Saturday, August 7, 2010

Vasily Grossman

“The time of Hitler arrived: a wolfish century. It was a time when people lived like wolves, and wolves lived like people.” – Vasily Grossman.
Vasily Grossman named his epic novel of World War Two, “Life and Fate.” Grossman's own destiny was inextricably bound up with that of Berdichev, a town in the Zhitomir Oblast of Ukraine, renowned as both a centre of Hasidism and of Haskalah; to gain some insight into the events of Grossman's life it is appropriate to consider the fate of both the man and the town in which he was born.

On the outbreak of war, the Jewish inhabitants of Berdichev numbered nearly 50% of the population of 66,000; even in pre-revolutionary times the town had been known as the “Jewish capital.” By the time the Germans occupied Berdichev on 7 July 1941, the number of Jews in the town may have fallen to about 20,000; as many as 10,000 Jews had possibly fled eastward. As in many other cases, it is difficult to be definitive concerning numbers – sources vary. In any event, the SS were well aware of the significance of Berdichev as an important centre of Jewish religion and culture. Erwin Schultz, head of Einsatzkommando 5 of Einsatzgruppe C, testified at his post-war trial that at a meeting held in Zhitomir in early August, those present were informed that an order had been issued by Heinrich Himmler to the effect that all Jews in Ukraine not engaged in essential work were to be shot. Sonderkommando 4a, headed by Standartenführer Paul Blobel was stationed in Berdichev, and was to be primarily responsible for subsequent events in the town.

By virtue of an order issued on 13 August by Field Marshall Walther von Brauchitsch (commander in chief of the Wehrmacht), ghettos were to be established throughout occupied Ukraine. On 25 August, the Jews of Berdichev were ordered to move into a ghetto situated in Yakti Bazaar, the most dilapidated area of the town. Ten days later, at least 1,500 young Jews were removed from the ghetto and shot on the outskirts of the town (some sources suggest as many as 10,000 individuals were shot in this aktion.) On 15 September, around 2,000 people, skilled craftsmen and their families, were singled out. The remainder, 18,600 individuals, were marched out of Berdichev to the killing site and shot. To assist with crowd control, the SS mustered all the available Ukrainian police, who were charged with rounding up the Jews, forming them into columns and marching them to pre-prepared pits at a military airfield near the village of Romanovka. 13 year-old Naum Epelfeld provided an eyewitness account of the process:

“Everything began at 3:00 in the morning. The Polizei broke into our building… [and] drove us into the streets. They beat us with rifle butts, screamed at us… we did not understand what was happening… they drove us to the market square… My father and I ended up in one group, and my mother, grandmother and sister…in another… The weak and feeble people were thrown into…trucks like sacks, then the trucks set off. Load after load of trucks left…. In the evening our group returned to the ghetto.”
At the killing site the Jews were ordered to remove their outer clothing, forced toward a pit and shot. A further 2,000 Jews were killed on 3 November. By then Sonderkommando 4a had moved on to Kiev, where on 29-30 September 1941 they murdered 33,771 Jews in the ravine of Babi Yar. Naum Epelfeld recorded that the massacre of the Jews of Europe had started in Berdichev, which had served as the template for SS methods of large-scale massacres by shooting. Over the next few months, the remainder of the Jews of Berdichev were murdered, so that when the town was liberated by Soviet forces on 15 January 1944, there were just 15 Jews found alive. The massacre of 15 September 1941 was to affect Vasily Grossman for the rest of his life. For one of the victims buried in the pit near Romanovka was his mother.

Vasily Semyonovich (Iosif Solomonovich) Grossman was born on 12 December 1905 in Berdichev, the son of Semyon Osipovich (Solomon Iosifovich) Grossman and Yekaterina Savelievna. The writer Sholem Aleichem had lived for a time in Berdichev, and used it as one of his models for the shtetl of Anatevka, immortalised in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” but the Grossmans had little in common with the great majority of the Jews of the region. They were thoroughly assimilated, with no interest in Judaism. They had adopted Russified versions of their names, and they conversed and read in Russian, not Yiddish. In Vasily's own words:

