Thursday, 31 July 2014

SS Arandora Star

If you have read the previous post then this is the reason why we gazed wistfully across the sea.
When we realised how close the Island of Barra was to the island of Eriskay, it was a huge disappointment to us that sadly our schedule did not allow time for us to visit.
SS Arandora Star shown on a Waddingtons Playing Card c 1935
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As a young newly married couple living in Glasgow, Scotland we were introduced to a 'white' Russian lady called Vera Fisanotti (maiden name Maschova) - she was a friend of our 85 year old landlady.  
She was a widow but explained to us that her husband had been an Italian internee during World War II, and that he had been shipwrecked following deportation from Britain. His body was washed up on the shores of the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
During 2012 I had watched a TV programme called Island Parish which was filmed on Barra. The programme vividly brought back memories of Vera and her sad contact with the island.  
I decided to do some research on the internet, and surprisingly quickly came across Vera's husband's name. I found Oreste Fisanotti on a website about the SS Arandora Star, a ship carrying refugees & internees to Canada from Liverpool.
The boat set sail from Liverpool on the 1st July 1940 and was torpedoed off the north-west coast of Ireland by a German U-boat the following morningOreste was among more than 800 people who lost their lives.  I also discovered that, subsequently, and following her own death in 1975, Vera had been taken back to Barra and was buried on a hilltop beside him.

Vera's life was a sad one.  She escaped from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) during the 1917 Revolution, where she was studying to become a doctor.
via 
Because of his contacts, her father, a sea captain, smuggled her on to a boat in Odessa bound for Constantinople (Istanbul). He gave her a small leather pouch containing precious stones.  As a young women arriving alone in Turkey, and unable to speak the language, she found it very frightening and confusing, so she decided to try and make her way to London.  Eventually she arrived and found work in an hotel as a chambermaid. It was in London that she met and fell in love with Oreste Fisanotti, who was also working at the hotel as a waiter, and they married.
From the day she left Russia to the day she died she had no idea what had happened to her family.  She tried to find out information about them from the Red Cross, but she was very wary of giving away too much about herself as she still had a great fear of being found by the Russians. When we met her Russia was still a closed society.
When Oreste, her only friend in all the world and her beloved husband died, heartbroken, she left London to live on the remote island of Barra to be close to his body. She lived alone on the island for over twenty years until her health deteriorated, and the doctors told her that the island was not a suitable place for her to reside anymore. She was suffering from rheumatism and respiratory problems, so very reluctantly she left the Island of Barra and moved to Glasgow.
Our Landlady in Glasgow had befriended Vera at her church and that is how we came to meet her. When we first moved into the apartment Vera was introduced to us but she was very cold towards us both. As time passed she opened up and became friendly. Later she confided that she was, understandably, jealous and anxious that we would take our landlady's friendship and love away from her.
At last together, Vera & Oreste's hilltop graves on the remote Island of Barra - on her gravestone Vera finally had the courage to publicly acknowledge her Russian origins. 
Her tragic life made a deep and lasting impression on us both.

44 comments:

  1. That is a remarkable tale. Sad, of course; but also humbling. Most people, myself included, don't realise how lucky they are most of the time. This lady lived with personal tragedy most of her life. Thanks for the story.

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    1. Life for some people seems to be cruel and unfair - Vera's had very few redeeming features.

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  2. What a sad and touching story, Rosemary. I am glad that Vera finally rests in peace with her husband on the Island of Barra. The life of refugees can be so difficult, living in fear as she did. Thank you for sharing the story and the beautiful illustrations.

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    1. I will never understand why it was necessary to deport people like Oreste during the war - what risk could an Italian waiter be to the country? - how different her life may have been if he had not died.

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  3. That's quite a story. I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to do what she did, but circumstances were very different then. Isn't Barra the island where the plane lands on the beach?

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    1. Dear Jessica - I suppose that she actually had no choice, if she had stayed in Russia she would most likely have been killed. It is a shame that she did not actually try to complete her medical studies in London, but as I mentioned she was so wary of anyone discovering her. She even called herself by a false name on her wedding certificate which reveals her paranoia and fear.
      Yes, you are right about the plane landing on the beach - the runway is hidden during high tide, so the flight times are determined by the tides timetable.

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  4. Beautiful sad story Rosemary. At least she found happiness with her husband,and no doubt had a good life with him. I am sure there are many stories like hers to be told.
    Regards,
    Margaret

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    1. They were married for less than four years, but I hope that they were happy.

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  5. A poignant story and I'm not surprised you remembered Vera with fondness as you journeyed close to her resting place beside her beloved husband. Thank you for sharing, Rosemary.

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    1. Perhaps we will have the opportunity to return sometime, and especially now we know more about how to reach the island. We would like to have visited their graves and left a small token behind.

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  6. Dear Rosemary,

    I can imagine that you felt as though you had experienced a closed circle when you reached Vera's gravesite. I too knew an elederly White Russian lady, and like Vera, she was reluctant to reveal her past connections. Imagine living in such fear for so long!

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    1. Sadly Mark - when I wrote 'looking over the sea to the hills on the Island of Barra, it was a reminder of how much we would like to have caught the ferry for a visit - so near and yet so far' that was the situation as our schedule did not allow for us to visit. You probably assumed that we had visited because of the photo of the graves which I actually came across on the internet a couple of years ago.

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  7. Such a tragic filled life she had. I am so happy that someone saw to her last wishes...the be reunited with the love of her life.

