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Anatole Portnoff – The 90th Birthday of A. E. Portnoff

The 90th Birthday of A. E. Portnoff

On November 28, 1997, a dearly beloved and respected parishioner of our Holy Resurrection Church in Vancouver is preparing with God’s blessings to celebrate his 90 birthday. For those of us who have been blessed and privileged to know this gentleman, one fact has always been dominant and that is his thoroughly Russian uniqueness, which he has retained despite having lived for the majority of his life far away from his beloved Russian homeland. He has no lost one iota of his Russian ethnicity or Russian soul. It is an added pleasure for all of us to prepare to celebrate together with his family this auspicious jubilee.

Anatole Ephimovich was born on November 15/28, 1907 (on 28, according to the new – Gregorian Calendar) in the City of Cheliabinsk, in the County of Cheliabinsk and the Province of Orienburg. His parents – Ephim Triphonovich and Ephrosenia Gavrilovna and then-respective families – had resided in Cheliabinsk for many generations. They observed traditional Russian customs of that era and lived a comfortable, privileged life of the well to do. Their home in Cheliabinsk was on a small self-contained estate and they had a second smaller home in Ekaterinburg. This second home would eventually play a very significant role in me life of young Anatole.

The senior Portnoffs were a religious couple and raised their large family in a loving spirit and to have a love for God, homeland and fellow man. The family consisted of 9 children: three of them did not survive their childhood, two youngest daughters were born later out of Russia, but four of them: Alexandra, Valentina, Anna and Anatole were brought up together and raised together within the family. Analog’s father’s occupation was mining – searching for minerals and coal and developing new coal deposits.

At the start of W.W.I, Anatole was only seven years old, and he was ten at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution. Because of the subsequent revolutionary developments, the Portnoff family had to abandon their beloved home in Cheliabinsk and move to Ekaterinburg. It is here that a very significant event took place, which left a life-long impression on young Anatole.

In the early spring of 1917, the royal family was brought to Ekaterinburg – Emperor Nikolai Alexandrovich; Empress Alexandra Feodorovna; Royal Princesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia; and Tsarevich Alexei. They were placed under house arrest in the home of Engineer Ipatieff – Ipatieff Manor, – which was near the Cathedral attended by the Portnoff family. The Ipatieff Manor was fortified, surrounded by a high wooden paling, erected to keep the Royal family incommunicado with the outside world. The perimeter of this palisade was patrolled by Bolshevik sentries and the only persons allowed to enter the manor were the priest and deacon from the Cathedral The Archpriest Father John Storozhev was the one who regularly celebrated the Divine services in the Ipatieff Manor and conducted the Sacraments of Confession and gave Holy Communion to the members of the Royal family until the last days of their lives.

Anatole also knew Father John as he too celebrated the holy rites of confession and communion with him at the Cathedral. Once, on a warm and sunny June day as young nine year old Anatole was leaving church after services, he saw the high wooden fence surrounding the large home and with childhood curiosity, he ran over to it. Having found a split between the pales, he proceeded to peek through and lo, and behold standing directly in front of him; he saw Tsar Nicholas and his son Alexis taking a walk about the grounds. At this point, a sentry approached Anatole and unceremoniously grabbed him by his coat and told him to be on his way, thus ending the wonderful scene. The image of the Tsar and his heir vanished but it left an everlasting impression in the memory of Anatole, which has lasted to this day. Anatole Ephimovich is one of those rare few persons who had seen the Tsar and the Tsarevich in person. Shortly thereafter, the Royal Family was brutally butchered and killed by the Bolsheviks.

In 1919, the Portnoff family fled Ekaterinburg for Omsk abandoning all their property. They were able to salvage only that which could fit into a few suitcases and baskets. They traveled by train, which was constantly stopping – it was either out of water for steam or out of wood for fuel – coal was completely unobtainable. Passengers were constantly being hounded and checked upon and made to disembark to help load wood onto the locomotive. A journey, which normally would take a few days – took two months. Upon arriving in Omsk, they could not find any accommodation and the Red occupation was all-pervasive, so, the Portnoff family carried on by rail to Harbin.

