Yasha Tafipolsky (2)
Sharman Lichtenstein


Yours faithfully,

Harry Taft (signature)"

This request was strongly supported by the Department, which cabled a letter dated August 15th to the Official Secretary in Great Britain listing the persons to whom they had granted permits, and requesting the Secretary to inform the British Consul in Constantinople about the Tafipolsky family and their planned emigration.

However by August, Yasha had grown tired of waiting for a reply from his brothers in Australia, and bribed a seaman in Constantinople to help him stow away in the cargo hold of a ship sailing to Alexandria in Egypt--from where he planned to seek passage for himself to Australia! Again, fortune favoured Yasha. In Alexandria, he bumped into an old family friend Avram Nemirovsky who had settled there--Avram took Yasha into his home!

On August 8th, Yasha sent a letter from Alexandria to Grisha and Misha, in which he took a philosophical view (translated from the original Russian):

"In getting here, I was unable to avoid a few misadventures, but we citizens of the 'all-powerful Free Soviet Republic' have long ago become used to 'mit tzures' (Yiddish for 'troubles'), so it doesn't really matter."

In order to expedite matters, Grisha and Misha decided that, rather than bringing Yasha to Australia, they would send Misha by ship to Europe, to meet up with Yasha--and they cabled Yasha in Aexandria to this effect! However, the ever-impatient Yasha had already raced off to Port Said, looking for that elusive ship! There, he was cabled by his friend Avram Nemirovsky, "Come back to Alexandria immediately!" Poor Yasha thought, "Oh no! That's it! Grisha and Misha have sent a cable to me which Avram has obviously read, and it must say, 'Give up and go back to Russia!'" Yasha duly hurried back to Alexandria, and was ecstatic and relieved when he learned that the cable from Australia had merely said that Misha was on his way to meet him!

Back in Russia, the Tafipolskys received a postcard from Misha's father-in-law, Arnold Wittner, from London, in September, informing them that, "Misha is on his way from Europe." The postcard was written in a guarded style, and had been written in Russian by a friend of Arnold's. This postcard was how the Tafipolskys learned that their dream of escape to a better place might indeed be coming true.

And Sima, when she heard about the postcard, grew highly suspicious, sending a clever letter to Sarah--Yasha's mother. In her letter, Sima revealed that Yasha had been sending her love letters, and had promised to marry her. She produced several of the love letters as proof, and a helpless, kindly Sarah agreed to take Sima with them, if and when they emigrated!

The League of Nations was created in 1920, its first leader being the Norwegian scientist and explorer, Dr Fridtjof Nansen. The League went about establishing peace and reconstruction in a Europe devastated by the War and its aftermath. Dr Nansen organized the repatriation of half a million prisoners of war from 26 countries--mainly in southeastern Europe and Russia. 1.5 million refugees and displaced people were scattered throughout many European countries, whose governments faced deteriorating economic situations, rising unemployment and an increasingly hostile attitude towards the refugees and other forms of migrants. Refugees were typically regarded as a dangerous threat to political and economic security.

In the autumn of 1921--just one month before the Tafipolskys received their postcard from Arnold Witner, informing them of Misha's impending arrival in Europe--Dr Nansen was appointed as the first High Commissioner for Refugees--a role he was to perform magnificently until his death (and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922). The two fundamental aims of the League of Nations were to protect refugees and to help resolve their problems.

However, Yasha--in Alexandria in Egypt; the other Tafipolskys--preparing in Alexandrovsk for emigration; as well as the two brothers Grisha and Misha in Melbourne--were not going to rely on the League of Nations. Instead, they chose to continue with their own emigration plans. Correspondence continued betwen Yasha and his brothers in Melbourne, enabled by the development of a secret code for use in telegrams. This code was employed so that if the telegrams were scrutinized anywhere in international transit by hostile authorities--the true content would not be disclosed!

