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Biography & Autobiography Historical

The Matryoshka Memoirs

A Story of Ukrainian Forced Labour, the Leica Camera Factory, and Nazi Resistance

by (author) Sasha Colby

ECW Press
Initial publish date
Sep 2023
Historical, World War II, Women, NON-CLASSIFIABLE
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2023
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Sep 2023
    List Price

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“[Colby] breathes new life into well-trodden WWII tropes, building a vivid, novelistic narrative focused on memory and family.” — Publishers Weekly

“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

A remarkable story of strength and resilience in the crucible of Nazi Germany

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.

About the author

Sasha Colby is director of Graduate Liberal Studies and associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University.

Sasha Colby's profile page


  • Short-listed, Taste Canada Awards
  • Winner, IPPY Awards

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

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 post-war 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 20th 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.

I tell you all this because I have become convinced that these movements, like overlapping flight routes in the in-flight magazine of the Boeing 767 that brought my mother and me here, are central to what happened next. All of it: the refugee swell out of the ruins of Europe; the post-war affluence; the restless sense of personal destiny of the sixties and seventies; the more ironic and often less expansive life path forged by my own generation, we strangely acquiescent captives of the millennium, led us to this point: to me among the pickled beets, my mother and grandmother in the kitchen above organizing final details for entertaining the family the following weekend.

At the time, I was oblivious to most of this.


June, 1942 — Wetzlar, Germany

The ground seems to rise and fall in an uncertain rhythm as Irina and the others are ordered out of the train cars and marched to a wire enclosure. In a confined cement area with other young women, Irina is ordered to strip. The girls and women are pushed into a disinfection area, pesticide showers, before before being issued with temporary shift dresses, clogs, and white and blue badges with the letters OST printed in the centre.

In a central assembly area, a guard, starched in his tailored uniform, barks sentences in German. A tall, blonde woman with startling blue eyes stands beside him. She introduces herself in Ukrainian as Maria Holliwata, the camp liaison. When the guard speaks again, Maria translates: They are now Ostarbeiter, Eastern workers. They will work for the glory of Hitler and the German people. Those who try to escape will be found. Those who do not work will be shot. After this orientation, the women are divided into metal-roofed barracks. Irina is assigned to a room with seven others, none from her village.

Editorial Reviews

“[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

“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

“In a style reminiscent of John Steinbeck, whose writing painfully exposed the soul of America’s downtrodden, The Matryoshka Memoirs similarly carries readers into the inner thoughts and feelings of heroes and villains alike, often by deliberately leaving unsaid what words can never convey.” — Winnipeg Free Press

“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

“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

“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

“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

The Matryoshka Memoirs documents and imagines the extraordinary stories of...two young women and underscores the importance of such narratives.” — Bookworm, no. 22 by Literary Review of Canada

“The book is as artfully and beautifully written as the intricate painting and designs on a matryoshka doll.” — What Next blog

“Sasha Colby’s The Matryoshka Memoirs is a vivid, unflinching, and intimate testament to the resilience and courage of women who triumphed over the unspeakable horrors of WWII.” — Portal Magazine

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