The traumas of a generation often misunderstood and dismissed for their politics
Today’s pick for the Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10 list is Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. I first read it in 2014 when it came out, and somehow the book feels even more important now — less for the insight into main character Slava’s split identity, and more for the close-up of his grandparents’ generation. It’s a community which has recently been the subject of considerable hand-wringing about their voting habits Over Here and loyalty to Putin Back There. Slava’s grandfather is my grandparents’ generation too, and though my grandparents didn’t immigrate with us in 1979 (my maternal grandmother came over in the 90s, but passed away a few years later), this is a generation I know well — from their deep conservatism, to the horrors they survived, to their endless capacity to sacrifice for family. They are neither the perfect, hardscrabble immigrant success story nor, failing to have “made it” to Auschwitz, are they the right kind of victims of the European 20th-century. As the decade comes to a close, their political leanings make it easier than ever to dismiss them wholesale.
A Replacement Life is not a political book, but it manages to up-end those simplistic perceptions about older Russian-Jews, even while its characters engage in a shameful deception. This isn’t to suggest his characters’ behaviour should be forgiven — but simply that, if the point of fiction is to allow us to see the world differently, then A Replacement Life achieves that spectacularly. It also happens to be a great read, because no amount of fresh insights can ever make up for a dull story. That’s not the case here.
Our main character is Slava Gelman, whose grandmother has just died, taking with her the story of how she survived the Minsk Ghetto, a barebones collection of whispers in Slava’s family. But now a letter has arrived from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Slava’s grandfather, still attuned to Soviet habits of surviving the system, asks Slava to write a letter on his behalf instead, so they can get at least some of the money owed. After all, his grandfather suffered too, even if his was the luck of evacuatsya to Uzbekistan. In no time at all, Slava is writing falsified letters for many of his grandfather’s neighbours. (There was, incidentally, a real-life scam for Holocaust reparations in 2010 — it’s unforgivable, but one also feels a tug of sympathy for people who lost everything because of the Nazis but don’t qualify for recognition or reparations.)
Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered but they made sure to kill all the people who did. We had our whole world taken out from under us.”A Replacement Life – Boris Fishman
As much as this book offers some, not redemption, but understanding, for a dying generation, it also grapples with questions of truth and survival. What does it mean to be true to those who came before you while remaining true to the place they brought you to? Soviet-style survival tactics don’t translate into American realities. They don’t readily slide into the existing, comfortable American-Jewish community. And neither, frankly, does the messiness of war fit into tidy survival narratives with perfect victims. There is too, in Slava’s efforts to tell a sufficiently compelling story, an echo of the countless visa interviews in consulates across Rome as we pled our cases for sufficient anti-Semitic experiences to bolster our refugee applications in the 70s, 80s, 90s.
I don’t know where our Russian-Jewish community will end up — how exactly we will change or how our grandchildren will tell these stories. But the gulf between generations is one of the tragic side-effects of our escape from the USSR. We are now as much Soviet-Russian as we are American or Canadian (or Australian or Israeli, and so forth). For me, A Replacement Life is as much about Slava as it is about his grandparents — and as much about what’s lost as their generation dies, taking with them the many stories they never told us, sometimes because it was too painful to tell and sometimes because we failed to ask until it was too late.