Two Babushkas - Masha Gessen NO SPOILERS!!!

This is an amazing book. It is definitely getting 5 strs. Who should read it? Those who are interested in life in the Soviet Union starting from the 1930s all the way up to 2002 and those interested in the persecution of Jews in Poland prior to and during WW2. You have to be interested in these two subjects. This book packs an emotional punch. It is about motherhood, friendship and survival. About humor and of course history. It is about how people are SO different. Sure we can search for reasons, but we are simply born different. This is not to say that one is good and the other bad. Both Rozalia and Ester were wonderful and yet very, very different from each other! You will learn so much about life in the Soviet Union through the lives of these two remarkable women and their families. The prose is engaging, funny and philosophical. This is exactly the kind of book I adore. I loved this so much I don't want to leave the "subject". Now I will start The Family Mashber. It IS fiction. Could it possibly be as good as this biography?

Through page 248: The grandmothers have met - finally! Now I know who is who on the cover of my book! :0) You come to love these two women.

Through page 244: This book isn't a light read. It is stuffed with facts both about life in Bialystok, Poland, and in Russia after the war. Also in Turkmenistan. It is about two grandmothers and how each survived Hitler's war and Stalin's peace, just as the title indicates. There is a Russian word spasat'sia, which means literally to save oneself, but to do it on a regular basis! That such a word exists in a particular language says something about the culture of the people using this language. This word, and the Russian word for hunger, vprogolod are central to what this book is about. The two grandmothers have still not met. The point is much more that although these two women were similar in many ways, they chose different ways of surviving. It is the analysis of WHY these two women made such different choices that is riveting. Let me say very clearly, neither one was the hero and the other the traitor. That is what you will learn. Well that is merely my feeling. Others may disagree. Being a censor in Stalin's Russia has both its ups and sowns. Very interesting reading!

Through page 202: This is ridiculous, I mark sentences that I feel I must quote, but there are so many. The writing makes me alternately laugh, cry or takes my breath away. What is said is so hoestly true, perceptive, heart wrenching. Between the emotional lines you get the historical facts and discussions on how different events have been debated. So no more quotes. I've given enough. No, two short lines more:

"This is the essence of living, the skill of grasping whatever joy comes your way......" (page 198)

"...now she knows, from her own life, how happiness comes in tiny bursts. Like a good book." (page 200)

No more! Read the book instead.

Through Page 152: I appreciate the author's analysis of what is behind the choices made by each of her grandmothers. A bit less than half-way through the book, I have mostly learned about Ester's choices. I admire her zest for life and her spunk. I admire her honesty and ability to clearly see the importance of the support she received from her mother. And:

"Maybe she is reluctant to judge, knowing precisely how difficult it was for her to stand her ground." (page 140)

Read the book description under the title Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace. It is much more relevant to the point of the book than that given for the title of Two Babushkas.

Again on the theme of hunger:

"Hunger is accepting the humiliation of a biscuit from him. She concentrates on taking small indifferent bites." (page 128)

On the all pervading fear characteristic of these times:

"There was a misunderstanding between Ester and Major Gurov, and at the center of this misunderstanding was fear. The most important instrument of control in the soviet Union was fear." (page 129)

In the beginning of the book each chapter switched between the two grandmothers. This was a bit confusing. It is much easier to follow as you get further into the book, where the story focuses one one grandmother at a time. They still have not met! There is no map - which is bad. But drag out your atlases instead. There is so much to learn. I hadve never before read about how letters/envelopes were triangular in the Soviet Union at this time. Another thing that is bad is that the book lacks photographs!

Through page 119: It is made strikingly clear that what hppens to an individual is most often completely outside of their control. The good and the bad just fall down on you from above. In Moscow, Ester is studying and has found friends. With the Germans approaching from the west, for many Poles Russia was the only alternative available. Ester's roomate and friend Eda was very lucky when a pilot saw her photograph and fell in love with her. They never even met. And what happens? He decides he has no need for his large pay, there on the front, and sent it to Eda. What happens next? He is killed and another bank transfer, an astronomical sum of money was sent to Eda. From living with hunger, they now delight in wine and food, real foood. War and food or lack thereof are so closely knit. From page 108:

"Somewhere around that time she first heard the word vprogolod. It means 'a life of hunger' - not the crisis of famine, but the habitual year-to-year, day-to-day painful light-headedness and a sucking sensation in the esophagus. This was how they lived."

Before the lucky star fell from the sky.

