There are books about the Holocaust. There are books about the difficulties of living in the Soviet Union, the threat of the purges, the underlying and blatant antisemitism of living in Russia. Books have been written by those who discover their family’s past. Books can teach about the ghetto benches of the 1930’s for Jews who attended university in Poland. Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace by Masha Gessen has all these topics, written in a way that makes you feel like you know her grandmothers, too.
Ester is from Poland; Ruzya is born in Russia. By a stroke of luck? instinct? or maybe some divine interference, Ester applies to university in the Soviet Union and thus saves herself from Hitler. As I have one grandparent from Poland and one from Russia, I found the descriptions of both countries and their Jewish communities absorbing and stirring. Also, my mother and grandmother came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1929 – what might life have been like for them if they had stayed? What was it like for my grandmother’s family? As difficult as it was, clearly there is a draw to life in Russia for the author, as she has currently made Russia her home for herself and her family after living in the U.S.
One of the most poignant, tragic and revealing chapters is about her great grandfather, Jakub. Was he a deluded coward, as some chose to remember him? Or was he an organizer of the resistance effort? The facts were that Jakub Goldberg was a leader in the Judenrat in Bialystok, Poland, and he died in 1943. What happened between the years he was forced to separate from his wife Bella (who managed to make it to the Soviet Union and eventually found her daughter Ester) is a matter of conjecture – the author comes up with several possible stories, based on various accounts she heard and documents that she studied. One learns history through the eyes of whatever witnesses one can find.
There are various parts of the book that elicited a strong response from me. One noteworthy part was when the Germans first come to Bialystok – Ester decides to go outside, and some Nazis decide to take her for a car ride. They use her as a translator in the bakery, but she is so frightened, she realizes she should not go outside if they are around. An uplifting line was when Ester is being interviewed in 1948 for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union (a committee that is disbanded soon after her interview). They give her an Israeli newspaper to translate. She was so excited – she had never seen an Israeli newspaper before! Finally, in more recent times, the author Masha Gessen meets up with the journalist Daniel Schorr. She reports his dismay that his awful Soviet censors are not a group of men but her grandmother, an elderly Jewish woman. It does not fit in with how he imagined his reports being butchered.
Ester and Ruzya is a compelling read – the history comes alive; the main characters feel authentic and warm.