The only known survivor of mass executions of Jews in Brona Gora, Esfir Manevich gives three paragraphs worth of recorded testimony to the Soviets in 1944. She then disappears from recorded history, only to be brought back to life seventy-some years later in Andrea Simon's historical fiction entitled Esfir Is Alive. How does she escape the horrors? What was life like for Esfir and her friends and family before or after?
Using a creative, but heart-wrenching technique, Simon assumes the persona of Esfir and bears witness for her, in a history that includes Simon's actual relatives from the same area. Through the author's careful research, this story of the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a young girl in a community of Polish Jews comes to life.
The reader is reminded that the people of this area suffered not only at the hands of the Nazis, but the Russians took their turn as well. The two flags flew side by side—a red Russian cloth with hammer and sickle next to the unmistakable German black swastika. Esfir says it best: "...in a corner of Belorussia that was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia, there was once a people whose only crime was being Jewish." Many pro-Russian socialist supporters of the time became sadly disillusioned with the harsh realities of life under restrictions imposed by the Russian leadership beginning in 1940. "Russification was in full swing. Private property was prohibited. Trade between city residents and peasants was halted. Food became more and more scarce. We waited in lines for up to ten hours for a piece of bread."
The historical events of Hitler's pogroms (pogrom is a Russian word meaning destruction) and the Russian movements in the novel are real. On November 9th, 1938, Esfir was in fourth grade when the horrors of Kristallnacht occurred. Nazis began smashing store fronts, beating Jewish shop owners, and eventually rounding up some thirty thousand Jews for deportation. It was, Esfir says, "the pogrom of pogroms" signalling increased hostility and instability for Polish Jews and soon, Jews in other parts of Europe.
Ms. Simon carefully weaves her first-person account of Esfir into the stories of communities that change from neighborhoods, to concentration camps, to displaced persons' camps. And finally, Esfir makes a solitary trek back to Kobrin, her hometown, only to find that the ugly realities of the Holocaust will continue to march across her young life, disrupting any sense of stability she might have hoped for.
Esfir Is Alive is a meaningful read for both adolescent and adult scholars of the Holocaust. Book groups will appreciate the questions at the back of the book and the glossary of Yiddish words and phrases. The title invokes a hope that remains with the reader throughout, even in the bleakest moments while the text demonstrates a character's resilience in the face of unimaginable loss, disruption, and pain. Ms. Simon's account, having been inspired by her 2002 memoir entitled Bashert: A Granddaugher's Holocaust Quest, presents a deeper development of many of the real-life characters who formed a part of her Belorussian village and surrounding areas. The reader will come to love Esfir and feel deeply her sense of loss at every turn. Read this book to learn more and to ponder the question, where is Esfir's beloved Miriam?
Andrea Simon is the author of the novel Esfir Is Alive, the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter's Holocaust Quest, as well as several published stories and essays. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the winner of the Ernest Hemingway First Novel Contest, two Dortort Creative Writing Awards, the Stark Short Fiction Prize, the Short Story Society Award, and the Authors in the Park Short Story Writing Contest. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York where she has taught writing. Andrea is also an accomplished photographer, and her work has been featured in international publications and galleries. Andrea lives in New York City.
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