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    1. I was pleased when I discovered that they were together again on the Island of Barra

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  8. We only get one chance at life and fate can be so cruel. At least they are together again, but a very sad story.

    Jean x

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    1. I wonder if she ever questioned her fate - people tended to accept whatever life threw at them when she was young. It was so different with only letters and telegrams for communication and no access to helpful advice.

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  9. A fascinating story! In the 1960s, when I was a young thing, I met quite a few people like Vera, with similar tragic stories to tell. But, though I grew up in Dover which still had many bomb-sites from WW2 and most locals must have had terrible memories, hardly any mentioned the war. I think they fervently hoped for a much brighter future and did not look back.

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    1. As I mentioned to Jean, people didn't speak up for themselves like they do today or in fact know their rights. It is so different for us, but it is not necessarily always a good thing.

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  10. Hello Rosemary, This is quite an extraordinary tale of loss and devotion. An important side lesson is not to judge people too quickly. Since Vera was cold at first, you might have just avoided her, and never gotten to know her or her story better.
    --Jim

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    1. You are right Jim, first impressions are not always to be trusted - I sometimes think that Vera's story would make an interesting small film as it covers two tumultuous periods of history and some entirely different locations, from the tragic upheavals in Russia to the colourful bazars of Constantinople, and the remoteness of Barra.

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  11. A story both fascinating and tragic; people are sometimes driven to live desperate lives which require a great deal of courage.

    Ms Soup

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    1. As an outsider looking on you just wonder how they actually cope with what life hands them.

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  12. Dearest Rosemary,
    A wonderful meeting with Vera. I think our lives are mapped out for us. You were meant to meet her.
    Poor Vera. She died of a broken heart.!
    Her story is amazing.
    How sad that Oreste was drowned.
    Life traverses so many paths. we never know what is coming our way.!
    You have related her life so well. A post that I will always remember.
    I am so so pleased, that you went to their grave.. that is amazing.
    Destiny.!
    val xxx
    val xxxx

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    1. Dear Val - I think perhaps because I have put a photo of their grave on the post that you thought we had made it, it was as I mentioned so near and so far. Unfortunately our schedule did not allow time to take the ferry to Barra and we did not realise before we set off quite how close we would be travelling to the island. Next time definitely we shall try and find the hilltop where they both lie.
      I do wonder how she did cope with all the tragedies she encountered in her life - I think too many for one person to have to bear.

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  13. Beautiful post Rosemary. I have had a bit of time to catch up on your Scottish holiday posts and have loved them all.

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    1. Thank you Suzie - we had a wonderful time, and now feel that we have a better perspective on everything up in that corner of the world.

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  14. Right now I can’t imagine myself alone in a foreign country where I don’t understand the language and go on with life caught in tragic incidents. But then again, maybe we could, or some people could, become tougher than the tough incident under any circumstances. At last her soul must be rested in peace with her husband. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Yoko

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    1. When I think of her life Yoko I do wonder how she coped with so much heart ache and tragedy. However, I feel it is important that her story should be known and remembered.

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  15. Such a touching story, Rosemary .I can completely understand your disappointment at not being able to visit Barra and Vera and Oreste's grave. Perhaps one day...

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    1. It seems stupid but before we set off for the islands we had not realised just how close to Barra we would be. It was very disappointing looking over towards the island and not having the time within our schedule to catch the ferry over.

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  16. Beautiful and interesting post Rosemary, a lovely story!
    Have a great weekend,
    Titti

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    1. Thank you dear Titti - I felt that I owed it to her memory to record what I could remember her telling me about her life.

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  17. Such a sad story and faith. Life isn't fair..
    Happy weekend, Rosemary!

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    1. Sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of just how fortunate we are - life for some people is both difficult and distressing, and usually through no fault of their own.

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  18. What a sad story and so nice you found out all the history and met her. There are so many people on the run for violence all over the world. The parents of my mother in law fled from Russia after the revolution and went to Austria. Then my Jewish mother in law had to leave in 1939 for the German invasion and she fled to Holland.

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    1. Thank you for visiting - I felt it was important to record her life story as she told it to me, otherwise it would be as if she never existed. She knew so few people and those that she did know and love she lost.

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  19. It is such a sad and touching story, but it is good to know that they will always be together now on Barra and that you got to visit their grave as well. xx

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    1. Sadly Amy we only saw Barra from across the sea, our schedule didn't allow time to visit - may be we will have an opportunity to return sometime.

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  20. What an amazing and tragic story. I completely understand why you would be sad not to be able to go to Barra...but your closeness to it, and this lovely tribute to this tragic couple is beautiful.

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    1. During our lives our paths sometimes cross with people who leave their mark behind with us - Vera was one such person for us.

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  21. What a story Rosemary, I am sure she would be so touched to have seen such a tribute and to know that she was still in your thoughts.

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    1. It is almost 40 years since Vera died and 75 years since Oreste drowned. Who knows, perhaps one day some of Vera's Russian family or Oreste's Italian family might come across their story here and it could help answer questions that they may have.

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  22. Such a tragic story. There are many such stories in Canada, as so many displaced people came here after the war. When I was growing up, many of my friends had little or no idea of their origins because their parents were too traumatised and fearful to talk about the past. It's lovely that remember Vera and keep her memory alive in this post. Perhaps a member of her family will find it.

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    1. I am pleased that I have recorded their sad life story just in case it helps any members of their families in years to come. Whilst thinking about them and writing it down it made me aware of how fortunate most of us are in comparison.

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