Sunday, February 8, 2015

52 Ancestors #6: (Guest Blog) Flung to the Far Corners of the World

Ancestor Name: Alfred Wolfe BRISK (1880-1942)

I have many immigrant ancestors so one of their stories seemed like a natural fit for this week's theme, So Far Away. Many emigrated from Scotland to far-flung places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the U.S. Others left different parts of eastern Europe in pursuit of a better life in places like Brazil or Guyana. But the person I kept thinking about wasn't even one of my ancestors. He was the great grandfather of the husband of my 4th cousin once removed. I first read about him in a book my cousin had written about the Brisk family.

Sarah, lives in New Zealand, and found me in through I live in the U.S. How's that for so far away?! Thanks to modern communications technology, we work together researching our common Scottish Semple family. And she has taught me a lot about proper research. I seem to learn more when working with her, plus it's always more fun to have a collaborator!

I thought Sarah would be the best person to tell Albert's story, so over to Sarah......

Albert Wolfe Brisk was the grandson of Jewish immigrants who had fled Belarus with their young family (including Albert’s father) during a sustained period of anti-Semitism in the mid-1860s.  The family settled in Safed, Palestine which is where Albert was born in 1880.

As a teenager, Albert moved to Switzerland where he trained as a watchmaker, completing his training in 1897.  He had an uncle who had recently moved to Singapore and so that was where Albert moved to next.  He opened a store in Kling Street for the Anglo-Swiss Watch Company in Singapore in 1898.  Albert became very successful and paid for his parents and half-brothers and sisters to move to Singapore. 

He married Betty Cornfield about 1902 in Singapore and they had six children. Betty was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul). 

Albert Wolfe and Betty (Cornfield) Brisk with their six children, circa 1920;
photograph courtesy of Sarah Semple

He became a naturalised Singaporean citizen in 1910.  He had a number of rental properties and his children were educated at the local convents in Singapore.  One of the nuns set aside a room so that the Jewish children could have somewhere to eat their Kosher lunches together.

Albert and Betty used to travel to places like Antwerp and Zurich to buy diamonds.  They were a very close couple who were seldom apart.  However in 1936, Betty took her youngest daughter to Shanghai in China to visit one of her sons, and then to Yokohama in Japan to visit another son.  Betty died unexpectedly in Yokohama.

Albert continued to live in Singapore where four of his children still lived.  The first Japanese bombs fell on Singapore in December 1941.  Albert managed to get his youngest daughter Lulu out of Singapore on one of the last ships to leave in January 1942.  He gave her some jewellery to sell and she successfully made it to England where she worked twelve hour shifts in a munitions factory in Leeds.

Albert and his five remaining children were interned by the Japanese.  Albert and three sons were interned in Changi in Singapore, one son was interned in Shanghai and his daughter Esther was interned in Sumatra. 

Esther had tried to flee Singapore on board the SS Kuala which sailed from Singapore on 13 February 1942 with approximately 500 evacuees on-board.  The ship was bombed by the Japanese with at least 100 people dying on-board.  The call was made to abandon ship, and as evacuees were swimming to the nearby island of Pom Pong, Japanese planes were bombing those in the water.  Esther spent nearly eight hours in the water before being rescued by some Chinese fishermen.  She was then captured by the Japanese and spent the remainder of the war in a women’s camp.  She never spoke about her experiences in the camp.

Albert died from starvation and a cerebral hemorrhage at the hospital attached to Changi on 19 December 1942.  His children managed to survive their internment although all came out of camp malnourished, grossly underweight and most had suffered from diseases like tuberculosis.

His son who had been in Shanghai ended up emigrating with his family to Australia and the remaining children eventually made their way to England to where their sister Lulu was waiting for them. 

The phrase “so far away” must have been felt with great frequency by Albert and his family.  First by Albert leaving his family in Palestine and moving to Switzerland and then Singapore.  Albert’s wife dying away from home in Japan, his daughter Lulu fleeing to England, his other daughter Esther surviving the Japanese bombing and being interned in Sumatra.  The family was displaced after the war with surviving family members leaving Asia to begin again in a new country. So many changes, so far away.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge optional theme So Far Away.

I first discovered Albert Wolfe Brisk's story in The Brisk Family of Brest-Litovsk, Palestine and Beyond, by Sarah Semple and published in 2011.

Other stories of ancestors who found themselves civilians in the midst of war:

Odessa to Vancouver:  The Long Way
Living in War-torn Europe
Escaping from Eastern Germany
There's a Nazi in the Family
Trip Around the World: New York to Egypt (Franco-Syrian War)

Other guest blog posts by Sarah:

Am I Related? Definitely. Maybe.
What's in a Name?

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