away from harbour because this was not a passenger ship but an American merchant marine vessel.  This meant that there were no other passengers and we were the only females on board.   It also meant that we had privileges and got to eat our meals with the ship’s captain.  I remember sending long scribbles to my sister Kamila and the Captain commenting that they were not legible and my answer that it didn’t matter because she could not read.  Very soon I had the run of the ship and Sarette could hardly keep track of me because I enjoyed following the young men at their various tasks.  We even had a brief sejour in Japan were Mother was not to leave board  but she managed to charm her way to land.  Now it was Japan’s turn to be occupied and I was told that and seemed to vaguely understand the reverse of fate of this once powerful people that had occupied us in Shanghai.  We even reached Hawaii but there no matter how much she begged Sarette was not allowed to descend to land she merely contented herself throwing over board some lai blossom necklace on waves in the moonlight  saying that if they went toward land it meant that you would come  back to Hawaii.  I haven’t and the memory is phantasmagoric not seeing any passport  marks  to mark our having been there.

If I remember correctly our first real stop after Shanghai Was Singapore a city loved by my Mother and where my eldest brother Lee was born.  I was taken to a villa with a beautiful tiled patio with a fountain in the middle where my Mother claimed my brother was born.  My brother says my parents told him that he was

Born in the famous “Raffles Hotel” .  I think it was a good story to say but the truth in between he may have been born there but then my parents leased this villa for comfort of bringing up a baby. The servant seemed to know my mother and she looked at the improvements she had made to the place.  I remember gardens and parks and where monkeys where so friendly and aggressive that they came up to people.  My mother spent time collecting antiquities, carved wood and tapestries. We were not travelling light arrangements had to be made for carriers when we changed ships, heard there were 12 full trunks some of them black Chinese carved ones that had to be crated in wood.

One memorable incident happened in Indonesia remember that the captain warned Sarette  very strictly not to disembark, to which as was her habit she gave no heed. But she did leave me behind as a precaution.  I saw her running to the ship with at least ten men in pursuit and screaming for help the American sailors jumped off the ship to aid her and a fight ensued.  The image I have most clearly

Is that of red fezzes bopping in the water! Mother was chastised by the captain and this time seemed sincerely  contrite.  It was never clear to me why those men wanted to apprehend my mother but I knew that there were some ports she was not supposed to leave ship due to political problems or her passeporte.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Responses to My First Five Years

  1. LEE MARECHEK says:

    Dear Toni:
    Thank you,very interesting and intriging! I have many questions.For now the most important question to me.How and when did you find out about Anatole being your father?Yes I remember more of the years in Shanghai and California than I do NOW!! Yes I was present when Anatole grabbed Dad by the neck in the upstairs office and I ran into the kitchen(that was the Coconut Grove kitchen)and grabbed a butcher knife to apply it on Anatole when the chinese cook ran after me and took it from me. and there was another incident when Dad came to Babas and with a bleeding face,Baba looked after him all night with Steaks(meat tenderloin) it was trgic! As far as the store that Grampa left to mother(L.BARANOVSKY) haberdashery;Mother looked after that plus she opened another store 2 doors down it was called “the gobe book store” 858 Avenue Joffre,phone # 73309. the Russian that worked for her,Mischa Auer. I’ll write more later,Thanks again, Love always,Lee

    • antoniatable says:

      Deear Lee, I must have heard the Marecheks talking about it when they thought I was too young to understand. He did not pay much attention when he was with Mother but he did kidnap me in Shanghai but even in that house maybe boarding house he payed no attention but I was not afraid relating him to Mother. She Mother had the bookstore while Grandfather was still there I think. The Coconut Grove nightclub was converted from asmall dept store. I have large photo of the decorated vitrines w/mother and Anatole enfrpmt of it. In the back in Russian she wrote to parents, that Anatole was Stasik’s friend. I’m interested of any details that you know in addition to what I write. Remember these are memories of a 5 year old with conclusions of an adult with new information later learned. More later Love , Toni

  2. Maureen says:

    Fascinating account.

  3. Raissa Arnold nee Baranov says:

    As I write this I am so pleased that this was written with answers I have had for so many years….yet I feel a sense of me being incomplete……as I now have new questions. Suprised how many similarities I have with Sarette. This story has touched my soul . I just read this for the first time familiar with a few of these stories. I can honestly say that as I stand here in a public location, I have laughed outloud and cried. What beautiful memories and what a gift for future generations. Thank you. X

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