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

By Masha Gessen,

Masha Gessen's Blog                 


Junho de 2006:  Publicada a tradução portuguesa: As Duas Babushkas - Como as minhas avós sobreviveram à guerra de Hitler e à paz de Estaline, Aletheia, ISBN: 9896220387


Grandmothers tell tumultuous tale of survival

By Judith Maas, Globe Correspondent   December 23, 2004

Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace, By Masha Gessen, The Dial Press, 371 pp, $24

In 1991, Masha Gessen, a journalist on assignment, arrived in Moscow, her childhood home. Ten years earlier, she and her family had immigrated to the United States for the perennial reasons: to escape anti-Semitism and find opportunity. After the fall of communism, Gessen was unsure whether her "clear and certain opinions about the world and Russia in general" would remain intact. This and subsequent journeys home gave Gessen the chance to explore her family's past and to exchange certainty for questions and conundrums.

"Ester and Ruzya" grew out of conversations that Gessen held with her grandmothers, in which these two women, the dearest of friends, recounted their experiences growing up and building lives in an era of war and totalitarianism. Gessen describes the Soviet system as one that "aimed to strip its subjects of the ability to choose." Ideology dictated that "the course of history was preordained, and so was the course of human life." Yet as she discovers, for people like her grandmothers, "burdened with a conscience," terrible choices became a fact of life: when to abide by principle and when, for the sake of the survival of self and family, to search for a compromise with one's oppressors.

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen - Маша Гессен


From their earliest days, the lives of Ester and Ruzya were intertwined with politics. It is surprising to learn that in the 1920s and early 1930s, all was not grim and hopeless; indeed, Gessen titles the first section of her book "Dreams." Ester was born in 1923, in Bialystok, Poland, a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant Jewish culture, increasingly under siege. Pogroms and boycotts of Jewish businesses gave rise to an ardent Zionism among Ester's peers. As a teenager, Ester belonged to a leftist Zionist youth group; she sang songs, raised funds, went to summer camps. She and her friends had faith that the Holy Land held the promise of a better life.

Ruzya, born in 1920, grew up in Moscow, amidst hopes of a bright future under communism. Until the purges and show trials began in the mid-1930s, Ruzya and her friends saw themselves as part of a great movement toward equality and abundance. Reality set in for Ruzya when a Communist Youth League organizer called on her to denounce a man accused of treason; Ruzya's refusal put her family at risk of arrest. She resolved never to place notions of honor before responsibility to loved ones.

Gessen chronicles the upheaval and losses that World War II and its aftermath brought to both her grandmothers' lives. Ester endured her greatest ordeal, beginning in 1942, when she joined her mother, then exiled from Poland to Siberia. A communist party officer recruited Ester to become an informer. Risking her own and her mother's life, Ester steadfastly refused because, she told her granddaughter years later, she considered herself a "decent human being" and would not implicate herself in something she found abhorrent.

Peacetime brought horrors of its own, including state-sponsored persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. Ruzya, now a war widow and single mother desperate for work, faced a paralyzing decision: She could teach history or take a government position as a "political editor" in other words, a censor. Choosing the latter, Ruzya felt that at least she would not be lying to schoolchildren. Over the years, she worked hard, cultivated detachment, and never tried to ennoble her choice, telling Gessen candidly, "I acquiesced to the circumstances that life had forced on me."

Gessen devotes a section of her memoir to her efforts to learn about Jakub Goldberg, Ester's father, and his role on the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto. Did he resist the Nazis? Collaborate with them? Did his actions save or at least prolong lives?

A reporter's curiosity and granddaughter's empathy drive Gessen's narrative. Exploring the quest to survive, she finds complexity, not purity -- actions that fall somewhere between heroism and surrender. Gessen does not presume to judge; rather, by reconstructing scenes, thoughts, and conversations, she helps us envision what it was like to lose everything, live in fear and danger, and struggle to make decisions under extreme circumstances. At the same time, the memoir conveys the chemistry between Ester and Ruzya and celebrates their friendship, the "main -- possibly the only -- constant in their lives." 



The Baltimore Sun

Surviving war and the peace that followed it

By Will Englund
The Baltimore Sun

December 19, 2004

Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace. Masha Gessen. The Dial Press. $24. 371 pp.

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 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.

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 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.


Ester, born in Poland, 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 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.

March 6, 2005

'Ester and Ruzya': Grandmothers of Invention


How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace.
By Masha Gessen.
Illustrated. 371 pp. Dial Press. $24

Reviewers sometimes call a work of nonfiction ''as exciting as a novel,'' but that would be an understatement applied to this extraordinary family memoir. Masha Gessen, a gifted Russian-American journalist, narrates the intertwined lives of her two Soviet Jewish grandmothers, best friends for over 50 years, as they confront some of the 20th century's worst ordeals: Stalin's terror, Hitler's mass murder of the Jews, World War II, the bewildering twists and turns of the post-Stalin era. If your idea of a memoir runs to family dysfunction and authorial disgruntlement, or to people going on about their houses and travels, ''Ester and Ruzya'' will remind you how much life, history and emotional and moral complexity the genre can convey in the hands of a wonderful writer.

As is often the case with friends, Ester and Ruzya are a pair of contrasts. Polish-born Ester was the big, bold, confident one. Born in 1923, child of a socialist mother and Zionist father, she grew up comfortably in prewar Bialystok, a city remembered as a kind of heaven by survivors of its large and vigorous Jewish community. Yet, as Gessen reminds us, throughout the 1930's anti-Semitism was on the rise, with pogroms, a state-sponsored economic boycott and legal discrimination much like that found next door in Germany. Jewish students who survived the openly discriminatory exam system could look forward to spending their college years seated apart from their Christian classmates on the ''ghetto bench.'' In 1940, Ester escaped to Moscow and was accepted by its prestigious Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature. Almost everyone she knew back home would be killed by the Nazis, including her adored fiancé and her father.

