Book tells of a divided Jewish family’s journeys through the 20th century
- Credit: Nadia Ragozhina
A Camden author has told her family’s story of being reunited after a century divided by war and repression.
At the turn of the twentieth century, two brothers left their home in Warsaw to seek a new life. One went west seeking work, the other was drawn east by the dream of communism. They never saw each other again.
A hundred years later, Moscow-born Nadia Ragozhina rediscovered the missing side of her family, piecing together a century of stories in a new book, Worlds Apart: The Journeys of My Jewish Family in Twentieth-Century Europe.
The book tells the story of her great-grandfather, Marcus, his brother, Adolphe, and the families they raised on either side of the Iron Curtain.
Their lives, and those of their daughters and granddaughters, are set against the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s repression, and the persecution of Jews across Europe and the Second World War.
In early Soviet Russia, Marcus was a trader under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, but when Stalin came to power he was arrested and exiled from Moscow.
Marcus’s tarnished record and his family abroad were reasons for suspicion under the Soviet regime, so the family kept quiet about the past for decades.
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“It was something that would only be discussed in the kitchen,” said Nadia, now a senior journalist at BBC World News and a Tufnell Park resident.
Growing up in 1990s Moscow, Nadia’s knowledge of her other West European cousins came mostly from the mysterious and evocative old photographs of affluent Swiss men and women sent to her grandmother Anna in the 1930s.
Adolphe had in fact left Warsaw for Switzerland, where he had found a trade, started a family, and become a wealthy man.
It was not until ten years ago that the family started to piece together their past, and it began by a stroke of luck.
Nadia’s uncle on her father’s side had built a family tree on geni.com and Nadia and her mother decided to do the same thing for her side of the family.
By chance, Nadia’s long-lost relatives in central Europe had already put their family tree on the website.
Nadia contacted Ariane, one of Adolphe’s granddaughters, and the families began planning to meet.
Six months later, Nadia’s 86-year-old grandmother, Anna, met her 97-year-old first cousin, Genia, for the very first time.
“It really did feel like we were family,” said Nadia, remembering the emotional reunion.
“[Genia] had an amazing memory at that point, and she remembered writing the letters and sending the photos to my grandmother as a little girl.”
The two matriarchs spoke German to each other, Anna having taught the language at university, and Genia being born in German-speaking Switzerland.
Nadia said: “She (Anna) remembered this poem that she had learned in German when she was a child.
“She quoted the first verse to her cousin and suddenly Genia started singing the same lyrics.
“That was very emotional for everyone, that’s when people started crying.”
From there the two families began to learn about one another.
Genia lived in Palestine before and during the second World War, while her sister Eva struggled in occupied-Belgium, before thriving in the West’s post-war boom.
Meanwhile in Russia, Marcus’s family continued to suffer under successive waves of Soviet repression.
But today they are united again, enjoying birthdays and weddings together like so many other families.
Nadia says that the book is really about how one family of ordinary people were completely swept up in the political events of their time.
She believes that family genealogy can help people get a sense of their history as well as their place in the present.
She said: “I think it is about rooting yourself, finding out where you belong. It is a privilege to know where your great-grandparents are buried, what they lived through, what they experienced.”
Worlds Apart: The Journeys of My Jewish Family in Twentieth-Century Europe is available from book shops and via https://www.nadiaragozhina.com/