Monday, November 21, 2011

Actress June Brown discovers a family divided by war

In the last series of Who Do You Think You Are? on the BBC, actress June Brown (Dot in the series Eastenders) explored her family history, and I was struck by the story of one of her ancestors, Isaac Bitton.

Isaac Bitton was June Brown's great, great, great grandfather. He was a famous prize fighter in England in the early 19th century, but he had been born in Holland. He came over to London with his father, Abraham, at the end of the 18th century because the Dutch economy had been devastated after a war with England. Isaac's mother, Rachel, and his siblings had remained in Amsterdam and the plan was probably to have them come over to England once Abraham had got himself settled in.

But Holland was then invaded and occupied by the French. England was at war with France and the Channel was blockaded, so there was no possibility of Rachel and the other children being able to leave Amsterdam and come over to London. The family were never reunited. Rachel and the other children died in Amsterdam. Abraham and Isaac died in London.

It can't have been easy for Isaac, separated from his mother and siblings, and trying to settle in a foreign country. But, despite his life being turned upside down, he made a success of his new life and became one of the most famous prize fighters in England, who remained undefeated throughout his career – an extraordinary achievement.

I was struck by the similarities between Isaac Bitton and my mother, who also had her life turned upside down by war and ended up in a foreign country. She was born in 1925 in East Prussia in Germany, very close to Poland and Russia, and towards the end of the Second World War, her father – though he was too old for active service and was not fully fit – was called up by Hitler and sent to Leningrad to fight the Russians. There he was killed and when the telegram arrived, confirming his death, my grandmother knew the family had to flee to West Germany, if they wanted to escape the Russians.

So my mother and the rest of the family (5 children in total) left their home, their school friends, everything and embarked on a hazardous journey westwards. Eventually, they arrived in Berlin, and from there they made their way to relatives in Hamburg (though my mother first went with her sister-in-law to Prague to try and rescue my German uncle, who was in a military hospital near the city, though they never got to the hospital because of a Czech uprising that forced them to walk back to Germany in stifling heat, being offered poisoned water on the way by the locals).

My mother, Hamburg, 1950
It was all they could do to feed and clothe themselves once they were in war-torn Hamburg. My mother was on a starvation diet and, at times, there was nothing to eat at all. And any kind of cloth they could lay their hands on e.g. curtains or sheets, they turned into clothes. She managed to find a job at the British Army headquarters and there she met my father, who was an officer in the British Army.

They courted and married in 1952 and my mother came to England, to start a new life. It wasn't easy for her, coming to terms with new customs and crazy English spellings and pronunciations, but she made the best of it, as did Isaac Bitton. She became a much valued secretary and helped my father convert an old, dilapidated Victorian house into a wonderful home, whilst successfully raising two children.

The stories of both my mother and Isaac Bitton show us that we don't have to become victims of adversity. On the contrary, adversity can make us resourceful in ways we might never have thought of and, whilst our lives might take a different path from the one we originally planned, that doesn't mean to say it can't be rewarding.

“Resistance makes us all grow stronger
and fly ever higher on the wind of life,
so the difficulties we meet are what we need
if we want to be the highest flying kite.”

Do you have a story of a family member who also has overcome adversity and made the best of a difficult situation? Then please feel free to share.