During those early years of the twentieth century, Harbin was a very Russian city -populated by a majority of Russians and the native Chinese being in the minority. There were many Orthodox churches and the Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker was presided over by Metropolitan Methodius, the former Archbishop of Orienburg and Cheliabinsk. There were many Russian schools; businesses; stores; and factories with the streets resounding in the Russian language – this was how Harbin existed in those forgone years. Anatole’s father obtained a position as a bookkeeper. His mother was the horn emaker looking after her growing family, which had another addition – a daughter Agnes. (The youngest daughter, Helen, was born in Vancouver.) The older children attended school – Anatole graduating from a commercial college.

It was in Harbin that Anatole met for the second time Father John Storozhev who was the rector of St. Alexis Parish. It was in his church that Anatole started serving in the altar, became a reader, and sang in the church choir. But this did not last for very long.

In May of 1925, the Portnoff family once again lifts up its anchor and sets sail across the Pacific Ocean for the distant shores of Canada. Prior to sailing, Anatole asked for Fr. John’s, blessing and had the rights of Confession and Communion from him. As Fr. John blest Anatole on his long journey, he said: “Anatole, you are going to a foreign land – do not forget our Orthodox Faith, always pray to God and remember Russia!” This counsel from his spiritual father who had also been the Confessor of the Royal Family, Anatole Ephimovich ‘remembered for the rest of his life. The photograph of the Archpriest John, on his desk is a constant reminder of the above parting words.

After a lengthy sea voyage, the Canadian ship “Empress of Canada” sailed into the port of Vancouver in early June. Upon seeing the harbor, all of the passengers – who numbered twenty-five in total – and the Portnoffs were very elated and happy. Unfortunately, an unexpected set of trials was to beset them all. Local immigration authorities refused to recognize their documents, which had been issued by the British Consulate in Harbin and thus would not allow them to disembark. The émigrés did not know what to do but as Providence would have it, a brief story of their plight appeared in the local newspaper. The Russian colony in Vancouver being apprised of their problem immediately started to investigate for a solution to the plight of their fellow countrymen.

On a particularly fine day, the passengers were enjoying the view of the city from the ship’s rail when they observed a priest-monk in a Russian style cassock approaching their moorage. The priest asked for permission to board from the officer of the day and proceeded to ascend the stairs onto the deck. The overjoyed passengers approached the priest, asking for his blessing and quickly produced a table, covered it with a tablecloth and preceded to celebrate a Molieben of Thanksgiving at the makeshift altar. This was the same priest -Archimandrite Antonin (Pokrovsky) who established the first Orthodox Church in Vancouver – our church, the Church of the Holy Resurrection, which has played such an integral part in the life of Anatole Ephimovich Portnoff for 72 years. The history of our church is also the life story of Anatole Portnoff as they are so closely intertwined as to be indivisible.

The first services were held in a “home church” where Anatole Ephimovich sang in the church choir, which consisted of three members! The construction of the first church on Seventh Avenue met with many financial difficulties with creditors. The “Hungry Thirties” did not have payment plans and therefore if one could not pay for services in full, creditors foreclosed on one’s property. It was through the effort of Basil Vasilevich Mironoff in 1935 the Russian Orthodox Society was able to buy out the church. All of these events and the subsequent construction of our present church on Forty-third Avenue have been actively participated in by Anatole Portnoff. He has a vivid and total recollection of all the priests who have served in our church and he thoroughly enjoys recounting stories of all-important events that have taken place in the annals of the church. He has known all of the parishioners who have passed through the door of our church.

Anatole Ephimovich is a living testament of the history of the Holy Resurrection in Vancouver. For sixty-five years, he was a member of the church choir and his velvet bass embellished the choir. He also was an excellent church reader and read for many years the Six Psalms of the Matins; Parables (Paremii) of the Vespers; and the Epistles (Apostol) of the Divine Liturgy. He was always willing to give of his strength, experience and knowledge towards the prosperity and growth of the church. He was a member of the Church Council for many years, holding every single position – from a member at large to the President, the property manager, the secretary, the vice-president etc. – at various times. There is not one duty that Anatole Ephimovich has not performed

All of us who are associated with our church, extend our heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to our dear friend upon the occasion of this significant jubilee and wish him good health and God’s mercy.

May God bless you and the Lord Jesus Christ grants you many more years!

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