A few days ago, over a late afternoon rum and ginger (Appleton and Canada Dry of course!) , my friend Jeremy was telling me about his search for his Russian grandfather. Here’s the tale he told as the sun went down, and a full moon came up over Chateau de Lanquais.
My mother was always quite tight-lipped about her father. She seemed to know, or pretended to know, very little about him. Talking to her brother or sister about him was even less informative, talking about him made them angry. I was warned never to broach the subject with my Breton grandmother, so I didn’t. Thus, what I know about him has been pieced together from scraps of information that have come my way from time to time over the last 70 years.
My mother said her father, Stefan, was Polish, born in Warsaw, she didn’t know when. He had been in the British Army in the first World War and was an interpreter during his service. After the war he worked on trans-Atlantic liners, until, one day he ran away to America, leaving my grandmother to bring up their four children unsupported, on her own in a foreign city, London, in a foreign country, England. He was never heard from again. My grandmother, Marguerite Kamellard, née Coudert, a single Mum, supported the family working as a dressmaker. That was what my mother knew. Punctum.
It will not surprise you that this was all my mother knew, or admitted to knowing, if I tell you that she was only five when Stefan did a flit, and as far as I know, she had few, if any memories of him.
There was one other thing I knew, or thought I knew, about him. This came from my father. Mum and Dad met in London in mid-1939, when my mother was 20. They married two weeks later, and almost immediately sailed for Jamaica to get away from the Second World War, which was expected to begin any day – it started the day the boat arrived in Jamaica. There, in Jamaica, my mother, explaining her background to my father’s family and friends, said that her father was a Polish Jewish chemist, but from a Christian, Roman Catholic family. She told my father that her parents had met when my grandmother was a young woman working in Paris.
When I was four, my parents had a messy divorce. My mother returned to England. I stayed in Jamaica. For the next 50 years or more, that’s all I knew about Stefan. Not much, but enough to know that he had behaved badly. He was at best inadequate and, at worst, pretty cruel. No wonder his abandoned wife and children were both tight-lipped and angry.
When I was about 30, in the early 1970s, talking to my mother about her childhood, I asked her, if she knew much about the Kamellards, Stefan’s parents. When had they converted from Judaism to Christianity?
“Oh”, she said, “he wasn’t Jewish, I only said that to wind up some people in Jamaica. I was a naïve young woman when I arrived in Kingston, and people patronised me. I thought they were very false and pretentious, so I told them things that I thought would offend them. If they were conservative, I said I was a communist. If they were anti-Semitic, I told them I was Jewish, and so on. None of it was true, although your father often believed it. No, no, my father was an ordinary Pole.”
My maternal aunt and uncle, deeply Catholic and deeply anti-Semitic in a very Catholic way, were only too happy to confirm that Stefan was not Jewish. They were quite annoyed that I could ever have believed such an idea. So, I made a small adjustment to my mental profile of grandfather Stefan.
Now roll on some years, to the 1990s. One day my sister told me that our mum had decided that her father was not Polish. He was Russian.
“So, how does she work that out?” I asked. “He came from Warsaw.”
“No,” she said, “Mum says he was from a part of Russia that later became Poland”
“But there is no part of Russia that later became Poland! It’s actually the other way around. Bits of Poland became Russia.”
“Yes, I know” said my sister, “but now that Mum’s supporting UKIP, she doesn’t like the Poles, so her father must have been a Russian. Russians are dashing and romantic.”
“Oh well, so now we’re part Russian.”
“Yes,” my sister said, “we’re Russian, but we are not Jewish. UKIP doesn’t like them either!”
Roll forward again to the early 2000s.
Now retired, we have all the time in the world for pointless pursuits. I find myself gardening, pottering about in canoes, playing with bits of Meccano. My beloved Mrs V takes up knitting a vast array of dolls (for use as presents and for sale) and genealogy: she wants to know a bit more about the story of her family, and whether her mother’s family from the English Western borderlands, the Angells, was really originally Welsh (turns out they are 16th century Italian immigrants, del Angelli.)
She needs my side of the family to complete the tree she is building. There is no problem on my father’s side – thanks to two cousins and an uncle sharing their research, we have almost full details back to 1750 on my Dad’s mother’s side, 1685 on his father’s. Later, Number 2 daughter gets the Ancestry bug and fills in the missing bits.
But we have almost nothing on my mother’s side. Obviously, we can work out her siblings and their children; we know her parent’s names but little else. Mum sends me a copy of her mum’s birth registration and from that we get her mother and father’s names, and that she was born in Rennes, in the Ille-et-Vilaine department, Upper Brittany. She has no idea who Stefan’s parents were.
I turn to the internet, and some ancestry discussion groups. Nothing much on Kamellard that I don’t already know. The I get an email from someone in the USA, Norbert Stevens, who has kindly done some digging for me and found several documents relating to Stefan. Norbert must have worked quite hard on finding them, for Stefan appears under a number of guises.
Here’s what he found:
- There are multiple crew passage records for Stefan Kamellard on board the S.S. Majestic and Stephen Kammelard on the S.S. Leviathan, most for passages from Southampton to New York, and he is working as a kitchen clerk. They start on May 16, 1922 and end on May 19, 1924. He jumped ship in Boston on his last voyage and disappeared for all practical purposes until….
- There is a 1930 U.S. census record for a Stephen Kamellar living in New York. His country of birth is given as France, but his date of birth is the same as Stefan’s. He is living with his wife (!) Elaine, born in England, who is 14 years younger than him. He works as a cashier in a restaurant, she as an attendant in a studio. They have no children.
- In 1942 a WW II Draft Registration Card is issued to Stephen Kamelhard/Kamellar, born in Warsaw. At that time, he is living with his wife Elaine on West 140th Street in New York and is employed as a cashier at the Banker’s Club on Broadway. His telephone number is AU3-0699, but don’t call, it’s disconnected!
- Finally, there are Social Security death indexes for both Stephen and Elaine Kamellar. Stephen died in July 1964, Elaine in December 1989, both in New York.
So, my grandfather was a bigamist – he never divorced my grandmother – and after he jumped ship, he seems to have found a settled life in New York. Between 1920 and 1964 he uses two different variants of his first name – Stefan and Stephen – and four different variants of his surname – Kamellard, Kamelhard, Kammelard and Kamellar. Of course, it is entirely possible that none of this is down to Stefan. Everything I found was in another’s hand, an official, list making, permit granting, fact recording hand. And we all know what mincemeat officials can make when transliterating names from one language to another, one naming system to another.
He does not appear to have had any more children and when I search on the internet, I find some people called Kamellard, but they’re all, like me, descended from Marguerite and Stefan. No one called Kamelhard or Kammelard turns up but I find some Kamellars but they have no connection with Stefan.
And there the matter rested … until Brexit!
[TO BE CONTINUED!]