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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.