Not Your Grandmother’s Grandmothers

Russian Memoirists Offer Courageous Perspectives of Women

By Benjamin Ivry

Published June 26, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
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The Story of a Life: Memoirs of a Young Jewish Woman in the Russian Empire
By Anna Pavlovna Vygodskaia, translated by Eugene Avrutin and Robert Greene
Northern Illinois University Press, 202 pages, $22.95

Journal (1918-1920)
By Nelly Ptachkina, translated into French by Luba Jurgenson
Les Éditions des Syrtes, 267 pages, $29.39

All too often, accounts of the lives of Russian Jewish women a century ago fall into the clichés of bubbes and babushkas, simulacra of Tevye’s wife, Golde. It is salutary to remember that many forebears were women of resolve and achievement, strong personality and sophistication.

Two passionate texts by Russian Jewish women of different generations, newly available, are welcome reminders of this fact. They are unusual insofar as both authors are from privileged, highly educated backgrounds while most surviving reminiscences of growing up as a Jewish woman in Russia focus on sufferings from economic hardships and related tsoris in the shtetl. There is tsoris aplenty in these two books, and even some discussion of shtetls, but both texts enjoy a far wider scope of reference.

Readers usually enjoy adolescent diaries, as they seem either to prefigure a bright future or possess poignant irony if the precocious young diarist did not indeed live happily ever after. Despite continued renown among Russian readers, Nelly Ptachkina’s adolescent journal, which originally appeared in 1922 in Paris from [the émigré Russian Jewish publisher Iakov Povolotskii, has apparently never been translated into English. This is unfortunate, as English readers would doubtless relish the gumption and resolve of this young woman. She faced historical cataclysms in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, describing in a limpid style the devastating rise in anti-Semitic violence.

And Anna Pavlovna Vygodskaia brings to the table the highly intellectual and aesthetic approach of a genuine litterateur, someone who handles language with affection and care, as she describes her own determination to acquire an education that suits her as an individual, defying the strictures of her parents. In her own way, Vygodskaia was also heroic, as an ambitious thinker and cultivated person, and she remains perhaps an even more cogent model than Ptachkina for today.

Both books are moving records of young Russian Jewish women growing up. Both have tragic conclusions. Vygodskaia, a powerful original thinker, was a proponent of early childhood education after the Russian Revolution and became a Montessori-trained teacher. Her memoir appeared in Riga in 1938, written at the request of a friend, eminent Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who was doubtless impressed by her wit and verve. In 1943, the Nazis would murder 75-year-old Vygodskaia in the Vilna Ghetto two years after her friend Dubnow shared a similarly tragic fate.

By contrast, the shortness of Ptachkina’s life was due to mischance. Against the odds, her family managed to flee post-Revolutionary Russia’s anti-Semitism and arrive safely in France. On a sightseeing trip to the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, 17-year-old Ptachkina accidentally fell into a waterfall on the Swiss side of the mountain. She died from the injuries she sustained. Despite these destinies, the authors’ books are not bleak. Instead, their forthright courage and willpower have impressed many.


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