Monday, May 4, 2015

The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace by Alexander Stille

"It is Mr. Stille’s determination to use his skills as a reporter to flesh out his family’s history that lends this book its depth of field and emotional ballast." from a review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times  3/21/2013

Alexander Stille’s intention in this interesting memoir is to explore how geography, history and culture shaped each of his parents individually and how their different backgrounds contributed to their volatile marriage and to his upbringing. The author, a journalist, is the son of Mikhail (Misha) Kamenetzki, also a journalist, whose family had fled Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution and settled in Italy, only to have to flee from Italy to the United States as Europe became immersed in World War II.  Mikhail Kamenetzki took the name Ugo Stille, shared with a journalist friend, so he could continue as a journalist in Italy when Mussolini was in power. When he finally got to New York he kept the pen name and continued as a journalist, working as a foreign correspondent reporting to Italy from the U.S.

Among the most vivid scenes in the memoir are those that take place in Italy. The author uses his skills as a journalist to recreate the historical moment and his family’s precarious position – his grandfather used every means possible to find their way out and get to America. Like many other Jews, he sensed doom if he didn’t try everything. But unlike many, he was successful, partly because he had some resources, he was resourceful, persistent, and lucky. A distant relative in the United States never responded to his plea to sponsor them. But as luck and trial and error would have it, a total stranger whose name he plucked from a phone book agreed to sponsor them. It took two years, many days spent on line at the American Embassy, but eventually he was able to leave with his wife and two children.

After the author fills us in on the background of his Protestant  mother and her family and her move to New York, he writes about how, unhappily married to her first husband, she finds herself at the same party as Misha Kamenetzki, one in honor of Truman Capote. In some ways it was an example of the adage “Opposites attract.” Most likely her American character as well as her good looks attracted him. Something of a rebel, she was perhaps attracted to his “otherness,” certainly to his worldliness and his ability to attract a following of literati and other intellectuals. 

Through Stille’s chronicling of their marriage, old age and death he fleshes out their personalities. He also spends some time exploring his father’s ambivalent relationship to his Jewishness. His father had never told his wife that he was Jewish before they married and it seems he would have been just as happy to not reveal that fact at all. That being said, there are times when he acts and reacts to situations that acknowledge his Jewish roots.

That his father was quite an interesting character is quite clear. That he was shaped by “The Force of Things,” as expressed in the title, is a large part of why he was so interesting. That the author has been shaped by that history as well goes without saying.

To read an article about Italian Jews during World War II click here.
To read an obituary of Ugo Stille click here.

Author’s father’s father’s family
Israel Kamenetzki
    Ilya Kamenetzki – son of Israel; married Sara Altschuler
             Mikhail Kamenetski (Michael, Misha U. [Ugo] Stille) - son of Ilya and Sarah; married    Elizabeth Bogert
                     Lucy Stille – daughter of Mikhail and Elizabeth
                    Alexander Stille – son of Mikhail and Elizabeth; author
   Myra Kamenetzki – daughter of Israel

Author’s father’s mother’s family:
Moses Altschuler
      Rosa Altschuler – daughter of Moses
      Sara Altschuler – daughter of Moses; married to Ilya Kamenetzki (see above)

Mir, Russia (now Belarus)
Riga, Latvia
Moscow, Russia
Formia, Italy

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction by David Weiss Halivni 1996

"Halivni's book is surprisingly rich and resonant . . ." from a review by Jonathan Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times 10/16/1996

David Weiss HaLivni has written a memoir in order to tell the story of his life from a religious and spiritual perspective. Until he and his family were deported to Auschwitz when he was a teenager, he spent his early years from about the age of five with his grandparents in Sighet, Romania where his Hassidic maternal grandfather was his mentor. The author was precocious indeed, and although he insists his capacity to memorize was not unusual, as a very young learner he memorized large tracts of the Talmud. He was his grandfather’s pride and joy, his family’s pride and joy, as well as the community’s.

He relates later that his extensive Talmud learning helped him in the various Concentration camps he was assigned to. He impressed fellow inmates with how much he had learned and their reverence for learning stirred a number of them to help him survive. This included at least one Jewish kapo.

When HaLivni was liberated, he first went back to Sighet where he found out that his family had all perished. He then spent some time with a family friend in Budapest, then moved to a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. From there he was sent to New York with other orphaned children and stayed in places where he refused to eat the food until others could prove it was kosher. It was at this point that Jewish American religious scholars encountered his vast learning.

