Andrea Simons nov­el Esfir Is Alive was pub­lished ear­li­er this month. She will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Dur­ing the research for my mem­oir, Bash­ert: A Granddaughter’s Holo­caust Quest, my cousin Bar­bara sent me an enve­lope affixed with a Post-It, writ­ing, Hope these help toward clo­sure.” Inside were six post­card-sized, sepia-toned pho­tos, most with names or oth­er iden­ti­fiers in Yid­dish, one stamped with the photographer’s place of busi­ness: Visoke, the near­est town to my ances­tral vil­lage of Volchin in present-day Belarus. My heart sank. These were the pho­tos of the Midler fam­i­ly, my lost rel­a­tives killed in the Holo­caust. Final­ly, I could put faces to the peo­ple I had been writ­ing about.

As I assem­bled the pho­tos across my desk, it struck me that these peo­ple were well-dressed, styl­ish even, so like my rel­a­tives spread across the Unit­ed States; I had expect­ed char­ac­ters out of Fid­dler on the Roof in raggedy clothes, lug­ging over­loaded bun­dles. In my research I not only dis­cov­ered more about life in the near­by towns and vil­lages, but liv­ing peo­ple who actu­al­ly knew the Midlers. These Jews read mul­ti­ple dai­ly news­pa­pers, joined Zion­ist and social­ist move­ments, act­ed in Shake­speare­an pro­duc­tions, stud­ied Yid­dish and Hebrew lit­er­a­ture, and argued about the lat­est psy­cho­log­i­cal and edu­ca­tion­al the­o­ries. They were mod­ern peo­ple, not stereo­typ­i­cal facsimiles. 

Over the next ten years fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of my mem­oir, I thought about the issues that I was not able to ful­ly cov­er — par­tic­u­lar­ly the dai­ly life of Jews dur­ing the inter­war years, a time of great intel­lec­tu­al flux. I want­ed to write more about the Midlers. And there was also the sto­ry that did not seem to go away: the mas­sacres of 50,000 Jews at the for­est site of Brona Gora, cul­mi­nat­ing in the incred­i­ble tes­ti­mo­ny of the only record­ed sur­vivor, a twelve-year-old girl, Esfir Manevich. How could such a young per­son sur­vive this ordeal? 

The more press­ing ques­tion for me as an author was how I could inte­grate these top­ics into a sin­gle vol­ume. Would it be anoth­er mem­oir or a work of fic­tion? How could I include Esfir in the sto­ry when I didn’t know if she was still alive to offer cor­rob­o­ra­tion? How could I intro­duce Esfir to my rel­a­tives when they were from dif­fer­ent places?

I pon­dered these chal­lenges over a long time, though I was not aware that var­i­ous path­ways had been ger­mi­nat­ing in my uncon­scious. Then it came to me: what if I began a fic­tion­al sto­ry in 1936, when the real Esfir would have been sev­en years old? My cousin Ida Midler would have been around four­teen. What if I send Esfir to Brest, the city where Ida attend­ed the Tar­but Hebrew Gym­na­si­um? I thought of my grand­moth­er, who had run a board­ing­house in New York’s Catskill Moun­tains. Before I knew it, my grand­moth­er mor­phed into Esfir’s fic­tion­al Aunt Perl, pro­pri­etor of a board­ing­house in Brest. Because of grave anti­semitism at Esfir’s school in her home­town, I would send Esfir to live at Perl’s board­ing­house where she would become room­mates with Ida, the coun­ter­part of my real-life cousin. And thus the nov­el was born.

From the orig­i­nal pho­tos and eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny I had col­lect­ed for my mem­oir, plus my sub­se­quent research, I recon­struct­ed the vil­lage of Volchin. Then I con­struct­ed Brest and the area around the board­ing­house. My child­hood friends, twin girls, became Ida’s class­mates. Now I had the set­ting and the char­ac­ters. For a while they were on their own.

As I changed gen­res, my focus tight­ened from rev­e­la­to­ry wide angle to explorato­ry close-up. I switched the point of view from the memoir’s first-per­son observ­er to the novel’s first-per­son actor. I tried to avoid the dan­ger of telling a sto­ry by show­ing Esfir liv­ing through trau­ma, keep­ing in mind that she was also a wit­ness plod­ding her way through his­to­ry. At this point, I decid­ed to pre­tend that Esfir would be recall­ing her life as an adult. I was grat­i­fied by the reac­tion of ear­ly read­ers who thought that the nov­el was non­fic­tion, an actu­al mem­oir writ­ten by the real Esfir. So my orig­i­nal mem­oir found new life in a fic­tion­al one.

Now when I look at the Midler pho­tos, I no longer see a pleas­ant mid­dle-class fam­i­ly. I see the eldest daugh­ter, Ida, as an ide­al­is­tic young woman who loved lit­er­a­ture; I see my uncle Iser, a hand­some man of promi­nence in his vil­lage who also yanked his slacks over his bel­ly. I often won­der what they would think of me, their long-lost rel­a­tive, pok­ing around in their lives, mak­ing up con­ver­sa­tions, cre­at­ing sce­nar­ios out of slight resem­blances. I like to think they would be proud of me, hap­py that they were trans­formed into ful­ly devel­oped lives, to be cher­ished on the page.

Andrea Simon is the author of the mem­oir Bash­ert: A Granddaughter’s Holo­caust Quest, the new nov­el Esfir Is Alive, and sev­er­al sto­ries and essays. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the City Col­lege of New York and lives in New York City.

Relat­ed Content:

Andrea Simon is the author of the mem­oir BASH­ERT:, A GRAND­DAUGH­TER’S HOLO­CAUST QUEST, her recent nov­el ESFIR IS ALIVE, and sev­er­al pub­lished sto­ries and essays. The recip­i­ent of numer­ous lit­er­ary awards, Andrea holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the City Col­lege of New York where she has taught writ­ing. She lives in New York City.