In the 1930s, as waves of war and persecution were crashing over Europe, two young Jewish women began separate journeys of survival. One, a Polish-born woman from Bialystok, where virtually the entire Jewish community would soon be sent to the ghetto and from there to Hitler's concentration camps, was determined not only to live but to live with pride and defiance. The other, a Russian-born intellectual and introvert, would eventually become a high-level censor under Stalin's regime. At war's end, both women found themselves in Moscow, where informers lurked on every corner and anti-Semitism reigned. It was there that Ester and Ruzya would first cross paths, there that they became the closest of friends and learned to trust each other with their lives.
In this deeply moving family memoir, journalist Masha Gessen tells the story of her two beloved grandmothers: Ester, the quicksilver rebel who continually battled the forces of tyranny; Ruzya, a single mother who joined the Communist Party under duress and made the compromises the regime exacted of all its citizens. Both lost their first loves in the war. Both suffered unhappy unions. Both were gifted linguists who made their living as translators. And both had children--Ester a boy, and Ruzya a girl--who would grow up, fall in love, and have two children of their own: Masha and her younger brother.
With grace, candor, and meticulous research, Gessen peels back the layers of secrecy surrounding her grandmothers' lives. As she follows them through this remarkable period in history--from the Stalin purges to the Holocaust, from the rise of Zionism to the fall of communism--she describes how each of her grandmothers, and before them her great-grandfather, tried to navigate a dangerous line between conscience and compromise.
Ester and Ruzya is a spellbinding work of storytelling, filled with political intrigue and passionate emotion, acts of courage and acts of betrayal. At once an intimate family chronicle and a fascinating historical tale, it interweaves the stories of two women with a brilliant vision of Russian history. The result is a memoir that reads like a novel--and an extraordinary testament to the bonds of family and the power of hope, love, and endurance.
After leaving Russia in 1981 when she was 14, journalist Gessen visited 10 years later and moved back a few years after that. The transition represents the two major themes of her memoir: displacement and familial ties. After reconnecting with her Russian kin, Gessen seeks to explore her roots. Rather than tell her own story, Gessen reaches into her family's past, weaving together the stories of her two grandmothers as they live through the turmoil and terror of the first half of the 20th century. The two Jewish women, born in separate countries, meet and become friends in 1949, after fleeing persecution and war in Poland and Russia. The terrors strengthen their friendship, Gessen writes: "It was probably most like family: a bond that once established, was believed permanent." Both have children, who then fall in love with each other and have children of their own, including Gessen. By using the present tense, Gessen gives the memoir a sense of immediacy. She also deftly puts her grandmothers' experiences in context by describing the brutal realities of Stalin's regime and the desperation of Jews trying to escape Nazi concentration camps. This blend of historical depth with personal experience is a powerful mix, illuminating how family and friendship can grow in even the darkest eras.
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Dial Press Trade Paperback
October 23, 2005
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Excerpt from Ester and Ruzya by Masha Gessen
Chapter One Like any place that has been lost, Bialystok was heaven on Earth. Or the center of the universe. That, in fact, it was--or at least it was a sort of universal crossroads. It had been ruled by Prussia, Russia, and Poland, and its streets rang with Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, Belarusian, German, and Russian: this was perhaps why Esperanto was invented there. It was also--no, it was most importantly--a center of Jewish life in Poland between the two world wars, when Poland was the center of Jewish life in Europe. More than half of its one hundred thousand residents were Jewish; and Jews, having lived there for five centuries, dominated the city's business, political, and cultural life. The current crop of Judeophile Polish historians is fond of claiming that Bialystok in the interwar period was spared the ugly anti-Semitic incidents that grew frequent in the rest of Poland, but this is not so. It is nonetheless true that Bialystok had more synagogues per capita than any city in the world, that in addition to Jewish schools and the world's first Jewish ambulance service it had Jewish old-age homes and soup kitchens, an orphanage and various other charities, and that all of this earned it the moniker "The City with the Golden Heart" among European Jewry. Bialystok was neither particularly flat nor especially hilly. It had a broad main promenade and a web of crooked cobblestone streets. It had a Jewish quarter that was largely poor, and it had other, more affluent neighborhoods, where the landlords were mixed and the tenants were mostly Jewish. It had ambition. Forty years after the city was destroyed, Jewish survivors living in New York published a memorial book that overflowed with pride in the city's prewar accomplishments: "Bialystok's streets grew more beautiful. . . .Electric cables were laid under the ground, streets were widened, avenues were lined with trees, and a new sewer system was installed. Large new apartment buildings and four-family homes were constructed." In one of these four-family homes on Zlota Street lived the Goldbergs, my grandmother Ester's family. The name of their street in Polish and their surname in Yiddish meant "golden," and they might have joked about this without a trace of embarrassment, because they really were one of Bialystok's golden families. Her father, Jakub, was a big man. Physically, he was hulking: nearly two meters tall, and robust to the point of appearing about to burst out of his suits. Politically, he was imposing. A member of the General Zionist organization, he was an activist of European stature, which certainly commanded respect locally. And locally, too, he was active, as a member of the municipal council--the city's main governing body--and, later, of the kehilla, the board elected by the Jewish community. Financially, chutzpah was his main capital. A bank he had inherited from his grandmother went bust in the worldwide economic crash of 1929, but Jakub refused to scale back: the fancy apartment, one of the city's few phone lines, Ester's governess, and the other help--none of this would be given up. "If I die tomorrow, do I want to be remembered as the Goldberg who paid his debts on time?" He apparently preferred to be remembered as the Goldberg who knew how to live well. He would ultimately be remembered as neither, but he was basically right: life would not go on like this much longer, and, anyway, he did not mind the gaggle of creditors following him around. He briefly tried going into business by buying a train car's worth of candles he planned to resell, but the merchandise arrived without wicks. He ultimately found a job selling insurance for a large Italian company, but he never did pay off all his debts. Nor did he buy an insurance policy--a fact his wife discovered when their apartment was robbed while they were away on holiday, and his descendants learned about six decades later, when the company