“We were not like the poor shtetl Jews described by Sholem Aleichem; the type that lived in hovels and slept side by side on the floor, packed like sardines. No, our family comes from a quite different Jewish background. They had their own carriages and horses. Their women wore diamonds, and they sent their children abroad to study.”
Vasily's father was a chemical engineer, his mother a French teacher. Probably before Vasily was five years old his parents separated. The mother and child went to live in Geneva, where they stayed for about two years. By 1914 they had returned to Russia and were living in Kiev. Following the October Revolution of 1917 they returned to Berdichev, where Vasily continued his education. In the autumn of 1921, he entered the Kiev Higher Institute of National Education. Two years later he enrolled at Moscow University, finally graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1929. In the intervening six years his life has undergone some startling changes. He had married Anna (Galya) Petrovna Matsuk in 1928; a daughter, Yekaterina (Katya) had been born in January 1930; and he had begun to write professionally. The newly-wed couple hardly appear to have been the most caring of parents. Katya was sent to live with Vasily's mother in Berdichev. The marriage of Galya and Vasily was of short duration; they divorced in 1932.

Vasily was an enthusiastic supporter of Bolshevism, seeing in it the answer to centuries of institutionalised Jew baiting. Although uncertain of, and confused about, his own Jewish identity, he welcomed the new country of the Soviet Union, where in 1918 a law had been proclaimed banning anti-Semitism. At last all Jews were to have equal rights as citizens - or so it was promised. He would become a “New Soviet Man.”

In 1930, his father obtained a job for Vasily as a mining engineer at Stalino (now Donetsk) in eastern Ukraine. Vasily had hated life in Berdichev, which he regarded as provincial and unsophisticated, but Stalino was much worse. The working conditions were awful, and the miners were little more than slave labourers. Grossmann couldn't wait to return to Moscow. At the end of 1931 he was misdiagnosed by a local doctor as suffering from chronic tuberculosis, and managed to get away from Stalino, returning to Moscow in summer 1932. He had decided to abandon chemistry and the mining industry for ever; now he was determined to pursue a career in literature.

Through his cousin Nadya, whose apartment he shared, he found employment at the Sacco and Vanzetti factory, an establishment whose principal product was pencils. Whilst working at the factory, he devoted all of his spare time to writing. His first novel, Glyukauf (“Good Luck”) was published in 1934. Grossman became a protégé of Maxim Gorky (Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov) the leading light of Russian literature, and under his patronage produced several short stories, including “In the Town of Berdichev”, the work that first brought him to prominence. Determined not to become a Stalinist hack, politically naïve, and an unusually (for the place and time) honest author, Grossman was lucky to escape the Great Terror of the 1930s. Nadya was not so fortunate. She was arrested in March 1933 for alleged Trotskyism and exiled to Astrakhan for three years, thereafter being sent to the labour camp at Vorkuta – Pechersk in the far east of Russia for a further three years.

Grossman steadily progressed up the ladder of the Russian literary world, finally becoming a fully-fledged member of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1937, an honour that brought with it many privileges. In 1935 he began a relationship with Olga Mikhailovna Guber, and the couple were married in May 1936. Simply because she had previously been the wife of Boris Guber (a writer who had been arrested and shot in 1937), Olga was herself arrested in 1938. The chain of guilt by association led naturally to Grossman, who was summoned to the KGB's Moscow headquarters at Lubyanka for interrogation in February 1938. The couple were extremely lucky; Grossman was never arrested, and Olga was released in late summer 1938.

Between 1937 and 1940, Grossman's novel Stepan Kolchugin was serially published to general critical and popular acclaim. He had become a part of the literary establishment. But everything changed on 22 June 1941, with Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Grossman immediately volunteered for the Red Army, although 35 years of age and quite unfit for military service. Instead, he became a war correspondent for Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda), the official Red Army newspaper. He was to spend three of the next four years at the front, more than 1,000 days in total, becoming the favourite writer of the ordinary soldier, renowned for the honesty of his reporting. He showed extraordinary personal courage and an unerring ability to capture the reality of this most brutal of wars. But he lived with a tragedy which was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

It took the Wehrmacht just over two weeks to advance more than 350 kilometres to Berdichev. Such a rate of progress seemed inconceivable at the time. Grossman's mother and, as far as he was aware, his daughter, were still in Berdichev. In fact, Katya was safe at a children's summer camp. It would have presented no problem to Grossman to arrange for his immediate family to have boarded a train for Moscow, where they could have stayed with Olga and himself for a time, before being evacuated further eastward if necessary, as was Grossman's father. Instead, Grossman did nothing. Olga had persuaded him that there was insufficient room in their apartment to accommodate other family members. Grossmann never forgave her for her lack of compassion. Before he could fully realise the enormity of what was happening, Berdichev had been overrun, and all contact with his mother had been lost.