HaLivni, who went on to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then Columbia University, writes about charting his own course. Yeshiva scholars advised him against going to a secular college, wanting him to devote all his time to Talmud, but  HaLivni was interested in the secular world as well as the religious, so he attended yeshiva and Brooklyn College simultaneously.

HaLivni devotes very important chapters to the Holocaust, how he was affected by it, and how and why he still has faith in God despite what he experienced and despite having lost his family. He also writes about how certain beliefs by members of the general public concerning the Holocaust disturb him. For example, he says it is not true that every survivor feels guilt for having made it out alive.

This memoir leaves the reader with a lot to think about. His exploration of his own life as a survivor (he tells little of his traumatic experiences as a concentration camp prisoner) reinforces the notion that survivors are not a monolithic group. Their reactions are shaped by their upbringing, past experiences, circumstances, and individual personalities.

This memoir includes a detailed and useful glossary explaining religious terminology and well as describing who historical personages mentioned in the body of his work were.

To watch a video of a discussion between Elie Weisel (who grew up in Sighet)  and Oprah Winfrey about Auschwitz and to see them at Auschwitz, click here.

To read about the study of the Talmud, click here.

Shaye Weiss   
            Channa Yitte Weiss – daughter of Shaye; married Yisroel Yehuda Katina (a cousin)
            Ethyl Weiss- daughter of Shaye
            Feige Weiss – daughter of Shaye; marries and divorces Zallel Weiderman
            Channa Yitte Weiss – daughter of Feige and Zalell; (took name Weiss once parents divorced)
            Leitzu Weiss – daughter of Feige and Zalell; (took name of Weiss once parents divorced)
David Weiss Livni – son of Feige and Zallel; (took name of Weiss once parents divorced); married Tzipora;  took name Livni is the U.S..
            Shai Livni – son of David Weiss Livni – married Diane Kushnir
Leib Weiss – brother of Shaye
Shiya Maggid – distant relative
Sarah  Festinger – author’s great aunt

Menachem Mendel Hager – grandfather of Tzipora – wife of author

Friends and Acquaintances
Beryl Landau
Shlomo Weiss
Leizar Hoch
Naftali Elimelech Schiff
Menachem Mendel Hager
Shimi Weiss
Rutzi Kratz
Yekutiel Yehuda Teitelbaum
Zalman Leib Gross
Menyu Rubin
Moshe Finklestein
Shulamit Halkin
Saul Lieberman
Aaron Kotler
Joel Teitelbaum
Yizhak Hutner
Louis Finkelstein
Gerson Cohen
Joel Roth
Laibl Kahan
Oskar Dob
Joshua Herschel Friedmann
Chaim Lieberman
Moshe Scharf
Aaron Wertheim

Sighet, Romania
Kobolecka Poljana, Ukraine (formerly Czechoslovakia)
Khust, Ukraine
Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp, in the former Czechoslovakia
Visheva, Ukraine
Ungvar (Uzhgorod), Ukraine
Tyachevo, Ukraine
Jewish Theological Seminary, NYC
Windsheim Displaced Person’s Camp, Germany
Yeshivas rav Chaim Berlin, NYC


Monday, March 2, 2015

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (a novel) published in 1947, published in English in 2010, translated by Damion Searles

"... [T]his is entirely attributable to Keilson's artistry, knowing the small details, having a sense of the house where Nico is being hidden, knowing the main characters well … all this makes the fear, anxiety and distress of the situation these 'normal' people find themselves in palpable." from a review in the Globe and Mail by Andre Alexis 9/3/2010

Hans Keilson, a German Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, has written a novella that draws on many of the experiences of his life: He fled to Amsterdam and hid, and he worked with the Resistance. This work gives readers an opportunity to immerse themselves in occupied Holland and to experience the occupation from the perspective of a Christian couple cooperating with the Resistance and from the perspective of a Jew in hiding.

In this novella, first published in the same year as Anne Frank’s diary, Keilson creates a young Christian couple who’ve agreed to take in a stranger – a single Jewish man in his 60’s. In the first chapter we learn that after many months the hidden Jew has died of natural causes. The rest of the novel is mostly made up of scenes from the past – from his being introduced to the couple, to his settling in, to the nervousness on everybody’s part.