In the code, a pseudo-word was matched with each of about 100 phrases. Illustrating: "Mush" meant, "It is cold. When dress warmly, it is allright." "Brevet" meant, "I have communicated with them. They are aware of my situation." These pseudo-words, which in actual fact meant their corresponding specific phrases, were inserted in all the telegrams at relevant points. Separate pseudo-words existed for each of the phrases, "I am going through Italy", "I am going through London", "I am going through Rumania", "I am going through Galicia", "I am going through Latvia" and "I am going through Constantinople", in case either Misha or Yasha changed their intended travel route.

In Melbourne, Misha prepared for a boat trip to London in October. He obtained letters of introduction to London agencies and individuals: a letter from Rabbi Jacob Danglow, the rabbi at St Kilda Synagogue, and a letter from the Australian Prime Minister's Department, which included the following words, "Mr Taft is a well-known and highly esteemed citizen of Melbourne..." Misha and Grisha sent telegrams ahead to relatives and business contacts in London, and to Mr Z. Haber, representing the JDC in Bucharest.

The JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) was created after World War I (although conceived of as a temporary institution, the need for it has continued since then--and it is still operational). The JDC's goals were to sponsor programs of relief, rescue and reconstruction, and to fulfil its commitment to the idea that all Jews are responsible for one another, and that, "To save one person is to save a world", Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5

The JDC were able to get in touch--albeit to a limited extent--with some useful contacts in Russia. These contacts would later prove of assistance to Misha in getting his family out.

Misha also corresponded with Jacob Leib Komesarook, a fellow Melbournian who was now in London, trying to get his own beleaguered family out of the Ukraine. Komesarook had so far experienced significant success in his endeavours with various agencies, including British representatives in Russia--this information proved invaluable to Misha.

On October 22nd, Misha set sail for London on the SS Ormonde, leaving behind his wife Rosie and their two small boys. Rosie was devastated, fearing that Misha would be swallowed up by the great Soviet beast, and that she would never see her husband again! Misha was a poor traveller, subject to seasickness, and suffered much personal distress, not only from feeling ill on the journey, but also from leaving his wife and children behind. He also bore the heavy financial cost of the trip. Misha was not to see his wife and children for another eight months...

During the winter of 1921, a devastating famine shook Russia to the core. Dr Nansen and the League of Nations began a massive relief effort for some 30 million men, women and children, threatened with starvation. The Tafipolsky family struggled to eat as they waited to flee the country!

The prospective exodus group of Tafipolskys gathering in Alexandrovsk continued to multiply. The remaining brother Borya had fallen in love with a medical colleague of his sister Sara; her name was Ettel Zeigermacher, and she and Sara had studied together back in Geneva, years earlier. Ettel had obtained a position in an infectious diseases hospital in Alexandrovsk, and had become Borya's fiancee. She spoke fluent French and German. Borya insisted that Ettel join their exodus party.

Yasha's sister Clara had arrived from Ekaterinoslav together with Sima, Yasha's girlfriend, in order to prepare for the departure. Sima had convinced the family that Yasha had promised to marry her, showing them some of his love letters as evidence. Based entirely on this evidence, she was allowed to join their exodus group! And Yasha's sister Sara obtained a discharge from the Red army hospital, arriving in Alexandrovsk together with her lover, Sasha--planning to emigrate with the family. In order to please the Tafipolskys, Sasha converted to Judaism, and married Sara in a traditional Jewish wedding. The Quakers smuggled a letter out of the country to Misha, informing him of the marriage, so that an additional Australian entry permit could be obtained for Sasha. (Sima and Ettel had to rely on "pot luck" at this stage, for their entry permits!)

Meanwhile, over in Alexandria, Yasha received a cable to meet Misha in Suez. The two brothers saw each other for the first time in the twelve years since Misha had left for Australia in 1909--on November 15th, 1921. From there, they sailed to Port Said, where they made further plans for the next stage of the venture. These plans involved Misha returning to London, where he made arrangements for Yasha to take on a new identity--that of "Arnold Witner" (the name of Misha's father-in-law). Misha arranged for all the necessary documents for Yasha's transformation into Arnold Witner to be created and sent to Yasha in Port Said.

