Obituary: Flora Leipman

Anthea Gerrie
Monday 07 June 1999 23:02 BST

IN THE 1930s Flora Leipman left the Glasgow of her childhood for Leningrad, expecting to help build a socialist paradise: instead, her whole family fell victim to Stalin's purges. Her strange, sad life was documented in a book by her, The Long Journey Home, which was also the subject of a BBC documentary.

She was born in Glasgow in 1918 to parents of Russian origin, and spent her first 15 years in a large flat at the Charing Cross end of Sauchiehall Street: "It was a normal, happy family: my father, Alexander, was a furrier, my mother, Maria, was a socialite. I had two older sisters, Cecile and Matilde, and a brother, Sammy." The elder girls went to the private Glasgow High School for Girls, while Flora attended Garnetbank.

After her father died in the late 1920s and her mother remarried, the family were persuaded by propaganda launched at expatriate emigres to return to their country of ancestry: "We got free passage from the Russian Embassy in London and returned to what we believed would be our new socialist homeland."

Instead, soon after they arrived in 1933 her mother went to her job in a Leningrad bookshop and never came back. It was 25 years before Flora saw her again, a defeated and broken woman sentenced to 15 years in the labour camps as a spy. Over the next few years Flora's brother and sisters were seized one by one and incarcerated.

In 1935 Flora met Karl, a young Austrian, in Leningrad and fell in love. They were happy living in a communal flat until he got frightened and wanted to go home. "I was in a dilemma, such a decision to make at 17 - whether to be happy and go to Austria with my husband or sacrifice myself for my mother. I was determined to find her. Karl went out of my life and I never saw him again."

In 1937 Flora herself was seized, interrogated and deported to the notorious camp at Karaganda in Kazakhstan for eight years of excruciating tasks: "The men were dying like flies and as the youngest woman I had to stand their frozen corpses against a stove and melt them for autopsies, then cut them open, sew them up again and throw them in pits - for a girl who fainted at the sight of blood it was unthinkable. But I did it to survive."

The same instinct saw her through years of backbreaking work down the mines to support Russia's war effort: "It was frightening and dangerous, but miners got double rations of bread and I was young." Released in 1945, she spent 10 loveless years with a doctor she met in the camp. He was intelligent and she respected him, until he started drinking and treating her badly. But she stayed with him because she had no other form of security.

In 1956 she was reunited with her mother, who had traced her after her own liberation. She took her home to Karaganda, where she had settled, and where they learned that her sisters had both perished in other camps; it took another 30 years before Flora discovered that Sammy had survived and was living in Florida.

What she called "the beginning of my civilised life" came at 40 when she received permission to return to Leningrad, where she supported her mother by working as a lab assistant, midwife and English teacher. When her mother died, she longed to return to Britain but faced a five-year tussle with the authorities, who resolutely refused her an exit visa, resolved only by top-level talks between Geoffrey Howe and Andrei Gromyko in 1984.

After writing The Long Journey Home, which was published in 1987, she entered Nightingale House in Clapham, south London, an extraordinarily innovative retirement home with a state-of-the-art painting studio. Leipman had been good at art as a child and had played in the museum at Kelvingrove. Years later, in Russia, after being allowed to return to Leningrad, she went nearly every day to the Hermitage, where she found "the beauty of the pictures seemed to compensate for nearly everything I had lost".

She determined to celebrate her spiritual "teachers": one of her earliest paintings is an imaginary assembly of Van Gogh, Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Cezanne, surrounding Judith Leyster, a Dutch woman painter. Soon she started painting pictures of the traditional home life she might have had but didn't: "memories with imagination", of a Jewish wedding, a family dinner, the Passover table. She had a show at the Ben Uri Art Gallery in Soho though she kept her most personal paintings, which are due be shown later this year as part of the Wandsworth Arts Festival, in the Nightingale's own gallery.

A couple of months ago she explained: "Painting helps me forget . . . losing my girlhood, not having shoes, never having enough food, the rage, the waste of all our lives."

Flora Leipman, writer and artist: born Glasgow 5 April 1918; died London 24 April 1999.

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