Some of Them
188 Pages

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Some of Them


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Learn more
188 Pages

You can change the print size of this book


Leaving behind an impoverished and threatened existence in 19th century anti-semitic tsarist Russia, a Jewish family make a new life and a fortune in Japan and China, in a region dominated by the struggle between the great powers, as chandlers and trusted partners of the Imperial Russian Navy prior to and during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Upon their return to Russia they become honoured citizens of Saint Petersburg until Bolshevism drives them out again to new uncertainties in the West.



Published by
Published 01 January 2012
Reads 16
EAN13 9782296479067
Language English

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Previous works :

«Madame Butterfly – Japonisme, Puccini & the Search
for the Real Cho-Cho-San” –Berkeley, California –
Stone Bridge Press – 2001.

© L’Harmattan, 2011
5-7, rue de l’École-polytechnique ; 75005 Paris

ISBN : 978-2-296-55946-2
EAN : 9782296559462



The Story of a Russian, Jewish Family
and its Worldwide Peregrinations
in Times of War and Revolution

for Kees, Antoinette
and Gabriella


This is the story of a Jewish family from one of the
poorest regions of Tsarist Russia, of how a strong and
enterprising member of the family arrived penniless in the
Far East and helped to shape the history of his time, and
how it brought him fame, fortune and honour and finally
the eclipse of all he had built. The title “Some ofThem”,
which I explain below, aims to portray him and his
relatives as unusual people not only driven by a powerful
ambition but also conscious of a mission and instrumental
in a destiny larger than themselves.

This book would never have been written had I not met
Martin Blakeway in Tokyo in the autumn of 1983.
Between other activities Martin was teaching Japanese
students at Sophia and Waseda Universities and in the
process trying to convince them to become useful citizens
of the world. Among the foreigners in Tokyo he enjoyed
the reputation of having been the real life model of the
pilot Foster J. Mac Williams who flew the Yemenite Jews
from Aden to Israel in Leon Uris’s 1958 novel “Exodus”.
The true story turned out to be different but no less

Martin and I saw each other often in the 1980’s in
Tokyo. During one of our many convivial evenings he


gave me my first insight into the fascinating story of his
family and I began to grasp what an extraordinary saga lay
behind the fragments he told me. I was working on
another project but already the idea of writing a book on
this colourful family living in distant places and stirring
times started to take shape.

Eventually the true story of the part Martin played in
the exodus of the Yemenite Jews also came up. In 1950, a
barely nineteen years old student, he became by chance
involved in the dramatic journey of these people and their
ancient Torah scrolls from their biblical environment into
the modern world of Israel. At length Martin returned to
Jersey in the Channel Islands, where his parents then
lived. As he came home and bent to greet his mother on
the doorstep, she put her finger to her lips and whispered:
“Sshh, I’m one of them”.

Surprised, Martin had to wait until the next day when
his English father was out of the house to learn from his
mother that both the maternal Russian grandfather he had
never known and the Austrian grandmother he believed to
be a French Protestant were Jewish. At the same time he
discovered that his father did not know it either. His
grandmother had warned her own children never to betray
their Jewish origins to anybody. But they still were “Some

The family survived and prospered, some in spite of the
antisemitism of the age, others at least outwardly
disavowing their Jewish origins or, like Martin, not even
aware of them. Martin’s own philosophy and his lifelong
ties with people of all races and persuasions have in no
way been affected by this revelation, as his own story, to
be told one day by himself, I hope, will abundantly prove.


The story I tell here unfolds from obscure beginnings in
the Polish-Ukranian region of Volhynia, rapidly acquiring
colour and becoming a vivid portrayal of people tossed
about by history, as well as a mirror of events in the world
where it developed. In the process I was at pains to forgo
unverifiable hearsay and gossip and labored to unearth
many compelling facts that had long been forgotten or
hidden under the family carpet. A major difficulty was the
scarcity of original documents: much potentially useful
material has undoubtedly been lost due to war, revolution,
fire and human fallibility. However, thanks to a few
dedicated and enterprising accomplices and the
cooperation of archivists in various countries, documents
were found that supported the story throughout and gave it
the detail, human measure and authenticity I believe it

Among the many to whom I am indebted a special
place should be given to Shinagawa Mitsue for her
assistance in finding and exploiting Japanese historical
sources concerning Russo-Japanese relations, the Japanese
coal trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the
lives of the foreigners living in Nagasaki. Without her
enthusiastic help, her creative suggestions, her inventive
initiatives and her meticulous analyses it would not have
been possible to obtain a meaningful insight into the
success of the Mess family in the Far East.

