Finding Stefan, the search for a Russian grandfather – The Final Chapter

I put the dossier aside and brought my friend Jeremy another Appleton. He sipped it slowly; he had become quite sloth-like as the evening progressed. I had so many questions for him, I worried that he might snooze off again before I could ask them all.

So, now that you have read your grandfather’s naturalisation dossier, what have you learned?

“Quite a lot, actually. His war service, for example. I now know that in his three years in the Army he served in France for at least two, possibly three tours of duty; that, after the war was over, he was part of the British Expeditionary force sent to Archangel in North Western Russia to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, one of Churchill’s more foolish and Quixotic adventures. He obviously was a good, probably not exceptional, soldier: he was promoted twice in two years; his commanding officer goes to bat for him, helping him get his naturalisation through the process and to track down his missing certificate; he is awarded his due medals, suggesting good behaviour.

“I know for sure that he was born in Warsaw, not Paris, in 1885 not 1889 as one US document records it. I know the names of his parents, but not who they were nor what they did for a living. As far as I can discover, this is the only appearance Gustav and Felicya Helen make in any publicly available record.  Good archaeologists always leave a portion of a site unexplored, for a future generation with better tools to develop. Like them, I’ll leave Stefan’s parents to the future.

“I know where and when he married my grandmother, Marguerite Coudert, and something of the circumstances of the marriage. There’s more about where and when my aunt and uncles were born – two in London, but interestingly one, Paul, in France at the home that my great-grandfather, Dr Louis Albert Coudert, had retired to in Cazeres-sur-l’Adour in the Landes in Southwestern France. I will visit the village one day – it’s not that far from where we are now – and if the house still exists, I will know it from my mother’s vivid description of her visit there as a child in the 1920s. But I do wonder why, when they were well established in Holland Park, they travelled to France, which had been invaded by Germany the month before, for the birth of Gustav Louis Paul. Maybe they were already there when war broke out, or perhaps Marguerite insisted on going on her own, leaving Stefan in the Holland Park home. I will never know.

“About Stefan himself: he worked as a clerk and as a shop assistant in a pharmacy but was not a ‘chemist’ as my parent’s marriage certificate has him. He could be a good employee but was not above being stroppy, as the pharmacy he worked for in Broad Street, Soho, found out. What was that quarrel about? Why didn’t he work for a year? Sulking? Couldn’t get a reference? Was it hard for a ‘Russian’ to find work in London? But, all in all, he was considered to be ‘a good character’. “

I sense a hesitation in your voice. You are still not sure about him, are you?

“Well, yes. You see, although there’s a lot we can gather about Stefan from the paperwork, there’s a lot missing, or ambiguous, or not quite right. I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about these and work out for myself what it all means. Without an older generation around to check things with, and the difficulty of getting access to many of the archives, particularly in Poland, I can’t be certain of any of the conclusions I have drawn.

What do you mean?

“Well, take the length of time he claims in that he has lived in London: he puts it at 6 years and 2 months, which would make it November 1911. But that’s when he married Marguerite on 26th November 1911 in St John the Baptist Church, in Great Marlborough Street. That would mean he came to London not only to settle but also to get married just a few days after he arrived.

“One wonders what are the circumstances? Where did Stefan meet Marguerite? In Paris, where we know she worked before coming to London? Or did they meet in London, which he was visiting perhaps looking for work. Or was he already living in London? And when did they meet? It had to be in early 1911, as Marguerite was 6 months pregnant at the time of the marriage. Of course, it could be that they met in Paris, fell in love, conceived Maud, and, in God knows what circumstances, late in the day, leave Paris for marriage, work and a new life in London. Which could explain the timing – just.”

Very romantic, a sort of elopement maybe? Anything else that doesn’t quite add up?

“Yes. There is the marriage itself. This took place in St John the Baptist Church, near to Liberty’s on the edge of Soho. I looked it up, the church is no longer there; it was decommissioned in 1937. So, that adds up – we know from Sergeant Boustred report that Stefan lived and worked in Soho in 1911 and 12:

     Mr Burt first knew Memorialist through his wife Mrs Burt, who used to visit the young children in Soho district on behalf of the Westminster Council. Memorialist lived at that time in the Soho district and when one of his children was born he was visited by Mrs Burt.

“If you live in Soho, it makes sense to marry in Soho. But what is odd is that St John the Baptist was an Anglican church.”

And that is odd because?

“Marguerite was a Roman Catholic, from a very devout Breton family. She continued to be a devout Catholic throughout her life; she brought up all her children as Catholics, and at least two of them were devout and active Catholics throughout their lives. Stefan was, it is said, also a Catholic. So what circumstance could lead to them to marry in an Anglican church?

