1 February 2015

Escaping fascism: my family's experience

Having recently moved house (again), all sorts of long-forgotten things are surfacing from boxes. This includes some family history. Today (1st February) would have been my late grandmother's 101st birthday. She led a fascinating life as one of four daughters of an expatriate British-Canadian oil prospector, growing up mostly in Romania but with periods of education in Turkey, Germany and Scotland - qualifying as a medical doctor in the 1930s. A remarkable woman; here she is in Romania in 1923 (aged 19).

One of the very interesting recently rediscovered documents is an account by her father (my great-grandfather) of his escape in 1940 from the Nazi invasion of Romania. It is a short typescript, and a remarkable insight into a world that is now completely lost - as well as an interesting journey that would not now be possible.

Leaving Constanta on 23rd October 1940, they travelled by steamer to Istanbul, then by train to Baghdad (via Aleppo and Mosul - 'we arrived in Mosul about 12 in the night where we were received by the British Committee who served us a very nice tea with sandwiches and cigarettes'). After refreshments in Baghdad (provided by 'a gentleman, Mr. Matheson, a bank manager') they took the overnight 'desert sleeper' train to Basrah, where they were hosted by the British Consul. Another steamer took them down the river past miles of date plantations, stopping at Bahrain to collect American oil workers and their families ('and also two very rich Arab pearl merchants'), arriving in Karachi on 21st December.

'Karachi is the capital of the Sind Province of India [it is now of course in Pakistan]. We went on shore and had tea and bought some tobacco. We left Karachi on 22nd December and spent Christmas on board the "Varela".'

Arriving in Bombay on 26th December they were met by the 'Committee of the McKereth Organisation for the Balkan Evacuees'. They stayed there for a couple of weeks and then went to a camp at Satara by train, where they spent the best part of five months, 'during which there were pleasant, but more unpleasant moments ... the food was wholesome and sufficient, but one must get used to the food of India.'

They then went by train and bus - 'a very tedious journey of four days' - to Naini Tal, where they were 'received by Officials and transported by "dandies" (a sort of chair carried by four coolies) to a big bungalow on the top of the hill'. This was one of several temporary accommodations whilst in India, before returning to the UK later in the war.

This is a map of the journey.

I hadn't mapped this before. For me the whole account and episode is very interesting for several reasons.

Firstly: although there were clearly hardships on the journey this appears to have been a well-resourced and at times relatively leisurely middle-class retreat through largely British-held (or at least British-friendly) territory, facilitated by officialdom. Some luggage needed to be left behind at various places, and several aspects of accommodation and transport were evidently distressing; their house in Constanta and possessions left there were subsequently destroyed. Nevertheless it doesn't really compare with so many harrowing accounts of others' escapes from fascism in other parts of Europe at the same time.

Secondly: I am astonished that train/bus travel was sufficiently efficient in 1940 to enable land transport from Istanbul to Basrah in only four days. Would that be possible today?

Thirdly: this is a journey I would love to retrace, partly because it passes through so many places of enormous historical and archaeological significance, as well as for its genealogical interest. Sadly there is no longer a ferry from Constanta to Istanbul. This is the least of the problems, however. For, despite the fact that - just like my great-grandfather - I have a passport which declares that 'Her Britannic Majesty requires and requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely etc. etc. etc.' I suspect that just at the moment Her Majesty's word is not particularly highly regarded in places such as Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Basrah.

More importantly, the situation in the various regions through which my great-grandfather passed in 1940 is massively and utterly horrific for the millions of people who have been affected - in many cases disastrously and catastrophically so - by the whole sequence of events in the last couple of decades. Certainly some of the outcomes are the result of UK foreign policy (which of course has its origins in the protection of the British interests which my family were helping to pursue at the time), but UK foreign policy is only one of a number of factors here.

The answer is not, of course, a return to British imperialism. I don't know what the answer is. The situation is massively complex. But part of that answer must involve dialogue and mutual respect.

Islam is a beautiful and compassionate religion; so is Christianity. Together with Judaism were are all fruits of the same Abrahamic seed. Fascism can root itself perniciously within any of those religious contexts, and it is to be regretted when it does so - whether it is the Crusades, Nazism, aggressive Zionism, or the 'Islamic State'.

I still hope to be able to retrace this journey in my lifetime. Meanwhile my thoughts are with those in Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad, Basrah and elsewhere whose hopes and dreams and lives are shattered by fascists from whom there is no avenue for escape.

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