Misha also arranged for Yasha, as Arnold Witner, to receive in Port Said an official letter, dated December 22nd, 1921, from Freeman and Co., a food and crop importer-exporter located in London and Melbourne. This letter requested "Arnold Witner" to investigate within Russia--as a representative of Freeman and Co.--the receipt by Russia of large quantities of wheat and other cereals, in return for bristles and flax. The exhange of these goods was to take place via Odessa, or other Black Sea ports. Freeman and Co. was, in fact, a respectable business run by Mr Leslie H. Freeman. This precious letter would enable Yasha, in the guise of Arnold Witner, to travel freely in and out of Russia.

Misha then began a strenuous series of train trips criss-crossing through European countries, including France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Turkey, Greece and Italy! During this period he was contacting numerous relief organizations as well as government agencies.

Misha visited Berlin at one point, meeting there Jacob Komesarook, who had finally managed to get his own relatives out of the Ukraine with the assistance of the British Commercial Mission in Moscow. (It was surprising just how much assistance British groups could be, considering that Britain had intervened against the Bolsheviks during the civil war which had raged from 1917 until 1921.)

Misha then wrote to the British Commercial Mission on December 27, enclosing the permits for his family to enter Australia. (These permits had been granted by the Australian Home and Territories Department in August that year.) His letter also asked the Mission to intervene with Ukrainian authorities to allow the departure of the Tafipolskys. And the letter also informed the Mission that Misha had set up a Bank Guarantee with the British Foreign Office. Misha wrote, "Don't lose a day, and spare no expense! HOURS COUNT WHEN ONE IS ON STARVATION RATIONS."

And the British Commercial Mission rose magnificently to the occasion! They immediately requested Ukrainian authorities to issue the required Ukraine exit permits. This request was quickly granted. They also provided a document to a Black Sea shipping line, guaranteeing the payment of boat fares for the prospective passengers (the Tafipolskys), by the British Consulate in Constantinople. And finally, the Mission cabled the Tafipolskys, to tell them the good news.

And so it was that in mid-January, 1922, the Tafiposkys received the following telegraph from the Mission:

"Your exit permits for leaving the Ukraine must be collected from Kharkov. Proceed from there to the Port of Sebastopol, then travel by boat to Constantinople, where your brothers will be waiting. The boat fares will be paid by your brothers."

And with great excitement, the Tafipolskys began preparing for that long-awaited departure!

In January, 1922, Misha established himself in Bucharest, in order to enlist the aid of the JDC office there--this office was able to communicate with Russia through its sister office in Kishinev (in Russia). A telegram suddenly arrived from the Australian High Commissioner in London, informing Misha that exit permits for the Tafipolsky family had been issued by Ukrainian authorities. Misha got a fright when he saw that the permission was granted for what seemed to read, "all four members of the family"; he quickly protested to the High Commissioner that there were more than four people involved, and was relieved to hear the news two days later that they had mistyped the telegram, which should have read, "all your members of the family"! Misha cabled his family in Australia, "...HOORAY. FAMILY PERMITTED TO LEAVE RUSSIA...KISSES ALL ROUND."

Samoile Poznansky (Frieda Tafipolsky's husband), who was working in a prestigious position as a doctor at a Jewish hospital in Alexandrovsk, used his patients who had connections to help him travel to Kharkov to collect the waiting exit permits for the entire family. The family, meanwhile, assembled their belongings, some retrieved from various hiding places, and sold those things which could not be taken with them to Australia.

They also discovered, to their dismay, that the trains from Alexandrovsk to the Port of Sebastopol were fully booked, and further, it was next to impossible to book a ship's passage from Sebastopol to Constantinople from their position in Alexandrovsk. Once more, Samoile came to the rescue. His influential patients were able to bribe and bluff train officials, as well as pull various strings, in order to obtain the required train bookings!