Ester was brave and determined. Despite a near-blind eye, she drove a truck in the defense of Moscow; evacuated to Turkmenistan, she crossed the Soviet Union to join her mother in Siberia. By the end of the war, she was married and had a son (the author's father). Despite the pervasive Soviet anti-Semitism, she remained openly committed to her Jewish identity, even though it cost her many offers of work and romance.

Ruzya was the quiet, introverted one who sees too much too young: her childhood is marked by school assemblies in which children denounce their parents and one another. Between them Stalin and Hitler virtually annihilate her brilliant circle of university friends. Swept like Ester to Turkmenistan, she practically starves. After her dashing husband, Samuil, a committed Communist, is killed in the war, she raises their daughter Yolochka (the author's mother) alone. Ruzya too is brave and determined, but circumstance and necessity play out differently for her. Trained as a history teacher, she had resolved never to teach because it would require her to lie. After an increasingly desperate search for work in postwar Moscow, she finds a job -- as an official government censor. Despite her secret hostility to the Soviet system she does so well that she is soon promoted. She hates her work, but she also loves it. She gets to read all the forbidden books -- ''For Whom the Bell Tolls'' is a great favorite -- and after her promotion she censors the dispatches of foreign correspondents. For almost a decade, until she is fired in an anti-Semitic purge, the invisible all-powerful tormentor of Harrison Salisbury, Daniel Schorr and other Western journalists is none other than sensitive, literary anti-Communist Ruzya.

Gessen organizes her complicated, sometimes confusing double narrative by following the common threads of compromise, defiance, heroism and survival. What is the right thing to do? It's not always easy to say. Ruzya's young husband, Samuil, argued his way into the army, only to be killed by shrapnel within months -- an officially heroic death that was also pointless bad luck. Ruzya is ashamed of her censorship work and contrasts herself unfavorably with gallant Ester -- even though Ester was at one low point almost ready to take a job translating for the secret police. Ester's embrace of Jewishness is brave -- but Jewishness meant something different to her, raised in a proud Jewish enclave in one of the world's most anti-Semitic countries, than it did to Ruzya and her friends, secularists raised on the Soviet promise of assimilation.

And there is the case of Ester's father, Jakub Goldberg. For years Ester and her mother believed he had been killed in 1941 by the Soviet secret police when the Soviet Union briefly controlled eastern Poland under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin pact. In fact, he survived until 1943, and he died -- depending on which eyewitness account you prefer -- either during the Nazi liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto or at the concentration camp to which the few survivors were shipped. Jakub was a member of the Judenrat, the Jewish council that organized ghetto life and carried out Nazi directives. Famously condemned by Hannah Arendt in ''Eichmann in Jerusalem,'' who blamed the councils for facilitating the Holocaust, the Judenrats have gone down in history as self-deluded collaborators. Yet, Gessen argues, the line between the Judenrat and the resistance was not as sharp as we like to think: some council members, apparently including Jakub, helped smuggle weapons in and fighters out of the ghetto. Besides, nobody could say for sure that the temporizings of the Judenrat would ultimately fail. ''My great-grandfather 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,'' she writes.

Gessen has little use for glorious pointless deaths or for the grand ideologies that have caused so many of them. What interests her is how people preserve their individuality and their humanity in deeply repressive societies, where if you want to talk openly with your best friend, it's a good idea to cross-country ski a few miles away from anyone who might overhear you. The friendship between Ester and Ruzya -- a stronger bond than marriage -- along with their children, their literary work and a talent for skepticism, helped them survive and eventually flourish through decades of fear and privation.

As the book ends in 2002, Gessen is living in Moscow with her family and her grandmothers are in their 80's; Ester closely follows Israeli politics, Ruzya translates romance novels for the new mass-market reader. Given Gessen's doubts about the Putin government -- ''post-democratic'' is her carefully chosen description -- one suspects these two indomitable women will have more stories to tell before long.

Katha Pollitt, a poet and essayist, writes the ''Subject to Debate'' column for The Nation.


ELLE MAGAZINE – December 2004



Like the famed Russian dolls, the worldly-wise matriarchs of a Moscow journalist's family reveal layer upon complex layer

Your grandmas will tell you that life was hard back in the bad old twentieth century. You can kvetch about student loans and terror alerts—they faced world war, totalitarianism, and genocide. If you're Masha Gessen, a former Moscow correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, you listen to your bubbes—and then you go write a book. Gessen's Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace (Dial Press) describes how they saw pretty much the worst of it all and lived to tell their grandchildren.

Ester and Ruzya is a work of personal devotion that reads like a babushka bildungsroman, with the vivid immediacy of solid beat reporting and the fraught pathos of family psychodrama—demonstrating once again, and eloquently, that pravda is stranger than fiction. Ester and Ruzya were Jewish women who came of age in a Europe torn and tattered by conflict. Ester made it out of Bialystok with a scholarship to Moscow's elite Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History—and nearly got shipped back to Nazi-occupied Poland after failing an oral exam. Ruzya, a Muscovite, survived Soviet anti-Semitism by working as Stalin's censor. Their Jewishness haunted them wherever they went, limiting careers, short-circuiting affairs, threatening their very lives.

And yet their stubborn identity, forged more from secular ethnicity than observed religion, survived and was passed down to the author, who makes us marvel at their survival instincts, luck, and lifelong friendship—all of which they needed simply in order not to perish. Perestroika came and went, and Russia today faces new and daunting uncertainties, but freed from the political straitjacket of the iron curtain, Gessen tells these stories with unflinching candor, baring all the compromises and disappointments that go with surviving totalitarian rule. She comes away with an important lesson: “Happiness comes in tiny bursts,” Gessen writes, “like a good book.”

