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The moment you suspect your father isn't really your father.

Dad’s 80th birthday party was held late last century in his favourite restaurant, a cavernous space in a middle-class Melbourne suburb with a tiled floor for easy cleaning, possibly even hosing down, and little in the way of warmth, charm or decoration. Clearly, you were here to eat until you were full.

Waiters balanced huge platters of food on their shoulders – grilled meats and fish and salads and dips and bread, bread, bread – delivering them to long tables of grandparents and their grandchildren, their daughters and sons-in-law, sons and daughters-in-law, and second and third cousins and their partners. The place forbade people from bringing their own drinks- instead you got them at the bar, or had them delivered to the table after a lengthy delay- and each time the waiters ventured down the aisles they were accosted by 10 burly customers, hands grabbing their shirts and threatening to unbalance the heaped trays. My water! Where’s my Diet Coke? I asked for a cappuccino! It’s been 10 minutes already and I’m dying of thirst!

Ramona.

Dad, on this, his day, had smuggled in orange juice and mineral water in a string bag. He’d stashed the bottles under his chair, from where he sneaked them out in full view of his grandchildren, his dark-brown eyes winking loudly: for if there can be such a thing as a winking noise, Dad had it in his repertoire. He was playing the big man, as my mother might have put it, a big shot with a string bag - as if this would fool anybody.

My mother’s voice was in my ear, but not because she was sitting beside me. Her voice lived in my head. She had been dead for 21 years. She didn’t make it to her 50th birthday, much less her 80th. Each time Dad reached a new milestone I did the calculation. Why couldn’t it be she who was celebrating, and he who was lying dead in the ground?

I know you’re not supposed to wish people dead. Was it  his  fault  that  he  had  a  new  wife and a new  life? They had been together for at least 22 years - another calculation I would do, justifying my outrage on Mama’s behalf. I have always been good at calculations.

Mama had found a photograph of a strange woman along with a small hand mirror. They had been secured by a rubber band to the underside of the sun visor on the passenger side of our family car, a white 1963 Ford Falcon that Mama and Dad were still driving in the mid-1970s. The woman was standing by a dark-green shrub, smiling at the photographer, who may have been Dad.

She was attractive, I remember thinking, much too attractive for him, surely, a short man with greying black hair slicked straight back from his forehead. The girlfriend, as  we  came  to  think  of  her,  was  several  years  older but more vital-looking than Mama, who’d had chronic myeloid leukaemia for a couple of years by then.

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Mama tucked the photo back under the sun visor and I don’t remember it being mentioned again, although she and Dad could have argued about it in Polish and I wouldn’t have known. They had a long history of fighting but also of mind games. In our family album of often out-of-focus Box Brownie black-and-white photos (all of which seemed to have been taken a long way away from the subjects, so it was hard to see who they were and what they were doing) there were two photos of Dad with another man and two women, strangers to me, on a jaunt in an open-top sports car. I’d never seen a car like that - I had no idea what they were  doing  together and who took the photo, why they were in the album and why Mama left them there.

He must have known she’d find the photo behind the sun visor. It was her car, too, and surely the rubber band in her eye line was a dead giveaway. Just as he must have known that everyone at the 80th-birthday lunch would see his contraband drinks. He must have wanted them to.

Dad left Mama to set up house with the girlfriend, who later became his new wife, in January of the year of Mama’s October death. It sounds bad. But most family stories are complicated.

Ramona's bilogical father.

My oldest nephew, then 11, was sitting next to me at the birthday lunch. He was almost old enough to start preparing  for  his  bar  mitzvah,  nearly  a  man,  so he was allowed to taste the wine. I was teaching him to sip it slowly, to savour it. Not that I was an expert wine drinker. I don’t really like its taste, preferring a shot of vodka. I agree with Ogden Nash that liquor is quicker.