Yasha's girlfriend Sima phoned her mother in Ekaterinsolav, finding only her brother Arkady at home. "Tell mama I'm going to Australia with Yasha--and that we will marry!" was her brief (and presumptuous) message! Sima's mother was very distressed at this news, as two of her children had already died from ill-health, and Sima and Arkady were her only two remaining children. (It was just as well that Sima's mother did not know that a determined Sima was merrily gambling on Yasha agreeing to marry her!)

On February 9th, the Tafipolsky exodus party left Alexandrovsk by train, heading for Sebastopol. There were: Abram and Sarah (the patriarch and matriarch of the family), Clara and her friend Sima, Raya and Borya Kasanick, Sara and Sasha Bulate, Borya Tafipolsky and his fiancee Ettel Zeigermacher, and Frieda and Samoile Poznansky--twelve in all!

They bribed the stationmaster at Alexandrovsk to allow them to take a huge amount of luggage on board with them, amongst which they hid valuable possessions, including samovars and other silver pieces, the deeds to their real estate, and large quantities of money--in completely worthless banknotes! In famine-ravaged Sebastopol, they found temporary accommodation, while they attempted to obtain berths across the Black Sea to Constantinople.

Meanwhile, Misha had determined that the British Consulate in Latvia was in contact with Russia, and had travelled to Riga on February 6th, in order to keep in touch with the Tafipolsky family still in Alexandrovsk. His communications with them from Riga kept him informed of their plans for the departure on February 9th, and he left Riga for Constantinople, to prepare for the family's arrival there.

Looking ahead, Misha also booked passages for the Tafipolsky party on the SS Ormuz, departing Port Said for Australia on March 30th. However the Tafipolskys were stranded in Sebastopol for some time, being unable to obtain the necessary ship passage to Constantinople! Misha was able to continue communicating with the group from his position in Constantinople via the British Consul office there as well as the one in Sebastopol. Thus, Misha realized that Ettel and Sima were with the group, and required Australian entry permits--Misha cabled Grisha in Melbourne to apply for these.

Now, the stranded Tafipolskys were getting nervous, as their exit permits were about to lapse! Sasha Bulate did not have a passport at all, and was increasingly concerned about apprehension by the Ukrainian authorities. In mid-February, a breakaway group panicked and made a run for it, in the opposite direction to Constantinople! Sara and Sasha Bulate, and Raya and Borya Kasanick (with their child), abandoned the plan for a ship voyage to Constantinople, and, leaving the rest of the Tafipolskys behind in Sebastopol, headed for Batumi in Georgia with the intention of sneaking across the border to Persia. However, the four had no money to buy food or accommodation, and did not have the know-how to escape. They contacted Yasha in Alexandria with news of their plight, and, as was so often the case, a courageous Yasha came to their rescue!

Yasha used his identity as Arnold Witner, as well as his letter from Freeman and Co., to travel by ship from Piraeus--heading for Batumi--but stopping first in Constantinople, where he met his brother Misha. By this stage, Yasha had heard that his girlfriend Sima was with the party, and had to worry about his future matrimonial plans with her! Yasha and Sima had much in common, however "women's liberation" was hardly advanced enough for a woman in those times to rush off with a prospective husband' s family--planning to marry him without his consent!

Yasha then headed for a second stop-off in Sebastopol, where he planned to be reunited with the majority of the Tafipolsky party still stuck there (including the ever-eager Sima). However in the meantime, this party had located a Turkish ship with a captain who spoke both Turkish and French. Borya's girlfriend, Ettel Zeigermacher, spoke to him in French on the family's behalf. The captain was so impressed with her fluency, and so charmed by her personality, that he accepted the letter that they held from the British Commercial Mission guaranteeing payment for their fares, and took them on board!

Sima and Yasha's mother Sarah, the matriarch, went together to the front of the ship, on the top deck, as it sailed out of Sebastopol port. Yasha's boat from Constantinople was just arriving at the dock, and Yasha was getting ready to disembark. He carefully scanned the people on view on the deck of the Turkish ship outbound from Sebastopol, and recognized his beautiful and beloved mother--and by her side, the tiny, pretty form of his girlfriend, Sima. "Mama! Simitchka!" Yasha waved frantically at them, jumping up and down in an effort to attract their attention. But his mother Sarah and the young Sima did not even notice him, as their boat continued out into the deeper waters of the Black Sea--bound for Constantinople.