Grossman accompanied the Red Army virtually every step of the way from Stalingrad to Berlin. As he progressed across the war-torn landscape of the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany, the nature and extent of “The Final Solution” was visible everywhere. As more and more evidence of the annihilation of the Jews was uncovered, so Grossman's sense of his own Jewish identity grew. In 1943, he wrote a piece called “Ukraine Without Jews”. To indicate the extent of the genocide, he produced a list of victims, each preceded by the word ubity – murdered:

“There are no Jews in Ukraine. Nowhere – Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin – in none of the cities, hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black tear-filled eyes of little girls; you will not hear the sad voice of an old woman; you will not see the dark face of a hungry baby… All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people have been brutally murdered.”
Together with a second piece, “The Old Schoolteacher”, which dealt with the events culminating in the shooting of hundreds of Jews in an unnamed Ukrainian town (i.e. Berdichev), Grossman had produced the first exploration, fictional or documentary, in any language, of what came to be known as the Shoah. Although Soviet censorship prevented the mention of such matters, he was beginning to suspect the extensive Ukrainian participation in the murder of their Jewish neighbours. As in other Ukrainian towns, some Jews from Berdichev survived because of the help of courageous Ukrainians. But these were the exception, rather than the rule.

In January 1944, Grossman arrived back in Berdichev, to confirm what he had always known, but desperately hoped was not true. His mother was dead, killed with most of the other Jews of the town in September 1941. Because of the speed of the Red Army's advance, the Nazis had not had time to exhume and cremate the bodies of their victims as they had done elsewhere, and so the two burial pits at Berdichev remain the largest Holocaust massacre sites to contain actual corpses. His mother's body lay in one of the pits. In his novel Life and Fate, Grossman has Anna Shtrum, a fictionalization of his mother, write a long final letter to her son. It is one of the most moving passages in Holocaust literature:

“An announcement was soon made about the resettlement of the Jews. We were each permitted to take 15 kilograms of belongings. Little yellow notices were hung on the walls of houses. `All occupants are required to move to the area of the Old Town…' What a sad journey it was, my son, to the medieval ghetto… We walked down the roadway while everyone else stood on the pavement and watched… I realized there were two different crowds: there were the Jews – the men in winter coats and hats, the women wearing thick dresses – and there were the people in summer clothes on the pavement…
… God, what poverty there is everywhere! If only the people who are always talking about how rich the Jews are, how they've always got something put by for hard times, could have a look at the Old Town now… I never used to feel I was a Jew… But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before…

… [Shchukin] told me that a new decree was being printed: Jews are to be forbidden to walk on the pavements; they are required to wear a yellow patch, a Star of David, on the chest; they no longer have the right to use public transport, baths, parks, or cinemas; they are forbidden to buy butter, eggs, milk, berries, white bread, meat, or any vegetable other than potatoes; they are only allowed to make purchases in the market after six o'clock, when the peasants are already on their way home…Shchukin's father-in-law…had travelled in from the nearby village of Chudnov. He had seen with his own eyes how all the Jews were herded into the forest with their parcels and suitcases. All day long he heard shots and terrible screams; not one Jew returned… The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included… Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan…

… What a lot of children…there are! … Probably future scientists, physicists, professors of medicine, musicians, even poets… They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren't going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose-necks – this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won't be here, we will have vanished – just as the Aztecs once vanished.

The peasant who brought us the news about the mass graves said that his wife had been crying at night. She'd been lamenting: 'They sew, and they make shoes, and they curry leather, and they mend watches, and they sell medicines in the chemist's. What will we do when they have all been killed?'”

