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An Unloved Ancestor 1

Freda Isaksen

I never knew my paternal grandfather who was born and lived in Russia, but the stories that I have been told about him have not endeared him to my memory of him. His family remembered him as a tyrant, a selfish and sadistic man whose pleasure it was to torment his family. One story tells that he would force one of his children to stand at attention while he circled the top of the child’s head with his finger for a period of time. I’m not sure if this was some form of punishment. He was indisputably the lord and master of his ten children and if anyone dared to contradict him or disobey his wishes he would flare into a violent rage so that everyone was in terror of him. Unfortunately this temper has manifested itself in future generations but only in minor proportions. It’s a joke in our family that if anyone loses their temper we’ll say, “That’s your grandfather coming to force in you.” He must have worked and scared two wives to death, his third wife survived him and was my grandmother, Rachel.

My father was born into this world in Russia in the town of Jitorma as one of twin fraternal boys. This event was not anticipated so the parents were surprised and unprepared, the father was not pleased by the double birth and refused to acknowledge the second born child so a wet nurse was hired to assist the mother and the unwelcome child was succored by her. The nurse became fond of the boy and saw that he was rejected by his father so the good woman offered to take the baby into her home and be its foster parent. It is possible that she was asked to do so for monetary reimbursement, but that is just my guess. I know nothing of the reasons.

Evidently the mother had no say in these arrangements because the father was willing for his son to be raised by a virtual stranger until he was twelve years old when he was allowed to return to his biological family. Personally I am inclined to think that because my grandfather was a tenant farmer for a Russian baron he needed the extra worker so he became reunited with his son in order to have him work on the land for him. My father never spoke of the years spent with the foster family but evidently it was a good relationship.

As the father aged he suffered a stroke and became paralyzed on one side and was unable to find adequate medical help in the vicinity where he lived so he decided to go to England in the hope of finding more advanced knowledge of his ailment and thereby find a cure for his paralysis. He was unable to travel alone and not one of his many children was willing to accompany him on such a mission but ironically the son who had been rejected was the one chosen to accompany the ailing father to England.

Their original intent was to return to Russia after seeking medical advice but about this time life for Jews living in Russia was becoming intolerable with increasing persecutions and pogroms, so my father sought employment in London and when he became successful he sent for his mother to join them in England. His father died in Russia. Some of the other siblings who were half brothers and sisters were independent by this time also emigrated to England and America.

My grandfather died before my birth, but I do remember my grandmother who looked a lot older than her actual age and was broken in spirit because of all she had endured. It took many years before my father saw his twin brother again after he left Russia because the brother emigrated to New York. I am glad that I corresponded and was able to personally meet some of the family on short visits to one another.

My parents never discussed their life in Russia, they met and married in London, my mother was also born in Russia. They always thought that the Russian regime by their cruel actions towards the Russian Jewish people had rejected them as fellow countrymen. They never spoke the Russian language to their children in the new country, they wanted to put their former life behind and eventually became British citizens.


  1. Freda’s parents and grandparents are discussed also in The Trachtenberg Story and Freda’s Autobiography.

Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at

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