Rosa (Rust) Thornton
Rosa was born on April 26th 1925, when her father, Bill Rust was leader of the Young Communist League. He named his daughter after the murdered German revolutionary, Rosa Luxembourg, but was himself soon facing a 12-month prison sentence for sedition and incitement.
Three years later, in 1928, Rust set off for Moscow with his wife and child to work for the Comintern. Once there, Rosa aged three, promptly went down with scarlet fever; she recovered, but came out of hospital having forgotten how to speak English.
By 1930 the Rusts’ marriage was over, and, back in London, Bill was appointed as the first editor of the Daily Worker. In 1937, Rosa’s mother also came back to England. It was agreed that Rosa would be better off in the Soviet Union. So their daughter was left at a boarding school for the children of leading foreign Communists, including Josip Tito, Matyas Rakosi, and Mao Tse Tung.
By 1940, Rosa was living in a Moscow hostel for political immigrants, with her days taken up with theatre, music and cinema. Then, in June 1941, came the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and, within a month, the Luftwaffe was bombing Moscow. Her parents assumed she was safe but, amidst the chaos of war, she had latched on to a group of German exiles and got sent to the Soviet Union’s Volga German republic. Rosa became friends with Hannah, an older German Jewish woman. They shared a deserted house, and the 16-year-old worked 12-hour shifts in a canning factory.
Then, three months later, Hannah, as a German, was deported to Kazakhstan. Rosa stood by her friend, and stumbled into the enforced migration of hundreds of thousands of Volga Germans. The two women travelled on horse and cart for 36 hours to Astrakhan, a transit centre for thousands of deportees; then came three days on an open boat along the Caspian Sea to Guryev, followed by six weeks in railway cattle trucks. On arrival in Kazakhstan, Hannah and Rosa were separated.
For two years, Rosa worked in the copper mines, pushing and emptying metal-laden rail trucks. She escaped this, thanks to a letter that she wrote to a Moscow. It found its way to Georgi Dimitrov, general-secretary of the Comintern, who sent a pass signed by himself personally, which arrived in spring 1943.
When Rosa arrived in Moscow, she told Dimitrov that she wanted to go to England, but would not leave until Hannah, and a dozen or so other Volga Germans, were rescued. Hannah was released, and Rosa boarded a convoy for Leith, from where she was sent to London. Rosa Rust was 19 before she had mastered English — after studying at the Regent Street Polytechnic — and, in later years, recalled how, in those early days, she had tried to post letters in bins marked "litter" and thought railway stations were called "Bovril" because that was what the posters said.
After leaving the polytechnic, she worked as a translator for the Soviet news agency, Tass, until the British Foreign Office ejected it in 1951. She married George Thornton, a brilliant young historian, whose career was later damaged by his association with Rosa and her left-wing views, although they remained devoted to each other for the next five decades until their deaths.
Rosa soon discovered that she loved English poetry as much as she loved Pushkin, and this helped her became fluent and articulate. All her life she could recite great swathes of poetry with passion and intensity. She starred in a drama group she set up near Redes Yorkshire, where she and he husband lived.
The actress Anna Calder-Marshall, who planned to present a one-woman show about Rosa’s life, observed that there was only one person who could really play Rosa — and that was Rosa. She was, Calder-Marshall added, one of the most brilliant actresses she had ever met. Rosa died on April 2nd 2000, aged 74.
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