—David Yaffe


The Moscow Times


The Breaking Point

Masha Gessen takes a hard look at life under Stalin to determine where compromise ends and guilt begins.

By Rebecca Reich

Published: November 5, 2004

How are we to judge honorable human beings who are forced by the pressures of survival to compromise their principles and ideals? This is the dilemma at the heart of Masha Gessen's memoir of her two babushkas, "Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace," and, by extension, of the entire Soviet intelligentsia of their generation.

Born to a Jewish family in Moscow in the late 1960s, Gessen was, by her own admission, a "difficult child," "sickly" and "withdrawn" in her teens, angry at her parents "for sins real and imagined." After she left the Soviet Union with her parents and brother in 1981, she retained only vague memories of her tight-knit family -- in particular, of her grandmothers, Ester, the headstrong Zionist, and Ruzya, the cautious Soviet censor, who had brought her up summers and evenings with stories of their war-torn youth.

    Ester, left, and Ruzya ice-skating in Gorky Park in 1961.  

For Gessen, these stories became mythic, unassailable. She never doubted, for instance, the heroic portrayal of her father's mother, Ester, who had recklessly refused to inform on friends and neighbors when approached by a secret police agent during World War II. That the idealization of Ester diminished, by comparison, her other grandmother, Ruzya -- whom Gessen knew only to have been a member of the Communist Party and to have had something to do with the writing establishment -- was part and parcel of the myth. And the fact that the two grandmothers had been best friends for 17 years before Gessen was born put the seal on the family legend. "To me," Gessen writes, "the family as a combination of their two clans seemed to go back unimaginable decades: Their relationship, since it preceded my parents' union, was eternal."

Still, the details of family relationships were "often a mystery" to Gessen. So it wasn't until she returned to Moscow in 1991 that the difficult child took a deeper look at her history. A rookie reporter, Gessen moved in with her grandmothers, and continued to stay with them on subsequent trips until she moved back to Russia permanently as a foreign correspondent in 1994. (These days, she is a deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod and a frequent contributor to discussions on Russian politics and culture.) As it turned out, her grandmother Ruzya had been more than a minor player in Stalin's regime. In fact, as Gessen narrates in a fascinating exposé of the labyrinth of obstacles meant to cut off the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, Ruzya had spent a decade censoring the dispatches of foreign journalists like Masha Gessen herself. Similarly, though Ester had stood up to the secret police during World War II, six years later she had been ready to join their forces.

Torn between the journalist's urge to morally question the actions of these two women and the granddaughter's need to justify them to the world, there's a lot at stake for Gessen in this book. The product of a decade of interviews and background research, "Ester and Ruzya" succeeds in painting a thoughtful, detailed portrait of a generation of Moscow's Jewish intelligentsia through the experiences of these two more or less typical members. But it's also a highly personal work for Gessen, not least, of course, because the ultimate meeting of her two grandmothers in 1950 would lead to her own existence. Her natural inclination, then, is to become an apologist of sorts for her grandmothers (and for the Moscow intelligentsia they represent) on the grounds that individuals in those dangerous times had no choice but to compromise a part of their soul in the hope of not having to compromise more.

One of the areas in which Ester and Ruzya were given least room to maneuver was their Judaism, as the two young women were to be repeatedly reminded of their origins by the anti-Semitic policies of Germany and the Soviet Union. For Ruzya, who grew up in Soviet Moscow, Judaism meant nothing more than a mark on her passport; indeed, she saw little need to develop even an ethnic Jewish identification and found the idea of a Jewish national homeland distinctly distasteful. Ester grew up in Poland, receiving a secular Jewish education and adopting her father's Zionist ideology. In 1940, just one year before the Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact and occupied her hometown, Ester left for university in Moscow.

The story is her grandmothers', but it is Gessen who puts it into context, juxtaposing events in the lives of the two women by theme and time, and fleshing them out with rich physical detail. Prewar Moscow comes alive through Ruzya's dreamy walks as she and her fiance linger on bridges and granite embankments to steal some privacy from their parents' communal apartments. The city takes on a more menacing pulse as the pregnant Ester loses her footing in a slow-motion stampede during Stalin's funeral. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the book, several contradictory versions are offered as to what could have happened to Ester's father after his family was scattered by the war, and the reader is invited to judge the evidence.

Ester's father was a member of the Judenrat, or Jewish council, of the Bialystok ghetto, responsible for overseeing food and fuel distribution with the approval of the Nazi authorities. He also, it seems, had a hand in drawing up lists of Jews to be deported to the extermination camps, and was accused of standing in the way of resistance efforts by local Jewish fighters. Faced with contradictory facts, Gessen speculates on what might have happened and then concludes that her great-grandfather made a strategic decision to work with the Nazis in order to prolong the lives of those who had the greatest chances of survival, only to end up being shot himself in the Majdanek death camp in 1943.

The same theme of compromise runs through Gessen's grandmothers' lives, as the two women struggle to protect their families against a repressive Soviet regime made worse for them by official anti-Semitism. The well-connected Ruzya finds employment quickly, though the work is distasteful to both her and her family, involving, as it does, editing foreign literature and journalism according to the Soviet line -- in short, censoring. Ester learns the meaning of compromise several years later, when she applies for a job only to find all doors closed to so-called cosmopolitans in the run-up to Stalin's anti-Jewish campaigns. Having only six years earlier refused to become an informant for the secret police, she relents upon being approached a second time, agreeing to translate news reports from the newly created State of Israel. Only a fluke of paperwork saves her from spying on the country whose existence had long been her dream.

It's easy to wax sentimental with stories like these, as with all war stories where actions and consequences take on historical weight. Gessen isn't immune to dramatic effect, and at times she uses it too liberally to play up her grandmothers' metahistorical status. Chapters end on ominous notes or march their way to emotionally manipulative conclusions. At moments like these, the myth interferes, weighing down the narrative with the consciousness of its own historical importance.

