We went back to Jersey for a few weeks and then spent the rest of the summer with our father in Switzerland.
During the summer holidays, we often went to Geneva to spend the summer with my father. Our stepmother, Helene was always so happy to see us again. I think she must have dearly missed her two young sons from her first marriage whom she had been forced to leave far away in Argentina. Charles and I had begun to feel that she was like a second mother to us, for she was a very warm and kind person.
Unlike my father who, after horrific accident, hated to drive a car, Helene enjoyed taking us out on day trips to see the old castles and rustic villages scattered around the shores of the Lake Leman. Some days she drove us to the foothills of the majestic, towering Swiss Alps. On other days we visited many of the pretty small towns that nestle around the lower green pastures near the lake. On these days, she would always wake up early to prepare us all a delicious picnic lunch to take with us on the day trip. At midday, we would stop the car at a beautiful quiet spot to have our lunch under the shade of some large pine trees.
On rainy days, we sometimes went to see Helene’s father, whom we called Uncle Fred, and her mother, whom we called Moonchick, the Russian name for mother. Uncle Fred was a fervent painter, so he gave us a present of some coloured pencils and paper to draw our favorite places around the lake.
Uncle Fred often told us stories about his life in Russia before the Revolution. Helene was still a baby when she left Russia. She had been brought up in Switzerland but Moonchick had taught her about the culture of Russia. I can’t remember very clearly, but I remember she told me one day that one of their relations been a doctor to the Tzar and so they were forced to flee the Russian Revolution.
When I met her, Helene was a real linguist. As a small child she spoke Russian with her family. In Switzerland she learnt to speak French and German. Later, she married a man who lived in Argentina and had two sons, so she learnt Spanish while she lived there. She then divorced him for cruelty and sadly was forced to leave her two sons in with their father in Argentina. She returned to Europe and met my father in London. They fell deeply in love and they got married a year later and she began to polish her English skills as well. They both decided to go and live in Switzerland, so that she could be close to her ageing parents.
I remember very clearly visiting: Uncle Fred and her mother Moonchick at their apartment in Geneva. They would chatter away in Russian. Moonchick loved to bake bread and would always make us Russian dishes such as borscht soup, blini pancakes, and beef stroganoff. If we went there for breakfast, we had ‘kasha’. It was very healthy, Helene told us. The main ingredients were buckwheat and millet, which was made into a kind of porridge served with honey. Moonchick said that we would grow up to be good and strong if we ate up all the kasha! Whenever Helene’s two sons came to visit us from Argentina, Moonchick was so happy to see her grand children again. She spent many hours preparing their favourite Russian dishes.
I remember Helene’s sons very well, for they were both very kind to us. They were little older than my brother Charles and I, and also very handsome. We tried to be friends for they were both a little shy to speak to us in English. Thinking about them as I write, memories of Helene and the boys flood my mind.
Throughout her life, I kept in touch with Helene, for I loved her so much. She was like a second mother to me! We wrote to each other every year at Christmas.. One year she sent me some very sad news. She wrote to tell me that one of her sons, who had become a doctor, was safely living in Switzerland, thank god, however her other son had disappeared from the face of this Earth….. They had no idea where he was!
In Argentina during that time the last military government was in power from 1976 to 1983. The Junta was then leading a brutal crackdown on political dissidents. It is estimated that at least 30,000 people disappeared and were never seen again. At that time, anyone who was considered a threat to the political regime was kidnapped, tortured and killed. It is said that their dead bodies were wrapped in paper and dropped into the sea, never to be seen again. I could hardly believe that this had really taken place in Argentina at that time.
During this time, Aunt Helene was living half the year with her family in Argentina and the other half of the year in her house in Ramatuele in south of France. The letters from her at that time were full of pain and despair. I would pray each day for her son’s safe return to his family.
At the end of her very long and dramatic life, Helene family returned to Argentina to live with her daughter-in-law and grand daughter in Buenos Aires. She died in 2004.
For many years, I had been hoping to go and visit her in Argentina before she got too old. Sadly the opportunity never came. She died before I was able to visit her. Her life had been very dramatic, but she taught me to always look on the bright side of life. Still today her words echo in my heart.