“At that time, relations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches were frosty to say the least. What would it take, then, to make Catholics marry in an Anglican church?”

Could they have been refused a Catholic marriage because Marguerite was pregnant?  

“No, the local Catholic priest would have been only too happy to officiate at the wedding to ensure the legitimacy of Maud’s birth. It had to be something else. For example, if one or other of the couple was a divorcee, and the first spouse was still living. Or, the couple were too closely related. Or one partner has lived in ‘notorious concubinage’ with the mother or father of the other. Or the man was impotent. Or one party had been abducted for the purposes of the marriage. Or Disparity of Cult – marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person. There’s more – so take your pick.

“Whatever the reason, they were married in an Anglican church, and at the time, the Catholic Church would have treated the marriage as invalid. But in the eyes of the British state, it was a valid, legal marriage.

“Then for me, there’s the final missing piece of the jigsaw – where was Stefan coming from when he arrived in Britain (and the associated question why did he come)? I have searched in vain for a record of his arrival in England, his Immigration Card. That it’s not there is not surprising, if the destruction in the present day by the Home Office of the entry records of the Windrush Generation, of which I am one, is anything to go by. If Stefan’s card was available, it would answer three questions: When did he arrive? Which country did he set out from? What was the reason for entering Britain?

“Knowing his reason for coming to England and where he embarked from would tell us a lot about Stefan and his history before 1911. For we really know nothing about him for certain from his birth in Warsaw in 1885 until his arrival in London. Did he come directly from Poland? Had he lived in Paris as a boy and a young man as family legend has it, and come to London from there? Was he coming as what we now call an ‘economic migrant’, or was he some sort of refugee like so many other Poles and Russians on the move in that period – 2 million of them? Unless we can find that Immigration Card, we won’t know. But I’ll leave that for some future generation to dig up.”

OK, but at least your research told you your grandfather’s nationality.

“Yes … and no! Of course, he was Polish, born in Warsaw of clearly Polish parents. Yet, he was Polish by birth but not by status. Although Poland had existed as a separate nation state for many hundreds of years, and was to be an independent nation state again after the first World War in 1919, at the time of his birth Poland was in a partitioned, colonial state, occupied and parcelled out for over 100 years between three neighbouring empires – Austrian, German and Russian. So, born in Russian occupied Warsaw, in law, Stefan was a Russian subject, travelling with Russian nationality, presumably on a Russian passport.

“I have no doubt that in 1918, and long before, most people in Britain would have sympathised with Polish aspirations to have their sovereignty restored and a free Poland once again a reality. Nonetheless, when he applied for British naturalisation, Stefan was forced to enter ‘Russian’ as his nationality, and ‘Warsaw, Russian Poland’ as his place of birth – remember the instruction on the special Polish/Jewish application form. The reason for this, apart from it being a literal, legal truth, is particularly poignant for me – like Stefan I was born a colonial subject in a colonised country. My nationality at birth was ‘British’ not ‘Jamaican’ and remained that until 6th August 1962, when Jamaica gained its Independence. In 1918, for Britain not to recognise, and insist on, Stephan being identified as Russian, would call into question not just the legitimacy of the Russian Empire, and by extension, also that of the British Empire.

“It is clear from all the other records, that unless forced to do otherwise, Stefan always identified himself as Polish by birth; even after he achieves British nationality, he describes himself as Polish, his nationality as British. (There is one exception – a document in which his nationality is described as French, but I think this is a clerical error.)

“Yet isn’t it extremely sad, and also ironic, that in his long lifetime, Stefan never managed officially to hold citizenship of an independent Poland. When the new republic was born, one of its first tasks was to determine who was Polish and who was not. They turned to a law of residence that existed in the Austrian Partition. Polish citizenship was for all people born in Poland, or descended from parents born in Poland, resident at the time of independence in the territory of the new Polish Republic. It also made provision for Poles ‘remaining abroad, to [acquire] Polish citizenship, unless they acquired the citizenship of a foreign country before 31 January 1920 by the fact of birth within its territory or by naturalisation.’ By becoming British in 1918, Stefan excluded himself from Polish citizenship. He also deprived me of my easiest Plan B for retaining EU citizenship in the case of Brexit ever happening!

“There’s one last little titbit – while waiting for his Home Office file to be sent to me, I did some further research on Stefan in the US records. I discovered that years ago I had missed a US Department of Immigration and Naturalisation Service record of Stefan applying for, and getting, US citizenship in 1947. That dossier should be very revealing, but not for me – I leave its discovery to another digger.

