This is an edited extract from The Star on the Grave by Linda Margolin Royal (Affirm Press)

Chapter 5

The sun streams through the open door of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Paddington. It looks almost fake in its perfection, how it hits the shiny glass teardrops of the large crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling.

Rachel stands below it, turning in a circle as she takes it all in, this place in which she is to be married to her fiancé. She observes the gilt-edged, intricate, brightly coloured paintings of saints and Madonnas, the ruby-red carpet that has seen many a glowing bride teeter down its well-worn pile, the dark wood pulpits and the simple olive-green leather seats.

It’s a lot; she slips her arm through Yanni’s, rests her head on his shoulder. There’s a knot in her chest that she doesn’t understand. Yanni isn’t going anywhere, she reassures herself.

‘What a building!’

She turns to see Felka standing at the entrance. Her grandmother, who has never moved tentatively in her life, takes a small, shuffling step through the front doorway. She peers around the interior, assessing every inch, running her fingers along ledges as if inspecting for dust, removing her spectacles to get a closer peek at the finer details in the brushstrokes on the artwork. Analysing, regarding. Criticising.

Rachel greets her and kisses her on the cheek. ‘Isn’t it gorgeous,’ she says, less of a question than a statement. A request, even. Please be nice. She points out the key locations: ‘This is where we will stand, and you and the bridal party will be here, and we need to organise floral arrangements to go there and there.’

She turns back to see Felka staring at the icon of Christ on the cross. Felka peers into the eyes of Jesus and he peers back.

‘Felka?’ Yanni says, glancing at Rachel, who shrugs.

Felka shakes her head. She’s trembling, Rachel realises. ‘Grandma,’ Rachel says, crossing to her. ‘Here, sit down.’

Rachel and Yanni guide her to a pew, which she all but falls into, still staring at the icon.

‘Grandma? Yanni, can you get her some water—’ Felka exhales. ‘I need to get out.’

She climbs to her feet, and starts stumbling down the aisle, almost running.

‘Grandma!’ Rachel calls, running after her. ‘Are you okay?’ Yanni catches up and they steer her to a bench outside. She closes her eyes, breathing. Rachel’s worried she’s going to start coughing, but her breaths are even, deep.

‘I think we should take you home,’ Rachel says after a moment. ‘I’m worried about you, Grandma.’

‘I’m fine, I’m fine. Emotional.’

‘Grandma,’ Rachel says, a little more sternly than she means to. ‘You are not fine.’

Felka cracks an eyelid to peer at her. ‘Did you just raise your voice at me, pupelle?’ ‘I – sorry.’

‘No, no.’ Felka smiles. ‘I wish you would more often. But not too much. I am your grandmother after all.’

‘Do you want me to get your car, Felka?’ Yanni asks.

‘No, no. I can drive.’

‘I’ll come home with you,’ Rachel says. ‘No buts. I’m worried about your blood pressure.’

Felka exhales. ‘I think that’s a good idea, pupelle. Let’s go home.’


Rachel drives, insisting Felka try to relax. As she stares across at her beautiful granddaughter, the light of her life, Felka knows it can’t be put off any longer. She knew the moment she stood in that enormous church, staring at Christ, that it was time. The moment Rachel closes the door behind her, Felka hands her the telegram.

Rachel, bemused, looks at the sender’s address – Joshua Nishri. A name she has never heard. She reads it aloud.

‘On behalf of Jewish refugees saved by Chiune Sugihara at the Consul-General of Japan in Lithuania in 1940 . . . he’s finally been located alive and well . . .  you are cordially invited to attend a reunion in Kobe . . . ’

She looks up. ‘Japan? What is this? Who is Sooji – Sahji—’

Felka finishes the word. ‘Sugihara.’

‘Who is he?’

‘I – we – Come here, pupelle.’ She leads an unresisting Rachel to the couch. ‘It’s time you knew.’

‘Knew what?’

Felka can see she’s put the cart before the horse. These creases can’t be ironed out. But where to begin? Back to the start, she supposes. Time to drag up the heavy burden of the past. But slowly, slowly, not all at once.

Rachel, though, is impatient. ‘What is it? This Sugihara is Japanese, right? But who is Joshua Nishri, and why did he send the telegram? Are you going to support these Jewish refugees? Is this your trip you keep talking about?’

Felka shifts on the sofa, tweaks the edge of her skirt. She needs a glass of water. She swallows, coughs. ‘Wait a second. Wait. Let me explain.’

A moment, just another moment, before she reveals her and Michael’s great betrayal. She takes Rachel’s face in: the smooth, sunkissed skin, the wonderful way her nose curves ever so slightly, her wide, brown eyes. Her beautiful granddaughter.

‘I will tell you some things now,’ she says, putting a hand on Rachel’s. ‘Pupelle, yes, I’m going to Japan.’

Rachel frowns. ‘But why?’

‘When we left Europe, we got visas to transit through Japan. August, 1940. It was the only place we could go.’ She stretches over to the cushion next to her and retrieves a large document. She hands it to Rachel. Rachel glances at it but it’s mostly in Japanese and some other languages she can’t identify. There is only one line in English: TRANSIT VISA seen for the journey through Japan (to Suriname, Curacao and other Netherlands colonies) 1.8.1940.

