This is a photo of my mother and stepfather’s wedding when I was five years old. My mother, Olga escaped from behind the iron curtain in 1949 with me in tow, walked across Europe and made her way to Naples. She wanted to go to America but the only country which would take a single mother and child, was Australia. We boarded a ship in early 1950, the Skaugum, a Norwegian vessel recommissioned to take some of the 60 million post-war refugees to other parts of the world.
On board we met Sasha, my future stepfather, who looked after me while my mother cavorted with sailors. She was a great flirt and was delighted that finally she was free of Stalin and Hitler. My early memory is sitting on Sasha’s lap while Olga, in a fetching bathing suit, was being chased by sailors to be dunked in the swimming pool as we crossed the equator.
This was a common ritual where the pool; was filled with blue dye. A little later Olga came up to us, her hair dyed blue, giggling. I felt Sasha’s disapproval as he cuddled me. He was a very serious young man- whose Jewish family had been wiped out by the Nazis in Odessa and he had escaped by the skin of his teeth. He had been on his way to Israel but had given away his boat ticket to a woman called Dora, so she could travel with her husband. (it was extreely difficult to get one of these passages) Now he was on his way to Australia. As well as falling in love with me, he aso fell madly in love with my flighty mother, and the die was cast.
Unfortunately Olga could never get over the horror of the enforced starvation of the Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, and being taken as a slave by the Nazis to enforced labour in Germany when she was 17. She also really missed her family who she couldn’t communicate with, because of Stalinist close down. My father got a job in Holdens in Adelaide, South Australia where he brought my mother and me. The were married when I was 5 and I forgot he was not my real father and I called him Tata. Sasha worked double shifts at Holdens and made enough money to buy a house and a car. It was a second hand FJ Holden and was his pride and joy.
He then borrowed some money to buy a mixed delicatessen where he worked for the next 10 years
This also became his pride and joy. However my mother did not share Sasha’s work ethic , especially when he was in the shop 7 days a week, with half a day off on Xmas day.
My sister was born 2 years after their wedding and my mother fell into severe postnatal depression from which she never really recovered. She hated Adelaide and in a few years, descended into paranoid schizophrenia. My father worked really hard for the family, another source of contention with Olga. She was frivolous, wanted to party, go on holidays and spend lots of Sasha’s hard-earned cash. When I was 17, she suddenly gave birth to another sister. Suddenly is the word, as the baby slithered out on to our linoleum floor, unannounced,. No one knew Olga was pregnant. She had been on heavy psychotropics and had got fat. The birth threw my mother further into psychosis and she rejected the baby as an alien. Sasha gave up work to look after the baby while Olga was incarcerated in a locked ward of an Adelaide mental hospital.
My father was very strict with me- he stamped down on any flirtatious aspects I was showing, and I was not allowed to wear makeup, or go out, and boys were out of the question. I was expected to stay home, work in the shop and look after my sisters. At the age of 20, I came home at 1am and he attacked me. I ran away in the middle of the night. He reported me missing to the police who became involved and took me around next morning. They suggested I move out to a friend’s place for a cooling off period, so I collected some things and while my beautiful Alsatian dog, Chief, howled mournfully, I rode off in the police car. Before I did, Sasha made me sign a letter that I would never come back and never see my sisters again. He stuck to this for the next thirty-three years and any contact I made was rebuffed. I was devastated.
Many years later, my older sister Val eventually sought me out and told me my sister Alexandra had had a child and was suffering from severe postnatal depression, as she had herself after the birth of her child. I was living happily in the UK with my husband Jake. My children had grown up and my life was good. But the plight of my family in Australia gnawed at my insides. In 1999, I decided to do something about it. With the support of Jake, I spent the next few years seeking out long lost relatives in Ukraine and going to Australia several times, to try and help my family. How to approach my father? In therapy, I worked hard on my resentment towards him. I felt he had wrecked my teenage years and kept me away from my sisters. Holding Jake’s hand tightly, I gingerly knocked on his door and said I wanted to talk to him, under the pretext of writing a book about my mother. After a frosty start, I discovered he had cancer and through a small series of miracles, and give and take on both sides, we totally forgave each other. My sister Alexandra’s mental health had broken down and she was in a hospital in Melbourne. I took her and her small child to Adelaide to see Sasha. He was appalled to see his daughter looking just like Olga, and found that hard to bear.
During the last 2 years of his life, he unburdened his painful life story at his kitchen table.
He had been such a bitter man as he held everything tightly inside. At that table he burst into tears many times and the kitchen was a-flood with both of our weeping.
He really wanted me to write down his story. He didn’t want his parents to have died a miserable death in a concentration camp without anybody knowing about it. So the book about my my mother became a book about both of them ‘Sasha & Olga’ (Lothian 2006) The consequence was that his bitterness dissipated, and he died a much happier man.
He told me that he knew his relationship with my mother was impossible and thought of leaving many times. But he said he couldn’t leave me. This is why he was so distraught when I left in the police car. He felt he had sacrificed his life for me and expected me to do the same for him. Ever since I sat on his lap as a 3 year old, the love between us was profound, and I am so happy we healed the long, painful rift between us.
After his death, I found many letters from Dora, the Jewish woman who had gone to Israel with her husband, on Sasha’s ticket. She was grateful to him every day of her life and was enormously thankful for the gift he had given her.
‘Sasha & Olga’ is on Kindle but contact me if you want a hard copy of the book and I will send it to you for the cost of post and packing. email@example.com