Boris Fishman

A Replacement Life

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A Replacement Life Summary

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Set in Brooklyn, New York, American Jewish author Boris Fishman’s dark comedy novel A Replacement Life (2014) follows Slava Gelman, an obscure journalist who finds work forging Holocaust restitution claims for elderly Russian Jews. His shady line of work starts with his grandfather, Yevgeny Gelman, who performs logistical acrobatics to justify his restitution claim to the German government and cement Slava’s status as a “writer.” Meanwhile, Slava yearns to break away from his Jewish immigrant roots to somehow become a famous “all-American” writer. Ironically, Slava’s underground work is just what it takes him to realize the power of writing to shape reality and take control of his fate. The novel has been celebrated for its comical take on the competing, intergenerational desires of many Jewish families to both hold onto the past and seek a brighter future.

At the beginning of the novel, Slava Gelman is recruited by his grandfather to forge a letter to the Conference on Material Claims, a non-governmental organization and Holocaust restitution administrator, requesting payment for Yevgeny’s suffering in the Minsk ghetto (though Yevgeny escaped the Holocaust without such torture). He agrees only because his grandmother has recently died, merely days after receiving a letter informing her that she might be eligible for restitution because her parents were killed in the Minsk ghetto during World War II. Yevgeny argues that Germany deliberately waited more than 60 years to inform his wife about her eligibility, betting that she would no longer be around to claim it. The German Conference responds to Yevgeny’s claim with skepticism, since there is no record of him having been in the ghetto.

At first, Slava refuses to continue along with the forging attempt. However, he soon realizes that writing his grandmother’s story might help him understand her better. Slava’s grandmother always refused to tell him about her experience in the ghetto; after asking several times, he stopped, seeing how distressed the memory seemed to make her. Slava decides to write back to the German government with evidence corroborating Yevgeny’s internment (hiding the fact that it was his grandmother who lived in the ghetto). Slava’s attempt to chronicle his grandmother’s life brings him throughout Brooklyn and in contact with many other Russian Jews. One man, Israel Abramson, lives alone and in poverty. He explains that his wife has died and his son has left him in favor of joining a group of Orthodox Jews abroad. Israel’s example, and many others, shows Slava that many immigrants desperately need a sense of community and basic resources to live.

Slava forges countless restitution claims on behalf of elderly Jews in New York. Eventually, he is called to meet with Otto Barber, a man who works with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Otto suspects that Slava has forged many of the letters recently received by the Conference. He offers an ultimatum: either Slava tells him the names of those who submitted fake accounts of their circumstances in World War II, or he doesn’t, thereby threatening the chances of many people who faithfully applied to receive restitution. In response, Slava tells Otto that the right thing to do would be to pay all of the Jews who applied. He reminds him that all Jews suffered terribly during World War II, regardless of whether they were forced to live in a concentration camp or ghetto. Otto refuses to pay all of the Jews because he perceives it as morally wrong given the constraints and mission of the restitution program. Slava tells Otto that his method of negotiation constitutes fraud, since he offered to cover up Slava’s forgery in exchange for information. At last, Slava concedes only that Yevgeny’s letter was faked, protecting the many other Jews he helped. Slava finally recognizes the importance of Jewish solidarity, as well as an imperative to advocate for the older generation of Jewish immigrants who endured great pain to make it to the United States.