Your Presence Is Mandatory: A Novel

  • By Sasha Vasilyuk
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Marcie Geffner
  • May 2, 2024

A Ukrainian-Jewish POW endures endless misery in this bleak WWII tale.

Your Presence Is Mandatory: A Novel

If one word could sum up Sasha Vasilyuk’s debut novel, Your Presence Is Mandatory, it might be “distressing.” This is, after all, a story set in Eastern Europe from 1941 to 2015, and in it, the horrors of World War II and its aftermath in the Soviet Union are neither romanticized nor softened.

At the heart of the story is a lie. It’s 1941. Nazi Germany has declared war on the Soviet Union and bombed Kyiv. Yefim Shulman, an 18-year-old Soviet soldier stationed at an artillery base in Lithuania, is eager to join the fight and “kick some German ass.” Writes Vasilyuk:

“If they were alone, [Yefim] would tell [his friend and fellow soldier] Ivan that Hitler may have trampled Paris, but the Soviet Union wasn’t France. They were a superpower. They had nothing to be afraid of.”

Yefim is soon disabused of his naïve notions. The Germans bomb the base, and Yefim’s camp is destroyed. Most of his compatriots are killed. His right thumb and index finger are shot off, leaving him unable to fire his rifle. Captured, he gives his German inquisitors a false name and claims he’s Russian, not Ukrainian:

“Back home, he thought of himself as a Soviet first, a Ukrainian second, and a Jew third. While he was no more Russian than an Englishman, here among the German guards and Polish secretaries he was as Russian as the rest of the prisoner lot. At least that was what he needed to think if he was going to leave this room alive.”

The success of his deception teaches Yefim a lesson he learns all too well: Lying is an effective way to solve his problems — even if it comes at great personal cost.

Yefim’s easy way with falsehoods proves fortunate because he’ll have to do a lot of lying to survive the war as a POW and a Jew. What’s less fortunate are his subsequent decisions to compound his early lies with later ones to hide his years as a slave laborer in the German countryside from his wife, Nina, their children and grandchildren, and the Soviet authorities.

In the postwar Soviet Union, Vasilyuk writes, “millions of POWs were still shunned by society and not considered legitimate veterans by the government that had sent them to war.” Rather than victims, former soldier/prisoners are legally considered traitors.

For Yefim, this government policy results in the possible loss of vital benefits — his military pension, his daughter’s apartment, his son’s doctoral degree — if the truth about his wartime experience is exposed. Also at stake is the respect of his young daughter, Vita, who believes her father “made it all the way to Berlin” as a soldier during the war.

The novel features plenty of drama, yet the pace feels sluggish, in part because a prologue reveals Yefim’s fate right at the start: The year is 2007. He’s in Donetsk, Ukraine. At 84 years old, he’s stricken with Parkinson’s and near death but still very much alive decades after World War II ended.

The narrative also employs two other pace-killers: multiple point-of-view characters and a non-chronological timeline that leaps from 2007 to 1941 to 1950 to 1941 to 1955 to 1941 to 1961 to 1946 before jumping to 2007 and then, finally, to 2015.

Despite Yefim’s ethnicity, the story shows scant appreciation for Jewish life. Apart from one perfunctory scene near the end, being Jewish is depicted as a cause for fear, hatred, humiliation, and a lot of death.

Antisemitic slurs and incidents run through the tale as well, creating mega-doses of hurt, confusion, and life-threatening danger for Yefim and his family. It’s not a nice picture. Nor should it be, given the historical context.

This erasure of Jewish life is partly a function of the Soviet Union’s repressive policies, yet it also begs a question: What storytelling purpose is served by this massive shipload of Jewish misery? The answer may be to remind readers that, yes, the fictitious Yefim survived, though 6 million real European Jews did not.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that, in 1941, the territory of Ukraine in its current internationally recognized borders had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Scholars now estimate at least 1.5 million Jews were murdered there. Most were shot close to where they lived. Their executioners included not only Germans but also Russians and local Ukrainian civilian collaborators.

Is Yefim’s survival a cause for celebration? Does being alive make his life worth living? Does he or his long-suffering wife ever experience moments of humor, love, beauty, or great joy? Were the lies he told worth it? Readers will have to trudge through a lot of starvation, violence, family strife, disappointment, and disaffection to find out. Those intrigued by the Soviet experience during and after World War II may find the trek worth the effort.

Marcie Geffner is a writer, editor, and book reviewer in Ventura, California. Her grandmother was born in Kishinev, Russia.

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