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The Life & Fate of Vasily Grossman

Zelda Gamson
May 23, 2015

Creative Witness to War & Dictatorship

by Zelda Gamson

From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

foto2VASILY GROSSMAN (1905-1964) is one of the world’s greatest, least known chroniclers of war and totalitarianism, as important as George Orwell and Hannah Arendt. We should have known his work much earlier, but it was at last delivered to us by his devoted friends and translators beginning in the 1980s, after decades of suppression and neglect.

As a war correspondent in the “Great Patriotic War,” he embedded himself with the soldiers so intimately that he had to dodge death several times. An overweight, spectacle-wearing Moscow intellectual, Grossman put on the uniform of the Red Army, lost weight, and became a good shot. He fell in love with the men he reported on and learned the ways of war. His firsthand accounts were read voraciously by the troops and the populace.

In the bloodlands of Russia and Ukraine, he marched with the Red Army into what they saw was a place of execution, Treblinka. Exhausted, horrified, Grossman set about gathering information from neighbors, Germans captured by the Army, and inmates who had escaped during an uprising in August, 1943. His searing 1944 account, The Hell of Treblinka, described for the first time much of what we now know about the architecture of death in Nazi extermination camps. “An SS Unteroffizier instructs the newcomers in a loud, clear voice to leave their things in the square and make their way to the bathhouse, taking with them only identity documents, valuables, and toiletries...”

They want to ask all kinds of questions: Should they take their underwear? Is it really all right to undo their bundles? Aren’t all their belongings going to get mixed up? ... But some strange force makes them hurry on in silence, not looking back, not asking questions, toward an opening — an opening in a barbed-wire wall, six meters high, that has been threaded with branches. They walk past antitank hedgehogs, past thickets of barbed wire three times the height of a human being, past an antitank ditch three meters deep, past thin coils of steel wire strewn on the ground to trip a fugitive and catch him like a fly in a spiderweb... And everyone is overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, a sense of doom. There is no way to escape, no way to turn back, no way to fight back: staring down at them from low squat wooden towers are the muzzles of heavy machine guns. Should they call out for help? But all around them are SS men and Wachmänner armed with submachine guns, hand grenades, and pistols. These men are... power itself.... The whole world is silent, crushed, enslaved by a gang of bandits who have seized all power. London is silent, and so is New York. And only somewhere thousands of kilometers distant, on the banks of the Volga, is the Soviet artillery pounding away, obstinately proclaiming the determination of the Russian people to fight to the death for liberty...

This heart-rending piece, which would be used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials, landed him in the sights of the Stalinist regime because of its unabashed naming of the Treblinka death camp as a “Jewish camp.”

Treblinka led Grossman to corral the more politically acceptable Soviet Jewish writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, to join him in chronicling the murder of the Jews in Ukraine and Russia in The Black Book (1946), which used eyewitness accounts, diaries, and letters to document the massacres of Jews at Babi Yar, Minsk, Vilnius, Odessa, Kiev and other towns and cities. Originally written in Yiddish in two volumes under the title, Murder of a People, it was given to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in New York, which arranged for publication of excerpts in English in 1946. Excerpts were also published in Romania and Israel (and the handwritten manuscript is stored at Yad Vashem) — but the book was disappeared by the KGB, despite its deeply appreciative accounts of the liberating Red Army, and would not show up in Russian until 1980. Again Grossman (and Ehrenberg) had failed to ignore the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust, which was described in Soviet literature as the sufferings of “Soviet citizens.” They had also been too honest about the role of Ukrainians as Nazi collaborators and murderers. The experience of being censored for failing to disguise reality in terms acceptable to the Soviet government would recur throughout Grossman’s life.

In fact, he only dodged the fate of other writers who had crossed the (often invisible) party line of the moment when, on the verge of having him arrested in the early stages of an anti-Jewish purge, Joseph Stalin died. Khrushchev and the censors continued to see Grossman as a threat, however, and turned him into a non-person who lost his livelihood, his friends, his public. His masterpiece, Life and Fate, written in 1959, would be “arrested” for thirty years, and would not be translated and published in English until 1985. An unfinished novel, Everything Flows, would not appear in Russian until 1989, and in English only in 2009.

The Soviet censor Mikhail Suslov warned Grossman that Life and Fate would not be published for 250 years: “I have not read your novel but I have carefully read the reviews of your manuscript... Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us? ... Why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?”

IOSIF SOLOMONOVICH GROSSMAN WAS BORN in 1905 in Berdichev, Ukraine, into one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Secular Jews who met as students in Switzerland, his parents remained together only briefly during Vasily’s childhood. His father played an active part in the 1905 revolution, joined the Communist Party as a young man, and went with the Mensheviks when the movement split. This Menshevik connection put the Grossman family at risk when the Bolsheviks consolidated their power.

Vasily attended secondary school in Kiev and went on to study chemistry at Moscow State University. He took a job as a safety engineer and then chemistry teacher in the coal-mining area of the Ukraine in the Donetsk Basin (site of the recent war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government). After being diagnosed (probably misdiagnosed) with tuberculosis, he got permission to return to Moscow.

