Read: Fleeing Russia for France. Itinerary of a Refugee Countess during the XXth Century. [Story of a “White Russian” Countness 1/2]
Young countess Tania Marcotty Dolenga has been living in multiple boarding houses in France, as a refugee. But World War II is coming and her fragile status forces her to leave the country again. At 88, she tells her exile story from the USA.
I was not sad to leave this terrible Russian boarding school despite the anxiety of the war, and I settled in Paris with my mother Lialia for the first time in my life. I was ten years old. We shared a small bed in a tiny room on the sixth floor of an infectious hotel on Blomet Street, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. The pitiful aspect of our room, and my lack of toys and books prevented me from inviting friends to the house. We ate our borsch — an Eastern European soup made with beet, tomato, cabbage, meat and dill — at the Russian refugee center, right in front of the hotel that housed us. I used to take the subway every morning to the Russian high school, located at 29 Auteuil Boulevard in Boulogne-Billancourt.
The school, founded in the 1920s, played an important role in the education of hundreds of children of Russian immigrants. Indeed, many of them, especially at the beginning, were unable to study in French schools because of the inadequacy of their knowledge of the language. After the “White Russians” who arrived after the communist revolution, the 1930s brought many Russian-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing fascism in their home countries. Many were only passing through this Parisian lycee, which was but a halt before America.
In June 1940, before our eyes, the German army entered Paris. After a few weeks we found a little pink card nailed to our door. The Kommandantur warned us that my mother and I were to take the train to work in Germany, like three million other “deported people.” We were Russian refugees without a country, a consulate or other protective authorities. So we had no recourse; there was no one to oppose this nth forced displacement.
We arrived in Frankfurt on February 12, and my mother managed to seduce an officer of the Kommandantur to allow me to go to school instead of working in an electrical components factory, which was the fate of most deported children.
I was supposed to be sent to Dresden to a boarding school for young aristocrats, which my mother’s family knew well. But she had to pay 200 Reichsmark per month and I had to have an extremely expensive trousseau. My mother, having nothing, picked a more modest establishment.
On Sunday, February 21, a few days after our arrival in Germany, we took the train from Frankfurt to Weiheim. Over there, a meal of pork, mashed potatoes and red cabbage gave me some necessary courage. I was going embrace a new life I knew nothing about one more time. A life that was waiting for me at the village of Hornbach, seven kilometers away from the Weiheim railway station.
Perched on a snowy hill, the children’s home, or Kinderheim, dominated this small village, which consisted of about ten farms. Some of them were seven centuries old.
A very welcoming lady invited us into the living room. The house was built in 1937 to host children of German families living abroad. The walls of each room were clad in light pine. About fifteen children were living there. The boys lived on the second floor and the girls on the third. The dormitories were furnished with beds that folded against the wall, so that the rooms became a living room. The dining-room was furnished with a long bench, placed under three immense windows from which the Rhine valley could be observed. After the Parisian slum in Blomet Street, I found myself in paradise.
My mother was introduced to Herr Wilhelm Becker, a very handsome man with dark hair and eyes. He warmly shook my hand, and expressed at once a keen interest in our Russian past. I remember the way he looked me in the eyes, as if he were reading in my young soul that life had not treated kindly.
Scarcely an hour after our arrival, my mother left. I was introduced to the other fifteen children. At dinner – sandwiches and apple juice – these young people aged 12 to 16 surrounded me with such caring that I was flabbergasted.
Herr Becker bought me some linen, clothes, shoes, and even some personal care products. He also sent me to have a hair cut and obliged me to go to the clinic in the next town, Heidelberg, to remove a piece of sewing needle which had been inserted in the bone of my right index finger, after a fall, two years ago.
Soon I was enrolled in the village school, which Herr Becker himself led with a masterly hand. Having scarcely learned Russian again in France, I had to learn German very quickly, which I succeeded in mastering in a year. And this was thanks to the young people of the home, who never ceased to help me in my studies. They also played the role of big brothers in protecting me from the guys in the village.