My former colleague in the European Commission,
Klaus Schneider, opened several doors leading to a better
understanding of Russian history. Dr Mikhael Beizer of
the Hebrew University in Jerusalem enlightened me about
the Jewish community of Saint Petersburg of the early
1900's. The late Mrs Lesley Blanch, whose books I have


always admired, gave me invaluable insights into the spirit
of the Russian establishment in the same period.

Access to archives in Moscow and Saint Petersburg
was greatly facilitated by several generous Russian
friends, who also helped me to follow the track of Morris
Ginsburg to France after the October Revolution. Mrs
H.Weiss of theIsraelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien
surprised me with a genealogical overview of the Austrian
Orner family. Staff members of archives in Paris, Nice,
Grasse and London went out of their way to unearth
details of persons involved in the story. Particular mention
should be made of the Archives of theDépartement des
Alpes Maritimes inNice and of theBibliothèque
Universitairedes Langues Orientales in Paris.

Patrick Garancher-Boiscommun, the great-nephew of
Marcus Mess supplied me with much information about
members of Regina Mess-Orner's family. Miss Dinah
Sheridan, the granddaughter of Morris Ginsburg,
contributed many personal memories of the Ginsburg
family before and after they left Saint Petersburg to her
cousin Martin who shared them with me.Martin’s elder
brother, Brian Blakeway, sent me his own thoughtful
impressions about the life of the Mess family after
Marcus’s death.reminiscences of Cecilia Mess were The
redorded by her grandson Martin Plant not long before her
death. Chatelaines of theChateau du Sablenin Auray, and
of theChateau de Boissière inBoissières, were most
gracious in enriching my knowledge about the life of
Louis Audemard and his final years in their historic

I am very grateful to all the persons mentioned above
for their generous assitance without which I would not


have been able to write a coherent account of the Mess
and Ginsburg families. Some of these contacts were a
challenge, especially those with indispensable Russian
ressources. My telephone conversation with Dr Pilipenko,
author of an article in a Russian periodical about Morris
Ginsburg and master of fully half a dozen words in
English (a linguistic treasury about twice as extensive as
mine in Russian) must have been as hilarious to him as it
was for me but miraculously we managed to understand
each other.

Much of the colour of the story comes from
explorations on the spot by Martin Blakeway and his wife
Fujiko in Japan and Russia and visits together with my
wife Keiko and myself to places in Nagasaki, Paris and
Southern France. They were useful, amusing and
sometimes moving occasions as well, such as the time we
found the school in Grasse attended by Marcus Mess's
daughters, the villa in Nice where the family spent one or
two happy years at the time Saint Petersburg was being
ravished by the 1905 revolution or the room in a tower in
the castle at Boissières near Vergèze where Louis
Audemard died a lonely man surrounded by his oriental

Martin and Fujiko also wrestled themselves through the
early manuscript, corrected errors and made suggestions
for improvements. So did my friend Tom Lacy who read
the entire script in its final version. As Marcel Proust says:
there are no certainties, not even in grammar. I am,
nevertheless, grateful to them for their help in shaping this
into what I hope is a readable book.

I owe a word of explanation to those descendants of the
Mess brothers who gave me their view on past events of


the family. As their opinions sometimes diverged, I had to
decide in a number of cases which version seemed to be
the most authentic. I apologize to each of them for any
choice he or she might disagree with.

A final remark on spelling: Russian names have been
rendered much along the lines followed by such
authoritative authors as Hugh Seton-Watson with a few
exceptions where all or nearly all English language
sources use other forms which in those few cases I
followed. As to Russian dates before 1918 (which were
then different from the rest of Europe), there are so few of
them that matter to the story that I have not systematically
tried to follow one particular calendar. For Japanese
names I followed the traditional style, placing the family
name first followed by the given name.



(1851 - 1875)


"Go to Russia .... anyone who
has seen this country will be
happy to live anywhere else"

Marquis de Custine

Moishe Mess was born in Radzivilov on 12 September
1851, the son of Akim Mess and his wife Rassia née
Jetchis. Radzivilov was a small town in south-western
Russia, in the province of Volhynia, part of today's
Ukraine. It was the site of Russia's main customs office on
the border with Austria-Hungary, just opposite the town of
Brody in Galicia. It had a Jewish population of some 3000.
Moishe was the first of three brothers, at least as far as one
can today deduce from later documents and events. No
family records survived World War II and the Jewish
genocide. All we know about the family and Moishe’s
early years comes from his own recollections.


