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Interview: Albert Russo

Synagogue in Elisabethville, Lubumbashi, Congo 1950s

Albert Russo is a prolific author and photographer whose life is, itself, the story of the 20th century and now the 21st. Russo is a passionate Zionist in the fullest, richest and best sense of the word. He is a humanist. And he is an exceptional man. In many ways, his story joins the story we share, we who have made aliyah and made Israel our home.

Where and when were you born?

I was born in Kamina (Katanga province), in the former Belgian Congo, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1943.

Wedding of Albert Russo’s parents Moïse and Sarah Russo in Elisabethville, Belgian Congo, 1942

Tell us about your parents.

My father was Moïse Russo, orginally from Rhodes, where he attended the Italian school, since after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Dodecanese islands were administred by Italy, until the fall of Mussolini. He left Rhodes in the 1920s for the Belgian Congo. His parents and baby sister were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. My mother, Sarah, née Almeleh, was also born in Rhodes. She was only five when she and my grandmother Reina and her other siblings rejoined my grandfather, Behor Raphael, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he had settled earlier. She consequently had a British education and became a superb pianist. She and my father met in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi, Congo) where they got married in 1942.

 My father emigrated, young as he was (15), this, against his parents' will. He rejoined a childhood friend of his from Rhodes who encouraged him to settle in the Belgian Congo. My father was a very adventurous young man, he was afraid of nothing, a swashbuckler, a jack-of-all-trades. The first 20 years in the Congo were very tough, he lived in shacks, with no electricity, no water, and still he never complained. In my mother's case, it was my grandfather, Behor Almeleh, who went to Southern Rhodesia, alone, during the first decade of the 20th century. His wife and his six children rejoined him there in 1925 - my mother was only 5 then. She grew up in a British environment. My grandfather was the co-founder of the first Sephardic synagogue in Salisbury (Harare), the capital of Rhodesia. I adored him and his wife, Granny Reina. He was religious and very tolerant. I loved the Shabbat dinners in my grandparents' house, surrounded by the whole family. Those are very precious memories.

Where did you go to school?

I attended pre- and primary school in a Catholic institution in Elisabethville.

I was then sent to Belgium for one year to start secondary school, after which I rejoined by parents and my two sisters, Rachel and Irene, in our new home in Usumbura, the then capital of Rwanda-Urundi, which in 1962 separated, becoming Rwanda and Burundi. I studied six years at the secular Athénée Royal there and got my Rhétorique diploma in 1960. That same year I flew to America and registered at NYU, where I majored in Business Administration and minored in Psychology. I then went to Germany and studied German literature and culture in Heidelberg.

How many languages do you speak?

My two mother tongues, in which I write my books, are English and French, my paternal tongue being Italian. Then come Spanish - the vernacular Ladino I heard during my youth helped me a lot - and German, both of which I also speak fluently. I used to be able to converse in Dutch, but nowadays I can only read it, as I also read Portuguese, but do not understand it when spoken. I still have some knowledge of Swahili and am now learning Hebrew, which I love but find very difficult, especially since, contrary to the language of the Torah, it has dropped all the vowels.

When did you realize you would be a novelist and when did you publish your first novel?

Writing came to me quite late. I started writing my first poems in English when I lived in Greewhich Village, during my university years. Soon I began to publish them in literary magazines. When I moved to Italy I started to write in French, while pursuing my work in English. I began to write short stories in both languages and soon thereafter I turned to novels. Whereas I continued to publish prose and poetry in North America and the UK, my first novel came out in French.

When did you meet James Baldwin?

I met James Baldwin in Paris, where I had lived in the 1970s, then again in the 1980s, after having returned to New York for another 4-year stint. I met him just a few months before he died. Our encounter was brief but intense, for he liked my work and encouraged me.

Tell us about your relationship with Belgium's royal family.

I read an excellent biography by Dumont about the extraordinary and little-known Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, a close friend of Einstein with whom she played the violin, Yehudi Menuhin, Colette and Jean Cocteau. She was a hero in both World Wars, a very unconventional and extravagant woman whose curiosity had no bound. I'm not a royalist. It is the person I admire. I know Delphine Boel, her daughter, personnally because she is a close friend to my daughter Tatiana. She is a painter and sculptor, and her work is exhibited internationally.

UNICEF First Prize for Literature to Albert Russo in defense of childhood, 2013

How many books have you written?

About 35 in prose and poetry, as well as 55 photo books. I am a compulsive writer and photographer. Literature and photography are existential to me. If I stop writing or taking photos, I go down the drain and become suicidal.

If there were just one book by Albert Russo to read which would it be?

I'm eclectic, remember. Novels: Mixed Blood. Poetry: The Crowed World Of Solitude (a big volume encompassing 40 years of poetry writing). Gosh Zapinette ! a series of universal and Jewish humor.

Did you have a Jewish education?

When we lived in Elisabethville and I attended the Catholic Collège St. François de Sales, our community rabbi Moïse Lévy used to come twice a week to teach us the Torah and Hebrew. I had the bare minimum to prepare my Barmitzvah. But since we moved to many other places in Central Africa, where there was no Jewish education, I lost the little I knew.


When did photography become a passion for you?

Unlike writing, I was interested in taking photos as early as 10.

Are you married and do you have children?

I was married (and divorced) twice and have two wonderful children, Tatiana and Alexandre, and three marvelous grandchildren, Eden, Raphael and Louis. I should also mention both spouses, who are close to my heart, Tuvia (Tatiana's husband), and Géraldine (Alexandre's wife).

Where do you live now?

In the city where the future is being shaped, not only technologically, no, more importantly, I would add, where humanity in its rich and colorful variety thrives and is an example the world should pay attention to. Tel Aviv, the kind, the free and the bold (which is the title of my next photo book).

You have been in a long-term domestic partnership with Bernard Porlier. How and where did you meet?

I met Bernard in Paris 26 years ago at the Orsay Museum. He is my life partner and I could not live without him.

When did you come out to your family and friends and was it difficult?

It happened naturally. I never had to say anything. My darling mother, my children and grandchildren accepted Bernard as another member of the family, and they all love him. He, on the other hand, had very intransigent parents.

Why did you move to Israel?

When, after New York's Twin Towers were destroyed by Islamic terrorists, I saw how cowardly the Western governments reacted, I started thinking of moving out of France, which was becoming more and more violent, not only towards the Jews, mainly towards the non-Muslims in general. Then I was hesitating between three of my favorite cities: The Big Apple, Rome and Tel Aviv. I finally chose the latter, because to me, it is a little New York, with the most beautiful seaside any cosmopolitan city can dream of.

Do you have any regrets as you look back on your life?

This is a difficult and rhetorical question. Yes there are things I do regret having done or not having done. There are many good things that happened and are happening in my life, but the opposite is also true. I'd rather not discuss this matter. Readers, if they wish to know something about my persona, will be able to see what I like and what irks or infuriates me. This I will reveal: my dream was to become a pilot, not a writer. Writing imposed itself upon me, I didn't choose it. I still dream of seeing myself flying at the helm of a Cessna, a DC 3, a Super Constellation, a Concorde or, why not, the next Boom Supersonic plane.

Martin Sinkoff is a writer and wine merchant living in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or through his blog at Times of Israel. 

 

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Monday, 18 October 2021

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