The Tafipolskys arrived by boat in early March in Constantinople, joining there their son and brother, Misha. Abram and Sarah had not seen their son in over twelve years, and rejoiced with many tears and much hugging! The group stayed together in the felicitously-named guest house, Hotel Jerusalem. On March 10th, Borya Tafipolsy and Ettel Zeigermacher married in the Constantinople Synagogue, without the presence of Yasha or the renegade party which had panicked and rushed off to Batumi!

Meanwhile, Yasha travelled on by boat from Sebastopol (where he had just missed the Tafipolsky group, including his beloved parents, on their way by boat to Constantinople!) Yasha reached the city of Batumi in Georgia, and there found his two sisters and their husbands: hungry, in debt, and having failed to escape--as had been their plan--via Persia. Sara Bulate, one of his sisters, had fallen pregnant, and was ill with the pregnancy. After paying all the group's debts, the indomitable "businessman" Yasha obtained extensions to their exit permits, and as Sasha Bulate--Sara's husband--had no passport, Yasha cleverly arranged for documents for Sasha in the name of "Jacob Tafipolsky" (his own name!), while he himself travelled as the persona "Arnold Witner", importer-exporter for Freeman and Co! Yasha managed to escort the party of four by boat to Constantinople by early April.

The Tafipolskys waiting in Constantinople were forced to cancel their passages on the SS Ormuz departing Port Said for Australia on March 30th, as the breakaway party was still being rescued by Yasha! In early April, the renegade group finally arrived from Batumi, and Yasha greeted his girlfiend Sima after a separation of sixteen months.

Yasha saw in Sima a strong-minded and expressive individual. He appreciated the wondrous legacy of Russian Jewish life that she brought through her own family and its stories. He heard in her singing the music he had always felt in his heart! She had always sung to his balalaika! And Sima had a very passionate nature, as did he! Whether Sima asked Yasha to marry her, or whether it was the other way around--will never be known! But on April 5th, Sima and Yasha were married in the Constantinople Synagogue--and within a few weeks, Sima was expecting!

Misha booked the entire Tafipolsky party onto the SS Ormonde, leaving Port Said for Melbourne on May 11, 1922. Yasha received a letter from Freeman and Co., dated February 23rd, asking him to report on his import-export progress (!). (Yasha had not made much progress, of course, having been preoccupied with rescuing his family!) Yasha made "some good excuses" and immediately tendered his resignation! In true Yasha style, he made sure there were no hard feelings in the parting. Misha rushed to London to finalize some business matters and to arrange official passports for several members of the group. The complete exodus party met up again in Port Said, and set sail for Australia on May 11th, on the SS Ormonde.

Misha wrote many love letters to his wife Rosie back in Melbourne, during his time away from her and their two children. In these letters, he admitted to being tired and emotionally drained. Shortly after departing Port Said, Misha wrote, "This morning we passed Suez, where nearly six months ago I met Yasha and started our campaign. What a difference! The same Ormonde, the same Suez, the same me and the same Yasha. But the huge difference is that this time, the Ormonde has its nose pointing South-East instead of North-West!"

Sara Bulate was very ill on the boat journey to Australia, with her growing pregnancy exacerbated by seasickness. Misha also was very seasick, and the two disembarked at Fremantle (near Perth in Western Australia), choosing to take the laborious train trip across the Nullabor Plain to reach Melbourne, rather than continuing by boat. The SS Ormonde continued on, carrying the Tafipolskys, and sailed into Port Phillip Bay on June 7th, 1922. The boat docked at Station Pier, Port Melbourne--the main port in Melbourne, where a large group at the pier welcomed the new arrivals, including Grisha, his wife Olya, many friends, and a large contingent from the Melbourne Jewish community--who had followed the saga of the Tafipolskys with great interest.