Of course, in reality Yekaterina Savelievna wrote no such letter. But this was a case of art transcending reality. It was part of Grossman's search for the expiation of his guilt, of his endless grieving for a death he felt he could have prevented. In 1950, on the ninth anniversary of the massacre, he penned a letter to his long dead mother, a reply to Anna Shtrum:

“Dear Mama,
I learned about your death in the winter of 1944. I came to Berdichev, entered the house where you used to live…and I felt that you had died. But as far back as September 1941 my heart already felt that you weren't here any more. One night at the front I had a dream. I entered your room. I knew for sure it was your room, and I saw an empty armchair, and I knew you had slept in it. A shawl with which you'd covered your legs was hanging down from the armchair. I looked at it for a long time, and when I woke up I knew that you weren't any longer among the living. But I didn't know what a terrible death you had suffered. I only learned about it when I came to Berdichev and talked to people who knew about the mass execution that took place on 15 September 1941. I have tried, dozens, or maybe hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you had walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you…

… I have not forgotten you and I have not been able to overcome your loss, and time has not healed the pain… I can feel you today, as alive to me as you were on the day when I saw you last, and as alive as when you read to me when I was a little boy. And my pain is still the same as it was on that day when your neighbour…told me you were dead. There was no hope of finding you among the living. And I think that my love for you and this terrible sorrow will not change until the day I die...”

In 1961, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, he wrote again to his mother:

“Dear Mama,
Twenty years have passed since the day of your death. I love you, I remember you every day of my life, and my sorrow has never left me in these twenty years… I last wrote to you ten years ago, and in my heart you are still the same as you were twenty years ago… As long as I am alive, you are alive too… When I die, you will continue to live in this book [`Life and Fate'], which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied with your fate.. My novel is dedicated to my love and devotion to people, and that is why it is dedicated to you. For me, you are humanity, and your terrible fate is the fate and destiny of humanity in this inhumane time.”

On 22/23 July 1944 the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camp at Majdanek, on the outskirts of Lublin. Although Grossman was available, he was not permitted to file a report of the event with Krasnaya Zvezda; that task was assigned to his rival, Konstantin Simonov. A few days later, Grossman did accompany troops of the 1st Belorussian Front as they arrived at the death camp at Treblinka. The Red Army managed to locate about forty survivors of the camp, who were interviewed by Grossman. The resulting piece, “The Hell of Treblinka” was the first comprehensive account of an Aktion Reinhard camp to appear in any language. Although subsequent research has corrected some errors Grossman made in his report, it remains an extraordinarily powerful and important piece of Holocaust documentation, so much so that it was produced in evidence before the post-war International Military Tribunal in Nürnberg.

In late 1943, Grossman had been invited by Ilya Ehrenburg to join the new Literary Commission, charged with reporting to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JA-FC). The Commission, officially created in spring 1944, existed for the purpose of collecting eyewitness and survivor testimony concerning the events of the Holocaust on Soviet soil, and to then edit and publish the evidence in a volume to be called “The Black Book”. Ehrenburg wrote:

“At the end of 1943 Grossman and I began compiling a collection of documents to which we gave the working title `The Black Book'. We decided to collect diaries, private letters, stories of potential victims or witnesses, who had somehow managed to escape the total destruction of all Jews carried out by the Hitlerites on occupied Soviet territory.”
It did not take long for the project to run into problems. The Soviet authorities were unhappy with the concept of a book devoted solely to Jewish persecution and suffering. Their philosophy was summed up in the phrase: “Do not divide the dead”. In what today would be termed “spin-doctoring”, the victims were to be recognized only as Soviet citizens; their nationality, race or religion was not to be publicised. Nor was that of those Soviet citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis. The politically sophisticated Ehrenburg quickly perceived the manner in which obstacles were developing. At a meeting of the Commission held on 13 October 1944, he reported his irritation at the slow progress the project was making:

“ I was told… that we should put the book together, and if it is a good book, then it will be published. Since the Germans are the authors of this book, not us, and its purpose is obvious, I do not understand what it means to say `if it is a good book.' After all, this is not a novel whose plot nobody knows ahead of time.”
Ehrenburg stressed to his colleagues that the manuscript must be quickly assembled and published before the war ended. He sensed that a book full of the kind of angry emotion that Grossman wished to produce, one that was devoted exclusively to Jewish victims and included mention of the widespread anti-Semitism of much of the Soviet population, would not find favour in official circles. For his part, Grossman felt that by devoting so much space to the survivors, they were losing sight of the victims:

