‘Grandmother was not a semi-annual hair tousler. … She had raised him.” So begins the introduction to Slava Gelman’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, in my debut novel “A Replacement Life,” about a frustrated writer who begins forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York. It is Grandmother’s death that partly persuades Slava to invent stories of suffering — an opportunity to recreate on the page a grandmother he never got to know in real life. Hers is the presence that hovers over the novel.
In the Soviet Union, where I was born, there was extra money for neither nannies nor housing. The grandparents tended to live with their children and grandchildren. My maternal grandparents, who knew how to make money on the side, were comfortable enough to have an apartment of their own, but chose to be over all the time. The dinner table always held four adults. The kitchen belonged to my grandmother as much as my mother, and my parents’ life decisions — how many children to have, what to do for work — often felt as if they were made by my grandparents. It was hard to challenge them — Grandmother, a fanatic about principle with anyone outside the family, could, and did, hold a grudge for years. Grandfather was a softie — but he didn’t dare contradict his wife.
There’s a flawed notion of the Soviet kitchen as a place of great candor and weighty debate. Maybe in a novel. Our kitchen was as compliant as a Politburo meeting. Dissent was unwelcome, as was discussion of the things that, in retrospect, mattered the most — how my grandmother survived the Holocaust; how my grandfather came by the hard-to-get things we had, like tangerines, mink furs, and separate apartments. This would dredge up unpleasant memories and darken the image of a man meant for reverence, respectively. That my grandparents intended to be looked up to and obeyed didn’t keep them from expecting to be my and my parents’ friends as well. This was one of the many unthreadable needles of the Soviet-Jewish family environment: These idols were also there to be confessed to, and shared with, as only friends — that is, those joined by common emotion rather than blood — usually do. Isn’t love when you are each other’s everything?
And then we immigrated to America, where I learned English the fastest and was made my family’s representative to all the institutions that didn’t exist behind the Iron Curtain — credit cards, health insurance. Confusingly, the power remained with the adults: I could spend an evening writing letters of appeal to the companies and agencies constantly over-charging and under-serving us, but bedtime was still 10. Confusingly, I was supposed to heart-to-heart about this tension with the very people who caused it — because they intended to remain my first friends.
So that when I became old enough to want to know what had happened to my grandmother in the war, it was my grandmother’s authority to refuse me. (“I don’t want to upset you.”) But by now, I had been in America long enough to know that the conversation did not have to end there; that the authority of the adult was not irreproachable, neither in issuing instructions nor in demanding emotional intimacy.
Perhaps even more importantly, as a lifelong subject of emotional “management,” I knew how to manage back. I pretended I had a school assignment to trace family history three generations back; if I came back with nothing, I’d fail. Grandmother wouldn’t have dared cost me a good grade. And didn’t. She “punctured,” as the Russian saying goes — a series of conversations that took years.
These unfairly obtained disclosures transformed our relationship. Finally, we had something to talk about other than meals and the weather. She told me about promising to return for her parents and grandfather before slipping out of the Minsk ghetto to join the partisans fighting the Nazis from the Belarussian forests — and the destruction of the Minsk ghetto a month later, before she could. About wading in swamps for so long that the skin came off her legs along with her boots when she pulled them off. Of watching a woman suffocate her own bawling child to save the other people hiding in a bunker from detection by the German soldiers upstairs. Never had I looked forward to making the trek to South Brooklyn as eagerly.
Soon after, I moved on to my grandfather. He was an easier mark. Here, too, the child had learned from the master. “No way could someone pull that off in a place like that,” I’d say about some Soviet shenanigan of his I’d heard about in broad terms: fencing cars, black-market bartering. “What?!” his eyes would flash. “What? Well, let me tell you, when your grandfather was younger…” And he would “puncture,” too.
I couldn’t have found the moxie to “work” either confessor without the vague example of my grandfather’s resourcefulness with which I had grown up; nor without the stubborn principle — a posture learned from my grandmother — that knowing had value for its own sake; nor without the empowerment of an American youth. It seems fitting that, as the child of a country and culture defined by lies, it was through deception and manipulation that I got my grandparents to tell the truth about themselves. Less expected, was that this was how we became friends — genuine friends. My motives were not entirely saintly. Already I knew that this material was gold for some future writing endeavor. But fraudulence and authenticity are neighbors like that — if nothing else, that is what my novel’s about.
My grandmother died 10 years ago. In her final years, no longer able to “puncture” to much value, she subsided into a kind of silent devotion, from the perspective of which everything I did was “blameless and true,” to use words from the novel. She understood less and less about me — both because she was ill and because I was evolving into someone very different from the person my family imagined I would be — and yet it felt like she understood everything. In those years, one of us effectively semi-conscious half the time, we were closer than ever. I was the one who often accompanied her on her too-regular midnight trips to the hospital. And today, it is in me that her principled nature — tenacious and upright to some, rigid and mulish to others – lives on, for better and worse.
My grandfather, knock on wood, lives on. We find ourselves with a challenge that my grandmother and I never faced: What to talk about now. He and I would be worlds apart even if he didn’t grow up in a country where the first girl you kissed was the girl you married; where power and connections counted above all, because of the daily abuse faced by Jews; where money was the only way to secure power. He mentions his aches; he asks if I have enough clothes for the winter, why I’m still unmarried and childless, why I’ve selected this godforsaken career. I’m torn between feeding him the platitudes that would deceive him into at least a temporary peace, and telling him the truth about who I am because it’s the only way I can imagine being his friend. When I can’t help choosing the latter, the conversation rarely goes well. As often as not, we end up with raised voices. My mother scolds me; I repent; try telling him what he wants to hear; become nauseated by its falseness; revert to the truth.
And so, not having a solution, we muddle along. As I write about Slava and his grandfather in “A Replacement Life,” “It was impossible to escape each other. Other people could throw down the phone, move to another part of the country, change their names, but Grandfather and Slava were sealed to each other like a husband and wife. They were married in the old way, without release. They would be vicious toward each other, wait till the burn settled, start in on each other again. They were deathless.”
Is this family? Is this friendship? The answer refuses to make itself clear, and I’ve alerted the old man that I need him to stick around till it does.
Boris Fishman is the author of the novel “A Replacement Life” (Harper).