Still, no Soviet tale can be totally separated from history, as the state had its way of steering even people's most secret moments. Ester and Ruzya, who "struggled not to march in lockstep with the country," were nevertheless tied to Stalin's policies as long as he was alive. It was only later, when society relaxed upon Stalin's death, that they found new satisfaction in work and family. Gessen's personal take on her grandmothers' history can only be a continuation of that trend, as privacy and privatization become realities in Russia today.


Artikel erschienen am Sa, 12. März 2005

Hitler, Stalin, Esther, Rusja

Ein Brief, in dem begründet wird, warum Masha Gessens Buch über ihre beiden Großmütter wunderbar ist

von Hannes Stein

Masha Gessen: Esther und Rusja. Wie meine Großmütter Hitlers Krieg und Stalins Frieden überlebten. Hanser, München. 351 S., 24,90 EUR.

Olga, meine liebste jüdisch-litauische Russin,

leider habe ich ganz vergessen, wann Du Geburtstag hast - hoffentlich bald, denn bei mir ist ein Buch gelandet, das ich Dir unbedingt schenken will. Geschrieben hat es eine Masha Gessen, ein Judenkind aus Moskau, Jahrgang 1967. Als Teenager wanderte sie mit ihren Eltern nach Amerika aus, als erwachsene Frau kehrte sie zurück, heute arbeitet sie in ihrer Geburtsstadt als Korrespondentin für eine amerikanische Zeitung. Diese Masha Gessen hat nun ein erstaunliches Buch geschrieben, das Dich interessieren muß und mich beim Lesen gar nicht mehr losgelassen hat. Sie ist dem Leben ihrer zwei Babuschkas nachgegangen.

Esther heißt die eine Großmutter. Sie ist im polnischen Bialystok geboren, wo mehr als die Hälfte der Einwohner Juden waren, wo die Bundisten und die Zionisten miteinander stritten und die frommen Leute rechts liegenließen. Ihr Vater Jakub war Zionist und Bankier, ihre Mutter Bella eine überzeugte Linke. Es scheint trotzdem keine schlechte Ehe gewesen zu sein, und Esther erhielt eine solide zionistische Erziehung. 1939 marschierten die Deutschen ein. Da sie aber schon nach ein paar Wochen wieder abzogen und Stalins Soldaten das Feld überließen, konnten sie erstmal nicht allzu viel Schaden anrichten. 1940 beschloß Esther, nach Moskau zu gehen und dort zu studieren. Zurück ließ sie ihren Liebsten - einen Linkszionisten vom "Haschomer Hazair" -, ihren Vater und ihre Mutter.

1941 überschritt die Wehrmacht den Bug, der Krieg zwischen Hitlers Deutschland und Stalins Sowjetunion hatte begonnen. Die Deutschen erwischten Esthers Vater und ihren Freund. Ihre Mutter aber - oh Glück im Unglück! -, ihre Mutter war da schon nach Sibirien deportiert worden. Und Esther selbst landete mitsamt ihrer Fakultät in Aschchabad, in Turkmenistan, wohin man sie evakuiert hatte. Theoretisch hätte sie dort zum ersten Mal Rusja begegnen können, der anderen Großmutter von Masha Gessen. Die war nämlich zu jener Zeit zufällig auch in Aschchabad. Rusja - eine gebürtige Moskowiterin - war damals schon aus dem Komsomol herausgeflogen, weil sie sich geweigert hatte, als Spitzel zu arbeiten. Das auf dem Höhepunkt des Großen Terrors! Und sie und ihre Familie wurden trotzdem nicht abgeholt und auf die große Reise geschickt. Manchmal, Olga, waren die sowjetischen Behörden herrlich nachlässig.

"Die sowjetische Geschichte ist eine Erzählung von Fahrplänen", schreibt Masha Gessen, "von Güterwaggons und Viehwagen, die endlos aneinandergekoppelt waren und in denen verzweifelte, frierende und hungernde Menschen von einem Ende des Reichs zum anderen transportiert wurden." Esther fuhr 1942 mit dem Zug mehrere Tage lang ins sibirische Biisk, zu ihrer Mutter, von der sie eine Nachricht erhalten hatte. In Biisk lebten damals viele Polen, die dem Regime als unzuverlässig galten; Esther aber, die brave Einser-Studentin aus Moskau, galt als zuverlässige Genossin. Und deswegen näherte sich ihr eines gefährlichen Tages ein Major des NKWD und befahl ihr, eine Verpflichtungserklärung zu unterschreiben. Esther weigerte sich. "Als anständige Sowjetbürgerin werde ich Sie natürlich informieren, wenn ich von einer Verschwörung gegen das Regime höre. Dafür brauche ich doch keine Unterschrift. Im übrigen ist bei den Leuten, die ich kenne, nichts Derartiges im Gange, sie sind alle loyale Menschen...", sagte Esther frech. Dir, Olga, muß ich das nicht aus dem Sowjetischen in klares Deutsch übersetzen. Es bedeutete nichts anderes als: Fuck you.

Esther und ihre Mutter waren in akuter Lebensgefahr. Es gab nur noch eines, was sie retten konnte: Heirat, genauer: die Heirat mit einem verdienten und verwundeten Soldaten der Roten Armee, Boris. Er machte es möglich, daß Esther und ihre Mutter nach Moskau zurückkehren konnten, weg von dem gefährlichen NKWD-Mann. Die Ehe erwies sich dann zwar als Desaster, aber immerhin wurde Esther schwanger und brachte einen gesunden Jungen zur Welt - Masha Gessens Vater. Was geschah mittlerweile mit Rusja, der zweiten Babuschka? Auch sie war wieder in Moskau. Sie hatte eine kleine Tochter von einem glühenden Stalinisten, der auf den Schlachtfeldern des Zweiten Weltkrieges geblieben war. Und noch immer kannten die beiden Großmütter sich nicht.

