Your Pres­ence Is Mandatory

  • Review
By – April 22, 2024

More than eighty years after the fact, it’s dif­fi­cult for Jews to pick the good guys” of World War II. On one side is Hitler and his Holo­caust. On the oth­er is Stal­in and his Night of the Mur­dered Poets and the doc­tors’ plot. 

In the 1940s, how­ev­er, if you were a Sovi­et cit­i­zen, regard­less of your nation­al­i­ty (the USSR con­sid­ered Jews a nation­al­i­ty, not a reli­gion), your choice was clear: You were to fight for Moth­er Rus­sia, against the Ger­mans. You were to do so to the death. Being tak­en pris­on­er was the same as active­ly sup­port­ing the enemy’s war effort. It was an act of trea­son. Even liv­ing under Ger­man occu­pa­tion whis­pered of sus­pect­ed collaboration. 

The more tan­gled the polit­i­cal con­flict, the more we tend to split all issues neat­ly into right and wrong. In Sasha Vasilyuk’s Your Pres­ence Is Manda­to­ry, how­ev­er, nuance is the name of the game.

Nina, the book’s pro­tag­o­nist, spends her youth in Nazi-occu­pied Ukraine, and the rest of her pro­fes­sion­al life is haunt­ed by her shame. In the USSR, any­one unfor­tu­nate enough to be trapped in Ger­man-occu­pied ter­ri­to­ry is seen as a trai­tor. Her hus­band, Yefim, fights brave­ly for his coun­try — until he is cap­tured and sent to a POW camp. He escapes and spends the bulk of the war as a slave labor­er in a Ger­man family’s mechan­i­cal work­shop. His crime is even worse than Nina’s — he’s con­sid­ered a col­lab­o­ra­tor, and thus inel­i­gi­ble for a soldier’s pen­sion and oth­er perks oth­er­wise allo­cat­ed to veterans. 

Nina is unable to hide her scan­dalous past. Yefim leaps on a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to lie about his wartime ser­vice, and lives the rest of his life ter­ri­fied of being dis­cov­ered, arrest­ed, and pun­ished. The dis­grace could destroy not only him, but also his wife, their chil­dren, and their grand­chil­dren. It could cost them their jobs, their homes, their chances of high­er edu­ca­tion, and even their lives.

The book incor­po­rates mul­ti­ple time­lines: in the present day, Yefim and Nina deal with the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union and the sub­se­quent tur­moil in Don­bass, Ukraine; soon after World War II, Yefim and Nina meet and begin a rela­tion­ship; and dur­ing the Great Patri­ot­ic War, a teenage Yefim does what­ev­er he needs to in order to survive.

This pro­vides an unusu­al con­text for read­ers. As we read about Yefim in bat­tle and as a POW, we already know he will live and lie about it for decades. As we encounter the courtship of Yefim and Nina, we already know these young lovers will grow into can­tan­ker­ous old people. 

We learn in the first chap­ter that Yefim dies with­out telling his fam­i­ly the truth, leav­ing behind only a writ­ten con­fes­sion. In a world where, thanks to mod­ern media, we can instant­ly find out what has hap­pened, a book like Your Pres­ence Is Manda­to­ry reminds us that it can take a life­time to untan­gle why.

Ali­na Adams is the NYT best-sell­ing author of soap opera tie-ins, fig­ure skat­ing mys­ter­ies, and romance nov­els. Her lat­est his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, My Mother’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region chron­i­cles a lit­tle known aspect of Sovi­et and Jew­ish his­to­ry. Ali­na was born in Odessa, USSR and immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States with her fam­i­ly in 1977. Vis­it her web­site at: www​.Ali​naAdams​.com.

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