What you notice is that people are just ordinary people, even in the worst of times. Here is this pilot falling in love with a girl he has never seen. The need to hold someone dear is so essential to life. Here are Eda and Ester buying food and wine, with comments such as (page 109):

"She has never been a wine drinker before, but she can become one now."

I also like how history is seamlessly woven into the tale (page 109):

"As it happened, just as she was sentenced, in August 1941 The Soviet Union signed a co-operation agreement with occupied Poland's government in exile and, in conjunctionwith that move, declared amnesty for all Polish citizens in labor camps, prisons and 'special settlements' on Soviet territory. Many of them, including the future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, left the Soviet Union in the ranks of an army formed by Polish general Wladislaw Anders. The rest, like Bella, remained in the Soviet Union through the war."

Time and time again, what happens to just you is pure luck..... Will you be one of the lucky few?

Through page 66: Life during the Great Terror 1937-1940 under Stalin is better understood when the reader see the effects on Ester's and Rozalia's lives and that of their families. The capriciousness of fate hits you. There is no rhyme or reason as to who gets caught and who slips free. However fear is a constant that all feel. (Page 52)

"No one came that night for Moshe, or for Rozalia, or for Boba or anyone else in the gang. But Moshe continued to wait, and so did Rozalia, just as thusands of people in the Soviet Union waited every night, unable to sleep, think or make love, always listening for the car engine in the courtyard, the steps on the stairs and the banging on the door."

I am wondering how it would feel to read this book, having lived through these times?!

There is no map, so be sure you have an atlas within reach. I would have also appreciated photos.

Through page 21: I enjoy learning about the author's family, the two central characters being her two grandmothers. Rozalia(Ruzya) is the mother of the author's father, Sasha. Ester is the mother of her Mom, Yalochka. Rozalia and Ester have been friends long before their children ever married. There is a long history preceding the familial tieing of the two families. In 1981, the author, Masha and her parents emigrated. She was 14 at the time. Now, 10 years later, Masha has returned as a jounalist and will meet again those of her tightly knit family. And both her grandmothers. Finally in 1994 she moved permanently back to Moscow. As an adult, going back to where she grew up was tumuluous, wrought with fear and delight. It was then her grandmothers told her the stories of their lives in fuller detail. It is these stories that constitute the book. I haven't read many pages, but I immediately have learned the importance of "family" in Russian life. Being family is both an obligation and a joy. You need the help of your family in a way that is perhaps hard for a Westerner to comprehend. I assume this will be shown to me in the following pages. Ester's family was from Bialystok, Poland. Rozalia's from Moscow. Between the wars, Bialystok was the city in Poland with the largest community of Jews. That is where the tale begins. This is not fiction. Ester's Hasidic Jewish parents were atheists, one working for the Zionist cause, the other for the integration of the Jews into Polish life, an activist in the Bund, the Jewish workers' party in Poland. It was Ester's father who was the Zionist and her mother the Bundist. As in real life, people who love eachother do not always think the same. Other interests tied them, their daughter Ester, of course! I like that these people reflect the possibility of loving and still not necessarily agreeing or doing things in the same way. Then fate also sticks its hand in the jumble and the result is life. I will not tell you what happens to them, and I do not know much of the total story yet. I enjoy learning about the Jewish traditions in Bialystok in the 1930s. Here too, in this city, a center of Jewish thought and life in Poland, discrimination was clearly evident.

Ester is a well-developed young teenager. the boys are definitely interested.... In the summer, mother and daughter, Bella and Ester, leave Bialystok for country life. Here is a tast of the prose (both from page 21):

"Bella and Ester have taken a room with a terrace in a large private home, since far to many of the pensions now announce, alongside their name, 'No dogs or Jews'."

Ester's father comes to visit them every weekend. He is driving toward their lodging. Remember, fathers will be fathers:

"Now Jakub waves to Ester and visibly picks up speed as he approaches the house. Now he bounds up the stairs. Now he traverses the terracein two leeping steps, grabs the young man by the collar and holds him suspended in mid-air like a small animal for a split second before stepping back toward the stairway and sending the charming conversationalist tumbling down."

Maude, you are probably way ahead of me already....... It is good, isn't it?!

Before starting: For clarity's sake, Ester and Ruzya and Two Babushkas are the same. I will be reading this book with Maude. :0) We both have high expectations. We will share our thoughts with eachother in the messages below this review. If we think that which we say is a spoiler, we will add a SPOILER WARNING to the message! I am hoping that Maude will also write a review, and that I can leave messages there too! Anybody intererested in joing in on the discussion is welcome!

The setting is Poland and Russia. The book is a biography of the author's two grandmothers who survived Hitler's war and Stalin's peace.