Olga, gerade eben habe ich das bisher Geschriebene noch einmal durchgelesen und gemerkt, daß ich Dir einen ganz falschen Eindruck von diesem Buch gebe. Das klingt ja so, als würde Masha Gessen die Geschichte zweier wasserdichter Heldinnen erzählen. Aber so ist es nicht - und dann wäre das Buch auch nur halb so spannend. Und Dich muß ich nicht darüber belehren, daß die Überlebenschancen von lupenreinen Helden in der Stalinzeit gering waren. Die Wahrheit ist also: Rusja, die ein Sprachengenie war, nahm eine Arbeit in der Zensurbehörde an. Sie bestimmte darüber mit, welche Bücher in der Sowjetunion gedruckt wurden und welche nicht (hatte also den Schlüssel für den "Giftschrank" und konnte alles Verbotene einsehen!), und nach dem Krieg verstümmelte sie amerikanische Korrespondentengerüchte. Esther aber hätte nach 1948 um ein Haar eine Stelle als Hebräischübersetzerin des NKWD angenommen. Dieselbe Esther, die um keinen Preis zum Spitzel werden wollte: So verwirrend ist nur das wirkliche Leben.

In einem atemberaubenden Zwischenspiel, das völlig zu Recht in der Mitte des Buches eingeschaltet wird, erzählt Masha Gessen das Schicksal ihres Urgroßvaters Jakub in Bialystok. Jakub nämlich gehörte, nachdem die Deutschen in Polen ihre "Endlösung der Judenfrage" begonnen hatten, zum Judenrat. Damit war er einer von den Bösen, richtig? Ein Kollaborateur, der an der Vernichtung seines eigenen Volkes mitwirkte. Der Listen der Alten und Schwachen erstellte, die dann als erste in die Gaskammern deportiert wurden. Aber so war es nicht. Denn wahrscheinlich half Jakub Goldberg gleichzeitig dem jüdischen Widerstand, und als die Kugeln der SS ihn trafen, war er ein ehrenwerter Mann.

Das ist der verstörende Kern von Masha Gessens Buch, Olga - es geht um die Frage: Welche Grundsätze darf man verletzen, wenn man ein moralischer Mensch bleiben will? Und welche Grundsätze muß man verletzen, wenn man in einem totalitären System lebt? Masha Gessen macht es sich nicht leicht mit dem Urteilen. "So etwas wie einen anständigen Kompromiß gibt es nicht", schreibt sie zwar an einer Stelle apodiktisch - aber ihre ganze Geschichte zeigt: Es gibt ihn eben doch.

Die Peripatie ist erreicht, als die Großmütter einander endlich begegnen, auf einer Party in Moskau nach dem Krieg. Sie sind so schön unterschiedlich: Groß und selbstsicher Esther, klein und schüchtern Rusja. Die beiden streiten viel und gern und heftig, aber wenn sie miteinander vor Moskau Ski fahren, dann wissen diese zwei Frauen: Sie können einander ohne Rückhalt vertrauen. Und als das Ungeheuer 1953 endlich abkratzt - das geschundene Sowjetvolk vergießt eimerweise Tränen -, bleiben die Augen von Esther und Rusja trocken. Schließlich wissen sie, was Stalins letzte große Idee war. Er wollte nach den Tschetschenen und Inguscheten und Wolgadeutschen auch die Juden irgendwo ins Nirgendwo deportieren lassen. Masha Gessens Buch macht eindrucksvoll deutlich, in welch schlotternder Furcht die Leute im Sowjetstaat lebten. Die Freundschaft von Esther und Rusja ist inmitten dieses Schreckens beinahe eine Erlösung. Doch es gibt nichts Süßliches in diesem Buch. Keine Verlogenheit: Auch wenn es Hitler und Stalin nicht gegeben hätte, wäre das Leben kein Zuckerschlecken gewesen. Ich wüßte wirklich gern, mit welchen Augen Du all das liest, denn im Unterschied zu mir kannst Du Dir ja die Landschaften, die Straßen, die Sprachmelodien dazudenken... sollte es bis zu Deinem nächsten Geburtstag noch lange dauern, schenke ich Dir Masha Gessens Buch einfach so. Brauchen wir Vorwände?

Sei umarmt von Deinem Hannes Stein






In search of two grandmothers

Joanna Smith Rakoff is a writer in New York.

January 2, 2005

Ten years ago, Masha Gessen sat down in her Moscow apartment and wrote an epic letter to her younger brother, Kostya, a Harvard freshman in the grips of "some 18-year-old dilemma." Gessen had just moved back to her native Russia - after immigrating to the United States in 1981 at age 14 - to work as a foreign correspondent for American newspapers and was in the process of "re-meeting" her grandmothers, Ester Gessen and Ruzya Solodovnik.

"I hadn't really seen them in 10 years," she explains over lunch at Sarabeth's Kitchen on Manhattan's Upper West Side, "and I didn't remember that much about them, partly because one takes one's grandmothers for granted and partly because I'd gone through this whole assimilation thing in the States. A lot of information gets flushed out when an immigrant child puts on a new identity."

Struck by the differing ways in which the two women, both Jewish, had managed to survive World War II and the notoriously anti-Semitic Stalin regime, she found herself comparing their stories in her letter to Kostya. "I put their stories side by side, saying, 'This grandmother made this set of moral choices. And this grandmother made this set of moral choices.' And he wrote back saying, 'These are very interesting stories, but what [is your] point?'"

