A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

During
the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as a volunteer with the Russian
Jewish community in Chicago. The program was funded by the Jewish United
Fund. The volunteers helped families practice English while assisting
with the difficult transition to American life. In most cases, families
were inter-generational, with grandparents living with children and
grandchildren. The experience allowed me to look at American life
through the lens of an immigrant. It gave me an appreciation for the
freedoms I enjoyed that my Soviet brethren had not.

In
addition, I listened to family members recount their experiences with
anti-semitism, much of which was state sanctioned prior to the 60s.
Having taken my own admission to universities for granted, I learned how
entrance into universities in the USSR often required a bribe, as did
many government services. Gradually, I came to understand the complex
relationship Soviet Jewry had with their motherland and with their new
home in America.

Thus it was with a sense of empathy that I read A Replacement Life (2014),
by Boris Fishman. In it, he explores the many conflicts - ethical,
social, and familial - that face his protagonist, Slava Gelman. After
listening to Bob Edwards interview the author, it became evident that
Slava is an alter-ego of the author himself.  (Bob Edwards Weekend, July 4, 2014, NPR)

Fishman
was born in Belarus in 1979 and came to the United States in 1988 at
the age of 9. He became the official English speaker for his parents and
grandparents. As a child, and later as an adolescent, he helped them
navigate the complicated ways of a new society. When he was only 15, his
grandmother asked him to write an appeal to the Conference on Material
Claims Against Germany. She was claiming reparations for her two years
as prisoner in the Minsk ghetto during WWII. There were no surviving
records from that period. The Germans destroyed the ghetto in 1943 and
executed the remaining inhabitants.

Even at that young
age, Fishman knew that the lack of record-keeping would encourage
deceit. Indeed, it did. In 2010, twelve forgers who invented Holocaust
stories were indicted.  Had the scam not been foiled, the German
government would have paid upwards of $50 million to people who were
never in the camps.  In an interview with Tablet Magazine, Fishman
suspends judgment:

If you lived in (the U.S.S.R.), he explains,
you couldn't get certain basic things without going around the law.
Some people remained honorable and did without; some people lucked out
and knew the right people; others just wanted a little more for their
families. I'm not talking about Rolls-Royces and gold watches. I'm
talking about another pair of shoes or a banana. Tangerines were a
once-a-year luxury. Sometimes, you could not get basic things without
resorting to light crime.

It is this very dilemma that occupies the heart of A Replacement Life.
Slava yearns for a sense of belonging and for the recognition of his
writing skills by the literary magazine that employs him. These are not
forthcoming. He is gradually drawn into his grandfather's world and
begins writing stories - all with kernels of truth - for people not
technically recognized as survivors of the Holocaust. He rationalizes
that they did, after all, suffer. He becomes a better writer with each
document he fabricates. There is just one problem: Slava's actions are
illegal, and eventually, he must choose between his interpretation of
justice and the law itself.

Boris Fishman has written a poignant and funny novel that
examines truth versus family loyalty and explores suffering in its many
dimensions.


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