Several chapters deal with the dilemma of how to get rid of the dead body without the couple being suspected of having housed a Jew or without their being caught red-handed with the body of a Jew.  This focus reinforces in the novel an absurdist element created by a political reality that has the world turned upside down. Here a young couple have put their lives in jeopardy to extend hospitality to someone in need. The person who is in need has committed no vile act for which he is being hunted. His sole crime – he was born a Jew.

As we read, we become aware of the many potential problems that can and do arise – issues that the young couple had not thought to anticipate. How safe is it, for example, for the Jew they call Nico, to come downstairs? Can they trust anyone with their secret? Which family members? Any family members? What about venders who come regularly, like the milk man? What to do about the woman who comes to clean twice a week? Caution is intensified by fear.  His being hidden in their home becomes a focus of their day-to-day lives. We can imagine this situation occurring all over this small country and wherever in Europe Christians offered to hide Jews.

The young couple starts off talking amongst themselves about the stranger’s being a Jew. It is clear that Jews are strangers. They are curious about what it means to be Jewish since the stranger explains that he’s given up Jewish ritual practice.  But through the months of forced closeness they become connected and their common humanity transcends their difference. He had put his life in their hands. They mourn his death. They will be forever changed.

Hans Keilson (author)


To read the obituary for Hans Keilson published in the New York Times, click here.
To read the obituary for a Dutch Christian who helped and hid many Jews, click here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits 2012 (a novel)

 "I Am Forbidden whips by, its extravagant narrative steadily cast with complicated, thoughtful characters." from a review by Susannah Meadows in the New York Times 5/15/2012

In writing I Am Forbidden,  Anouk Markovits who grew up in a family who were followers of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Satmar rebbe (rabbi), draws from her own past. The main characters of the novel are members of the Satmar community and, mirroring her own experience, one of the main characters leaves the sect and family to live in the world they shun.

The relatively short novel covers a lot of territory. Book I opens in 1939 with scenes in Szartmar, Maramures, and Sibiu, Transylvania. Book II takes place in Paris (where the author was raised) and covers ten years starting in 1947. Books III and IV take place in Paris in 1968 and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Book V starts in 2005 in Manhattan and closes with a scene in Williamsburg in 2012.

Markovits has constructed an engaging plot that explores the strict life within the community through the lives and decisions of the various characters as they go about obeying their rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, who his followers revere as an inspired interpreter of God’s word.  Markovits brings history to life in her weaving into her story some of the controversy surrounding what came to be known as the Kasztner train, which transported Hungarian Jews to Switzerland out of harm’s way in 1944. The Satmar rebbe Joel Teitelbaum was a passenger  on that train, and we listen as the moral and spiritual issues surrounding his escape are filtered through the belief system of whichever character is telling the story.

What is clear from reading this novel is that although the writer has herself left the fold, she tries to give both sides a fair hearing. She paints a complex portrait of generations in a family, their religious leaders, and their practices in an era that starts with World War II and the Holocaust and brings us up to contemporary times. She leaves room for her readers to contemplate issues of community, individuality, faith, choice, spiritual longings, moral quandaries and moral imperatives.

Since this is a novel, none of the author's family members are named.

Public Figures
Rezso Kasztner
Joel Teitelbaum
Rudolf Vrba
Alfred Wetzler

Szatmar (Satu Mare), Transylvania, Romania
Kolozvar (Cluj), Transylvania, Romania
Maramures, Romania
Kenyermezo, Hungary
Budapest, Hungary
Paris, France
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York

To read an interview with the author, click here.
To read an article about the Kasztner controversy click here.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin first published in 1950; this edition translated into English by Howard Eiland – 2006

"Berlin Childhood around 1900 is perhaps an even more important book today than when it was written." from commentary by Jeffrey Lewis as part of the You Must Read This series on National Public Radio website, May 28 2012

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote the pieces included in this volume in the 1930’s when he was no longer living in Germany. Published in 1950, ten years after his death, Berlin Childhood around 1900 includes some pieces first published in German newspapers, but during his lifetime the manuscript as a whole was rejected by several publishers.
Before exile, Benjamin had lived in Berlin, the place of his birth, having been raised in the West End in a prosperous, assimilated German Jewish family. He was a part of the vigorous intellectual life in Germany that was destroyed by Hitler.

In these pieces Benjamin  re-examines his childhood from a sensual, impressionistic point of view, a literary style much like Marcel Proust employs in his autobiographical fiction. Benjamin was, in fact, a translator of Proust. Benjamin realizes his home, his city, his native country, have been taken from him, so he sets out to re-create many aspects of his childhood so that he can hold on to them. In transferring memory to paper, he leaves behind an eye-witness account, a poetic inventory, of a home and a city that were soon to be destroyed.

