No shopping, no dinners with friends, no sports on TV, no evenings at the theater or restaurants. No travel. Life with Covid is monotonous. Right?
Wrong. Things can happen when you least expect them and set you aflame in an instant. A week ago, I was minding my own business, quarantining at home with my wife and getting ready for dinner and another four hours of news on TV about how we and the country are going to hell in a basket. And then I received this email. I didn’t recognize the name, but I caught the first several lines and it mentioned a good childhood friend of mine and I opened it. Boy, what a pleasant surprise and what a gift!
The author of the email had the same last name as me, only spelled slightly differently (with an ‘ou’ instead of an ‘u,’ which, phonetically, is the same sound in French as in Romanian). He was writing about our family history, mentioning a city in the Crimean Peninsula called Eupatoria, and the Karaites (or Karaim), an ethnic group of Jewish origin. To me it all sounded like stories I had heard growing up, family lore wrapped in mystery.
His email was rich in links to websites, family trees and black and white digitized photographs from a much earlier era. We corresponded. I wrote to him what I remembered and what I know, and I read the information he sent me. Then, my wife and I went to the basement and took out the old photographs that my mother and father had left us in a box. We spent hours going through hundreds and hundreds of old black and white, sepia and color photos, jammed into envelopes in no particular order. While many didn’t mean anything, an equal number of them brought back memories, in the most vivid and pleasant way possible. I could hear my parents laugh and sing. I could hear my grandparents, speaking with a thick Russian accent. I recognized their friends, people who used to come to the house, eat and drink with us, see me grow and become a person. That was in Bucharest, Romania, and most of these people, like me, were bilingual, speaking Romanian and Russian interchangeably, sharing songs, dreams, love, news and secrets. Most of them, including my parents and grandparents, came to Bucharest from Kishinev, which was Romanian before WWII and is now the capital of the Republic of Moldova (or Bessarabia). But Kishinev, like Odessa, like Paris, like New York City, had been a melting pot at some time, and most of these Bessarabians were actually from someplace else, if one looked back at their ancestors. And so it happens that my paternal grandfather, who was a doctor, had been born (I think) in Eupatoria to a family of Karaites, had escaped from the Bolsheviks via Odessa and Constantinople to Romania, and had made a life first in Kishinev, then in Bistrița (a charming town in Transylvania) and finally in Bucharest. Speaking of migration, of moving around, of immigrating, or of running as far as you can… no wonder I ended up across the Atlantic Ocean.
Doing my best to read the various attached websites, which are mostly in French and Russian, I learned that the Karaites were a Jewish tribe that escaped from the Turks in the eighth century and settled in Crimea. They kept some of the traditions, but did not follow all tenets of the Jewish faith and were influenced over the centuries by the Tatars, who also lived in Crimea. I discovered that one of my ancestors, four or five generations ago, had been the Mayor of Eupatoria. He had done many good things, built churches and synagogues, squares and libraries. He had paved a large part of the city. There is a statue of him in the city and a street bearing the family name: Duvan. In his life, he had met the last tsar of Russia twice, and, after the Bolshevik Revolution, had moved to Paris. There was another relative (his brother) who became a great actor and theater director and who also found refuge in France.
I knew that my grandfather’s brother had left the Soviet Union and lived in Paris, and a cousin, who became an actress in Paris, had roles in some silent movies and then returned (mistake?) to Romania before WWII.
I’ve been to Crimea twice, once when I was 18, with my mother and father, and, more recently, with my wife, on a cruise. Both times I visited Yalta, the city where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met in 1945 to end the war and settle, for a very long time, the sad fate of what became of Eastern Europe, but I never went to Eupatoria. In truth, I would have loved to take a walk on the street named after my family.
I have not yet established how exactly I am related to the man who had sent me the email and provoked this explosion of emotion and torrent of memories, but we are working at it. I discovered that there are variations of my name: Duvan, Douvan, Duvano and Duwan, all descendants from the original Duvans of Eupatoria, in many places: the US, France, Italy, Germany, England, Argentina, Lithuania, and maybe even Crimea (part of Ukraine, now forcefully annexed by Russia).
Social distancing notwithstanding, I am neither unique, nor alone. Halleluiah!
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