Growing up, I had heard the story about my mother and her family coming from the Island of Rhodes to Seattle. I heard how the family felt indebted to their Uncle Ralph and Aunty Rachel for helping them get here. I listened to my mother speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) to her mother and Aunt Esther on the phone each day. I understood some of the Spanish-like language, but didn’t really think anything of it.
I took the whole thing for granted.
But now, 70 years after my mother stepped foot into the United States for the first time, I no longer take this story for granted. I recognize how hard it was for the family to get here. I realize what a tough person my mother was to make it happen. I realize that immigration wasn’t easy or simple then – just like it’s not easy or simple today. And I realize what an incredible story this is, a story that I felt compelled to tell in my new book, “A Hug From Afar: One Family’s dramatic journey through three continents to escape the Holocaust.”
It’s now available on Amazon. I hope you’ll indulge me by reading more about it in this news release. If you like what you see, I hope you’ll get the book to learn this important piece of history. You can also “like” my A Hug From Afar Facebook page.
BELLEVUE, Wash. (March 1, 2016) – From the young age of 9 on the Aegean island of Rhodes, Clara Barkey started writing to her uncle Ralph and aunty Rachel Capeluto in the far-away place known as Seattle, Wash. This smart and determined young woman, who was always at or near the top of her class, used the dying language of Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, to report news of the relatives Ralph left behind on Rhodes and the happenings of her Sephardic Jewish community. But what started as friendly letters quickly turned to desperate pleas for help as life for the Jews of Rhodes deteriorated under the control of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who allied with Adolph Hitler.
Forgotten and never thought of again, Clara’s letters turned up more than 60 years after they were written and after she, Ralph and Rachel had passed away. Preserved and translated from Ladino into English, they paint a vivid and detailed 16-year story of how one family triumphed and survived after they became refugees and rode the roller coaster of successes and failures to legally win permission to immigrate to the United States.
This compelling story of perseverance, determination, love and grit is brought to life in A Hug From Afar, a historical narrative nonfiction memoir Seattle-area journalist and publicist Cynthia Flash Hemphill has edited and compiled based on the letters written by her mother Clara Barkey from 1930 to 1946.
“A Hug from Afar reads like a suspense novel–only it’s a true story. It feels as though it’s your family caught up in a tale of hope and fear, frustration and happiness. The family ties that reach across continents and over decades, and an American immigration bureaucracy working to make family reunification as difficult as possible, ” Paul Burstein, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Political Science, and Stroum Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, wrote in his commentary on the book.
The book goes far beyond one family’s story. This compilation of rich primary source documents captures the history of the Sephardic Jews on the Island of Rhodes, descendants of Spanish Jews exiled during the Inquisition of 1492.
The book “gives voice to a now-lost Jewish community on the verge of annihilation, to a Jewish family seeking asylum, and to one young woman who initiated a thread of correspondence with relatives in the United States that would ultimately solidify her family’s escape from the Nazis,” writes Devin E. Naar, Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington, in a detailed and compelling foreword to the book.
“The story itself is not only captivating and powerful on its own, but is also of great historical and cultural significance,” Naar writes. “Too seldom do we have access to the perspectives of women in history, even fewer with regard to young women, and very few when it comes to the Sephardic Jewish world. While we know of Anne Frank and her diary, we have almost no sources composed by Sephardic Jewish girls or young women describing their experiences regarding the rise of fascism and the onset of the Second World War.”
The book uses 16 years worth of letters and official documents to take the reader through a detailed journey of exile, community annihilation, dashed hopes, and real-life drama seen through the eyes of a young woman forced to grow up too quickly as she desperately worked to save her family from Hitler’s efforts to destroy the Jews.
As she put this book together, Flash Hemphill came to understand that her mother’s story is far more than a family history. It offers a much broader lesson that needed to be preserved and made available to a wider audience.
“We are at a point in history now where we’re willing to hear the broader stories of the impact that the Holocaust had on so many people – not only those tragically killed in the death camps, but also the refugees and the lives and communities left behind. Most of these survivors are now gone. It’s important to really embrace the stories of the few who remain,” Flash Hemphill said.
“I hope readers of A Hug From Afar will not only learn about my family and the history of the Jews of Rhodes, but also will consider the many other themes this book offers. It centers on the topic of immigration of refugees, a hot subject as the world struggles over this important issue. It also shows the importance of why it’s important to preserve family histories, especially now that we have moved away from formal, hand-written letters to the instant and quickly discarded forms of today’s communication – e-mail, texts and tweets,” she said.
A Hug From Afar, by Claire Barkey Flash, edited and compiled by Cynthia Flash Hemphill, translated by Morris Barkey, is available to purchase in print and e-book form at Amazon.com and through Createspace. “Like” the book and learn more about it at https://www.facebook.com/ahugfromafar.