A Replacement Life
By Boris Fishman
Slava Gelman wants to be two things: an American and a writer. And he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to be what he is: a 25-year-old, Brooklyn-raised, Russian-born, child of Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union.
So the conflicted hero of Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life lives uneasily in Manhattan and toils in the sweatshops of a venerable and very goyishe magazine.
But, with the death of his beloved grandmother, Slava is drawn back into the vortex of “Soviet Brooklyn.” Just before she died, it seems Slava’s bubby received a letter from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. As a survivor of the Minsk Ghetto, she may qualify for restitution from the German Government, if she can submit a verifiable narrative of her experiences.
Slava’s grandfather Yevgeny, an old rascal who has spent his life navigating the ragged edges of the criminal world, persuades Slava to help him with one last scam: to forge a restitution claim in his grandmother’s name.
Slava reluctantly agrees, partly because he feels sorry for the old man and partly because he misses his grandmother so much. So Slava creates an affecting tale of survival in the Ghetto, of escape from the Nazis, and of joining a band of Partisans.
Soon, seemingly every Jew in Brooklyn knows what Slava is up to and they all want him to create stories so they can get in on the restitutions too. Slava knows full well there will be consequences, but on fire with a true writer’s passion for the first time in his life, he keeps digging himself deeper and deeper.
A Replacement Life is a wonderful book: warm, good-hearted, witty, tremendously clever and dense with Russian literary allusion, from Crime and Punishment to The Master and Margarita.
But the literary play is really just a sideline in a story that is really about Jewish memory and the Jewish heart.
Fishman writes gently and affectingly about the denizens of Soviet Brooklyn, and their lives.
But, rather than becoming American, they have really just brought the old world with them. They eat the same food, argue about the same things and live in the same apartments crammed full of ornate, over-upholstered furniture.
They have survived so much, these middle-aged and elderly émigré Jews, only to find themselves, at the end of their lives, in neither one place nor the other.
There is a deep vein of melancholy running through A Replacement Life; a long meditation on the hole that lies at the heart of the Jewish past.
The novel’s story-within-a-story – Slava’s forged narratives – turns on the fact that the initial fate of the Jews of Nazi-occupied U.S.S.R., like the fate of the Jews of Poland, played itself out long before the Final Solution was industrialized at places like Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz.
For those Jews, there were no memorials, no monuments; just the terror of the Einsatzgruppen, their local collaborators, and mass graves, deep in the birch forests and ravines of Belorussia and Ukraine.
“You know what we came back to after the war?” Yevgeny roars at a reluctant Slava, “Tomatoes the size of your head. They’d fertilized them with human ash. You follow?”
For Slava, this tortured history is all mixed up with his grandmother. Utterly sheltered from her real past by her enveloping love, the narrative that Slava pieces together about her life, and about the lives of other aging Soviet Jews, becomes his way of remembering her, of keeping her close.
When he lets go of the facts and lets his imagination take over, the replacement lives Slava constructs become much closer to the truth than anything he could actually document. His replacements are, in the end, less about individual lives than an extended meditation on survival in the depths of the Shoah.
What Slava creates is a kind of Golem of paper and ink. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Israel Abramson, Slava’s ancient literary mentor who haunts the synagogues and kosher food banks of Brooklyn in the remnants of his wartime Red Army uniform, assures him, “It’s good Slava … it’s got that silence of ours. That terrible Russian silence that the Americans don’t understand.”
It’s not just a Russian silence, this replacement life; it’s a Jewish silence too. It’s a silence that comes from contemplating the places in between, of trying to reconstruct memory where there is almost no possibility of memory.
In the end, Slava doesn’t so much replace life as restore it: to his grandmother, to his zeyde and to his zeyde’s aging cronies. There are consequences, of course. An investigator from the Claims Conference is wise to the scam and is closing in. But Slava, the aspiring American writer, has found his true voice as a curator of Jewish memory. For all his reluctance, it is a voice both clear and true.