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

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.”

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.

June 2011

Niagara Falls, Canada

I sit in the coolness of my grandmother’s basement, laptop on the vinyl tablecloth, facing the basement stove. A forty-watt bulb casts shadows on the wooden shelving crowded with jars of pickled beets and marinated banana peppers. Every year, my mother and I make this pilgrimage “back east,” leaving the breezes of the Pacific coast for my grandmother’s house and the Southern Ontario summer. Every year, I set up this temporary air-conditioned refuge, though when I was a child these visits were marked by better ways of keeping cool: ice cream sandwiches and cherry popsicles and watermelon wedges doled out by my grandmother with an indulgent, almost vengeful satisfaction.

One heatwave, the one that stands out like sun-streaked footage from a home movie, my grandparents bought a plastic wading pool and filled it with water from the garden hose. My three cousins and I — all girls, aged three to seven at the time — threw off our sticky summer sundresses and jumped into the freezing water, our pulses racing as the icy water sloshed over the side and onto the closely cut lawn beneath. This shrieking glee lasted until the neighbour across the way phoned and threatened to call the police, confirming in my young mind that not only was suburban Ontario unimaginably humid, it was also ridiculously prohibitive.

On the small West Coast island my mother and I had come from, it was unusual for young children not to be naked at the beach. During parties, these same children would race through the orchard picking golden plums from the highest branches until well into the August night. At the annual community salmon barbecue, we would form unsupervised packs, dodging among the straw hats of long-time farming residents, the grass-stained sleeping bags of young families, and the patchouli-scented home-dyed fabrics of the Coho Drive contingent, who every year would spin in ecstatic circles to acoustic strumming from the plywood stage.

What my grandparents thought of my parents’ move to the coast during the wilds of the seventies, other than it was “far, so far,” I really couldn’t say. My mother met my father when they were both teaching at a community college in Toronto. When teaching contracts dried up, they drove across the country in an Econoline van to seek their fortune out west. In a copper mining town on northern Vancouver Island, my father, long hair and all, was immediately hired to service the mine’s giant Lectra Hauls, those bright yellow monster trucks with their ten-foot tires. My mother drove the trucks he worked on through the hairpin turns between the pit and the refinery — or she did after threatening a lawsuit when all she was offered was secretarial work. This was 1973, after all, and things were changing — to the malicious displeasure of some of the other drivers, one of whom slipped LSD in her coffee before her midnight shift. This disaster in the making was interrupted by a flat tire on her truck which meant she spent the night in the repair shop instead of on the road. The grimy walls of the repair shop were papered in centre-fold posters, and my not-yet mother, twenty-three at the time, leaned against one of the giant tires until dawn, breathing in the distinctive odours of rubber, oil grease, and sweat, watching the models’ enormous breasts magnify and retreat.

On the bright side, my parents did make a great deal of money, which they promptly spent flying back and forth between Port Hardy and Vancouver, where restaurants and jazz bars filled the peninsula between the port and the bridges. Eventually conceding they were not cut out for mining life, they found jobs at a small college on central Vancouver Island. On discovering that the best parties were on a still smaller island twenty minutes’ ferry ride from their work, they bought a wooded piece of property on its western side, a part of the island invariably and disconcertingly termed “the North End.”

When my grandmother first visited my parents’ house, with its vaulted wooden ceilings and skylights, a good ten-minute walk through leagues of Douglas fir from the closest neighbour, her only comment was that the windows would benefit from some nice lace curtains, a suggestion my mother has declined to act on for over three decades.

My grandmother’s preoccupation with lace has its own history, rooted in a bone-deep belief that lace symbolizes the triumph of civilization over barbarism, beauty over the brutal ugliness of poverty. As one who travelled from the fields of Stalin-starved Ukraine to a forced labour camp in Hitler’s Germany, through DP camps to postwar Canada, she would know. Lace is everywhere in my grandmother’s house — the curtains, the doilies, the dining room tablecloth. It is meant to be a barrier.

As for me — someone who documents twentieth-century literary history for a living — I spend a lot of time in libraries and archives and similarly quiet, dimly lit places. Coming from a line of women who travelled far, so far, to get where they are, you might ask why I would choose this particular life. I can only speculate that born as I was at the western limit of the western coast, the only place to go was back.

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, ECW Press
  • ISBN: 9781770417359
  • Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.5 in.
  • Pages: 248