Boris Fishman’s replacement life

In a semi-autobiographical novel, an author explores love, truth and roots among Russian émigrés.

Survivors walk inside Auschwitz before a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of its liberation.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Survivors walk inside Auschwitz before a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of its liberation.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian émigré Boris Fishman has spent much of his 35 years thinking about how to find his place in America.
The author of A Replacement Life: A Novel, Fishman arrived from Minsk in 1988 at the age of nine, with his parents and grandparents. The family settled uneasily in Brooklyn, then later in New Jersey. Fishman picked up the English language like the precocious child he was, and this thrust him uncomfortably into the role of his family’s ambassador.
He admits he was stressed out and humorless by his teenage years, and found solace only in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As he matured and began to confront the beginnings of adult suffering, he gravitated towards William Styron and Bernard Malamud.
Home always felt uncomfortable and loud and chaotic and burdensome, and he dreamed of becoming a writer – although his family felt anxious about it.
After the oppression of living as Jews for decades in Russia after World War II, they were eager for Fishman to grab a big, juicy bite out of the American dream, and were nervous about his future. Fishman felt the weight of this always, but felt compelled to follow his own path – even if financial success remained an uncertainty.
He managed to make it to Princeton University, where he studied Slavic languages.
Following graduation, he landed a prestigious job at The New Yorker magazine, where he worked as a fact-checker while beginning to write articles and essays that brought him attention. But even after making a successful entrance into the genteel and intellectual world of New York publishing, there were parts of him that felt adrift.
Despite living on his own in Manhattan, there were parts of him that still longed to go home.
Fishman always loved his grandmother unabashedly, a relationship that sometimes made all others pale in comparison. She adored him with a tender ferocity that scares many Jewish boys, but entrances others.
Fishman was always smitten with her.
He knew she had been in the Minsk ghetto, but he never pressed her for details of her experiences there; she chose to never speak of it. In many ways, this brilliant first novel feels like an apology to her, Fishman’s way of coming to terms with the realization of the lives his grandparents lived. The humiliation and loss and grief they suffered as Russian Jews both before, during and after the Second World War made his own difficulties growing up seem merely petty.
ACCORDINGLY, FISHMAN’S autobiographically based novel plunges us into the world of 25-year-old Slava Gelman, who works at a prominent literary magazine as a researcher while waiting for his bosses to take notice of him. But when his beloved maternal grandmother dies, he is thrust back into the old Russian-Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where he was raised, to help his grandfather and mother adjust.
Slava’s grandmother had been like a mother to him; his closest ally. She had been, like Fishman’s grandmother, in the Minsk ghetto, also choosing never to discuss it with him.
Slava is devastated by the loss, but thrown off-guard when his grandfather makes a strange request. He wants Slava to use his literary skill to forge Holocaust restitution requests to the German government, for the suffering he endured during the war. And he wants Slava to do this for many of his friends – old, fragile Jewish widowers who seem to spend hours aimlessly wandering Brooklyn streets, lost without the certainties their wives once provided.
At first Slava is outraged at the request, believing it to be morally reprehensible and refusing to do it. The German government only pays restitution if one had been in a concentration camp or ghetto, and his grandfather hadn’t been. As for his grandfather’s friends, he isn’t sure what their war experiences were.
But Slava changes his mind and decides to do it. He finds himself spending every evening taking the subway to Brooklyn and sitting in various apartments, listening to stories about the war and what happened to so many of his fellow Jews. He is moved by their stories of survival.
His modern Jewish girlfriend in Manhattan senses something is amiss, but he can’t find a way to explain to her his compulsion to help them. There is another girl he reconnects with from the old neighborhood named Vera; he is drawn to her still in the way he was years ago, but simultaneously repelled – feelings that confuse him.
Fishman’s book is an exquisite meditation on the ambiguities that often surround personal suffering. He confronts the strong temptation within all of us, which sometimes asks silently when it might be permissible to play fast and loose with the truth in order to achieve a greater justice. When is morality better served by forgery? For example, when Slava first hesitates to help his grandfather forge the letters, his grandfather screams at him with exasperation and attempts to explain what he and his family endured. “I didn’t suffer? All the men were taken away: Aaron, Father, all the cousins. Father was too old for infantry, so they took him to Heavy Labor.
Two years later, there’s a knock on the door. I see this skeleton in rags, so I shout to my mother, ‘There’s a beggar at the door, give him some food!’ Not a strange sight in those days… It was Father. A week later, they told us about Aaron. Killed by artillery. I wanted to spare my mother losing the last of her men, so yes, I went to Uzbekistan. Not to live in a palace – to pick pockets and piss myself on the street so they [would] think I was a retard, and not draft me.”
Slava’s grandfather continued, claiming, “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered, but they made sure to kill all the people who did.
We had our whole world taken out from under us…” Yet ultimately what gives Fishman’s novel such explosive force is that it reminds us of the power and seduction of intense familial love – and the responsibility that accompanies it. We feel Slava’s love for his grandmother, and the author’s love for his. Fishman beautifully describes for us the memory of being loved so powerfully, in the voice of his protagonist.
Indeed, Slava remembers when his grandmother used to worry about whether he “had finished his homework; whether he had a girlfriend; whether he had enough to eat: She could make a poached carp that lasted for a week. Slava’s life seemed insignificant to hers, and he felt hot shame in regaling her with what girl had said what to him at school, but grandmother followed his words with such transport that her lips followed as he spoke.”
Sort of in the same way we find ourselves following Fishman’s intoxicating prose.