Seeing  this,  his  grandfather - and  after  all,  this  was Dad’s day, and why, he must have thought, shouldn’t he be the centre of attention - called out, ‘Hey, sonny, watch this!’ and downed a full glass of wine in three big gulps, then filled the glass to the top once more. I felt anger rise inside me as I watched him abrogate his grandfatherly duty to be wise and careful with the boy; to respect the wishes of his mother, my younger sister; and to support my gentle modelling of responsible drinking. (These views on grandfatherly behaviour came from television and films, as I never met my grandparents.) How, I thought, and not for the first time, could the old man possibly be related to me?

Indeed, as I cast my eyes up and down the table, I observed, again not for  the first time, that there  seemed to be a meeting of two tribes here. There was the straight- haired, redheaded tribe - my sister, her husband and two of their three children - and there was the taller, curly haired and blue-eyed tribe, my two daughters and me.

Any observer would have to say - and they have, over the years - that there was little physical evidence to link these people, except that they were all at this table, everyone except Dad fearing overeating and subsequent bloatedness, here to celebrate (while swearing under their breath to get this over and done with as quickly as possible) the 80th birthday of this man, this short Jewish tailor from Poland, this survivor who was sent to the Treblinka death camp - twice, mind you, but that’s another story - and who spent nearly two years hiding in a ‘hole in the ground’ with the Goldman brothers.

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When I heard that phrase I thought of Dad as an animal, a rat or a fox, living in a burrow. How did you do that? Later I understood that they hid in a small cellar under the kitchen floor of a rural shack. But the image of him as a hunted thing, a night scavenger, stayed with me.

He was worried then, he once told me, that if he survived the war he would be an alcoholic after drinking daily the bootleg  vodka  they  made  from  potato  peelings,  in  part payment to the peasant who allowed them to hide there, despite the threat to his own life. How they manufactured the drink I never asked, and neither would you if you’d met the man, but there it was, his worry, and he’d tell us that the others taunted him for not wanting to drink, saying that teetotallers would wake up in the morning and know that was the best they were going to feel all day.

For  a  while  I  thought  Dad’s  story  of  the  hole  in  the ground and drinking and hangovers and feeling better later in the day was original. But I heard Dean Martin tell the same joke on TV in the 1960s, and I understood that Dad would’ve had no problem with lifting the joke and putting it there in the same hole he was occupying, with no regard for time and place and history. For him, jokes were more important than mere history: they were his lingua franca.

It was my regard for time and place and history that set me off on a journey which had begun with the ambiguity and secrecy surrounding my dear dead Mama. In fact, for as long as I can remember I had wondered how I could be related to Dad.

My Real Father, I figured, must have  been  someone who Mama loved, but for some reason he was unable to  live with us. That is why we had Dad. Mama was a mysterious woman whose own survival story, of which I knew scant details, involved her assuming a false identity and narrowly avoiding death, thanks to her fine acting skills. It was never easy to ask her something directly and get a clear answer. She outwitted Hitler’s plans for her, so how could I hope to carry out a successful interrogation? Anyway, as you know, she died two decades before Dad’s 80th-birthday party and the chain of events it set in motion.

Ten  years  before  the  birthday  lunch,  Mama’s  close friend Bernadette had called me at work. It was a surprise to hear from her, as the last time we’d spoken was a week after Mama’s death. I’d asked her then if she could tell me anything about Mama’s life and my conception. I knew in my bones that things were not straightforward, and now that Mama was no longer around to moderate my inquisitiveness I thought I could raise the topic with her best friend. But Bern was not for turning: if my mother had wanted me to know something, she would have told me herself. And if Mama had told her a secret, Bern couldn’t possibly tell me.

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I was 23, a mother with a two-year-old child and pregnant with my second, and she was 43. I had no way of arguing with her and, besides, what did I know of the complexities of their friendship and sworn secrets?

After that conversation, Bern disappeared from my life. I imagine she thought that I might be too curious and too persuasive and not willing to let things lie, including my dead Mama’s wishes. She might well have been right.

