Ester and Ruzya

How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace
Trade Paperback

Also available in …
Add Ester and Ruzya to Goodreads

In this “extraordinary family memoir,”* the National Book Award–winning author of The Future Is History reveals the story of her two grandmothers, who defied Fascism and Communism during a time when tyranny reigned.
*The New York Times Book Review

In the 1930s, as waves of war and persecution were crashing over Europe, two young Jewish women began separate journeys of survival. Ester Goldberg was a rebel from Bialystok, Poland, where virtually the entire Jewish community would be sent to Hitler’s concentration camps. Ruzya Solodovnik was a Russian-born intellectual who would become a high-level censor under Stalin’s regime. At war’s end, both women found themselves in Moscow. Over the years each woman had to find her way in a country that aimed to make every citizen a cog in the wheel of murder and repression. One became a hero in her children’s and grandchildren’s eyes; the other became a collaborator. With grace, candor, and meticulous research, Masha Gessen, one of the most trenchant observers of Russia and its history today, peels back the layers of time to reveal her grandmothers’ lives—and to show that neither story is quite what it seems.

Praise for Masha Gessen
“One of the most important activists and journalists Russia has known in a generation.”—David Remnick, The New Yorker
“Masha Gessen is humbly erudite, deftly unconventional, and courageously honest.”—Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny


“Reviewers sometimes call a work of nonfiction ‘as exciting as a novel,’ but that would be an understatement applied to this extraordinary family memoir. . . . 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.”The New York Times Book Review 

“Masha Gessen has written an indispensable history of Soviet Jews as seen through the eyes of two unforgettable women—her grandmothers. The scope and complexity of their characters rivals anything you will find in contemporary fiction. Their lives, underscored by hardship, compromise and hope, are rendered both with a granddaughter’s love and a journalist’s insight. A beautiful book.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Little Failure

“A loving memoir of two grandmothers that offers a penetrating look at two killer regimes. Masha Gessen’s wonderful book portrays human beings trying to live justly when there is virtually no way to do so.”—William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era 

“This blend of historical depth with personal experience is a powerful mix, illuminating how family and friendship can grow in even the darkest eras.”Publishers Weekly

“A journalist’s memoir of her grandmothers also paints an eloquent portrait of two totalitarian powers, the havoc they wrought, and the countless burdens they imposed on ordinary families. . . . A masterful chronicle of dark and dangerous years, and a distinguished addition to the history of totalitarianism.”Kirkus Reviews
“A saga of two fascinating Russian-Jewish women making ends meet, making love, making homes, making agonizing compromises in the most terrible times of the twentieth century—witty, colorful, tragic, seething with life and character, it is a little classic of storytelling.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of The Romanovs: 1613-1918
“This is a deeply moving account of what it meant to be a Jew under Hitler’s rule and, equally brutal, Stalin’s rule. Masha Gessen, a talented writer with a human touch, has brilliantly used her grandmothers as a way to bring to life a grim era of East European history.”—Daniel Schorr, former senior news analyst for National Public Radio

Ester and Ruzya is an example of what’s best in Russia’s literary tradition—a beautifully written personal story with universal significance.”—Nina Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs, The New School
“Beautifully written and deeply felt, Masha Gessen’s Ester and Ruzya tells the story of the two totalitarian regimes that reigned in twentieth-century Europe from a completely fresh perspective. Gessen’s description of the compromises people made to survive should force those of us living in a luckier era to think harder about what we mean by ‘morality.’”—Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine


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.

Reader's Guide

1. What does Masha's prologue indicate about the concept of home and homecomings? What does she tell us about the ways in which politics, journalism, and family storytelling traditions affected her approach in writing this memoir?

2. Did Ester's close community in Bialystok endow her with survival skills? How was her thinking influenced by her parents' differing opinions about Zionism? How were they able to convey Judaism as the heart of her identity while also professing atheism?

3. What elements of Ruzya's personality persist from girlhood through the rest of her life? Does she become as fearful as her father? What keeps her a skeptic, rather than becoming a fervent loyalist like Samuil?

4. How would you characterize Ester's experience with Russia's university system as she arrives in Moscow during the Great Terror? How did you react to the means by which she was tested? Is higher education in contemporary America free from discrimination? What are appropriate means for measuring scholastic aptitude?

5. Is Ester's personality fundamentally similar to Ruzya's? Would you have expected them to be incompatible had they not shared similar life experiences? Describe your most lasting friendships. How did they begin? Is it possible to know what really sustains them?

6. To what do you attribute the survival of Ester and Ruzya, as well as Bella, in the face of so many mass executions? Is survival a matter of luck, ingenuity, divine intervention, or other factors? Beyond surviving physically, what allowed these three women to keep a glimmer of their true selves alive as well?

7. Discuss the ways in which Ester and Ruzya experienced love and marriage. Their first loves, Isaj and Samuil, were both lost in the violence of war. Ester's eventual marriage to Boris was a matter of pure survival. Anti-Semitism cut short other relationships. Yet neither woman became bitter about the possibility of romantic love. What accounts for this? What do their stories indicate about the realities of love?

8. In Part Four, dedicated to Jakub’s story, Masha reconstructs the conflicting accounts of her grandfather’s final days. How were you affected by the absence of certainty about these circumstances? How does the grieving process change when survivors are deprived of such certainty and detail? Would you have participated in an uprising had you lived in Bialystok alongside Jakub?

9. How did Chaika Grossman's fate influence Ester’s opinion of the world, especially regarding the possibility of Israel? What does Ester's daring telegram say about the power of language?

10. Near the end of chapter fourteen, Masha quotes ghetto survivors who expressed the possibility "that the Nazis hoped intolerable living conditions . . . would make the Jews 'degenerate to the level of criminals.' " What determines how populations will react in such circumstances? What power did the Nazi's prisoners still possess while essentially trying to negotiate for their lives?

11. Discuss the theme of translation that recurs throughout the book. How are language and identity linked? What talents are required to be a proficient translator? What would it take to master the language of censorship?

12. How did Ester and Ruzya  differ in the ways they balanced the demands of  conscience versus necessity? What were the costs and benefits of the many compromises they made?

13. What are the modern-day equivalents of the Soviet 'anti-cosmopolitan" campaigns? How did the death of Stalin affect Ester's and Ruzya's sense of security?

14. What new facts did you discover about Hitler's war and Stalin's peace while reading this memoir? What aspects seem underreported in popular histories of the twentieth century?

15. Though this is primarily the story of Masha's grandmothers, the author's experience is an essential component of the memoir. How are their lives reflected in hers? How does her sense of identity evolve between the prologue and the closing paragraphs? How does her work as a journalist compare to that of the many foreign correspondents who tried to report on the same events covered in Ester and Ruzya?

16. What future do you predict for Masha's children? What sort of memoir might her grandchildren write about her? What world events would your grandchildren discuss in a memoir about you?

The Sisters Sweet

A young woman in a vaudeville sister act must learn to forge her own path after her twin runs away to Hollywood in this richly immersive debut about love, family, and… More

Get Untamed

This stunning hardcover journal is a bold, interactive guide to discovering and creating the truest, most beautiful lives, families, and world we can imagine, based on the #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed. “We… More