Guilt and loss pervade Ester and Ruzya, (Dial Press, $24.00), a memoir of the lives of author Marsha Gessen‘s two Russian grandmothers, both “winners” in a fiendish lottery where extermination is the cost of losing. Through a remarkable combination of personal interviews and meticulous research, Gessen recreates the times and travails of the two women whose children one day meet, marry and become her parents.
Ester, born in Bialystok, where almost every Jew was ultimately doomed to Hitler’s concentration camps, escaped to college in Moscow. Ruzya, Russian born, struggled under the constant anti-Semitism of Stalin’s bloody purges and repressive regime. In telling their stories, Gessen, a journalist by profession, writes prose so unadorned and so evocative that the horrors she describes seem to be happening again as she recounts them. Always the events are made personal, and therefore more heartbreaking, as they work themselves out in the lives of these two brave women, who are determined to survive despite everything that conspires against them.
Ester is a beauty, feisty and rebellious, always ready to stand up to tyranny even when it threatens her very existence. Ruzya, a single mother, must get by with compromise as so many did under Stalin; she joins the Communist Party and becomes a high-level censor for the Soviet Government. “I was compelled to do it,” she tells Gessen in 1999, “It was the period of that anti-cosmopolitan campaign, so this was, you understand, a forced measure of course, but at the same time it testified neither to the strength of my character nor to my courage nor to a desire to resist, you understand, it meant only that I acquiesced to the circumstances that life forced on me.” She continues, rather wistfully, “Which is why I think I do not look good in your book. Unlike your other grandmother, who has a hero’s biography.”
Evaluating the complicated nature of heroism in extreme circumstances proves to be a difficult task. In a particularly chilling moment, Gessen learns that Ester’s father, Jakub, was a member of the Bialystok ghetto’s Judenrat Presidium, Jewish officials appointed by the Nazis, ostensibly to keep order. Gessen acknowledges that “Hannah Arendt condemned the Judenrats as the most insidious of the forces that came together to kill the Jews.” But Gessen ultimately sides with an historian of the Bialystok Ghetto who assures her in no uncertain terms that her greatgrandfather was not a collaborator As Gessen puts it, “I know [he] was a public official, a civic-minded man engaged in that most hopeless of pursuits, the inevitability and futility of which made me want to write this book: the search for a decent compromise.”
“A decent compromise” seems the theme of this warm and loving book. Though she is ever candid, Gessen does not make the mistake of judging the choices her grandmothers were forced to make. Understandably, in a history of such unrelenting horror and deprivation, joy is not a frequent presence. Nonetheless, joy is there in the tender stories of the two ill-fated love affairs suffered as girls by both grandmothers. Joy is there in the births of children, in the unexpected morsel of food during times of famine, in the stolen moments of a forbidden novel read by streetlamp through a bedroom window. Secret joy is there when Ester learns of the creation of the Jewish State or when she hears of Stalin’s death. And joy is there in the embracing arms of family and friends, made all the more precious by the miracle of sheer survival.
Faye Moskowitz is a professor and chair of the English Department at George Washington University. She has written four books and edited her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters.