Fate, my remarkable Russian cousin — and how we lost 43 of our family in the Holocaust: David Miliband tells the extraordinary story of his family
00:40 GMT, 3 December 2012
00:40 GMT, 3 December 2012
David Miliband with his cousin Sofia. She was born in the stairwell of a house in the Arbat district of Moscow, where she still lives today
The wedding ring on my left hand was bought by my grandfather, Samuel Miliband, in Brussels in 1920. I never knew him, as he died when I was one. But his ring was kept by my aunt until it was placed on my finger by my wife Louise 32 years later.
To me the ring is not only a symbol of love but also of fate. It always reminds me how fate shaped the intricate, and at times tragic, tapestry that is the story of previous generations of the Miliband family.
This summer, another little piece of that story began to fall into place as I approached the doorway of my cousin Sofia’s home in Moscow for her 90th birthday party.
Sofia’s life has been ordinary in many ways — but in others, it has been quite extraordinary. She lives in a flat in the same unassuming building where she was born. Yet she came face to face with Stalin and Churchill when they were at the height of their powers.
It struck me when I met her that she was one of the lucky Milibands — the ones who escaped the Holocaust. And all because of a chance decision by her father. All because of fate.
To tell her story properly we have to return to my grandfather Samuel — my father’s father. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1900, he was one of nine children.
I have visited the cemetery in the middle of the city where some of his Jewish ancestors are buried. They were not prosperous people, but they made ends meet and inspired Samuel with the ambition to make something of himself.
He emigrated to Belgium after World War I to make a living. He was good with his hands and got a job in a leather factory making wallets and high-quality bags.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, he decided it would not be safe to stay there, so he fled to London with my Dad, who was 16 at the time, on one of the last boats from Ostend to Dover.
His wife and daughter stayed behind — somehow, women and girls were deemed to be safer from the Nazis.
In Britain, my Dad learned English and studied for his matriculation at Acton Technical College in West London, got into the London School of Economics and joined the Royal Navy.
Grandfather Samuel, meanwhile, helped clear out and make safe bombed-out buildings.
Samuel had headed further and further West, from Warsaw to Brussels to
London, another smaller branch of the family had gone East.
had a cousin in Warsaw named Osip Miliband. His son, like me, was
called David. And that David Miliband travelled to Moscow before World
War I, and therefore before the Russian Revolution of 1917.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, David Milband's father Ralph and his grandfather Samuel, pictured, decided it would not be safe to stay there, so they fled to London
Though he failed to find great riches, he became a salesman and made a decent living.
He found a wife, Pearl, and in 1922 they produced a daughter who they named Sofia — the Sofia whose 90th birthday I attended this summer.
I said earlier that Sofia and I were the lucky Milibands. Our relatives who stayed in Warsaw, and many of those who had gone, like Samuel, to Brussels, were killed in the Holocaust.
My dad told me when I was a boy that 43
members of his extended family were killed by the Nazis. His mother and
sister could easily have suffered the same fate. But when all the
Milibands in Brussels and its surrounding area were summoned, along with
thousands of others, to report to the Brussels railway station in 1943
for ‘registration’, my grandmother smelt a rat.
While those who reported as required
perished in the gas chambers, she took her daughter and fled to the care
of a Catholic family in a village where she had previously been on
They spent the war in Belgium and came to Britain in the Fifties after being reunited with my grandad Samuel.
'My dad told me when I was a boy that 43 members of his extended family were killed by the Nazis. His mother and sister could easily have suffered the same fate.'
Sofia’s father was saved by his move to Moscow — as she told me when I went to her birthday celebrations.
She is my cousin a few times removed, but
our linked past and the fact that our parents survived the war
strengthened our bond. After the birthday celebrations we spent time
sharing family stories and memories, and learning about each other’s
Sofia has bright, darting blue eyes, strong if bony hands, and a very sharp memory. She was dressed up for her party, but in black.
I worried that the bright red cardigan I had bought her would not fit her size or mood, but my fears were groundless.
talked in fast Russian, like a train, with high-pitched passion, over
the top of the patient translator who was trying to keep up.
Like her father, the other David
Miliband, Sofia is a survivor. The first time I met her, nearly three
years ago, she opened the conversation by saying that she was relieved
to see me because she had recently ‘died’.
didn’t know if this was some kind of Russian joke. In fact, she meant
that she had been clinically dead on the operating table, but somehow
bounced back. If you have lived through Stalinism, an operation to put
in a pacemaker isn’t going to stop you.