There were 42 students in this village school. Herr Becker had very liberal ideas for the time, encouraging children to express themselves sincerely. From time to time he transformed his class into a dramatic theater company. He also replaced the old school desks with twelve little square tables, so as to make us work in small groups. Herr Becker corresponded with the American Quakers, the Minister of Education of Japan, Mikhail Bulgakov, and the secretary of Leo Tolstoy. Needless to say, in these troubled times, the Gestapo immediately watched him and even threatened to send him to a concentration camp. But he faced them. A few years after the war, I learned that seven of my dormitory companions were Jews whom Herr Becker had lodged, fed and educated from his pocket for ten years.
As far I was concerned, I remained in this funny family until the end of the war. I had seen the Germans enter Paris, and I saw the Americans march upon our little village. Wilhelm Becker was the only true father in my life and many other refugee children of all kinds.
Shortly after our arrival in Germany, my mother had married a certain Kostia, Konstantin von Karmasine. He was a man of Cossack origin whose family had been ennobled by the Czar of Russia for service to the country. He worked in geological research. At the end of the war, I moved in with them in the small German city the were living in. In 1949, when I was 18 years old, my mother told me to marry the son of Kostia’s boss. He was ten years older than me. But this situation had nothing to please me: this man was a big consumer of cocaine and epileptic. And above all, he was having an affair with my own mother, then 38 years old. Decency did not always guide Lialia’s choices.
This affair did not affect me. I had other projects in mind. I wanted to work, but after the war, the state of the German economy made things difficult. And with my status as a deportee, I had no chance of finding a job. A year earlier, Britain had just begun its National Health Program (NHS), guaranteeing all its citizens a set of health services and they needed a lot of nurses to provide those benefits. In April 1949, exhausted by the situation and by my mother’s contempt, I decided to pack up and leave for the United Kingdom. It took me no more than ten minutes to make that decision. I was 20 years old.
I then began work at a 100-bed hospital in Maidenhead, 40 kilometers from London. In the first year, my co-workers refused to pass me the salt during dinner and I underwent other petty meanness. I was that refugee, German or Russian – the English did not quite understand the difference – they used to patronize.
In 1953, I married a certain Michael Marcotty, who worked as a volunteer in the hospital. I received English nationality and a valid passport after years of only having the German deportees card. My mother became ill shortly afterwards. As a young bride, I went to her bedside in Essen, a German town on the Dutch frontier. I watched over her for many months. She died of lung cancer a year later.
For his part, my father had left the asylum a few years earlier. He had rebuilt his life in Romania, despite the loss of his status in a country that had become communist. He learned that I was living in England and got in touch with me a few weeks after I turned 21. We then began a correspondence in French, Russian, English, and Romanian. I received five magnificent letters as well as a genealogical tree dating back to 1067. I discovered twenty-five generations of an illustrious family whose greatness I could only come to appreciate through this document. After a year, the Communists punished my father for contact with the West. They suppressed his colonel’s pension and his share of coal for the winter.
After a few years of respite in England, the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 revived the fear of the Reds. Would the Communists again ruin my life? I was seeing the Soviet tanks coming closer and I was a new mother – I now had two daughters, Fiona and Anne. I begged my husband to take us away, as far as possible. We went to Canada and then to the United States.
For the first time, the reception was neither contemptuous nor fearful. Here we were “educated English,” results of the “European brain drain.” Soon after we arrived, I gave birth to two other children, Peter and Karine.
Eighteen years later, I worked as a translator, taking advantage of all the languages that this strange life had forced me to assimilate. I, Tatiana Petrovna, Countess of Szyszko-Dolenga, have built a family, a life, and other memories, far from Eastern Europe. Though they tried to “make me a Russian” during my childhood, I never set foot in Russia. I never went back to Romania either.
In hindsight, this status of eternal refugee has been very heavy to bear. I feared the rumors of wars and the violence of all kinds. I also lived in fear of not being wise enough and then being dismissed. I never dared to ask for anything, no salary increase, no medical treatment. I have constructed my life with this latent feeling of being too much, of not being a member of any group. While my children are American, my grandchildren are American, I still have a hard time saying “I am American.” It is difficult to feel patriotic when you have passed under so many flags.
Translated from French by Camille Teste and Chelsea Hawkins