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

Masha Gessen

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Book Description

Oct 2004
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.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wow (with a few caveats, of course) 29 April 2005
By aharon levy - Published on Amazon.com
It's been said of this memoir/biography that it reads like a novel, but of course that's not quite true. Even the most abundantly lively literary creations are still creations, whereas the heroines of the title here are undeniably real. It's a tribute to their personalities, and to Gessen's skill, that they seem so from the first page.

The story--basically that of the twentieth century itself--is of such unimaginably wide scope that Gessen's tight focus on her family makes perfect sense, and she doesn't need to indulge in literary pyrotechnics or crazy stories to justify it. But when picking the perfect one-paragraph vignette, and particularly in the extended section in which she describes the death of her great-grandfather at the hands of the Nazis--told as three completely different tales, based on the multiple reconstructions she was able to piece togeher from survivors' stories--the craft and creativity that went into shaping this becomes apparent.

It's fascinating from beginning to end, marred only by an oocasional brusqueness, as if the hand that elides so much to keep the focus along has become impatient. These moments are often followed by a few paragraphs of florid embellishment, as if to overcompensate. But Gessen need make no apologies: this is compelling reading, and an important resource for understanding the human reality of history.
9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars stirring narrative of two courageous and resourceful women 23 April 2006
By Jarrod Leeth - Published on Amazon.com
This is a great story of how two women survive the unimaginable horrors of WWII. Both are Jews. Ester is from Bialystok, in Poland, a city which would be turned into a ghetto, and whose Jewish residents were rounded up and deported by the Nazis. Ruzya is Russian, and she endures the terror of Stalin's regime, where she is regarded with suspicion. Both women are separated from their parents, sibilings, and husbands at one point or another, and end up meeting in Moscow at the war's end. Masha Gessen weaves both of their stories into a single stirring memoir. It is not free of bias, these are Gessen's grandmothers, and she obviously views them in certain ways, but she is an exceptional storyteller, and takes what they have told her, and merges it with her own research. It is certainly not the only memoir about WWII, but it does offer some fresh insight, particularly in the way it describes the Soviet Union during the war, with vivid imagery that conveys a stunning sense of panic and confusion, words that aptly describe the Soviet reaction to the German invasion. It also conveys pain, loss, and desperation. Overall, a good, easily readable text recommended for any student of history.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended 9 Sep 2005
By Red Pen Woman - Published on Amazon.com
A friend lent me her copy of Ester and Ruzya and I liked it so much I bought copies for family members. This book is informative, well written, and deeply honest. Many of us have some knowledge about the Holocaust and what happened to European Jews, but this narrative about the author's family in Russia during WWII and after gives the reader insight about a different Jewish experience. I recommend it highly.
5.0 out of 5 stars American Story 6 Jan 2014
By Gordon R. Flygare - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
These grandmothers came of age in Poland just befdore the Nazis and the Reds devided up the country in 1939.
This is the story of how Ms Gessen's grandmothers survived when, whether in the camps or the gulag, so many did not.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I second the amazon "wow" review from 2005 27 Jan 2011
By shanarufus - Published on Amazon.com
4.5 stars and the minus 1/2 star is only because I get peeved (sometimes a lot) when imagined dialogue is put into characters' mouths. But in all fairness, there's just no getting away from it when it is memoir or biography because the writer has the duty to keep the story moving and flowing and that means varying the pace and that means varying dialogue with description, and that means imagined dialogue.

This is a remarkable memoir/biography/history. What makes this immensely better than most books of the category is that Masha Gessen is a superb writer and a sublime historian. I not only learned about her grandmothers, Ester and Ruzya, but I learned about the 20th century: the Russian Revolution, WWI, the inter-war period, WW2 and the Holocaust, when Germany and Russia were allies trading bits of Poland between them (and which Jews were caught where and what it meant for survival) and then Germany making war on Russia (and which Jews were caught where and what it meant for survival), the rise of Zionism, life in the Stalin era, Israel, the fall of the Soviet Union. Makes me dizzy! But Gessen does it with rigor and brilliance and with all that as background we have the foreground of her two utterly remarkable grandmothers.
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