1930 From one generation to another

The Matryoshka Memoirs: A Story of Ukrainian Forced Labour, the Leica Camera Factory, and Nazi Resistance
by Sasha Colby

Toronto: ECW Press, 2023
$24.95  /  9781770417359

Reviewed by Theresa Kishkan


More than 3 decades ago, on a family camping trip, I bought a set of matryoshka dolls in an art gallery in Wells, BC. I was a young mother, I was trying to find my way back to writing, and somehow the doll family of 4, nesting comfortably within the thin wooden shell of the father, the round generous body of the mother with her bright scarf, a smaller child doll, and inside that one, a smaller one yet, felt like the perfect talisman to sit on my desk. In later years, parsing a scarce documentary trail left by the Central and Eastern European branches of my family, I’d occasionally reach for the dolls, trying out new arrangements, different pairings. On a trip to Ukraine in 2019, in search of my paternal grandfather’s story, I saw many matryoshka dolls in a market in Lviv, alongside rolls of toilet paper printed with Vladimir Putin’s face, and realized that they could also contain and express other relationships and histories, even alternate political frameworks nestled subversively in the guise of a plaything. The cousins who found me in a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains after learning I’d come to their village a few days earlier. How did they fit into the shape of what I knew? Which great-grandparents did we share? Which cousin went to Montreal, which to New Jersey? Which cousin changed his name and became a famous hockey player? Which history was true?

Sasha Colby

My dolls are arranged on my desk as I think about Sasha Colby’s The Matryoshka Memoirs: A Story of Ukrainian Forced Labour, the Leica Camera Factory, and Nazi Resistance. The book collects the stories of Sasha’s grandmother, Irina Kalynych Nikifortchuck, a Ukrainian schoolteacher forcibly taken to Nazi Germany at the age of 19 to become part of a wartime labour force, and her rescuer, Elsie Kühn-Lietz, daughter of the owner of the Ernst Lietz Optical Industry, makers of optical equipment, including Leica cameras. The Leitz family were not Nazi supporters but were forced to contribute to the military complex under threat of expropriation. Elsie oversaw the welfare of the factory’s female “Eastern workers”, of which Irina was one; the former requisitioned Irina’s services for the family home, where she was given a room, clothing, good food, and a measure of safety for a time. Had she remained in the labour camp adjacent to the factory, on starvation rations, her story might have been very different. It was not without deprivation, violence, indignity, and terror. But Irina survived, married, negotiated the difficult conditions of various DP camps, and eventually came to Canada where she raised a family, cooked the dishes of her homeland, with some modifications (skewered meat rolled in Shake n Bake instead of stale breadcrumbs), and kept her past contained, controlled.

Irina Kalynych Nikifortchuck

It’s Irina’s story that Sasha gradually learns, during summer visits to her grandmother’s home in Niagara Falls: her story, and Elsie’s, and the story of Ukrainians enduring forced labour. As with so many of us searching for family history, Sasha fears her grandmother will carry details of her time in Germany, and after, to the grave; she tries different strategies to coax the story into the room where she prepares food with Irina, helps in the garden, goes on epic shopping trips, stops for ice cream. The Niagara Falls chapters are told in the first person, lending their immediacy to the reader. And the stories that are gradually revealed little by little are reconstructed as third-person narratives, told so vividly that we share the sense of first safety (as Irina is sheltered in the Leitz home), then fear and anxiety (as Elsie is taken to a Frankfurt prison where she is tortured by the Gestapo), the quiet and unexpected joy (as Irina meets Sergei in the labour camp, falling in love with him and his memorable green eyes). Participating in this quest for the story, the stories, is Sasha’s mother Lucy, Irina’s daughter. She functions as a mediating presence, in a way, telling Sasha details of her childhood, and what she knew of her parents’ lives before coming to Canada, and what she didn’t know. She reminds Sasha that there are reasons for some of the stories to remain buried:

We pause at the apex of one of the bridges, watching the flow of the water beneath as I tell my mother the story my grandmother recounted the night before. My mother already has many of these pieces. We compare, but still there is a feeling of incompleteness.

“What isn’t she telling us?” I ask.

My mother’s eyes are shaded by her sunglasses. But her upper body contracts in a quick, instinctive shrug.

“She was nineteen when she was captured by a gang of Nazi soldiers. There are things she’s not going to talk about.”

Elsie Kühn-Lietz

Irina’s rescuer Elsie is perhaps more difficult to figure out.

