Esfir is Alive by Andrea Simon
Reviewed by Helen Schary Motro
Twelve year old Esfir Manevich was the only known recorded survivor of the 1942 mass shootings of 50,000 Jews in the forests of Brona Gora in northeast Poland, today’s Belarus. Esfir survived but not her mother, sisters, grandparents, relatives, friends – almost everybody she knew in her life until then. Simon’s novel is imagined from Esfir Manevich’s testimony given to the Soviet State Commission of inquiry in 1944.
Esfir’s beloved doll follows her owner from her schooldays through her descent into hell. When the little girl packs the doll into the few belongings they are allowed to bring into the ghetto, her mother lashes out at her: “You brought your doll when we are starving and freezing to death? You could have packed potatoes or another sweater.” “She made a fist and raised it toward my face. I started to shake. I thought my mother was going to kill me.”
The first half of the book sets up a milieu of the everyday Jewish bourgeois life of Eastern European Jewry in the late 1930s. Esfir is Alive becomes most compelling in its chapters beginning with the outbreak of World War Two.
The shock and panic of the first day of the Nazi bombing on September 1, 1939 escalate in an ever more taut recitation of the descent into horror, degradation and murder. The child becomes witness, participant, and finally victim of the Nazi occupation and eventual genocide of the Jewish population surrounding Brest Litovsk and Kobrin.
In little Esfir, a lovable girl passionate about her friends, longing for the love of her remote father, anxious to please and to understand the incomprehensible, Simon builds a complex protagonist who loses everything and everybody in her world. She must watch her mother lose her mind from the suffering in the ghetto, witness her elderly grandfather brutalized by Nazis, and finally herself be stripped naked and shot into a mass grave.
As they tumble into the pit she is unable to catch her sister’s hand, whose terror-stricken eyes seek out Esfir’s: “The hole inside me is still as deep as that pit… My sorrow flows through that hole, never-ending. By happenstance, I had survived. Me, a nothing, a nobody.”
Simon has created a three-dimensional tragic heroine who herself is spared, but who stands for all the others who perished.