Gessen wasn't quite sure how to answer her brother, who's since changed his name to Keith and become a journalist in his own right. "That [question] had me thinking for a while," she says, laughing. "And then I realized that I needed to write a book about the answer, a book about the ways in which people make moral choices. About the kinds of moral choices that they make ... in a situation where there is no moral choice."

In 1996, after two years in Russia, she started work on that book, a dual biography of sorts, which arrived in bookstores last month bearing the title "Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace" (Dial, $24). Between reporting jaunts to Chechnya and other war-torn areas, she began interviewing her grandmothers about their lives. "I knew almost nothing going in," she says. The parallel tales she'd passed on to Kostya proved merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Gessen's most shocking (and scintillating) discoveries: Ruzya worked for many years as a government censor under Stalin, carefully vetting first foreign books (she fondly recalls reading Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" - which didn't get past the censorship bureau), then the articles of foreign correspondents. "[M]y grandmother had once censored people like me - American journalists accredited in Moscow," Gessen writes. Conversely, Ester, the daughter of affluent Bialystok Zionists, spent much of her adult life boldly refusing to cooperate with the Soviet government. During World War II, she hid in Siberia, where a perverse secret police officer named Major Gurov endlessly tried to coerce her into working as an informant. "Go ahead, shoot me," she would say, when Gurov threatened her with his revolver. Because of this, Ruzya considers Ester a "hero" - never mind that a few years later, when she had an infant son to care for, Ester accepted a desk job as a Hebrew translator for the secret police, only to fail the requisite eye exam and have the offer retracted.

The two women - whose friendship long predates their children's marriage - didn't part with any of this information easily. "I would interview them about the same thing over and over again," Gessen explains. "Because after awhile it was clear to me that there were a number of incidents that were key to their understanding of themselves and the times in which they lived."

Naturally a bit more shy - and still consumed with guilt over her work for Stalin - Ruzya proved reticent at first, but soon opened up. "She would remember more and more as we talked about things." Gregarious Ester, on the other hand, proved a tougher nut to crack. "She really has a tendency to polish her stories. She can tell the same story from beginning to end in the exact same words - on cue." Gessen ended up talking to Ester's friends to "find the strings I could pull to get more information from her." The entire interviewing process took nearly three years. By late 1999, when Gessen sat down to write, she felt rather as if she knew more about her grandmothers' lives than they did.

But if she started the project with the intent of comparing two opposing sets of survival techniques and ethical choices, she came to realize that her grandmothers' stories are in fact very similar. "I hope that what the reader finally ends up with is that they're not opposite at all," says Gessen, who lives outside Moscow with her wife, Svenya (the two were married in Boston in the summer) and their two children. "The differences are really quite superficial - the product of circumstance. The fact that Ester gets to have this hero's narrative is largely because she failed her medical exam. There are more extreme stories, stories of all-out collaborationists. But I was really interested in people who are tortured by having a conscience."


FACES FORWARD: Author Tells the Tale of Her Grandmothers' Survival

By Gabriel Sanders

December 10, 2004

For followers of the émigré writers spawned by the Soviet Union in its waning days — writers like Lara Vapnyar, Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis — the bare outlines of Masha Gessen's biography should be familiar. Born in 1967 to a computer scientist father and a translator mother, she spent her early years, precocious yet withdrawn, in Brezhnev's Moscow. Then, in 1981, carrying only what could fit in a handful of cheap cardboard suitcases, Gessen, her parents and her younger brother immigrated to the United States. Overcoming the émigré's traditional hurdles, linguistic and otherwise, Gessen went to the prestigious Cooper Union and began a career in journalism.

But this is where Gessen's path diverges from that of her literary kin. In late 1993, after more than a decade in the United States and after a number of trips to the newly post-Communist Russia, she gave up her San Francisco apartment and took up permanent residence in her native Moscow, a move made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was an out lesbian relocating to an environment not known for its receptiveness to gay life.

A respected voice both in Russia and the United States — she is the deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod, Moscow's largest independent weekly, and a frequent contributor to such American outlets as Slate and The New Republic — Gessen's career today is in full swing. And with a sprawling, ambitious new book, "Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace," Gessen has proved herself an able chronicler not only of the Russian present, but the Russian past as well.

Composed at once with a journalist's skepticism, a scholar's rigor and a grandchild's devotion, it's likely that Gessen's book never would have been written had she not returned to Moscow. Although the narrative stretches deep into the familial past, the people and places described in it are utterly untainted by nostalgia, and with good reason: Gessen's grandmothers are still very much alive. (One lives down the stairs from her; the other, just a few blocks away.) Her two grandmothers — "Two Babushkas" is the title of the book's British edition — are, for the author, not some entryway into a sentimentalized past, but role models for the Russia of today.

With her two children — a boy, Vova, 7, and a girl, Yael, 3 — safely asleep, Gessen was free to answer the Forward's phone call.

"Nostalgia?" she asked. "My grandmothers had such difficult lives, there's little for them to feel nostalgic about."

Ester Goldberg, later Gessen, was born in Bialystok in 1923 to a Zionist father and a Bundist mother. Although Ester was an early bloomer who attracted the attention of suitors when she was as young as 12, her childhood was marred by a burgeoning Polish antisemitism. After the war broke out and Bialystok came under Soviet control, she went to Moscow to study literature. Midway through the war she met up with her mother in the Siberian city of Biysk, where they suffered through terrible food shortages but were at least away from the front. Ester was pressured to become an army informant, but she refused, an act of conscience that made life for her mother and herself that much more difficult. In Biysk she married Boris Gessen, a wounded veteran with whom she was ultimately able to find her way back to Moscow. Being a Jew made finding work quite difficult for Ester after the war, but she ultimately secured a post with a literary journal — a post that she held for more than 40 years.