And then, out of the blue, a decade after Mama’s death, Bern was on the phone telling me that a man had asked after me at a house auction in a suburb near where I lived, asking Bern if I was married and if I had children and what kind of work I did. He wanted to know if I was happy.

The man was a stranger to me, but not to her. Bern said that if I still had any interest in finding out the circum- stances of my birth, I might like to start with him. She gave me his last name, Dunne, and told me that he was one of two brothers who used to own a clothing factory in which Mama worked as a finisher, sewing on buttons and embroidering collars, before I was born.

Why would a stranger want to know if I was happy? If I had children? Dad had never asked if I was happy.

I looked up the name in the phone book and rang the number for a home near where the auction was held, but there was no answer. I tried to imagine the conversation that might ensue. Hello? I was wondering if youre the man who was recently at an auction and asked a woman named Bernadette if I was married and had children and was happyand if you are that man, are you also my Real Father? You need a certain inner strength or a well-honed sense of the absurd to go through with something like that, neither of which I was blessed with at the time. I didn’t call again.

What was it about Dad’s 80th birthday, then, that spurred me to follow up on the clue, many years after the opportunity first presented itself? The possibility that this might be his last birthday, and that I could finally investigate my suspicions without hurting him? That would be a noble answer.

In truth, I was so angry with Dad for guzzling the wine - the way he undermined my careful instruction of his grandson, the way he wanted to upstage the boy, the infantile and disrespectful display of wilfulness at the table - that I left the restaurant with an overwhelming urge to make the connection long severed. I telephoned Bern that afternoon.

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I asked her to repeat the story of the man at the auction. And when she did, more or less word for word, I said that I thought Mama had been wrong. She had gone to her grave with a secret that wasn’t hers to keep. I had spent some years and much money on the psychoanalyst’s couch, trying to understand my estrangement from Dad. I was now in my forties, a few years younger than Mama was when she died at 49. It was time to make some sense of all this.

Bern told me that she had first met the man Dunne when Mama took her to buy men’s suits at wholesale prices from the shop at the factory where Mama had worked for two brothers in the early 1950s.

‘The older brother was shorter, and he was terribly kind to your mother,’ Bern said. ‘The younger one glared at her, and never spoke. But I could feel the tension between them. He ate her up with his eyes. I knew that there had been something between them, but your mother never said.’

I liked the idea of the man eating my mother up with his eyes. She was a lovely woman, though not emotionally open, and she was terribly unhappy with Dad. They fought constantly, and I cannot remember a single act of affection between them. Never a kiss, never a warm touch.

Bern’s   story   of   the   younger   brother   immediately assumed great significance. Why did he glare at Mama - why didn’t they speak? And why did she take her friend to the factory, anyway: was she hoping to irritate or inflame him? Or just to get Bern a bargain suit?

I see Mama preparing for the venture, making sure her stockings  are  straight,  applying  lipstick,  spraying  Amour Amour by Jean Patou behind her ears, between her breasts and on each wrist. She holds her head high, but who knows what goes on in her mind on the way to the factory? Once there,  she  doesn’t  speak  to  the  man,  her  eyes  haughty, looking straight through him, not looking down, no eyelid batting. No batting whatsoever.

I’ve tried to buy Amour Amour in all the airports I’ve passed through, even in Paris, but it’s no longer produced. I once bought a stash from a website offering rare fragrances, but when it arrived I could smell a bad counterfeit. Jean Patou invented Joy, ‘the costliest perfume in the world’, in 1925. His Amour Amour, ‘a floral scent for brunettes’, was released in the same year. How did Mama get hold of her first bottle? I can only afford to buy perfume duty free: how could a poor factory worker develop such expensive taste?

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Until  the  second conversation  with  Bern I’d never thought about it. A child accepts that this is how things are and that they are like this in all families, until she finds out otherwise.

