Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

During the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as a volunteer with the Russian Jewish community in Chicago. The program was funded by the Jewish United Fund. The volunteers helped families practice English while assisting with the difficult transition to American life. In most cases, families were inter-generational, with grandparents living with children and grandchildren. The experience allowed me to look at American life through the lens of an immigrant. It gave me an appreciation for the freedoms I enjoyed that my Soviet brethren had not.

In addition, I listened to family members recount their experiences with anti-semitism, much of which was state sanctioned prior to the 60s. Having taken my own admission to universities for granted, I learned how entrance into universities in the USSR often required a bribe, as did many government services. Gradually, I came to understand the complex relationship Soviet Jewry had with their motherland and with their new home in America.

Thus it was with a sense of empathy that I read A Replacement Life (2014), by Boris Fishman. In it, he explores the many conflicts - ethical, social, and familial - that face his protagonist, Slava Gelman. After listening to Bob Edwards interview the author, it became evident that Slava is an alter-ego of the author himself.  (Bob Edwards Weekend, July 4, 2014, NPR)

Fishman was born in Belarus in 1979 and came to the United States in 1988 at the age of 9. He became the official English speaker for his parents and grandparents. As a child, and later as an adolescent, he helped them navigate the complicated ways of a new society. When he was only 15, his grandmother asked him to write an appeal to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany. She was claiming reparations for her two years as prisoner in the Minsk ghetto during WWII. There were no surviving records from that period. The Germans destroyed the ghetto in 1943 and executed the remaining inhabitants.

Even at that young age, Fishman knew that the lack of record-keeping would encourage deceit. Indeed, it did. In 2010, twelve forgers who invented Holocaust stories were indicted.  Had the scam not been foiled, the German government would have paid upwards of $50 million to people who were never in the camps.  In an interview with Tablet Magazine, Fishman suspends judgment:

If you lived in (the U.S.S.R.), he explains, you couldn't get certain basic things without going around the law. Some people remained honorable and did without; some people lucked out and knew the right people; others just wanted a little more for their families. I'm not talking about Rolls-Royces and gold watches. I'm talking about another pair of shoes or a banana. Tangerines were a once-a-year luxury. Sometimes, you could not get basic things without resorting to light crime.

It is this very dilemma that occupies the heart of A Replacement Life. Slava yearns for a sense of belonging and for the recognition of his writing skills by the literary magazine that employs him. These are not forthcoming. He is gradually drawn into his grandfather's world and begins writing stories - all with kernels of truth - for people not technically recognized as survivors of the Holocaust. He rationalizes that they did, after all, suffer. He becomes a better writer with each document he fabricates. There is just one problem: Slava's actions are illegal, and eventually, he must choose between his interpretation of justice and the law itself.

Boris Fishman has written a poignant and funny novel that examines truth versus family loyalty and explores suffering in its many dimensions.

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