David Miliband, left, with his brother Ed and father Ralph. After fleeing to Britain, in 1940, Ralph learned English and studied for his matriculation at Acton Technical College in West London
Sofia was born in the stairwell of the house in the Arbat district of Moscow where she lives today. Then it was crowded tenements, occupied by the working class. Today, the area is more fashionable.
Her building has a slightly mournful look and the broken lift inside doesn’t help. But Sofia seems unconcerned. Like all Russians, she has put up with worse.
Her parents were Jewish, but she says there was never religion in the house. She pointed out that, for her family — hit as it had been by the tumult of Communism, the horror of the Holocaust and the mass murders under Stalin — it was hard to have religious faith.
Communism was meant to be an alternative religion. But Sofia scoffed at the notion that her father was a Communist or a member of the Communist Party.
‘He was lazy,’ she says. When she was five, doctors in Moscow diagnosed that she had colitis, an inflammation of the colon, and put her on a yoghurt-only diet. She had complained she was always starving.
But then her father went to Berlin on business, and her mother took her there, too, for a second opinion. The German doctors said it was not colitis, just hunger. Sofia discovered a talent for languages, having learned German from her mother.
When Iran held an Expo in Moscow in 1936, she developed an interest in Farsi (the Iranian language), too.
She had the brains to study history in Moscow and was the first Miliband to go to university. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana joined the department as an undergraduate when Sofia was in her fourth year.
'Sofia told me that she received a medal for her contribution to the war effort. The medal says it was awarded for the defence of Moscow.'
She says that she met Stalin when he came to have tea with the class. She seems to remember more about the tea and cakes — a great array of Russian delicacies laid on for the dictator — than about Stalin himself.
But she did recall that he queued up patiently and asked lots of questions.
Her education was interrupted by the end of the Hitler/Stalin pact and Russia’s entry into World War II.
Sofia told me that she received a medal for her contribution to the war effort. The medal says it was awarded ‘for the defence of Moscow’. I was impressed and proud.
Her language and other skills meant she had been part of the Soviet delegation to the 1943 Tehran Conference, which brought together for the first time the Allied leaders Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The conference took place in the Soviet Embassy in Iran’s capital city. The three leaders took the momentous decision to open a ‘second front’ against the Nazis.
Sofia told me that she lived with the chefs at the embassy. Her job was to sit in the room next door to the leaders and transcribe their discussions for transmission back to Moscow.
She says she peeked through the door and saw Churchill. What she remembers is his soft cheeks.
Stalin’s tyrannical rule sucked life out of the post-war Soviet Union. Millions were killed on orders, millions more died from neglect. The culture of fear was everywhere.
David Miliband met his cousin Sofia nearly three years ago after she reunited with the British side of their family
Yet Sofia told me that Stalin could not make ordinary Russians conform. ‘They couldn’t stop us thinking, but we kept our thinking to around the kitchen table,’ she says.
They didn’t express their views for fear of the security services.
Sofia’s life was struck by tragedy when her husband Yevgeny died of tuberculosis in 1949. His striking portrait — strong dark features, hair stroked back — faces you as you walk into her apartment. There
were no children. She never remarried. Sofia is the last Miliband in Russia.
Today, she is confined to a wheelchair at home, living in two rooms plus a kitchen on the third floor of the building.
Her great experience and many achievements are widely admired. She received a birthday card from Vladimir Putin, which congratulated her on a lifetime of commitment to Russia and vowed that the sacrifices of her generation would not be forgotten.
But Sofia has a sceptical eye for politics and politicians. Her link to the outside world is through an independent radio station called Echo Moscow.
It was by phoning into the station during an interview my brother Ed was doing about climate change that she was reunited with the British part of her family.
Sofia knows that the West has much more in the way of wealth and health. She has visited Britain — including during the 1977 Jubilee, when she says she visited Windsor and saw the Queen drive past in a car.
But she is not swayed by it. Moscow is her city — for richer, for poorer.
I do not speak Hebrew, but I understand that it has no word for ‘history’. The closest word for it is memory.
The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written that history is an event that happened some time else to someone else — ‘his story’. And that memory is ‘my story’ — something that is part of who I am.
History is information. Memory is part of your identity.
The great thing about meeting Sofia Miliband is that, for me, her story combined the two.