A granddaughter explores the story of her Ukrainian grandmother’s survival of Hitler’s forced labor camps
Irina Nikifortchuk was 19 years old and a Ukrainian schoolteacher when she was abducted to be a forced laborer in the Leica camera factory in Nazi Germany. Eventually pulled from the camp hospital to work as a domestic in the Leica owners’ household, Irina survived the war and eventually found her way to Canada.
Decades later Sasha Colby, Irina’s granddaughter, seeks out her grandmother’s story over a series of summer visits and gradually begins to interweave the as-told-to story with historical research. As she delves deeper into the history of the Leica factory and World War II forced labor, she discovers the parallel story of Elsie Kühn-Leitz, Irina’s rescuer and the factory heiress, later imprisoned and interrogated by the Gestapo on charges of “excessive humanity.”
This is creative nonfiction at its best as the mystery of Irina’s life unspools skillfully and arrestingly. Despite the horrors that the story must tell, it is full of life, humor, food, and the joy of ordinary safety in Canada. The Matryoshka Memoirs takes us into a forgotten corner of history, weaving a rich and satisfying tapestry of survival and family ties and asking what we owe those who aid us.
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Sasha Colby is a writer, literary historian, performance artist, and director of Simon Fraser University’s Graduate Liberal Studies program. She lives in Vancouver, BC.
Published: September 2023
Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.5 in.
“[Colby] breathes new life into well-trodden WWII tropes, building a vivid, novelistic narrative focused on memory and family. Readers of WWII fiction will savor this evocative work of history.” — Publishers Weekly
“In The Matryoshka Memoirs, Sasha Colby draws together treasures from oral history, meticulous research, and her own imagination to tell ‘A Story of Ukrainian Forced Labour, the Leica Camera Factory, and Nazi Resistance,’ but also of three, and eventually four, generations of women whose conversations and memories range from Eastern to Western Europe, from Eastern to Western Canada, and from past horrors to the intense, loving family dynamics of recent days. The writing is vivid and lyrical, the narratives are arresting, and the women are unforgettable.” — Craig Howes, Director, Center for Biographical Research, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
“Colby skillfully weaves together the stories of women brought together by war and its remembering and forgetting. This is both a captivating family memoir of a granddaughter coaxing stories from her grandmother and Colby's recreation of the wartime meeting of a Ukrainian forced labourer and a wealthy German woman. I picked it up and couldn't put it down.” — Tim Cole, University of Bristol, Director of the Brigstow Institute, author of Holocaust Landscapes
“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.” — The British Columbia Review
“From the moment I began reading The Matryoshka Memoirs, I was transported. Colby’s memoir moves seamlessly between time and place, fact, fiction, and memory bringing us along with her as we travel from safety one moment, to terrifying circumstances the next. Evocative, poetic and at times stark and direct, Colby invites us into the intimate circle of her family, where she weaves the ordinary and the unimaginable together to create a deeply affecting work that explores a hidden history and the depth of feeling within. Through this beautifully written memoir, we are able to touch and feel the experience of one woman, one family and the countless others who have stories such as these still waiting to be told.” — Dorothy Dittrich, 2022 Governor General’s Award winner for drama
“This exquisitely wrought book paints a compelling picture of one woman’s journey through the labour camps of Europe in the 1940s. Woven into her story are the stories of the women of her family, from her daughter to great-granddaughter. This is a delicate, poignant, and deeply humane exploration of generational inheritance, legacy, and female survival.” — Kate Kennedy, BBC broadcaster and Associate Director, Oxford Centre for Life-writing, University of Oxford