The poignancy of his account resides in the innocence of the protected, privileged child he had been whose perspective and experience he re-inhabits in order to write these vignettes. For example, in a section entitled Society, he discusses in some detail a large oval piece of jewelry his mother owned and the pleasure he got out of watching her take it out of the jewelry box and her wearing it on the nights she and his father had social engagements. He remembers it not only as a gem, but as a talisman that he believed kept both him and his mother safe.

As he is writing in the 1930’s about times and places that he treasured, he is aware of the external threat of Hitler’s rule, and we come away with a pervading sense of loss. We know the tragic outcome. -

This volume also includes an introductory essay by the translator, Howard Eiland.

To read a review of a biography of Walter Benjamin published in 2014, click here.
To see a photo of Benjamin's headstone in Portbou, Spain click here.
To read account of his death, click here.

Georg Benjamin – brother of Walter
Walter Benjamin
Dora Benjamin – sister of Walter

Berlin, Germany

Monday, December 1, 2014

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth, translated from German and with an introduction written by Michael Hofmann, published in English in 2008

"It’s not only what Roth sees; it’s what he sees through. And often he sees unknowingly into the future we inhabit beyond his time." from a review by Nadine Gordimer in The Threepenny Review Spring 2003
 Joseph Roth, a journalist and novelist born in Galicia in 1894, arrived in Berlin, Germany in 1920 after first living in Vienna. In this volume Michael Hoffman brings together 34 of Roth’s journalism pieces written between 1920 and 1933 which he has translated from the German. He also includes an informative introduction which includes biographical information about Roth and places him in the context of the Weimar Republic. And he provides footnotes so as to help us understand an occasional obscure reference. Also included are many photographs and illustrations.

Grouped according to subject matter in this volume, Roth’s topics give an impressionistic feel for the Berlin between the wars. His point of view is that of the outsider – someone who lives in the city and knows many of its quarters well, but at the same time he looks at the city, its residents, its architecture, its infrastructure, its cafes and night life with “new” eyes.

An assimilated German Jewish intellectual, Roth chose to write about Berlin’s Jewish quarter and he wrote sympathetically, but at a remove. He describes its residents who are refugees from the East, their difficult living conditions, and the lure of Palestine for those who wander homeless. He is quite passionate in his opinions and upset at their plight, but although he was himself born in Galicia, it is clear he sees them as “other.”

According to Hofmann’s introduction, in 1925 Roth made Paris his new base although he still spent time in Berlin and continued to write for the German newspapers until the Nazis came into power in 1933. The pieces included in this volume written starting in 1924 seem more engaged and more consistently political. One piece laments the murder of Walter Rathenau, a German Jew who, serving as foreign minister, was killed by right-wing extremists. Another, entitled “An Apolitical Observer Goes to the Reichstag,” is a cynical, critical look at the members of the German parliament. In the course of the piece he criticizes the seeming paralysis of the various political parties, each representing its own interests. And he ominously refers to “[t]he goose-stepping of the Nationalists.”

The most powerful piece in the collection because of its subject and Roth’s engaged fury is the last one included, “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” published in French in the September/November issue of Cahiers Juifs (Paris). The title, deliberately echoing the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition, is at one and the same time a piece written to protest the enormity of the burning of books of German writers who the Nazis considered “degenerate,” many of them Jewish, and to protest the expulsion from Germany of German Jewish writers (including Roth, of course). In the piece he gives a brief history of entrenched German anti-Semitism and praises the many German Jewish writers whose books were burned, listing more than three dozen alphabetically (from Altenberg to Zweig). But most importantly, he uses the piece to alert the world, to try to get the world beyond Germany to understand the implications of what was happening. This piece is horrifying to read  now, given that we know the outcome.

Roth mentions no family by name. The translator Michael Hofmann supplies some background about Roth's family in the introduction.
One piece is a tribute to Walter Rathenau.  In the final piece, as stated above, Roth lists and characterizes each of about three dozen German Jewish writers.


To watch a video about the book burning in Germany, click here.
To read a timeline that covers Berlin history and its Jewish residents, click here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

In This Dark House by Louise Kehoe 1995

"An extraordinary, well-told story of a brutal childhood." from a review in Publisher's Weekly 10/1995

Louise Kehoe has written a suspenseful memoir that is difficult to discuss without giving the “ending” away. The cover of the soft cover edition states that this memoir won the National Jewish Book Award, so to some extent as you read, you suspect the outcome, but it isn’t until you get to the last fifty pages that the Jewish content is revealed and discussed.

