Two Babushkas by Masha Gessen

Caught between Hitler and Stalin
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The Independent Culture

Masha Gessen is right to suggest her family story is untellable, and then to tell it beautifully, with a novelist's skill. She finds the emotional logic in life's accidents. As two Jews caught between Hitler and Stalin, her grandmothers were lucky - and they knew it - to survive.

Grandmother one was Ester, born to an intellectual family in eastern Poland. Ester's father Jakob was a Zionist, her mother Bella a Communist. The day before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Russians sent Bella into exile in the Soviet far north, leaving Jakob to perish in the ghetto. Bella ended up hungry but alive in the milder central Asian climes of Ashkhabad.

Ester, meanwhile, had gone to Moscow to study, but decided to find her mother. Optimistic, bright and tough, she turned up one day at Ashkhabad railway station. The Soviet political police failed to recruit Ester as an informer. Her only compromise was to marry, to get Bella and herself back safe to Moscow. She passed into family history as a heroine.

Grandmother two was Rozalia. Also highly educated, she was married young to an idealistic Jewish Communist killed in the war. She struggled as a single mother, first (by chance) also in Ashkhabad and, after the war, in officially anti-Semitic Moscow. Excelling in languages, she became a censor of foreign journalists' reports.

The Western reporters who kicked their heels in Moscow's Telegraph Office, waiting to know if the censor had passed their copy, became fascinated by their invisible nemesis. The brilliant US correspondent Harrison Salisbury measured his hunches against what she accepted or deleted. Rozalia delighted in the chess-game, though in later life she never forgave herself. She was one of a tiny handful who rejoiced when Stalin died in 1953.

Rozalia's daughter, Yolochka, twice married and divorced before meeting her true husband: Ester's son Sasha.

The story of how Ester and Rozalia met in Moscow and found they had everything in common, and agreed on nothing, is grippingly told. There's never a moment in this book when Jewish identity becomes a loaded political abstraction. Gessen evokes compellingly real, complex lives.

Yolochka, Sasha and family emigrated to the US in 1981. Six years later, perestroika made travel abroad possible for Ester and Rozalia, in their 80s. Meanwhile, in 1991, Yolochka and Sasha's daughter - Masha Gessen herself - went back to the country she left at 11 to find her emotional roots. Masha worked as a Western reporter, before moving to Moscow permanently. She now lives there with her Russian husband, two children and two octogenarian grandmothers, carrying on the family line as a linguist and story-teller.

Gessen's only worry is that Russia will regress and they will have to leave. It's her way of never forgetting the family heritage of ideological and religious persecution. Her book is truly exceptional, and deserves a prize.

Lesley Chamberlain

The reviewer's book'Motherland' is published by Atlantic next week

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