Ester, according to her granddaughter, is a born storyteller. Her tales have been polished to perfection, "with a beginning, a middle, an end and a punch line." But for the journalist in Gessen, such perfection rankles. Their very polish makes Ester's stories suspect. Gessen prefers her other grandmother's stories, or at least her storytelling technique. "Ruzya's stories are always a little different," she said, "which is much more the way that living memory works." Gessen said that to hear Ruzya retell a story can always yield something unexpected. "She will always remember some new detail or other."

Although born in the Pale of Settlement, Ruzya and her family, like many Jews at the time, moved to Moscow when Ruzya was still a young girl. She studied history and worked during the war in Turkmenistan, teaching German at a military college. Her husband died at the front, leaving her the 22-year-old single mother of an infant daughter. After the war, she got a job at Glavlit, the Head Directorate on Literature — as a censor. She began censoring foreign novels and, ultimately, correspondents reporting from Moscow for foreign papers, including The New York Times. Gessen's grandmother might well have been one of the best read, best informed of all Soviet citizens.

Writing and translating runs as a theme throughout the book. It binds the author and her subjects. In one of the book's great ironies, Gessen points out how, if time were compressed, her grandmother could have served as her censor.

Was it strange to write so Russian a story in English, especially given that Russian is the language in which Gessen speaks not only with her grandmothers, but with her children as well?

"It wasn't strange at all," she said. "It was actually kind of wonderful. English offered me the distance that I needed. English is, in some ways, a much easier language in which to write about things that happened in this country. It's sometimes difficult in Russian to gain access to words. English is more forgiving. It forgives ideology, it forgives sentimentality, it forgives you a lot that sounds off in Russian."


Publishers Weekly

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.

One of Gessen's grandmothers was from Bialystok, Poland, and eventually worked as a translator for the NKVD; the other one was an intellectual who became a censor under Stalin's regime and, later, a translator. At the end of World War II, they met in Moscow. Ester's son and Ruzya's daughter married and had two children, one of them being the author. Her memoir begins with an account of Polish Jewish life in the mid- to late 1930s, when pogroms were coming in waves. And this is also the story of Jakub, Ester's father, who lived in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Bialystok, where he was a member of the Judenrat presidium, in charge of rationing. Gessen grew up in Moscow, later came to the U.S., and returned to visit the Soviet Union in 1991; later, she finally decided to stay. For most of the last 10 years she has been a foreign journalist in Moscow. This astonishing and deeply moving story is related with a masterful eye for the human detail that makes history come alive.

George Cohen







The Guardian


Virginia Rounding

Against all odds



Lesley Chamberlain

Caught between Hitler and Stalin

The Washington Post


Susan B. Glasser

Deals with the Devil

N Z Z online


Ulrich M. Schmid

Moral und Kompromiss

Die Welt


Ruth Kluger

Zwei Großmütter



Sabine Berking

Kompromisse in der Hölle

Sueddeutsche Zeitung


Elke Nicolini

Krieg, Terror und Frieden


Read these articles here                 





Ester and Ruzya,

by Masha Gessen


First Chapter



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 in question began paying on the life insurance policies of Holocaust victims.

Jakub's wife, Bella, on the other hand, was short, even tiny, and held to an entirely different set of political beliefs. She was a member of the Bund, the Jewish workers' party. The wife of one of Bialystok's most prominent Zionists worked as, of all things, a Polish teacher at a Yiddish school. That is, while her husband devoted much of his life to promoting the study of Hebrew for the Jews' eventual return to Palestine, Bella earned her daily bread by helping Jewish children become that much more assimilated by learning the Polish language. But then, her independence did him proud, for she was a university graduate--an anomaly among Polish women at the time, especially Polish Jewish women, especially women from Chasidic families. Yes, they were both from a Chasidic family--they were cousins--and they were both atheists.

Those are the facts, as best they can be established. What could they mean? Perhaps that the Goldbergs formed that rare happy union of two people who continue to grow, independently, in more or less the same direction, conquering the world together. Raised strictly Orthodox, together they gradually mapped their path away from religion until one day Jakub shaved off his beard and exchanged the wide-brimmed fur-trimmed hat and long coat of a Chasid for a generic European suit.

Or they may have lived the uneasy union of two people who, while each is driven to act on his convictions, view the world in fundamentally different ways. As a Zionist, Jakub was convinced the Jews belonged in Palestine. Bella, a Bundist, would have subscribed to a different utopian vision, that of Jewish autonomy within Eastern Europe. She was a socialist; he was a banker. He belonged to a party that aimed to establish Jewish national unity as a far more important factor than class; her party opposed any political initiatives that were based solely on the Jewish issue. The argument between their two parties was constantly fought on the floor of the municipal council. On election day Jakub and Bella walked the streets of Bialystok with their respective placards, and he denied her his customary courtesy of walking on the pavement while she walked on the sidewalk (to lessen the nearly two-foot difference in their height).

History, in its way, has since settled their argument. The Zionists--that is, those of them who had the will, money, and luck to move to Palestine before World War II--survived. The assimilationists, or, as the Bundists were known, the "localists," died where they lived. But then, murder, even systematic and ideologically driven murder, is a function of circumstance more than anything else. Witness the Goldberg case. He was killed; she survived.

In the years leading up to his death and her unwitting escape, the arguments may or may not have subsided, but they did reach agreement on one thing. Aside from matters of politics and matters of religion, they lived a single joint project: their daughter, Ester, who was born in 1923 and grew up, as only a child of total love and devotion can, knowing that she was the smartest, most beautiful, and luckiest girl, who happened to live in the center of the universe.

