Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Too late to change identity

This is a very, very personal story. It took me several days to decide that I want to share it. Stop reading now if you find skeletons in closets disgusting.

Many years ago, my great aunt Margarita, my paternal grandmother's younger sister, came to visit me in Stockholm. It was the first and only time she traveled outside the Soviet Union. I have told her story in a novel and partially in a blog post, so I won't repeat it, and it is only marginally relevant to what I want to tell now.

We were walking in a wood just outside our house, and suddenly, out of the blue, she said: “There is something I need to tell you. You may have heard rumours… They are not true”.

My family has a long tradition of rumours, lies and omissions, secret adoptions and illegitimate children; so I wasn't surprised, but I had no idea what she was talking about. She went on: “I have your granny's and granddad's conversation books from when they were evacuated during the war, and the truth is there”. I still had no idea what she was talking about. My granny lost hearing, ostensibly after childbirth (although with all the lies I am now not sure). During the war they were evacuated from Moscow to a small city on the Volga river, probably sharing a room with several other evacuees. My father was ten years old. Clearly if my grandparents had things to talk about, using notebooks was an appropriate solution. So what did they talk about, I didn't ask. “People said that your granddad could not be your father's father”, Aunt Margarita went on, “because nine months before his birth you granddad was away”. Now, after learning that you are adopted or that one of your parents is not your parent, learning that your granddad whom you loved dearly wasn't your granddad is a huge shock. I wasn't prepared for it. Twenty years earlier I learned that the very same granddad had a second family and a daughter ten years younger than me. It was a shock because it changed my view of him, but as I said things like that weren't unusual in my extended family. I had always wondered about my grandparents' relationship. They never shared a room (but neither did my parents so it was not until I was in my late teens that I learned, from novels, that it was habitual for spouses to share a bed), and granddad always spent summer holidays elsewhere. He also went somewhere every evening – ostensibly to teach evening classes. Somehow, I have always been slow in interpreting obvious facts.

“People said that your granddad could not be your father's father”, continued Aunt Margarita, ”but your granny explains it in the notebooks. She went overdue. She was pregnant for eleven months”.

Now, not even I, naive as I am, could believe this. If Aunt Margarita had never mentioned it, I would have never considered the possibility. My father didn't look much like my granddad, but this didn't justify any doubts. The natural question to follow was: If not granddad, then who…? Did anyone except granny know? Did she know?

It turned out eventually that everybody knew except me. A cousin on my mother's side knew, and that was really none of her business.

Next time I was in Moscow, I asked Aunt Margarita to see the notebooks, and she said she had burned them. This didn't sound credible to me. Why did she have them in the first place? When my grandparents were in evacuation, she was in deportation in Kazakhstan and didn't return to Moscow until 1956. If granny for whatever reason had kept the wartime notebooks, why did she suddenly give them to her sister? And why did Aunt Margarita keep them for more than thirty years only to burn them right after she had tried to persuade me that granny had been pregnant with my father for eleven months? Did those notebooks ever exist at all?

Dismissing the eleven-months-long-pregnancy theory, every piece fell into place. I remember Uncle Andrei well. He was practically part of the family, always with us on holidays, frequently in for tea and dinner. He gave me wonderful presents: toys, clothes, picturebooks, which I didn't of course contemplate then, but that weren't easily available in Russia in the early 1950s. He could get these lovely gifts because he had the privilege of travelling abroad, and he had the privilege because he was accompanist to a very famous violinist. One thing I remember particularly vividly: my teddy's shirt became shabby, and Uncle Andrei made him a new one. I still have the teddy. Every other link has disappeared, the last probably the picturebooks that I had brought to Sweden and that my children eventually tore to pieces. This was before I learned the truth, otherwise I probably would have saved them. Or probably not at all. I am not sentimentally attached to material objects.

I have very few photographs from my childhood, but I do have a picture of myself, aged one, my parents, my grandparents and Uncle Andrei. I had seen this picture scores of time before I learned the truth, but I had no reason to pose any questions. Now of course there is not doubt which of the two older men was the young man's father.

When you are very young, you don't contemplate why some people disappear from your life. I was an extremely shy (or maybe extremely intimidated) child who never asked any questions about anything, not even most innocent questions, so I would have never asked why Uncle Andrei no longer came to visit nor spent summers with us. I do remember, however, meeting him on the landing outside our apartment which was next to the violinist's apartment. He smiled at me, but didn't say anything. He must have been coming to the violinist regularly, but I only met him once.

