We have watched refugees and Jewish immigrants on the move since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Seeing their plight has led me to reflect on the courage and integrity of my beloved father Ronnie Russon, who was a refugee and an immigrant, not once, but twice.
For the past 55 years I have lit a Yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish in memory of my father. This week, as the flame flickered, I realized that I had reached a new understanding of what Ronnie endured and have been overwhelmed by his sheer determination to create a better life for those that he loved, no matter the vicissitudes and barriers thrown in his path.
As a young child, Ronnie went from a desperate WWI refugee, to living in the lap of luxury in Latvia. Still traumatized when his family emigrated to South Africa, he found the strength to successfully start life all over again. Later in life, because he could no longer live with his conscience in a country that practiced apartheid, he somehow found the sheer guts to start all over again in a third country, Australia.
Cut down suddenly in his prime at the age of 55, Ronnie was a remarkably gentle man who loved people and life, empathized with everyone he met, and in turn was regarded by many as their best friend. He adored his family, loved golf, bridge, ballroom dancing, and took tremendous satisfaction in finding new ways to better the lives of those around him. He was also determined to live a life he could always be proud of, even if it meant starting all over again. My father’s story is a remarkable one.
Living the life of a WWI refugee
Born on April 25, 1912, my father was the fourth of five boys born to Rose and Woolf Russon in Krustpils (Kreutzburg), Latvia. He was named Yerachmiel, which means “God will have mercy.”
With a rapidly growing family to support and few opportunities in Latvia, Woolf decided in 1914 to immigrate to South Africa to join Rose’s brother, who by this time was prospering in the burgeoning ostrich feather trade. As with many immigrants, he planned to send for Rose and the boys after he was settled.
These plans were brought to a screeching halt when World War I broke out unexpectedly. Woolf was already in South Africa, and Rose was left alone and destitute in Latvia with five rapidly growing little boys under the age of five.
In the beginning, trying to hold her small family together, Rose sold the challah she baked each week. Her five rambunctious children loved her and told stories about what a wonderful loving mother she was, even when they tore off and ate all the challah braids, depriving her of any income for that week.
They became desperate war refugees, and food was their major concern. They eventually made their way to Moscow, over 500 miles away. The little family usually went hungry, and the youngest baby died of starvation. When one of the boys broke a leg and ended up in a Moscow hospital, he found a way to pass food through the window to his siblings. My father always remembered how wonderful that food tasted! It was the first real food that he could remember!
Finally, the war ended in 1918, but it took nearly two years for Woolf to track down Rose and his sons in Moscow through the auspices of the International Red Cross.
Woolf decided to take his family back to Latvia rather than to South Africa. In South Africa he had not found a Jewish community that was religious enough for him, and he longed to go back home. For the children, going back to Latvia would be easier, as they already spoke the languages and knew the culture.
With the money he had earned in South Africa, Woolf was a wealthy man by Latvian standards. He was able to purchase the home of a nobleman, a large brick building in Krustpils. There was a police station on the first floor, and the Russon family lived on the second floor.
For the boys, now aged 8 to 10, it was a rag to riches story. Not only was food plentiful, but they were also now living in a luxurious house with frescoes on the ceilings. They could also finally attend school at the local “gymnasium,” with classes in German, Russian and Lettish. As Zionists, the family spoke Hebrew at home, not Yiddish.
Woolf always dreamed of one of his sons becoming a rabbi. Ronnie was designated to fulfill this dream and was given an extensive Jewish education. The family was enormously proud when Ronnie became a Ba’al Kriah (reader of the Torah), and they would frequently travel two hours so that Ronnie could read Torah in the big synagogue in Riga.
Although Ronnie embraced his Jewish identity and was an ardent Zionist, he did not want to become a rabbi, and, as he grew older, he rebelled against many Jewish religious practices.
The decision to return to Krustpils ultimately proved to be a terrible mistake when five years later, in 1925-26, there was a resurgence of Latvian nationalism and antisemitism increased dramatically. Woolf feared once more for the lives of his family and decided to take advantage of his South African passport and citizenship to take the family to safety in South Africa.
For the boys, now teenagers who had finally started to develop a sense of security, this was a tremendous upheaval. It meant being uprooted once again and being thrust into an unknown future. At the time, one of the brothers was studying medicine at the local university. Ronnie still had a couple of years of high school left. The other two brothers had already left school.
Plans were quickly made to immigrate to South Africa. The Russon family left Latvia on December 26, 1926, bound for Southampton in the south of England, with only what they could physically carry. They were given transit visas to South Africa on February 2,1927 and traveled by ship on the Union Castle Line to Cape Town.
In South Africa
On arrival in South Africa, the Russon family found the immigration officials eager to anglicize their names. Yerachmiel, now fifteen, was given a choice of the names Roland or Ronald. He chose Ronald but insisted on being called “Ronnie.”
