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Ilya Ehrenburg and the Black Book

Lawrence Bush
August 30, 2017

Soviet journalist, novelist, and poet Ilya Ehrenburg (some sources spell it “Ehrenberg”), who with Vasily Grossman created The Black Book, the first book documenting the Holocaust (before the killing had ended), died on this date in 1967. Ehrenburg was a popular communist writer and war correspondent, and an active member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), organized during World War II to cultivate international Jewish support for the Soviet war effort and then ruthlessly suppressed by Stalin in 1948. Through the JAC, The Black Book was published in 1946 in the United States, but it would not come out in the USSR until 1980; it was suppressed chiefly because of its truth-telling about the fact that Jews were the main target of Nazi atrocities and that Ukrainian collaborators participated in the slaughter. Ehrenburg was among the few JAC members to survive Stalin’s post-war attack on Soviet Jews, and “he continued publishing books, traveled to Europe, and even made his only visit to the United States in 1946,” writes Joshua Rubenstein at the YIVO Library of Jews in Eastern Europe. “In 1949, he was elected to the Supreme Soviet. But Ehrenburg was under pressure as well. In February 1953, the final month of Stalin’s life, Ehrenburg courageously refused to sign a collective appeal condemning the Doctors’ Plot . . . moreover, he wrote a letter to Stalin explaining his opposition to any purported plans against the Jews. . . . After Stalin’s death in March 1953, Ehrenburg’s reputation was often clouded by rumors that he had survived the Stalin era because he had betrayed other people . . . But the archival record that has become available since the fall of the Soviet Union has not substantiated such collaboration.”

“If within a lifetime a man changes his skin an infinite number of times, almost as often as his suits, he still does not change his heart; he has but one.”--Ilya Ehrenburg

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.