Yael Goldstein-Love, Author at Kveller
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Yael Goldstein-Love

Sasha Vasilyuk’s “Your Presence is Mandatory” is an immersive historical novel about the Soviet response to World War II and the ways in which political narratives wreak havoc with our private ones — both those we tell ourselves and those we share with others. Moving between Germany, Russia and Ukraine, and spanning seven decades, it tells the story of Yefim, a Jewish soldier in the Soviet army, whose careful guarding of a shameful secret regarding his wartime activities keeps him from ever fully living the rich life he has managed to build up around himself.

Something I loved about this book was how it swept me into another time and place while also playing continually with my understanding of what is unfolding right now, both in Ukraine and with rising antisemitism globally. The book made me see, in a way I never had before, that historical fiction and family secrets have something structurally in common: both are an unearthing of old details (whether factually or only psychologically true) that reorder our understanding of the present in ways that can be both grounding and destabilizing. 

I spoke to Sasha about family secrets, the intricate warp and weave of our individual desires set against our political realities, and parenting under the weight of Jewish history.      

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your book is of course very explicitly a work of historical fiction about family secrets, but I wondered whether, as you were writing, you ever played with this very intimate connection between the two genres you were working in, and what thoughts you have about their connection.

I think family secrets can sometimes paint a bigger picture of society, which is the ingredient needed for good historical fiction. But nowhere is it perhaps truer than in a totalitarian society that thrives on secrecy. This book is based on my Ukrainian-Jewish grandfather’s secret that I discovered after he died when my family found a confession letter he’d written to the KGB, which explained how he managed to survive WWII in Nazi Germany and why he hid it from the government and us, his family. His letter not only revealed how little I understood of my beloved grandfather, but also opened up a part of my country’s history that wasn’t taught at school. 

It also turns out that most Soviet families — especially my grandparents’ generation who came of age under Stalin — seem to have kept a traumatic secret about their past until they were on their death bed. Not sharing the reality of what happened to them during Soviet times has created a huge informational vacuum that can be used by someone like Putin to manipulate history and justify a new war. 

That makes me think about a beautiful phrase from the book, one that I found myself repeatedly circling back to: "The feeling that there was a huge dark ocean of things she wasn't supposed to know." This so perfectly captures an experience I think many (all?) of us feel as children, whether there were big, explicit secrets or just the secrets of omission that come from every child arriving on the scene kind of late in the show as far as the adult lives are concerned. Was this feeling salient for you as a child? 

I grew up in Soviet Ukraine during perestroika and post-Soviet Russia during its most violent years, but I was a kid, so my concerns were homework and crushes on boys, rather than murders, scams, bankruptcies, kidnappings or tanks rolling through the streets. Maybe it’s that dichotomy that made me interested in how we often choose to live in oblivion to protect ourselves or how we lie to those we love to protect them from a hurtful truth. 

At any rate, I thought it wouldn’t be fair to write a novel without including a chapter based on the biggest secret in my own life. In 1994, when I was 11, my father was kidnapped in Moscow by some goons. He was released after his workplace paid a ransom a couple of days later. My parents decided not to tell me. Instead, they made up some lie about why I was suddenly shipped off to Ukraine.

Did your grandfather actually confide in you as Yefim does in Masha?

In the novel, I send 11-year-old Masha to Ukraine, where her grandpa Yefim confesses his long-held secret. But that never happened to me. It was a way for me to play with the idea of telling the truth to a child versus the usual adult strategy of protecting them from everything. 

I think you've told me before that you started this book before becoming a mother. And of course among many other things the book is about, it is also a book about how to parent under the weight of history. Did becoming a mother change how you approached this material? Did it deepen any aspects of the story for you? Did it make any aspects more difficult to deepen into than before?

I began writing this book when I was seven months pregnant, so yes, parenting was starting to be on my mind. But it wasn’t just that. My husband and I had just moved to Berlin, after spending a year in Warsaw. Of course, being in that part of the world made me think a lot about the Holocaust and here I was about to give birth to my Jewish son in Berlin, while writing a WWII novel where Berlin is the seat of all evil. Becoming a mother in Berlin brought up all sorts of unexpected feelings for me — I guess you can call it generational trauma — that made me see how as parents we constantly make choices about what to say and what to omit. Seeing it from the point of view of a mother instead of a child definitely gave me a new lens through which I could give justice to my characters, who’re both kids and parents.

How much do you speak to your kids about the conflict in Ukraine? Or about what’s happening in Israel and Gaza?

Given that I wrote a novel about the effect of secrecy, you’d think I’d have some brilliant solution about how to consciously explain the world to my kids. But sometimes things happen that I can’t even explain to myself. My one homeland attacking another is such an event. I’d been actually planning to take my 4-year-old son to Russia and Ukraine to visit family when Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine. For a long time afterward, I didn’t tell him about the war. He was too young, I thought. I didn’t want him to worry about something so horrendous. Meanwhile, his cousins in Ukraine were hiding in bomb shelters and his cousins in Russia were fleeing. 


Then, one day he came home from his Russian-language preschool kept by Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and asked about it. I told him a simple version, but of course I felt the bitter irony of hiding the truth while writing a book whose thesis (if a novel can have any) is that hiding the truth can lead to adverse effects. After the Hamas attack, I asked a few of my Israeli friends who live in the U.S. about this. Some of them, especially those who had relatives back in Israel and whose kids were younger, were also trying to keep it from their kids. I guess it’s instinctual preservation.

I think so much of parenting is actually about finding that delicate balance between protecting our kids from harsh realities and keeping them in the dark. I’d be very suspicious if you claimed to have some brilliant solution to this problem! Seems like all we can do is muddle through with them, moment to moment, feeling our way and stumbling a lot. It makes me curious whether you'll tell your children about the family history you write about in ”Your Presence is Mandatory.” 

I have briefly told some parts of my grandfather’s history to my son, who is now 6. It isn’t easy to explain prisoners of war, forced laborers or being a Jew in Nazi Germany to a kindergartener. But with time, I hope to tell him and his sister more and, of course, hope that they read “Your Presence is Mandatory” when they’re old enough. I think, in a way, this novel starts a new clock for our family where our historical truth is no longer hidden away. There is a lot of talk now about how Germany has dealt with their historical burden versus how, or rather whether, Russians will be able to do the same for their crimes in Ukraine. Given that context, it behooves me to raise my kids — as American as they are — to know about the good, the bad and the ugly of their family and national history.

“Your Presence is Mandatory” will be released on April 23. You can pre-order it here.

Yael Goldstein-Love is the author, most recently, of the novel The Possibilities (Random House, 2023), a speculative thriller about a worried Jewish mother. 


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