Translating war and peace into one family's survival

December 05, 2004|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff

Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace

by Masha Gessen. The Dial Press. 371 pages. $24.

She was Harrison Salisbury's personal reader. It was the early 1950s, and the outstanding and distinguished New York Times reporter was the only American newspaper correspondent living in Moscow. Ruzya Solodovnik worked at the Central Telegraph building on what was then Gorky Street, and she was his censor. She, alone among Soviet citizens, knew what he was writing about her country. And, of course, she knew more than even his editors did, or his readers -- because she herself took out the most sensitive, the most daring, the most damning material. From day to day, she came to know his work, and learn what he reported, better than anyone else in the world.

Did this set Ruzya apart? She was already apart, because she was Jewish. In the last anti-Semitic convulsions of Stalin's reign, she was a Jewish censor -- a gendarme, as her father disapprovingly called her, a war widow so cosmopolitan that she was at home in half a dozen foreign languages. She was familiar with American coverage of her country, determined to hold onto her job as long as she could so she could feed her daughter, and sure that arrest must eventually await her.

It didn't happen, and she has lived to a ripe old age. Her daughter grew up and moved to America, and Ruzya thought she had seen her for the last time, but that wasn't to be either. Now Ruzya's granddaughter, Masha Gessen, is back living in Moscow, and has written this poignant account of the lives of her grandmothers, Ruzya and Ester Goldberg.

Maybe Ester's story is even more remarkable than Ruzya's: Born in Poland, she moved to Moscow one step ahead of the Nazi invasion, married unhappily but decided to stay in Russia, was recruited as a translator by the secret police but then couldn't take the job because of a paperwork tangle. She settled down at a foreign literary magazine, and was the hero of the family because she didn't compromise herself with the regime -- though in fact she tried to.

Ruzya had taken the job at the telegraph office because the alternative was to starve, which she very nearly had after being evacuated to Central Asia during the Second World War. Ester had married badly because the war tore apart everyone's lives, especially the life of a Polish Jew who found herself in a village in Siberia. Both women were in their 20s during the war and, of course, it was the war -- this titanic struggle between two ferociously homicidal ideologies -- that came to define their lives, and the lives of their various husbands in years to come. The war was unforgiving, and the only triumph was to survive. There was nothing pure about it.

Ester's father was on the Jewish council that ran the Bialystok ghetto for the Germans, until, that is, the Germans killed him. Gently but relentlessly, Gessen prods at the question of what it takes to survive in a murderous and totalitarian regime. She begins with this: No one is not complicit. But where's the line beyond which you are too complicit? Is there a line? She ends with Ester and Ruzya in 21st century Moscow, great friends since even before their children married, and still themselves prodding at the question.

Will Englund, associate editor of The Sun's editorial page, is a former Sun Moscow correspondent. In 1998, he won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

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