The memoir focuses on Kehoe’s immediate family, but most specifically on her brilliant, mercurial, autocratic, abusive father, Berthold Lubetkin, a forward-thinking, well-respected architect. Lubetkin and his wife abandoned London in 1939 as World War II was revving up in England, relocating to a farm in rural England where they raised their three children and kept them isolated until each went off to college. Her father, who was both an atheist and a communist, when pressed, said he was a Russian immigrant, educated in Warsaw, the son of members of the nobility who lost everything in the Russian Revolution and that Lubetkin was an assumed name. That was all he would ever say about his background and family.

Over the years the author tried to pry more information out of her father who refused to cooperate except to write a short account of his life that seemed to aim at obfuscation. It wasn’t until he died – he outlived the author’s mother – that Kehoe was eventually able to unravel his story, based on documents and photos he left behind in a yellowing envelope that she found in the back of his closet.
Suffice to say that although her father’s background and circumstances do by no means totally explain his treatment of his wife and children, when we learn his story, we realize, as did the author, that his survivor’s guilt and his shame contributed to his behavior. He insisted on keeping secrets which tormented him – they were debilitating and they scarred those around him as well. This memoir reveals the impact of the Holocaust on multiple generations.

To read an article about the children of survivors, click here.
To see a short video about Lubetkin, the architect and his politics, click here.

The author states that some names have been changed to protect some individuals’ privacy. It is possible that her brother and sister’s first names are not their real names. It’s also possible that the author has changed the first name of her father’s cousin, Mira Aaronovna Lubetkin.

Roman and Fenya Lubetkin
     Berthold Lubetkin – son of Roman and Fenya
          Victoria Lubetkin – daughter of Berthold
           Louise Lubetkin Kehoe – daughter of Berthold
           Robert Lubetkin – son of Berthold
     Zivia Lubetkin – cousin of Berthold
Aaron Lubetkin – brother of Roman
    Mira Aaronovna Lubetkin – daughter of Aaron

St. Petersburg, Russia
Warsaw, Poland
Brooklyn, NY


Monday, October 6, 2014

Terezin: Voices from the Holocaust by Ruth Thomson 2011

"[A] varied and fascinating account—for readers over age 8—of what was, in truth, a brutal transit camp." from a review by Meghan Cox Gurdon in 2/19/11

This slim, picture-book size volume was conceived for young readers, but that should not put off adults who will find this book beautifully executed and worthy of their attention if they are interested in the Holocaust or the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in particular.  The author has assembled the text from primary sources, using mostly quotes from journals, oral histories, works of art and photos of artifacts like records of an identity card of those who had been deported to Theresienstadt. Also, she has included photos of the camp, some of its buildings and prisoners, and current memorials.

The history of Hitler’s rise and the building and set-up of Theresienstadt are laid out simply. The written, oral and visual records provide the emotional impact inherent in eye-witness accounts. Some of these accounts were created during the lives of the prisoners simultaneous with their being in incarcerated. Some were written as recollections by survivors.

We learn about overcrowding, illness, deportations - mainly to Auschwitz, and the role of the Jewish Council of Elders. Since so many artists and intellectuals were incarcerated in Theresienstadt, the role of culture and education are stressed: lectures, classes, and the creation and/or performance of literary, visual, musical and theater arts, both those activities sanctioned and those that took place in secret.

Thomson spends important time on the visit to Theresienstadt by a committee of the Red Cross at the request of the King of Denmark. In anticipation of being found out, Nazi leadership retrofitted the camp in an effort to deceive the Red Cross committee. We hear how deportations for Theresienstadt before the visit helped to reduce crowding, and how keeping the elderly and ill far away from the planned route lowered the risk of exposure. And we learn about the cultural activities that were set up to entertain the visiting committee.

Ruth Thompson’s judicious choice of material as well as the layout in 60 plus pages makes this book of interest to a reader of any age. The Thereseinstadt concentration camp is movingly evoked in this volume.

This book includes several maps, a timeline from 1934-1945, a glossary of terms, sources, an index, and photo acknowledgements.

To read an article about the importance of music in Theresienstadt, click here.
To read an obituary of Joza Karas who recovered and helped publicize music performed in Theresienstadt, click here.

