Thursday, July 8, 2010
Ester and Ruzya : How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace by Masha Gessen 2004
Masha Gessen, a journalist who was born in 1967 in Moscow, immigrated to the U.S. when she was fourteen, but then moved back to Moscow in 1991 as a foreign correspondent. When she returned to Moscow she was reunited with her grandmothers, Ester and Ruzya, who have been friends since shortly after World War II. The author is intrigued with their lives, since they had lived through some of the most turbulent decades in modern European history, and she interviewed both of them extensively for this book. They both are accomplished, and multi-lingual and held responsible jobs that went a long way toward supporting their families through difficult times.
This fascinating memoir is the story of these two women whose lives were shaped by the forces of history. Ester, her father's mother, was born in Bialystok, Poland and when Hitler started exercising his power, she left to go to school in Moscow. Gessen recreates her childhood in Bialystok and writes extensively about her father Jakob who was a member of the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto and died at the hands of the Nazis.
Her grandmother Ruzya, her mother's mother, was raised in Moscow. Her young husband died in the war when she was pregnant, and she managed to land a job with the NKVD as a translator and censor that supported her and her daughter. But the job exposed her to the harshness of Stalin's regime and its purges and through her eyes we see the toll it took on the lives of citizens of the Soviet Union.
The details of their lives are very engaging. But the most interesting and perhaps vexing sections of the memoir are the ones in which she focuses on the potential moral dilemmas of members of her family. She investigates the life of her father as a member of the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto by doing extensive research, including reading privately printed memoirs written by survivors of the Bialystok ghetto where her father's name is mentioned frequently. Was he a potential savior? A dupe? With the information she gathers, she tries to sort out all of the angles.
The same is true when she talked extensively with her grandmother Ruzya who worked as a censor. Her grandmother feels culpable. Should she have held a censor's job? How does that implicate her in the evils Stalin perpetrated? Geffen has carefully researched this topic as well and integrates her research into her discussion seamlessly. This allows us to contemplate the situation in its complexity.
Throughout the memoir is a discussion of anti-Semitism, both obvious and covert. Beyond the rationing, the paranoia, the constant worry that you might be denounced for any reason, real or imagined, was the added burden of being targeted because you were a Jew. The author forcefully conveys all of this by discussing the lives of her family members, most especially two remarkable women who survived those years in large part due to their own resourcefulness and whose accomplishments are celebrated in this memoir.
There are some pictures at the beginning of each section.
For more information on the NKVD, Stalin's People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, click here.
Jakub Goldberg – married to Bella; author’s great grandparents
Ester – their daughter; married Boris Gessen; author’s grandparents
Sasha – son of Ester and Boris; author’s father
Helena – Bella’s sister; author’s great great aunt
Arnold Gessen – married Miriam; author’s great grandparents
Boris – their son; married Ester Goldberg;
Sasha (Alexander) – their son; marries Yelena Minkin; parents of author
Masha – daughter of Sasha and Yelena; partner with Svenya; author
Kostya (Keith) – son of Sasha and Yelena
Leonid – son of and Ester Goldberg and 2nd husband Sergei
Moshe Solodovnik – married Eva; author’s great grandparents
Ruzya – their daughter; married Samuil Lvovich Minkin; author’s grandparents
Yelena (Yolotchka) – daughter of Samuil and Ruzya; marries Sasha Gessen
Yasha – their son
Boris – their son
Semyon Zenin – Ruzya’s second husband
Alik – author’s 3rd husband
Lev – Eva’s brother; author’s great great uncle
Lev Minkin – married Batsheva; author’s great grandparents
Samuil – their son; married to Ruzya Solodovnik
Yelena – daughter of Samuil and Ruzya; author’s mother (see above)
Zhenya – daughter of Lev and Batsheva; author’s great uncle
Friends, Acquaintances, and Sources
Chaika Grossman – married to Meir Orkin
Malka Orkin – sister of Meir Orkin
Max and Lusya Akivis
Places and Institutions
Dzerhinsky, Soviet Union
Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Russia
Pietrasze Field, Poland
Majdanek labor camp
Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee