Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Belfast: The Soviet connection

Clifton Park Avenue is now an uncomfortable interface route between the Crumlin Road and the Cliftonville areas of North Belfast. A hundred years ago, it was one of the more Jewish parts of the city (which is not saying much, though a quick scan of the 1911 census reveals four Jewish families on the street, which is probably four more than are there now). These included David and Rifka Levinson, who moved into number 15 Clifton Park Avenue in 1908. They originally came from Białystok, now in Belarus; Rifka had smuggled her husband out of Russia twenty years earlier to avoid conscription, and they had built up a decent family business in Enniskillen and Clones. My suspicion is that they moved to Belfast because of the new Jewish school recently opened around the corner on the Cliftonville road by Sir Otto Jaffé, who served twice as Lord Mayor of the city.

Shortly after the Levinsons moved to Belfast in 1908, Rifka's brother Max Wallach turned up. He was on the run. He had a suitcase full of roubles which had been stolen a year before in a raid on a bank in Tbilisi in which three people were killed and fifty injured. He had escaped to Paris, where the French government had caught him red-handed when he tried to bank the loot (the serial numbers of the stolen banknotes were known), but to the fury of the Russians they simply expelled him from France rather than extradite him back to Russia. Wallach, not surprisingly, went to his sister in Belfast, where the long arm of the Okhrana might have more difficulty in reaching him.

Family lore (as interviewed in the Belfast Telegraph in 1940, subsequently unearthed by Slavicist Neil Cornwell, and recently republished by Manus O'Riordan here) has Wallach wandering around Belfast in a white Parisian linen suit and a Panama hat, puffing furiously on large cigars, and climbing Cave Hill for recreation. He got work teaching Russian in the Berlitz language school (branching out to German, French, Spanish, Italian and even Japanese as required). He stayed with the Levinsons for two years, until his friends from Moscow ordered him to London to work for them there.

In London, Max Wallach became Maxim Litvinov, and hung around with the Fabians of the Bloomsbury set; and when his friends from the Tbilisi bank raid, Joseph Stalin and V.I. Lenin, came to power in Russia, he became the new regime's informal ambassador in London - though he was eventually arrested and exchanged for a British spy who had been captured in Russia. He served as Soviet Foreign Minister from 1931 to 1939, and as Ambassador to the USA from 1941 to 1943. He never spoke about his Belfast experience, not even to the Irish diplomats who he persuaded to allow the Soviet Union into the League of Nations in 1934. (Any such considerations were probably obscured by the glamour of his wife Ivy, an Englishwoman who was a fascinating character in her own right.)
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