Edih Baneth
Henriette S. Beck
Ferdinand Bloch
Frank Bright
Charlotte Buresova
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
Jakob Edelstein
Zdenka Ehrlich
Raja Englanderova
Pavel Fantl
John Fink
Lily Fischl
Peter Frank
Steven Frank
John Freund
Jana Renee Friesova
Bedrich Fritta
 Tommy Fritta – son of Bedrich
Kurt Gerron
Leo Haas
John Hartman
Ben Helfgott
Mayer Hersh
Hans Hofer
Albert Huberman
Arnold Jakubovic
Alfred Kantor
Helga Kinsky
Freddie Knoller
Rma Laushcherova
Berdrich Lederer
Zdenek Lederer
Peter Lowenstein
George Mahler
Eva Meitner
Frantisek M. Nagl
Josef Polak
Helga Pollak
Hana Pravda
Gonda Redlich
Paul Aron Sandfort
Malvina Schalkova
John Silberman
Alice Sittig
Aron Sloma
Joseph E. A. Spier
Gerty Spies
Norbert Troller
Otto Ungar
Charlotte Veresova
Helga Weissova-Hoskova

Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia

Monday, September 1, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart  2014

"Hilarious as it often is, Little Failure is a record of existential homelessness, of living in a limbo between two different countries and identities." from a review by Peter Conrad in The Guardian March 2, 2014

For those of you who have read any of Gary Shteyngart’s novels, the settings, “characters” and laugh lines in this memoir will be familiar. Born in 1972 in the Soviet Union, he immigrated with his parents to the United Stated in 1979 and settled in Queens, New York. In this memoir he takes us back to what he remembers about his early childhood in Leningrad as Igor, then to his growing up in America as Gary.

In many ways this is the classic immigrant story.The Shtayngarts had come from a country and a culture where they had had deep roots. He dramatizes his parents’ clinging to their Russian ways and the Russian language in America, and the confusion he feels trying to become an American amongst the American born. At the same time that he and his parents marvel at the riches and possibilities America has to offer, they also are discomforted at what they see as an intellectually impoverished environment compared to what they left behind. They are quite perturbed at a far inferior education system in America and constantly push their son to be the best. Hence the title: Little Failure – a nickname his mother bestows on their only child because she’s not satisfied with how much he is achieving.

One of the great strengths of this memoir is Shteyngart’s ability to re-create how he felt and what he understood as a youngster. He deftly sketches in the economic and political climate - the  actualities of Soviet life, including the debilitating anti-Semitism that they experienced.  And he writes with compassion about the terrible choice his mother had to make in deciding she would emigrate, having to leave behind her sick mother in the care of her older sister. He writes lovingly about the influence that both of his grandmothers had on his life, and he conveys his father’s fervent attachment to his Jewish religion here in America which he wasn’t allowed to practice in the Soviet Union. Throughout he adds authenticity and color by sprinkling Russian language phrases into the ongoing family conversations and declarations.

Like most immigrant families who leave their homelands, the Shteyngarts immigrate so that the next generation will have more opportunity. The author understands and appreciates their motives, but the story he tells reveals that what drove them came at a cost. At the same time they were rescued from a hostile environment, they were displaced and had to start in an alien environment with nothing. His mordant, dark humor drives these points home.

This memoir includes many family photos.

To watch a video of Gary Shteyngart reading from his memoir and discussing his life, click here.
To read an article about Soviet Jewish immigration to the United States click here.

Author's mother's family
Seina Nirman
   Gayla  – daughter of Seina; married Dmitry Yasnitsky
       Lyusya Yasnitskaya – daughter of Gayla
          Victoria – daughter  of Lyusya
      Nina Yasnitskaya – daughter of Gayla; married Semyon Shteyngart
             Igor (Gary) Shteyngart – son of Semyon and Nina; author
      Tanya Yasnistskaya – daughter of Gayla
   Aaron – son of Seina 

Author's father's family
 Isaac Shteyngart (formerly Steinhorn)-  married Polya Miller
    Semyon Shteyngart – son of Isaac and Polya; married Nina Yasnitskaya
Igor (Gary) Shteyngart – son of Semyon and Nina; author
Fenya Miller – sister of author’s paternal grandmother, Polya Miller (see above)

Chemirovets, Ukraine
Dubrovno, Belarus
Orinino, Ukraine
Olgino, Russia
St Petersburg, Russia
Queens, New York