The Russons went to Port Elizabeth to join Rose’s brother and his family. For the first time, extended family surrounded Ronnie and his brothers.
Life was quite different in South Africa. Woolf opened a dry goods store on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth and the family lived in cramped rooms at the back of the store. However, Woolf did have his own Torah scroll and held a minyan three times a day.
The boys were informed that they had one year to go to school to learn the new South African languages of English and Afrikaans, before they would have to go to work to earn their own living in this strange new world. They learnt Afrikaans first, as it was closer to the German with which they were familiar. They learned English by listening to records and tapes. Ronnie’s English became impeccable, and for the rest of his life he devoured books in English.
One year later, Ronnie, now aged 16, set out as a dry goods traveling salesman in the Eastern Cape, where he also learned a little Xhosa – the language of the local African tribe. Ronnie loved the process of creating and building something new, eventually becoming a “jack of all trades.”
When WWII broke out in 1939, Ronnie, who fully understood antisemitism and the implications for Jews in Europe, enlisted in the South African (British) Army because he believed that “Hitler had to be stopped.”
He was in uniform when he met my mother Helen Kaplan (a teacher) in 1940, and they were married in 1942. Injured in a transport accident on his way to fight in North Africa and Palestine, Ronnie received an early honorable discharge from the army in 1944.
By this time, my mother was pregnant with me, and the family needed a source of income. A relative who owned an art dealership and picture framing business in Johannesburg wanted to retire, so with family help, Ronnie and Helen bought the business. Helen oversaw the art and customers in the front of the shop, and Ronnie, who was exceptionally good with his hands, learned very quickly how to make picture frames, including very fancy ones. The family prospered and was overjoyed when my sister Roslyn was born in 1948.
As the economy grew, Ronnie saw the need for a factory that would make picture frames moldings. Several years later, my parents went on to open an extraordinarily successful factory that manufactured picture frame moldings in Johannesburg. It was the only picture frame molding manufacturing company in Africa.
By 1960, the political situation in South Africa had deteriorated. Apartheid and discrimination became the law of the land. My parents hated what they saw happening around them. The society they lived in had become increasingly toxic. It was no longer a desirable place to bring up children.
Ronnie and Helen, now middle-aged, made the difficult decision to pick themselves up and move their family to a country where one could live with one’s conscience. For Ronnie, who had already had to adjust to two distinct cultures, the move would take guts and tremendous courage.
Ronnie travelled around the world, visiting various English-speaking countries to see where he would want to settle and open a factory like the one in South Africa. Australia was his choice.
However, I would not be joining them in Australia. On a snowy day in June 1964, Lionel Levinson and I were married in a synagogue in Johannesburg. Our wedding became my parents farewell party for all their South African friends and family.
Ronnie, Helen and my sister Roslyn moved to Sydney, Australia, on December 29, 1964. My father started his life anew in Australia. Undaunted, he bought a house, opened a second picture frame molding factory in Sydney, gathered a wide group of new friends around him, joined a golf club and played bridge regularly.
In August 1967, two months after the Six Day War, Ronnie suddenly had a heart attack and died within hours. He was planning to come to Israel to visit me in September. Instead, Lionel and I traveled from Ben Gurion to Teheran, New Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore, and Darwin, to arrive in Sydney after his funeral, and just in time for the first Shivah.
Because of COVID, I have not been able to visit my father and mother’s graves in Sydney for over two years. Instead, as I wrote this article, I watched Ronnie’s Yahrzeit candle flicker, and realized that he was with me in spirit.
My father taught me many invaluable lessons by personal example.
Ronnie taught me that when you walk into a crowded room, strangers are simply people that you have not yet befriended. Over the years, this has helped me tremendously when I have moved to a new country or community, or when I stand up to talk to a room full of people I have never met before.
Ronnie also taught me not to fear change, but to embrace it and use change to initiate something of value.
He demonstrated how to step out of your comfort zone and derive great satisfaction from creating something new. I have practiced this all my life. From teaching courses on subjects that I am learning as I teach, to creating new departments and programs for Hadassah, to writing a blog, I too have learned that it is never too late grow by stretching my imagination and challenging myself.
Ronnie Russon was a wonderful, courageous person. Despite losing him when I was twenty-three years old, he has been my role model in so many aspects of my life. His memory has been an incredible blessing and serves as a lesson in human decency and integrity to all who knew him.
My father was always extraordinarily generous to those in need. Over the past few months, it has been my privilege to honor his memory by supporting today’s refugees and immigrants from Ukraine through the Hadassah Medical Organization Humanitarian Mission in Poland.
Ronnie, a Jewish refugee and immigrant from Eastern Europe, would have done exactly the same. I feel him smiling down on me.