“Sometimes I wonder if Stefan found it unfair, or sad, or even ironic, that he was denied the right to be recognised as a Polish citizen. But somehow, looking at the broad outline of his his life, I doubt if he was given to that sort of self reflection.”

So, he was Polish, but was he also Jewish? Didn’t you say that most of the Poles and Russians who migrated to the UK between 1880 and 1920 were Jewish?

“I did, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Stefan was Jewish. Also, it may depend on what you mean by ‘Jewish’.

“Lets examine the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’? Judaism is a faith and the words Jew and Jewish can refer to the people who espouse that faith. In this sense, it makes no presumption about the ethnicity or colour of the person. So, there are today religious Jews who are Semitic people from the Near East, many are European, some black African, others who are Chinese, some Indian, and so on. They are as diverse as members of any other major faith, for example Christianity or Islam. What unites them is that they are all ‘people of the book’ despite their race (whatever the term race means.)

“But the terms have another meaning, which is often very fluid and sometimes hard to grasp. This meaning is of a people ‘belonging to a continuation through descent or conversion of the ancient Jewish people.’ And this is where the fluidity begins. Defining ‘the ancient Jewish people’ is not simple. As Simon Schama has pointed out, the ancient Jewish people were not only the people of ancient Jerusalem and Judea, but also the Jews of the upper Nile in Egypt left behind at the Exodus, the culturally Greek Jews of Alexandria, the more Arabic Jews of the Yemen. They all had different ways of being Jewish, often very different from that then current in Jerusalem. Because of this, although they were a people, the ancient Jews were not a ‘race’ in the popular understanding of that word. Many of them shared the mixture of genes of the original Jews of Abraham’s time, but many didn’t. Conversion and assimilation and intermarriage meant that the ancient Jews as a people were defined by their central shared customs and beliefs and not necessarily by shared ancestry.

“What is true of the ancient Jews, is true of modern Jews. They are a people who are descended from groups of people who held these central shared customs and beliefs, who clung on to that shared identity across 2000 years, and who today, whether they are religious or not, can be identified by that descent. So, they can look like Ethiopians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians or Europeans, but they are all, nonetheless, Jewish. This is what we mean, or should mean, when we talk about the Jews as a people, as distinct from Jews as members of a religion. You should read Gil Yehuda on this.

“There are two historical communities who make up the great majority of Jews in Europe today. These are the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi people. The Ashkenazi are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire and as far west as Northern France around the end of the first millennium. It’s not known for certain what their origin was, the best supported theory is the one that suggests a Jewish migration from Israel through what is now Italy and other parts of southern Europe starting during the late Greek and early Roman Imperial periods and continuing into the Christian era. In the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century their language became Yiddish, a High-German language fused with Hebrew and Aramaic elements. In the High and Later Mediaeval period, responding to persecution, the Ashkenazi started spreading east into lands that are now Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. This is the group that might be relevant to Stephan.”

OK, I get that, but was he Jewish?

“There is nothing to suggest that he was a Jew in the sense that he was a member of the Jewish faith. His, and his parent’s, forenames are not what one would expect of religious, orthodox Jews. They are names that commonly occur throughout Central Europeans of that period.

“However, his surname, Kamelhard is a Jewish name. All rreferences to it are in a Jewish context, mainly in Holocaust related files or census and local government audits prior to 1939. The name is spelled in different ways in the Polish records, and some of these variants turn up in Stefan’s US documentation. The spelling variation is probably due to the problems transliterating words and proper names from one language to another, and clerical errors that become permanent orthography. The name the family now use, Kamellard, does not turn up in any Polish or Russian sources, and seems to have been used only after the birth of my mother at the end of 1918 – by 1921 Stephan is using it.

“The name Kamelhard turns up in databases of victims such as at Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and in collections like the records of the Łódź Ghetto. The people I found were from Warsaw and Kraków and small villages in what is now central Poland. All are Holocaust victims. There are no Kamelhards in the survivor lists I have looked at. I did find one Kamelhard who survived the war and was buried near Kraków in the 1950s. No other details. Searches on the internet for living Kamelhards return no results. They seem, like Stefan’s Manhattan telephone, to have been disconnected.