Volhynia had been a part of Poland until 1793, when it
was acquired by Russia in the context of the Second Polish
Partition. The total extinction of Poland had overnight
turned millions of Polish citizens into Russian subjects,
amongst them more than a million Polish Jews. For them
this meant a change of status which did not necessarily or
immediately affect their material situation but confronted
them in time with a degree of anti-semitism to which they
had not been subjected in Poland. Akim Mess and his sons
were officially already second or third generation Russian
Jews but the memory of a life more tolerant for Jews,
when Poland was still their homeland, persisted.

Russian Jews

Russia had been for centuries a country with only very
small, barely permitted, Jewish communities which some
of the Tsars had even tried to eliminate altogether. This
near-denial of a Jewish presence in Russia was obviously
not any longer possible after large portions of Poland,
together with their Jewish population, were swallowed up.
Since 1778 (after the First Polish Partition) the Russian
social classification of "burghers" and merchants (who in
turn were divided into different guilds according to their
wealth and the level of their trade) had been applied to the
Jews. Tsar Nicholas I had envisaged, in vain, turning the
Jews into "real Russians" by forcing them to attend
Russian schools. He also, more effectively, submitted his
Jewish subjects of the poorest class (the "burghers" who
possessed less than 5OO roubles) to a special type of
military service by applying to them the so-called
cantonist system. This statute implied that Jewish
conscripts could be forced to live in military camps or
compounds from the age of twelve, where they were given


a harsh training preparatory to their active service starting
at the age of eighteen and lasting for twenty-five years. As
the number of recruits actually needed wassmaller than
that of the available victims, there was a possibility of
substitution ; in practice this meant that Jewish boys
(sometimes considerably younger than twelveyears as
nobody could prove his age) were often snatched away
from their parents or orphanages by special drafters paid
to kidnap replacements. These boys who would not see
their home again for more than thirty years were submitted
to every imaginable harassment, including the cruelest
ones, to make them give up their Jewishness and convert
to the Orthodox church. Around 1850 there were some
60,000 Jewish soldiers who had been drafted in this way
and most of them would give their life to Russia in the
Crimean war.

Another important legislative measure intended to
discriminate the Jewish population from other Russian
subjects was the obligation to live within a fixed zone, the
so-called Pale of Settlement, that stretched the length of
the western border from the Baltic to the Black Sea,
including the territories snatched from Poland. Inside the
Pale the Jews were mostly assigned to cities and towns
and were only occasionally and under certain conditions
allowed to live in the countryside. In most places they
were a minority amongst others, surrounded by
nonRussian ethnic or national groups such as Ukrainians,
Belorussians or Poles, who often displayed strong
antisemitic attitudes, that found violent expression from time
to time in pogroms. Outside the Pale only Jews with a
special status were allowed to live in cities like Moscow
and Saint Petersburg. Initially conceived by the
government of Catherine II, the effect of the law on the
Pale was, in the words of the Jewish writer Simon


Dubnov, "to create within the monarchy of peasant serfs a
special class of territorially restricted city serfs".

No wonder that fear of conscription, coupled with grim
cantonist stories and persecution are among the major
nightmarish themes that characterize Russian Jewish
writings and narratives. They give a depressing image of a
Russian Poland which was for the Jews who lived there
(as Steven J.Zipperstein puts it) "...little more than a place
of pogroms and brutal military conscription."

Some change for the better in the situation of the
Russian Jews appeared after 1855, when Alexander II
succeeded Nicholas I as Tsar and initiated a series of
relatively liberal political reforms. Even if they fell short
of the expectations of moderately reform-minded
intellectuals and activists, the policies initiated by
Alexander II soon began to turn Russia upside down. The
abolition of serfdom and related land reform, the
modernization of local administration with the
introduction of a degree of democratization of local
government, the separation between judiciary and
government and the thorough reorganization of the
military, including a considerable reduction of the length
of active duty, brought about important social and
economic changes, a more open market system and the
rise of a new middle class.

It was in this framework of "liberal reforms" that the
cantonist system was abolished in 1855 right at the
beginning of Alexander's reign, and that the entire
organization of military service was changed in 1874. The
new law imposed equal obligations on all, Jews and
nonJews. It fixed the age of active service at twenty-one,
reduced the length of the service from twenty-five to six