Do you know the story of how your grandparents fell in love?
On my mother’s side, it goes something like this. It’s late 1930’s Milwaukee and my grandfather has invited my grandmother on a first date to a fair. At the top of the Ferris wheel, Gram becomes nauseous and is terrified that she’ll toss her cookies on my future grandfather. To her credit, she managed keep it together for the remainder of the date and when she got home that night, she told her mother that she was in love and wanted to marry my grandpa. My great-grandmother, speaking from her own experience, warned Gram that their relationship would not be warmly received in certain circles. You see, Great-Gram was Irish Catholic and had married a Jewish man in the early years of the 20th century, a pattern her daughter would eventually repeat. One would think that my great-grandmother’s warning would imbue the story with all kinds of danger and tension that would eventually play out in my family’s mythology, but the truth is that it was the image of my young grandparents on the Ferris wheel that always made the biggest impression on me.
Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life opens with the news that Slava Gelman’s grandmother has passed away and he realizes “the story of how Grandmother and Grandfather fell in love was the only story that Slava had.” As the sole member of her family to survive the Holocaust, Slava’s grandmother had focused on the present instead of the past, protecting Slava from her unhappy memories.
Days before Grandmother’s death, she had received a letter from the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany inviting her to submit a reparations claim. Slava’s grandfather wants to submit a claim himself despite having sat out the war in Uzbekistan, which doesn’t qualify him for reparations. But who’s to judge what qualifies as suffering? So with great reluctance, Slava invents a story for his grandfather and soon every Russian Jew in South Brooklyn wants Slava to write their reparations claims as well. What starts as a project laden with moral ambiguity eventually becomes an opportunity for Slava to connect with his late grandmother as he concocts all the stories his grandmother never told him.
This novel—like all good ones—is about many things: the Holocaust, the immigrant experience, American Jewish culture versus Russian Jewish culture, morality, truth and storytelling. And it is very well written, with lots of lovely images and intriguing metaphors. But for some utterly subjective and impossible to quantify reason, the book didn’t entirely speak to me. Technically and thematically it was all there, yet emotionally I just didn’t fully connect. But the theme that kept me going was this desire to understand what our grandparents’ lives were like and to consider where their stories end and our imaginations begin.
Who knows how much of Gram’s Ferris wheel story I have right. And while they did not experience the Holocaust directly, I’m sure my grandparents did face anti-Semitism here in the US. But they never really talked about any of that because I’m sure, like Slava’s grandmother, they wanted to protect me. And this leaves me wondering what my grandparents didn’t tell me.
Up Next: Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse. My first book on this blog written by someone I know!