‘The only place?’ Rachel asks, looking up from the visa. ‘What do you mean? And didn’t you emigrate in 1936? Suriname? Curacao? What?’

Felka holds up a hand. ‘Michael and I came to Australia in July, 1941. We were let in on a six-month visa, and we ended up staying Michael was only young, but he was so serious, even then. He’d spent every day with little Shirley Schagrin from the second we landed in Kobe and he was heartbroken when he realised he might not see her again. Your mother’s parents loved Japan. They wanted to stay. They were sent to Shanghai for a time, while the war went on, but when it ended, the whole family, including Shirley, returned to Japan for good. Michael loved her but couldn’t move on. They were childhood friends who became sweethearts on the journey. You share an experience at such a young age, you grow close, even at fifteen, you know what I’m saying, pupelle? She felt the same. They wrote constantly, they sent photos.

‘Once we had a home in Australia, and I had a job, Michael became determined to bring her here. He worked many jobs to save what he could, and I gave him the rest. In 1946, he went back to Japan and asked Shirley to marry him and move to Australia. Shirley’s parents never forgave Michael for it. They stayed in Japan till they died.’

‘Japan?’ Rachel is still utterly confused. ‘Why didn’t you tell me,  wait. You haven’t answered my question. Why have you been invited to support these Jewish refugees? Was my grandfather a diplomat? Is that how you know this Sugihara? How you got the visas to Japan?’

Here it comes.

‘No. Not going to support them.’ A huge breath that threatens to turn into a cough, and she clears her throat. ‘We are them.’

‘Them what?’

‘Those Jewish refugees.’

Rachel stares at her. ‘We’re  . . . Jewish.’


‘So I’m – I can’t be – Jewish?’

‘Pupelle,’ Felka says, aghast, trying keep her voice level. She can’t bear to hear this from her own granddaughter. ‘What is so terrible about that? To be Jewish? Is it so unthinkable?’

‘No. It’s just—’ Rachel is surprised at her own response. ‘It’s just a shock. I mean, I went to Catholic school. I’m Christian. At least, I guess I am? I know I don’t go to church, but . . . you never did anything to make me think otherwise . . . what does this make me?’

Rachel is rambling. It’s unlike her. Felka decides this needs to be addressed immediately, with great finality.

‘You are Jewish. A Jewess. If your mother is Jewish, you are a Jew.’

‘Am I?’ Rachel snaps. ‘No! Then why don’t I know anything about being Jewish? How come we’ve never gone to synagogues? Why did you hide it from me all these years? Why aren’t you living as a Jew. Jewess. Why?’

Felka looks to the floor. She can feel Rachel looking at her for an answer. It’s easier to talk if she doesn’t look up.

‘We wanted you to grow up free. Without fear. Without ever having to run for your life and hide.’

‘Fear of what?’ Rachel still doesn’t understand. How can she?

‘Fear of being singled out as a Jew. Of being hated and persecuted because of what we were born into. People judge us, darling,’ Felka tries to explain. ‘People hate us without reason. It is just how it is. How it has always been.’ She picks up the visa in Rachel’s lap and gently turns it over. Two black-and-white portraits: Felka and Michael, Felka’s details written beside them in Polish.

Rachel frowns, reading aloud. ‘Margolin . . . not Margol?’

‘Your father thought it would be better, once he started the business. So easy. Cut off two letters and fft,’ she slices the air with a hand. ‘We are not Jews. Nobody knows.’

She risks a glance at Rachel, who is staring into nothing. ‘You went to Japan to escape the Nazis,’ she says slowly. ‘Not just Poles. Polish Jews. We’re Polish Jews. I’m also trying to understand . . . Hitler murdered all our family. Is that right? Because otherwise – where are they all?’

Felka can’t respond to this. She can’t. She doesn’t have it in her. Rachel continues.

‘So you were saved, came here to start a new life, changed your name.’

‘We had to protect you,’ Felka says. Begs.

Rachel looks at her. ‘Protect me from what? The truth? That I’m Jewish?’

‘Pupelle, please. I couldn’t let you get married and convert without knowing. Don’t get mad at an old woman.’

‘Don’t get mad?’ Rachel repeats. Felka’s never seen this expression on Rachel before. She may have her mother’s face, but in this moment, she looks just like Michael.

Rachel stands up, walks to the front door and grabs her bag and coat. Felka calls after her. ‘Wait, Rachel—’

‘I can’t be here right now,’ Rachel says, and walks out the door.

Article by Author/s
Linda Margolin Royal
Linda Margolin Royal was born in Sydney, forever thankful her father and grandparents received life-saving transit visas from Chiune Sugihara in 1940, which enabled them to enter Japan and escape the Holocaust; and ultimately meant they could find a permanent, safe home in Australia in 1941. The remainder of her family numbering in the hundreds were murdered in concentration camps. This work is therefore a labour of love to which she is now devoting her life. She trained as a graphic designer and then copywriter, and spent 30 years in the advertising industry both in Australia and the US, writing TV, radio and press for major multinationals. Her first instinct was to write her family's story as a film, which is currently in development; and the book grew organically from this screenplay. Linda's creative bent extends to abstract painting and drawing from live models – skills she has carried through life from her time in design school. The Star on the Grave is her first novel.

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