Tania Marcotty Dolenga is from an illustrious family of Russian aristocrats. She was born a Countess in 1929. At 88 years old, from the USA, that she shares her story of escaping the Bolshevik Revolution. The wars of the twentieth century forced her, as a child, to transform and reshape her identity again and again.
On September 17, 2017, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was The Revolution was seen as an opportunity to lift up the working classes, but it also shattered many families, including my own: the Szyszko Dolenga, a 900-year old family originally settled in Ukraine, a former Russian province.
In 1920, a few years before my birth, the “Reds” invaded Odessa, one of the most important cities of Imperial Russia and the city my family was living in. Fourteen of the men of the Szyszko Dolenga family were killed; my grandfather, my great-uncles, my great-great-uncles all disappeared. Only my father, Petya, survived.
My father was saved because he was then occupying one of the sumptuous homes of the family in Romania. He was far from his family because the First World War had atrociously injured him. In convalescence, he was curing his broken skull. A wound that ironically saved him from the Bolsheviks.
The young women – widows, grandmothers, great-grandmothers of the family – fled Odessa with their children. They left by boat from the Black Sea to Sevastopol in Crimea. From there, they continued on to Vienna, where some of the family settled.
My paternal great-grandmother and her daughters fled to Paris, carrying with them the last of their wealth in the form of jewelry. It was quickly stolen, leaving them in a situation that women of that rank could not have imagined. These women went from the top tiers of the city to penniless in a foreign country.
At that time, Paris welcomed about 500,000 White Russians, the non-communist Russians who had escaped their country. Another child, who was also a native of Odessa and who later became my mother, also found herself in the French capital. Lialia de Schwachheim, then only 11 years old, had run away with her father Vladimir and older brother. During this escape, the two men were assassinated. The murderer raped my young mother, a trauma that affected her whole life.
She spent six years there in France. Formerly Orthodox, she converted to Catholicism.
At 18, Lialia left France to Iaşi, Romania, a city located a few kilometers from the Russian border. There, she jointed her grandmother. The latter made every effort possible to arrange a marriage between Lialia, who was barely an adult, and my father Petya, who was then 36 years old and extremely rich. I was born a few months later on March 19, 1929.
This marriage was not a union of love. My father had never recovered from the First World War, and soon after the wedding in September 1928, he was interned in a psychiatric asylum due to post-traumatic stress disorder. My mother was pregnant. My father spent the next nine years in confinement. We never met.
My mother divorced my father immediately after my birth. She soon left me to a servant she knew and sneaked away. Free from the responsibilities of motherhood and the commitment of marriage, she decided to rebuild her life in Paris. She had in her possession a Nansen Passport, a document issued between 1922 and 1945 which allowed stateless people to travel in a context where the passport had become necessary to move from one country to another. This document was held by many celebrities of the time, including Marc Chagall, Robert Capa, Sergei Rachmaninov or Vladimir Nabokov.
My mother’s arrival in France was not, however, that of a noblewoman. The country was in the midst of an economic crisis and she was unable to find work.
One year after her installation, she decided to take me back. At two, I landed in France. I was dropped in Dunkirk, where my mother placed me very quickly with a foster parent, Jeanne Deroide. I spoke only Russian and Romanian, and I got there, completely disoriented, and convinced that these people would never understand me!
Incapable of taking no action, I regularly threw my poor rubber doll into my little suitcase, and ran away, shouting “Poiesti, poiesti!” — “The train! The train!” Where was this train that took me from Bucharest to Vienna, from Vienna to Paris, and from Paris to Dunkirk? I used to go to the corner of the street and returned empty-handed, having found nothing like a locomotive near or far. Jeanne Deroide, whom I had finally adopted and whom I affectionately called Aunt Yane, used to take me everyday to see the ocean in order to calm me.
After six years, educated in this family, without any contact with other children because the courses were done by correspondence, I became completely French. A good little Catholic, having read all the fairy tales and all the books of Jules Verne. I had populated my mind with very interesting people.
In 1937, the economic crisis receded. My mother Lialia got a job as a children’s books proofreader. Good news for her, and a heartbreak for me. The little salary she received then allowed her to take me back. I had to leave this warm fireplace to which I had finally grown accustomed, to integrate a boarding house a little particular, South of Paris. The castle of Quincy-sous-Senart, belonged to Hubert Conqueré, Baron of Montbrison. The place had been transformed into a Russian a boarding house by his future wife Irina, Princess Romanova, niece of Tsar Nicholas. My mother’s aim was to “remake me a Russian.”
We were 120 young residents. And I, who had put so much effort into becoming French, who no longer spoke Russian or practiced Orthodox, was unlike the other, mostly aristocratic, children. With my shabby trousseau, I was immediately rejected by the others. And from the first night, I began to wet my bed, which did not help my integration. The women who watched the dormitory regularly showed me naked to the other kids to punish me. That supreme humiliation haunted me until I was twenty.
In 1939, the Second World War broke out. The boarding house closed straightaway, at least officially. Baron de Montbrison continued to lodge in secret numerous young Austrian Jews, who then fled to Switzerland, to the Basque country via the famous Col de Roncesvalles, towards Portugal, or to America.
Translated from French by Camille Teste and Chelsea Hawkins
Read: From the Parisian Misery to the German Countryside. [Story of a “White Russian” Countness 2/2]