From royalty to refugee

displaced-person-300x504Now that millions of people are seeking refuge from the war-torn Middle East, it’s instructive to read DP Displaced Person (Baroness Publications, 2016), the memoir of a Hudson Valley resident who spent her early childhood in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II. Margarita Meyendorff, also known as Mourka, landed in the U.S. at the age of three to stay with her family in a converted elephant stall on a Nyack estate, then lived in a series of small and ramshackle homes, far below the station of her family’s Imperial Russian heritage. The pain of war and loss, passed on from her parents, contributed to a life of continued instability, with Mourka and her first husband moving 30 times in their decade and a half together.

The author, now based in Rosendale, will read locally from the book, which traces back her family history in an effort to understand her parents’ trauma and support her own emotional healing. Readings will take place at at 4 p.m. Sunday, November 20 at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock on, and at 7 p.m. that evening at the Rosendale Café, 434 Main Street, Rosendale.

Mourka’s parents were Russian aristocrats who escaped the Bolshevik revolution by fleeing to Estonia. When the Soviets occupied Estonia in 1941, the family headed to West Germany and then Vienna, winding up after the war at a German camp for displaced persons. They were still there in July of 1947, when Mourka was born, less than a year after her mother tried to commit suicide over jealousy. Because the bridges had been bombed out, the ambulance took the pregnant woman to a hospital by way of a ferry crossing.

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Two and a half years later, the Meyendorffs found a Russian nobleman in New York City to sponsor their transition to the U.S., promising fictitious jobs in Mahopac. “In Hamburg, Germany, just before boarding the ship,” Mourka writes, “we stood like packages being sent off to a distant land with Displaced Persons identification tags flapping in our lapels and our luggage marked for the Princess Inn in Mahopac, the bogus destination.”

Margarita Meyendorff

Margarita Meyendorff

Upon arrival, Mourka and her parents and two half-brothers joined other displaced Russians at a makeshift refugee center on an estate owned by Pierre Bernard, a pioneering American yogi, scholar, occultist, businessman, and perpetrator of free love — the Hugh Hefner of his generation. For a time, he also owned a traveling circus, accounting for the elephant stalls.

The Meyendorffs moved into Nyack and lived in poverty among the emigré community, bouncing from house to house as their fortunes declined. Mourka’s father was sick with a mysterious stomach ailment and spent much of his time painting. Her mother, deeply depressed from childhood catastrophes and the anxiety of displacement, worked in sweatshops to support the family. The little girl grew up longing to get away from the stifling atmosphere of her unhappy parents.

The author describes vividly her encounter, at age 13, with Rudolf Nureyev, who had just defected to the West. Mourka was taken by a friend’s family to see the great ballet dancer in The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. Dazzled by his performance — and by the love the audience bestowed upon the star — Mourka and her friend made their way backstage, their fluent Russian clearing the way. Nureyev greeted them with delight, gave them glasses of champagne (which they did not drink), and walked arm-in-arm with the two girls to his limousine. Mourka’s growing love for acting and dance was solidified in that moment, and performance became the ticket to freedom from her constricted family life.

But while escaping the family, Mourka took along the suffering of her disillusioned parents and the frustrated longing for a sense of home. She sought euphoria through drag racing on the Garden State Parkway with her African-American friends, then touring the country as an actress. Meanwhile, her personal life hit corresponding lows with sexual abuse, a period of amphetamine addiction, and dysfunctional relationships as she groped for the security she had never known.

Ironically, it was her native language, Russian, that helped Mourka find satisfying work as a social worker helping immigrants and then as a language teacher. At last she was able to settle down in Ulster County with her two children. Only then did she turn back to the past, digging into her family history and writing out the story of what it took to survive a life uprooted from home and country.

Mourka will read from DP Displaced Person, and Laura Shaine Cunningham will read from her memoir, Forbidden Russia, at the Golden Notebook bookstore on Sunday, November 20, at 4 p.m. The Golden Notebook is at 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Also on November 20, Mourka and Cunningham will read along with author Nina Shengold at a Russian-themed book-signing party at the Rosendale Café at 7 p.m. The evening will begin with complimentary Russian hors d’oevres, and classical guitarist David Temple will play Russian music to create a St. Petersburg salon atmosphere. The café is located at 434 Main Street in Rosendale. For more information, see https://margaritameyendorff.com.

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