“All the materials in our possession are accounts by people who managed to escape death by some miracle. But we also have the responsibility of speaking on behalf of those who lie in the earth and cannot speak for themselves. We must shed light on what happened to the 99% of those led off to Babi Yar, and not to the five people who escaped from Babi Yar.”
The wartime Soviet propaganda organisation, which was to be responsible for publishing “The Black Book”, was Sovinformburo, headed by Solomon Lozovsky. In March 1945, when he had seen the first drafts of the book , Lozovky wrote to Ehrenburg. From the contents of the letter, Ehrenburg knew that trouble was brewing. He wrote to Grossman, stating that it had been decided that “The Black Book” should be turned over directly to the JA-FC, and that the Commission should be dissolved. Ehrenburg resigned as chairman of the Commission; Grossman replaced him. It is evident that Grossman was driven to complete the book and see it through to publication, but in the increasingly hostile and overtly anti-Semitic post-war Stalinist climate, it soon became apparent that the book would never appear. In October 1947, the Commission was informed that the book contained “grave political errors” and was therefore banned. The JA-FC was disbanded (many of its members were subsequently arrested; a number were shot), and the type of “The Black Book” was broken up.

It was not the end of the story. In 1965, the bulk of the text of the book was delivered to Yad Vashem in Israel. Fragments of the manuscript were discovered from a variety of sources in a number of different countries, and in 1980 a reconstructed text was published in Russian. A year later an English translation appeared, but it was not until 1993 that a comprehensive and definitive edition of the book was published. As well as co-editing “The Black Book”, Grossman contributed several major texts to the book, “The Murder of Jews in Berdichev” and “Treblinka” perhaps being the most notable.

Grossman's post-war career initially flourished, but he was too honest in his writing to escape the wrath of Stalin and his successors for long. The poet Semyon Lipkin believed that it was Stalin's post-war anti-Semitic campaign that destroyed Grossman's belief in the Soviet system:

“In 1946... I met some close friends, an Ingush and a Balkar, whose families had been deported to Kazakhstan during the war. I told Grossman and he said: `Maybe it was necessary for military reasons'. I said: `...Would you say that if they did it to the Jews?' He said that could never happen. Some years later, a virulent article against cosmopolitanism appeared in Pravda. Grossman sent me a note saying I had been right after all. For years Grossman didn't feel very Jewish. The campaign against cosmopolitanism re-awoke his Jewishness.”
It was almost certainly only Stalin's death in 1953 that prevented Grossman's incarceration and probable execution. The manuscript of his masterpiece, “Life and Fate”, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, was completed in 1960 and submitted to the literary journal Znamya. A year later, “Life and Fate”, somewhat unusually for a book, was “arrested” by the KGB. Not only the manuscript, but even sheets of used carbon paper and typewriter ribbons were confiscated. Grossman was informed that the book could not be published for two hundred years. However, a microfilm of the novel was smuggled to Switzerland by Vladimir Voinovich, a leading dissident. A Russian version appeared in 1980, quickly followed by translations into French, German, English and many other languages. The significance of “Life and Fate” was immediately recognized. Grossman's “crime” lay in acknowledging the parallels between Nazism and Stalinism. Although “Life and Fate” is ostensibly mainly concerned with the battle of Stalingrad, it is in the triumph of man's humanity, the need to fight totalitarian ideologies and the power of the state, the necessity for compassion and kindness in everyday life that Grossman's genius shines through.

Grossman never lived to enjoy the recognition his talent deserved. He died of cancer of the stomach on 14 September 1964. For 15 years, until the publication of “Life and Fate” in the West, he was the forgotten man of Russian literature; he had become a “non-person.” But the man who never practiced Judaism, was confused as to his Jewish identity and had initially eagerly embraced Communist ideology, ultimately recognized his heritage. His final wish was to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, to rest for eternity with the Jewish people he had learned to love, even as he recorded their extinction. Fate, however, had one more cruel trick to play on him. Olga disregarded his instructions. He was cremated and his ashes buried in Moscow's Troekurovskoe cemetery, yet one more victim of the wolfish century.

Sources and Further Reference:
Beevor, Anthony & Vinogradova, Luba, eds. A Writer at War – Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, The Harvill Press, London, 2005

Ehrenburg, Ilya & Grossman, Vasily, eds. The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland During the War of 1941-1945, Holocaust Library, New York, 1981

Garrard, John & Garrard, Carol. The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, The Free Press, New York, 1996

Grossman, Vasily. Life and Fate, The Harvill Press, London, 1995

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990


Publicado en línea por, con textos acerca del Holocausto

Imagen 1: Vasily Grossman, en una cubierta de la revista RADAR
Imagen 2: Marc Chagall/La tienda del pueblo, 1911
Imagen 3: Guillaume Ribot/Mass Grave at Simferopol, Ukraine, 2006

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