12 February 2008

GESSEN, Masha - Two Babushkas

Bloomsbury 2005

Read October 2007

This book focusing on the lives of the author’s two Jewish grandmothers is a clever and intriguing choice of topic. Both grandmothers spent the majority of their lives in the Soviet Union and encounter first hand the twists and turns of the twentieth century. Gessen, herself, was born in the Soviet Union, but emigrated with her immediate family to the United States in the 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she retuned to Moscow to live and now works there as a journalist.

The book is well written and has a novel-like appeal. Yet however gripping it is, it nonetheless suffers from all the weakness of second-hand testimony. There appears to be one domiant source for nearly all that is said, i.e. what her grandmothers told her, and Gessen's attempt to present the book as a third person account written by her cannot hide the single source of information. At times her background research appears weak, for instance when referring to Hungarian uprising of 1956 she says that its leaders were immediately executed. In fact Nagy was only executed for political reasons some two years later. A small mistake it may be, but it led me to wonder whether the rest of the book contained similar errors.

The book also provides another first hand account of anti-Semitism in interwar Poland and in the Soviet Union itself.

The book is well written and provides and fascinating documentation of two lives which stretch backwards into the key moments of the twentieth century.

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