May 28, 1936

This is easily the best day of the year. For the holiday of Shavuot, the Bialystok Hebrew Gymnasium suspends classes and marches its entire student population of several hundred from its imposing brick headquarters on Sienkiewicz Street, down Lipowa, the main street--decorated in lavish green for the holiday--through the park and past the staring occupants of the Forty-first Infantry Division barracks, and into Pietrasze Forest for an entire day of campfires, singing, and eating cheese, honey, and triangular kreplachs. The small kids--the three- to-five-year-olds--are brought along for their traditional introduction to Jewish schooling, and they run around sticky with the honey meant to sweeten the taste of scholarship. The older kids--Ester is thirteen, which places her in the dignified middle of the gymnasium's age spectrum--throw themselves into the forest silliness, running around and screaming, only to slow down after a bit for some earnest confessions out of earshot of all but a few close confidantes and for the occasional argument on the political (read: Zionist) issue of the day.

It is still a couple of hours till sundown but the air is starting to cool and some of the children are already casting about for their things when Ester sees a girl from one of the upper classes running awkwardly from the edge of the forest. She is a big girl, with strong legs and thick arms and a mane of light brown hair that is now undone, flying away from her face in a way that somehow, to Ester, signals fear. She stops when she reaches a smoldering campfire and, standing firmly now, starts screaming, her words apparent nonsense: "We are surrounded!" It takes a few minutes for the mood to shift and her words to begin making sense. The soldiers from the Forty-first Infantry Division have encircled this part of the forest and are swearing not to allow any of the "little kikes" out. The two boys with whom Hanna--this is the messenger's name--tried to leave the party have been so severely beaten they are still trying to make their way back here.

The rest of the day leaves no room to be a thirteen-year-old. The teachers and some of the upperclassmen huddle, while the other older students herd the small kids into a clearing and proceed to count them obsessively, every two or three minutes. A boy from the graduating class is dispatched to try to sneak out to alert the authorities. The authorities are personified this time by Jakub Goldberg, who, being an atheist, is ignoring the holiday and working in his office in the municipal council. For the following five hours he feels very much like his thirteen-year-old daughter: his first, overconfident call to the police elicits a satisfied chuckle on the other end of the line. His calls to leaders of the various Jewish organizations succeed only in raising the level of hysteria. As the news seeps into Bialystok's tiny telephone network, crying women and shouting men start running through city streets toward the Pietrasze Forest. Perhaps the spectacle of these parents, desperate and immobile at the edge of the forest, in plain view of the Forty-first Infantry Division barracks, moves someone. Or perhaps whoever thought up the joke is satisfied with having reduced the Jews to a state of agitated helplessness. Or perhaps the soldiers get tired and want to go to sleep. It is eleven o'clock when the soldiers finally disband, allowing the children to run through the darkness toward the receiving line of weeping parents.

August 1936

A couple of hours' drive from Bialystok, Brok is a resort town. Its joys are quiet. A river, a terrace on which to take the air, an occasional visit from a young man. The suitors began to come last year, when Ester was just twelve. Uncommonly well developed for her age, she had attracted the attentions of a college student. Her mother warded him off with unwitting deftness, though, when she shouted from the balcony, as the young couple prepared to board a ferry, that twelve-year-olds rode free. The poor student not only abandoned his wooing immediately but left the resort altogether, so frightened he apparently was by this brush with potential sin or even crime.

This year's routine--the daily forays to the beach, the Saturday visits from Jakub, who stays in Bialystok during the week--has lately been enlivened by the appearance of another suitor, a Polish officer in training, a slim but dashing character in his military uniform. Bella and Ester have taken a room with a terrace in a large private home, since far too many of the pensions now announce, alongside their name, "No dogs or Jews." Ester is sipping tea with the young officer on the terrace; she must stay home this Saturday morning because Jakub is due in from a neighboring town where he has been visiting his sister. He takes the three-hour trip from Bialystok weekly, often stopping off at the house of one of his more-progressive relatives, someone who would not frown upon his traveling on the Shabbat.

As Jakub approaches the house, he waves to Ester and visibly picks up speed. He bounds up the stairs and traverses the terrace in two leaping steps, then grabs the young man by the collar and holds him suspended in midair like a small animal, for a split second, before stepping back toward the stairway and sending the charming conversationalist tumbling down.

He plops down in the chair that was just a moment ago occupied by the officer. Ester, who must have leaped up when her date was so rudely ended, continues to stand awkwardly, half expecting an explanation, half wondering whether she overstepped an unspoken boundary by entertaining a grown man.

"I saw that little snake just yesterday," Jakub offers. "In one of those pickets."

Those pickets have been plaguing the Jews of Poland. Young men have been lining up in front of Jewish-owned shops in all sorts of towns, holding placards calling for a boycott of Jewish businesses. Customers--even Jewish customers, terrified at the thought of crossing picket lines with no one (certainly not the police) there to protect them--have been scared away. Jewish stores have been closing.

"Prec z zidami, zidovecki z nami, eh?" Jakub asks, quoting one of the picketers' favorite slogans: "Off with the Jews, but we'll take the Jewish women." He is trying to make sure his daughter is on his side. He does not need to do that. She has been thinking a lot this summer, ever since the incident in the woods, and she has made some decisions. First, she is happy that her father won the argument with her mother and she was sent to the Hebrew school rather than the Yiddish one. But more than that, she has to leave this country. They all do. She is now a hundred percent behind the plan her father laid out for her years ago: they stay in Poland until she graduates the gymnasium, in 1940, and then she will travel to Jerusalem to attend the university there, and this will help her family get vouchers to enter Palestine. (Though Jakub could use his position within the Zionist establishment to angle for vouchers sooner, this seems to all of them like an altogether more sensible plan.) In Palestine they will all work--surely Bella will see the need for this soon, perhaps even today, when she hears of the officer incident--to build a Jewish state. Meanwhile, Ester has resolved that when school resumes she will become an ever more active member of the Ha-Shomer ha-Zair organization, a leftist youth Zionist group, and will double the time she spends walking door to door with her Keren Ka'emet box, collecting money to buy back her homeland from the Arabs.