For every detail that remains obscure, there is a day my grandmother recalls with forensic clarity. The day Elsie Kühn-Leitz was taken by the Gestapo and the day she returned to the house are two such days. And so I return to the questions I have been asking since the summer, questions about what could have happened to Elsie Kühn-Leitz in the Gestapo jail to make a woman like that crawl up the staircase of her own home on her hands and knees.

Sasha arranges for a graduate student to translate an autobiographical essay written by Elsie and included with some Leitz family papers. Mostly the essay catalogues events of 1943 but it also offers a brief passage in which Elsie alludes to a “mental birthmark,” an unforgettable mark of trauma on her body and soul; then she provides an account of her time in the Frankfurt prison which Sasha brings vividly to life in a chapter devoted to Elsie. It is harrowing. The reader realizes that the experiences of each person in this book, from Sasha, who is expecting a child as she cooks with Irina and urges her to share her stories, to Elsie, and to Irina herself, is a matryoshka construction:

On the dresser across from me sits a hand-painted matryoshka doll. It is the same one my cousins and I played with as children, blithely scattering pieces under the couch and corners of the rec room. At some point, my grandmother collected the pieces and brought the doll up to this bedroom for safekeeping, screwing the pieces back together as tightly as she could. It is now almost impossible to open.

The shape of Elsie’s story will change and shift. Postwar, she divorces her husband, makes her home into a hub for the arts, and becomes involved in humanitarian advocacy work in Central Africa. As a lawyer and a wealthy woman, she left a legacy of good works, both in wartime and after. Yet she was marked by the trauma of her incarceration. When her father came to take her home from prison, he didn’t recognize her.

Sasha Colby devotes a chapter of her book to Elsie Kühn-Lietz and her time in a Frankfurt prison

One of the meals Sasha, her grandmother, and her mother prepare is a feast to celebrate a family gathering; the guests will include Irina’s son Alex, born in a Polish DP camp, Alex’s wife and children, and Laurie, the daughter of friends met in that camp, with her husband. They come bearing photographs and scraps of stories, which must be parsed, understood, aligned with the versions Sasha has been collecting, the pieces of a matryoshka doll so generous and complicated that its body contains not just a family but a community.

But memory isn’t always reliable. Sasha remembers an incident from childhood involving unpleasant neighbours but it turns out it was not the house where Irina lives in the present. A photograph of Sasha in a classically cut sundress is actually a young Irina. As stories are related, small corrections are noted, other versions suggested. As she is leaving the family gathering, Laurie shares a brief memory of her own:

“You know what I remember?” she says. “I remember the last days of the work camp. The Americans were coming, we all knew they were coming, and one of the German commanders went crazy. He herded us to the far end of the camp with his gun, where there was a giant pit. I said to Mama, ‘What is it?’ And she says, ‘It’s a swimming pool. They’re building a beautiful pool for us to go swimming in.’ And when I looked down, there were already bodies in the pit, some of them still moving.” Laurie’s eyes refocus. “Another commander stopped the crazy one, took his gun away. But we were this close, you know? Sometimes I think about that.”

Irina was taken from her home in Ukraine to Germany in 1942. The concluding sections take place in 2013, when Irina is now settled into a care facility, her memory failing, though events of the past are still vivid. Sasha and her small daughter visit with Lucy. Irina imagines she is still in Wetzlar, hungry because the turnip soup is too thin to fill her up, but the promise of ice-cream cheers her and she is in the moment, which is always now. The shape that this story takes, from Ukraine to Germany to Belgium to Canada, is as full and capacious as a matryoshka doll; when we open it, taking it apart, we marvel that so much can be held inside. Sasha Colby is a beautiful writer. In her hands, Irina’s complicated life story and its living legacy is explored with rich and intelligent care. She reminds us to pay attention, to remember, and to listen, as important now, while the world witnesses Russian aggression and human tragedy in Ukraine, as it was in Wetzlar in 1942, and after.

Sasha Colby shares a happy moment with her grandmother, Irina


Theresa Kishkan

Theresa Kishkan lives on the Sechelt Peninsula with her husband, John Pass. She has published 16 books, most recently two novellas, Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016) and The Weight of the Heart (Palimpsest Press, 2020), as well as Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017) and Blue Portugal and Other Essays (University of Alberta Press, 2022). She runs a small press devoted to the literary novella, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, with her friend Anik See. Editor’s note: Theresa Kishkan has also reviewed books by Maleea Acker, Catriona Sandilands and Mona Fertig for The British Columbia Review. Her book Winter Wren was reviewed by Miranda Marini; The Weight of the Heart by David Stouck; Euclid’s Orchard by Catriona Sandilands; and Blue Portugal by Michael Hayward.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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