In anticipation of his family's arrival, Grisha had purchased and furnished a house at 654 Inkerman Rd, North Caulfield--a suburb in Melbourne where a high proportion of Jews lived. The newcomers were distributed between the house at Inkerman Road, and the family homes of Misha and Grisha. The family name was quickly changed from Tafipolsky to Taft, for each member of the family--much to the patriarch Abram's disgust! A tutor was promptly hired to teach everyone English.

A long period of settling in ensued...for twelve years, the only social life of the family consisted of visiting one another. The matriarch Sarah and the patriarch Abram were affectionately called Babushka and Djedishka (grandmother and grandfather in Russian) by the many grandchildren who followed. The grandchildren were wonderful cousins to each other, forming unbreakable bonds in those early years. The cousins grew up to live happy and successful lives, most choosing to stay in Australia. Many became well-known and well-respected Melbourne doctors--including an endocrinologist, a radiologist, a dermatologist, a haematologist, and a neurologist. The Taft cousins all married in turn, and had children. In 1996, there were 209 living descendants of Abram and Sara Tafipolsky.

And Yasha? Yasha qualifed as an electrician at RMIT (then known as Melbourne Working Mens College). He established a successful business, Electro-Mechanical Products, acting as an electrical contractor, sales agent, service operator and manufacturer. Yasha became a staunch and active liberal Jew, laying the foundation stone for the Jewish Temple in Alma Road, St Kilda--he was its founding president. Indeed, Yasha was President of the Australian Union for Progressive Judaism for many years, and a well-respected and cherished member of the Melbourne Jewish community all his life.

Throughout his life in Melbourne, Yasha was renowned for assisting immigrant families, never forgetting his past. A number of Melbourne immigrant families owed their start in Melbourne to Yasha. Yasha and Sima were happily married, with Sima taking on the traditional homemaker and mother role. The couple had two children, Eugenia and Leon. Leon grew up to become a respected haematologist and pathologist, culminating in a position as the Director of Haematology at the Mercy Hospital, a major public and private hospital in Melbourne. Eugenia grew up a beautiful, dark-haired girl with a love of music, and a talent for piano. She studied music at the Conservatory at the University of Melbourne and became a piano teacher, marrying Arnold Roy Blashki, a handsome, dark-haired, witty and fun-loving lawyer from an an established Melbourne Jewish family.

Eugenia and Arnold had three children: Nerrida, Sharman and Adrian, who each married and had children in turn. Leon married Susie, a youg Jewish girl of German descent, and they had four children. Yasha built a two-storey brick holiday home with his own hands in the holiday resort of Dromana (near Melbourne), where Leon, Eugenia, their spouses, and all their children, shared with Yasha and Sima many glorious holidays, over many years. The large Taft clan visited the Dromana beach house regularly each summer, with happy days spent at the beach, and picnics enjoyed under the shade of the pine trees on the large property.

Sima passed away in 1972, several months after attending Sharman's wedding. Yasha passed away seventeen years years later, in 1989, at the age of 94. Whenever his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would visit him, towards the end of his life, in the Montefiore Homes (a comfortable home for the Jewish aged), and take him for a walk to the garden in his wheelchair, he would first kiss their hands with great Russian gallantry, and then a twinkle would appear in his old eyes. Then he would talk, from his chair on the green lawn, of the old days--bathing in the snows of Russia, escaping from prisoner-of-war camp, perilous voyages in and out of Russia, playing the Balalaika--and recall memories of his cherished wife, Sima.

Yasha's sister, Clara, used to say to me (Sharman) from the time I was a little girl, "I love to look at you! You have my mama's eyes! She had the same big, brown, sad eyes!" Yes, I have eyes just like Babushka's eyes, and those of her youngest child, the heroic and loving son, brother, husband, father and grandfather--Yasha Tafipolsky, whose struggles led to a better life for so many--including me.



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Copyright © 1999 Sharman Lichtenstein
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