Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ester and Ruzya : How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace by Masha Gessen 2004

"Reviewers sometimes call a work of nonfiction 'as exciting as a novel,' but that would be an understatement applied to this extraordinary family memoir." from a review by Katha Politt in the New York Times in March, 2005

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
                Yael (Yolotchka)
            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
Isaj Drogoizinski
Efraim Borasz
Berel Subotnik
Rabbi Rozenman
Civi Wider
Itzhak Malmed
Jakub Makowski
Daniel Moszkowicz
Pejsach Kaplan
Nahum Grossman
Regina Wojskowska
Chaika Grossman – married to Meir Orkin
Malka Orkin – sister of Meir Orkin
Refoel Rajzner
Mordechai Tennenbaum-Tamaroff
Sara Brenner
Gideon Hausner
Hannah Arendt
Chaim Rumkowski
Leo Baeck
Adam Czerniakow
Isaiah Trunk
Marie Syrkin
Raul Hillberg
Solomon Mikhoels
Zhenia Galperin
Lena Zonina
Polina Zhemchuzhina
Sergei Eizenshtein
David Oistrakh
Isaak Fefer
Ilya Ehrenburg
Max and Lusya Akivis
Margarita Aliger
Yevgeniy Varga
Aleksandr Kushnerov
Iosif Yuzefovich
Boris Shimeliovich
David Gofshetein
Veniamin Zuskin
Vladimir Shamborg
Yevgenia Ginzburg

Places and Institutions
Dzerhinsky, Soviet Union
Ashkhabad, Turkestan
Biysk, Siberia
Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Russia
Brok, Poland
Bialystok, Poland
Bialystok Ghetto
Pereslavl, Ukraine
Novosibirsk, Russia
Omsk, Russia
Warsaw, Poland
Pietrasze Field, Poland
Pruzhany, Belarus
Majdanek labor camp
Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
Dubna, Russia

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