“The name, therefore strongly suggests that Stefan was Jewish by descent. His parent’s, and his, forenames point to them being assimilated Jews, and this is reinforced by the fact that they lived in the capital Warsaw. In the 19th Century many upwardly mobile, educated Jews throughout Germany, Austria and Russia left the small, rural towns with large Jewish populations, the shtetls, to settle in large cities such as Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Warsaw. This allowed them to join the new professional middle class and to take up the law and medicine, practise music and the arts, do science, and be teachers in the wider community in ways that Jews had not done before. Many lower middle-class assimilated Jews owned and operated pubs, hotels, breweries and distilleries.

“This assimilation often involved the abandonment of many of the customs and ways of Jewish life or becoming totally secularised. Sometimes they converting to Christianity, often to ensure promotion – Gustav Mahler is an example, he converted so that he could become Director of the Vienna Imperial Opera, Christianity being a requirement of the post.

“So, I believe that Stefan and his parents were a part of this wave of assimilated middle-class Jews. They may have been Christians but were more probably secular which might account for the marriage to Marguerite being in an Anglican not a Catholic church – there was a Disparity of Cult

“There is one last word on this. Recent DNA analysis suggests that, just as I inherit from my father genetic markers of West African ancestry – I am a carrier of Sickle Cell Trait – in the same way I inherit from my mother markers in just about the right proportions consistent with Stefan and his parents being Ashkenazi.”

It’s after midnight, much too late for an aged sloth like me. It’s time we parted, you to your home, me to my tree. But before you wonder off into the night, one last question. When we started talking much earlier this evening, you didn’t seem to have had a very high opinion of Stefan before you got his dossier. Has anything you found changed your mind?

“You are right, I thought he was, to say the least, a completely dodgy, untrustworthy character. I have had to modify that a bit now. The file shows that he did good things: he married Marguerite when she was six months pregnant, he did not abandon her. And he stayed with her for another ten years, long enough to father four children. Presumably, as new immigrants to London, it was not easy to organise the marriage, set up a home and provide for them all. That’s all to the good.

“Then his military service speaks well of him. He volunteered when he didn’t need to, since he was an alien he was not conscripted. He put in good service, rising from a kitchen clerk to a responsible role in military intelligence, leaving the army with two promotions. That speaks well for him.

“And later, in his life in America, his ‘marriage’ there appears to have been a good one, he seems to have been a faithful and diligent husband for the marriage lasted to the end of his life. So good.

“Nonetheless, there is still the debit side of the account. I come away with the impression that he is never completely open about himself, neither with the authorities, nor with the people he knew. There is a shiftiness about the fluidity of his surname that suggests a fluidity in his truthfulness about other aspects of his life.

“It’s still a fact that he abandoned Marguerite – and the children Maud, Paul, Jacques and Jacqueline – at a time when they needed him most, causing them not only social and psychological harm and economic disruption, but also arguably a much poorer life physically and emotionally than had he stayed. My mother was the way she was to some degree because she spent much of her childhood in foster care because Marguerite could not cope financially.

“He was not above committing crime, no matter how excusable the circumstances might be thought to make them. He was an illegal immigrant to the United States, and only regularised his status after a long while. He contracted a bigamous marriage, a crime in both the UK and his new country the US.

“He also comes across as indifferent to the harm he caused. As far as I know, once he jumped ship in the Boston in 1924, he made no attempt to contact any of the family he left behind in the UK. My mother and the uncles and aunts, never mention their father being in contact, or attempting to find out their circumstances and progress. While this might be understandable in the early years, particularly as these included the Depression and the Second World War, in later life, when conditions were better, his indifference continued. I revisited the research I had did years ago into Stefan’s American life and unearthed an entry I had overlooked at the time. It is a UK Immigration record of the departure for New York of Stefan and Elaine Kamelhard, US citizens, from the Port of Southampton in the summer of 1960. If Stefan contacted any of the family while he was in Britain, I am not aware of it. Yet it would have been easy enough – both Paul and Jacques Kamellard were in the London telephone book.

“I do not know, nor can anyone know at this distance in time, what were the forces – psychological, economic, political, social and religious – that shaped the character of Stefan Kemelhard in the 30 years or so before he turned up to marry Marguerite in London in 1911. Like all of us, he is not responsible for the genes he inherited, not for the circumstances that shaped his early life and character. But, as indepenent adults, we are all responsible for what we do with the cards we have been dealt. I think Stefan played his hand badly and I find it hard to put out of mind the abandonment of, and indifference toward, the Kamellards he left behind in London.

“If I met him would I like him? I don’t think so. Fascinating as his story might be, I find it a blessing that I did not have to know him. But, if I am right about all this, I do relish this irony: when my mother lied to bigots in Jamaica that she had a Jewish father, she was probably telling the truth.”

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