I have no idea why he suddenly wasn't welcome any more. He had been by granny's side for almost thirty years, her secret, or not so secret lover and her son's father, and my granddad had tolerated it. Something must have happened, and I had no one to ask. Least of all could I ask my father, but he must have known all along and lived with it his whole life. Did he ever meet his biological father after the quarrel? They moved in the same musical circles so it is almost inconceivable that they didn't meet, but did they talk? Were they close at all? Why didn't I ask my father while I still could? Simply because in my family, we didn't talk about such things. All was lies, secrets and pretence.

Now, you may think, does it really matter? Despite his other family, my granddad whose last name I still bear, loved me. He was a fabulous storyteller, and every evening I would come to his room – he was the only family member who had a room of his own – and ask him to tell me a story or draw a picture, which he also was good at. I would sit on his lap. Sometimes he would show me family treasures otherwise locked in his desk drawer: his mother's diamond earrings, war medals, miniature Fabergé eggs, all in lovely boxes with velvet lining. He would tell me about these objects again and again, and I was never tired of them.

He died shortly before I moved to Sweden. I was with him when he died. (Death is very ugly, by the way). He was my granddad.

And yet…

There are interesting family legends on that side. For instance, that our very Russian-sounding last name was adopted by our distant Greek ancestor, Nikolai Stamati. We have traced granddad's ancestry four generations back to a Stepan Nikolajev, so Nikolai Stamati must have been at least a generation above, which takes us to the dark eighteenth century where no records have been preserved in Russia. It seems that granddad's relatives who managed to escape from Russia after 1917 took back the old name, but I haven't been able to find them. Stamati is a common name.

Another legend says that some generations back we were related to the famous Swedish aristocratic family of Oxenstierna, and I still have a brass seal with the Oxenstierna coat of arms, so there must have been some connection. Granddad's mother's maiden name was Reutersköld, which is another Swedish noble family, and while Oxenstierna could be a myth, Reutersköld is a fact. Her mother, my granddad's grandmother, was Victoria Reutersköld, and of all the retained family possessions I value most a silver sugarbowl with the monogram VR.

Neither Stamati nor Reutersköld are part of my ancestry anymore. Nor are the four generations of the Nikolajevs. My name is no longer mine.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Miriam Mitnick. I am Jewish.

I have no Jewish identity whatsoever. My maternal grandmother was Jewish, but she didn't keep any Jewish rituals. I would probably qualify for Israeli citizenship. The overwhelming majority of my parents' and grandparents' friends were Jewish, because they were musicians, artists, scientists, and all were secularised Jews. At least half of my classmates were Jewish, but I didn't learn anything about Jewish culture until my husband started writing a book about Jewish history. (He is not Jewish).

For the past thirty years I have lived with the unconfirmed knowledge of my Jewish grandfather. It didn't make any difference. And it did.

To make a long story short, some time ago my daughter finally persuaded me to do a DNA test. She gave me a DNA test for my birthday. I had been reluctant for a whole number of reasons, but then I thought, what can I lose? (A fourth of my identity, my seal, my sugarbowl, my name, my second cousin twice removed who is the only relative I still keep contact with).

The results have come. I am 45% Ashkenasi Jewish. (I am all sorts of other things, and as I have always known, not a drop of Russian, but that's another story). I have over a thousand DNA relatives in the database, most of them in the USA, and their last names are Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, Friedman and Goldberg. Happy belated Passover, cousins!

It is of course much less of a shock than when I first heard Aunt Margarita's disclaimer. I was prepared for it, and now I know for sure. What shall I do with this certainty? It's too late to change identity and become an observing Jew, not least because I have never been an observing Christian either, and while I have kept family traditions for Christmas and Easter, they have always been precisely that: family traditions. I have been to Israel several times, and I like it, but I don't feel any affinity with the country. I have zillions of Jewish friends, but the reason is that they are my friends, not that they are Jewish.

Maybe the main problem is not embracing Jewishness, but letting go of the other part. Somehow, all these years I have fooled myself into believing that I can keep both. But then, my strongest identity has always come from my German granny's side: traditions, songs, family anecdotes, food recipes. They are still with me. So maybe I am not Miriam Mitnick after all. Maybe I am Maria Tietz.