Mama and Dad didn’t share a bedroom. I assumed this was normal until one of their survivor friends noticed that our master bedroom contained two single beds. ‘How can you do anything in a single bed?’ he shouted at the assembled guests, including us kids. I was puzzled. What did you need to do in a bed but sleep? Then he saw me getting a toy or a book from the room, and he understood that the beds were for my mother and me. He exploded with derision. Single beds were bad enough, but  separate  rooms—that was pathological.

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Having gleaned what I could from Bern, I scoured the telephone directory. There were several Dunnes, a name that was strangely non-European and unlike those of Mama and Dad’s friends. At first I assumed it had been anglicised, as happened to some who arrived here bearing Polish or Russian or Hungarian names with unfamiliar letters and combinations of consonants that troubled the local authori- ties.  Then it  dawned on me that he could have  been  an Englishman. Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.

My sister and I had been brought up as the daughters of Polish Jews. This meant cabbage rolls and poppy-seed cake, bargaining and Yiddish melodies. Now I was toying with the idea that I was half English. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Being English meant being tight-lipped (my ungenerous interpretation of stiff-upper-lippedness), drabness (was this impression just from films like Mrs. Miniver, set during the London Blitz), and using only one egg to make a cake. I always used at least eight. I scoured my character for  latent Englishness.

But  of  course!  My  middle  name is  Alice: an utterly English name. How did Mama, who called me Ramona on my birth certificate (so that, come the next oppressive time, people wouldn’t assume I was Jewish) and Rivkele at home, come up with my second name? I dismissed the evidence: that my Spanish first name had come about through my mother  looking  for  something  non-Jewish  starting  with ‘R’, and had heard the popular song Ramona on the radio.

I imagined a less prosaic reason for my second name, perhaps that Mr Dunne’s mother was called Alice and I was named for her. This was the secret sign between them that I was his daughter. My heart pounded - already, it seemed, the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

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I tried to think of good Englishness. Garden beds and hollyhocks and cream teas and Jane Austen. I had tried to like Austen, and I was a fan of irony, but I was completely uninterested in marrying well and the affairs of the landed gentry in the southern counties of Regency England. But that was when I wasn’t English. Maybe now I could admit Jane Austen into my being.

I rang the number for the Dunne in the suburb near the auction all those years before, and a middle-aged man answered the phone. I asked him if he was related to the brothers who’d owned a clothing factory in the 1950s and he said: ‘Who wants to know?’ He sounded like a character from The Sopranos, but without the New Jersey accent.

I explained that my mother used to work for the Dunne brothers, and I was researching her life and hoping to speak to anyone who might be able to tell me something about the time when she worked at the factory. The man told me that his father was living with him, but he was now deaf and not so good at seeing either. I took a breath and asked if his father was the older or the younger brother.

The older one. Joseph. The younger one had died some years before. Max Dunne - in the original Polish, Majlech Adunaj. Melech in Hebrew, meaning ‘king’. He used to eat my mother up with his eyes. Now those eyes were closed forever.

If Max was my father, I was certainly not half English. But was he my father? I’m not sure why I decided to tell the whole story to a stranger on the phone, but I did. He must have sounded open. And to his credit, he didn’t hang up. He was intrigued partly because he recognised my name from my newspaper articles and radio shows, he said; and partly, as I was shortly to learn, because he hated his uncle Max. Perhaps he hoped to hear something scandalous about him. For his uncle had been a married man, and had a son who, we established, was four years old when I was born.

‘What does he look like?’ I ventured. ‘Blond, blue eyes, curly hair.’

‘And what do you look like?’

‘Like  Paul  Newman,  only  better-looking.  But  there  is something you should know about my uncle. He spent years as a slave labourer in Auschwitz, and he was made into a beast. He was a twisted, difficult man who was cruel to his family and to my father. His son had to run away from him. The war ruined him. Maybe it’s best you never met him.’

He offered to mail me a photograph of his uncle, and rang off.

This is an extract from Bloodhound: Searching for my Father by Ramona Koval published by Text, RRP $32.99, you can  purchase the book here