Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Auntie Alex

The social life in Addis Abeba reached a new zenith with the arrival of Auntie Alex. It was 1925 and many refugees were coming from Europe and Asia to find a new life in this strange exotic land. Alexandra Dabbert, with her engineer husband, had come by way of Germany with Alexandra’s parents, the former General and Mrs. Drovdosky. Alexandra’s father had been General in Czar Nicolas’ army, and was in Switzerland on maneuvers when the Bolsheviks executed the Czar and his family. Without hesitation, her mother collected whatever jewels they could carry and walked across the border with Alexandra and Peter. The parents would never see Russia again. Peter later would perish in the German army he had been forced to join.

Only Alexandra had the courage to return to Kiev by train, load up her father’s back pay into suitcases, and cross back into Germany. By then, she was known to be fearless. She had served in the Crimea as a nurse when she was a teenager, then studied to be a dentist in Kiev. Her father had insisted that many of the prosperous Jewish families had daughters who were studying to be dentists. While studying, she had gone to St. Petersburg to live with an Aunt. She saw the first airplane to fly over St. Petersburg. She loved the museums and art galleries, and proved to be of such high intellectual ability that she had been invited to the palace to receive the medal that proclaimed her the best student in all of St. Petersburg. It was here that she met the Czar’s mother, Dowger Queen Maria, who served her chocolate and cookies. The Empress had been one of two sisters who were born in Denmark. When the Princess married the Russian Czar Alexander, she took the name Marie and joined the Russian Orthodox Church. During her short visit with Alexandra, Marie fell in love with this bright girl. Later, when Alexandra was engaged, she sent her five hundred rubles for a trousseau.

The life in Russia, as daughter of a General, suited her inquisitive nature. She enjoyed the social life, and as a child, liked to play military games while her cousin, Latoshinsky, sat dreaming at his piano. When she escaped to Germany, her cousin stayed on, and became a protected “pet” of Stalin’s and was allowed to live in his safe refuge to compose music. In later years we found his music manuscripts and orchestral renditions on long play records.

When Alexandra arrived in Germany, she completed her dentistry degree, married Herman Dabbert, and together with her parents, left for Ethiopia. Her diamonds were used for security, as they would be in her other miraculous escapes. Herman Dabbert was in his element exploring Ethiopia, writing his thesis on the stone churches of Lalabela, which had been carved out of the mountains in the North. He was gone more than he was at home in Addis, and they eventually had a peaceful divorce. Meantime, Alexandra supported the family with her practice of dentistry. She added elegance to the primitive capitol city along with style, wit, and friendship. She immediately became friends with my parents. They all took a vacation in Djibouti in French Somaliland. This was in 1925 and it was a good to leave the high altitude, even if it meant the blazing heat of the seaport.

On one of their first days in Djibouti, they wandered into a section of the city where the old wind-up phonographs were playing loud dance music and native girls were standing in the doorways. A girl had run out, wrapped her “shama” around my father, and pulled him into the doorway. The servants began to call out in a loud voice, “Let him go. He is a holy man.” This was repeated until my father was released. He tells us now that he never remembered this happening, but we choose to believe Auntie Alex.

Auntie Alex practiced dentistry in her home in Addis. Among her clients were most of the foreigners and many of the nobility. She says she always had confidence in the persons who were recommended by my father, as they always paid. She soon developed a technique for taking care of persons who she suspected would be “deadbeats” She would clean only half of the teeth until payment was made, then complete the job. After 1930, when Haile Selassie had been crowned Emperor, Auntie Alex became the dentist for the royal family. She carried her dental tools on the back of her horse when she went to the palace. She was an excellent equestrian, and loved her horses since she was a little girl in Russia. Verena reported that Auntie Alex would have the servants bring her favorite horse into the kitchen for her to examine. When she began painting the traditional mosaic style Russian icons, she placed many of her saints on horses.

While my parents were in Addis Alem, Auntie Alex would ride horseback to visit. In 1926, she brought a picnic lunch for her guests under the trees on the Addis Alem grounds. Her among her guests was a Rothschild banker from France, and one of his bank executives. It seemed that there had been a divorce, and what was needed to sooth the upset was a voyage in the Rothschild yacht to Djibouti, then up to the capitol city of Addis by train. Auntie Alex then took over the entertainment, and she never allowed any escape from enjoyment. At one time, when she had filled all her beds with guests, she slept on her billiard table. This had great advantage because she was surrounded with bookshelves. She was fluent in Russian, French and German. Now she learned Amharic, and would later read and speak Italian and Spanish. Her most recent language, English, she confessed, is the “garden variety.” But nothing stops her reading and annotating margins of books in all the above languages.

While she was raising her son in Ethiopia, she began painting beautiful traditional Russian icons. Previously she had been acclaimed for her landscapes and had earned pocket money in St Petersburg by painting the “pesankes” or wooden eggs. Her dentistry and art would make her ingeniously able to go from Europe to Africa, to Italy to Peru and later to California.

Auntie Alex has one son, Olec or Olegard, born in Ethiopia. When Olec was a little boy, she was determined to find a companion for him. The man who cared for the horses had a son, Tafara, who was Olec’s age. Tafara proved to be another example of Auntie Alex’s good taste. He went to school with Olec, learned foreign languages, studied in Canada, and became the banker for the Emperor. Tafara was jailed by the Communists but remained in good spirits in spite of the seven and a half years of severe treatment. Upon release he became Banker for the King of Swaziland. He and Olec continued to share the excitement of safaris and other adventure trips.

During the Italian occupation, Auntie Alex stayed in Ethiopia and continued her dental practice. She was well known as the dentist for the government railroad personnel. After her divorce, she had married an Italian officer. Our family bid her farewell in 1939, little knowing that our father would be asked to return in 1941. The English had driven out the Italians, and my father went back for three years to regain possession of the schools and hospital properties that were scattered throughout Ethiopia. He had been the one who established them many years before and was again staffing each one. In 1941, Auntie Alex was also looking for help in securing her paintings and jewels. She had been “deported” along with Olec and her parents. She as sent to Italy and her Italian husband ended up in a camp in India.

Her paintings had been commissioned to Dr. Lambie, doctor at the Presbyterian Hospital in Addis. She gave my father her jewels for safekeeping. Her jewels were eventually returned to her. Dr. Lambie told her that her landscapes had been confiscated. She was later told by a friend, “How I enjoyed seeing your paintings on the walls of the hospital.” When Auntie Alex wrote to Dr. Lambie, who was in Jerusalem at the time, his reply was, “You should not be so concerned with things of this world. You should be more concerned with things of heaven.”

When the Italians occupied Ethiopia, they summarily sent all Germans and citizens of “unfriendly nations” out of the country. This was the fate of the Hessel family. They were not allowed to take any belongings, or to notify anyone of their plight. Since there was no mail or phone, it was many weeks before their sad story was known.

Our family was not asked to leave because we were Americans, otherwise known as “The White Ethiopians.” When my father returned to Ethiopia, Mr. Hessel was in Palestine and asked for his dishes to be sent to him. Balle Neilsen and my father sent the dishes, as requested. The dishes arrived in thousands of pieces, and there were no more requests from other refugees. It was my mother who had the skill of packing.

Auntie Alex always showed great humor in time of disaster, and had keen insight into human nature. She was “the eighth wonder of the world.”

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