Grossman became a full-time writer in the early 1930s, living with a cousin, Nadya Almaz, who introduced him to influential members of the Party and arranged to get his first articles published, one of them in Pravda. In 1933, however, Almaz was arrested for alleged contact with Trotskyists, expelled from the Party, and exiled. Grossman was questioned, but with the publication of his first novel, Glyukauf, about the miners among whom he had worked, he was accepted into key writers’ organizations and formed friendships with members of a literary group. Grossman’s 1934 story, “In the Town of Berdichev,” was praised by Isaac Babel and Maxim Gorky, and his growing reputation smoothed the way for the publication of three collections of short stories.

In 1937, he was admitted to the Union of Soviet Writers and published the first volume of a long novel about a coal miner and revolutionary, Stepan Kolchugin. This novel, like his stories, is fiction based firmly in realism.

Perhaps a sense of invulnerability — or naiveté — moved Grossman to take a dangerous risk at the time of the show trials of Old Bolsheviks, Trotskyists, Red Army generals, and other elites. Grossman’s second wife, Olga Guber, was arrested for failing to denounce her former husband, Boris Guber, who was one of Grossman’s first literary supporters. In a letter to Nikolai Yezhov, the dreaded chief of the NKVD, who presided over the most severe period of the Great Purge, Grossman urged that since Olga was now married to him, she not be held responsible for her former husband. Unbelievably, the woman was released.

Grossman continued to tiptoe among the landmines. He joined other intellectuals and academics in signing a declaration supporting the show trials. In his letter to Yezhov, he had written, “All that I possess — my education, my success as a writer, the high privilege of sharing my thoughts and feelings with the Soviet readers — I owe to the Soviet government.” According to his biographer and translator, Robert Chandler, these feelings were probably genuine. As a Jew, albeit more Russian than Jewish, Grossman felt grateful for the fair treatment he had received in the Soviet system and it is possible, Chandler writes, that “like many other members of the intelligentsia... he may have continued, throughout the 1930s, to hope that the Soviet system might, in time, fulfill its revolutionary promise” (Vasily Grossman, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, 2009).

WHEN GERMANY INVADED THE SOVIET UNION, Grossman and many other writers enlisted in the army. He was rejected for active duty and assigned to the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), whose editor, David Ortenberg, sent Grossman with the army to the most dangerous assignments of the war. He witnessed and reported on the major battles: the retreat before the Germans, who caught the Red Army unprepared because Stalin refused to believe the Germans would invade; the defense of Moscow and Stalingrad; then the victories against the Germans and the liberation of occupied territories; and finally the Battle of Berlin.

Grossman was a superb interviewer and a sympathetic listener, and he talked to everyone: villagers, ordinary soldiers, officers, command generals. He learned about tanks, artillery, trenches, military strategy, rivalry among generals and other officers, army discipline, soldier slang. He had an eye for the detail that could capture the whole person. One of his favorites was Anatoly Ivanovich Chekhov, a sniper who had killed thirty-five Germans in Stalingrad before they met. Here are Grossman’s notes on what Chekhov told him (from Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War, 2007):

When I first got the rifle, I couldn’t bring myself to kill a living being: one German was standing there for... four minutes, talking, and I let him go. When I killed my first one, he fell at once. Another ran out and stooped over the killed one, and I knocked him down, too... When I first killed, I was shaking all over: the man was only walking to get some water! ... I felt scared: I’d killed a person! Then I remembered our people and started killing them without mercy.

In his travels with the Red Army, Grossman realized that the Germans were systematically killing Jews, and that some Ukrainians were collaborating with the Germans in doing so. He stopped at his hometown of Berdichev, where he learned about the murder of between twenty and thirty thousand Jews, among them his mother. He never recovered from her death, and felt guilty for not bringing her to Moscow in time to save her.

After the war, Grossman came under increased scrutiny. A novel, For a Just Cause, was received with enthusiasm at first, but then the book disappeared, as Stalin began a purge of Soviet Jews with the so-called “Doctors’ Plot.” The wheels began turning against Grossman — even though he signed a letter along with other Jewish writers denouncing the “killer doctors.”

He suffered from this betrayal of his own conscience. In his masterwork, Life and Fate, which grapples with the emotional and moral grip of totalitarianism, his central character and alter ego, a prominent physicist named Victor Shtrum, is pressured to sign a similar letter (translated by Robert Chandler):

An invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating. Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it... feel astonished that a man can rebel against it for a moment—with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.

Life and Fate has the grandeur and scope of War and Peace. It follows a well-placed extended family through the war years, tracing the grim struggles of the Soviet people, the petty jealousies of communal apartments, professional and personal rivalries, the battles, the generals, the soldiers, the heroes, the cowards. And it comes close to equating Stalin and Hitler. In a Nazi camp, an educated German commander and an Old Bolshevik argue about their two systems — and come to recognize that they are alike.

Grossman submitted the novel to the censors in 1960 at the height of the Khrushchev “thaw.” He was cautious enough to leave copies with several friends. The KGB confiscated his own manuscript, carbon paper, and typing ribbons, but in 1975, ten years after Grossman’s death, Andrei Sakharov got a microfilm of the novel to the West. Grossman would never know what happened with the copies he gave to friends.

He continued producing short stories and completing half of Everything Flows. In those years he would not compromise. Everything Flows follows a brilliant man, Ivan Grigoryevich, physically broken by thirty years in the gulag but morally intact. Grossman follows Ivan in his prisoner’s clothes as he visits successful relatives who worry that he will taint them. He returns penniless to his hometown and falls in love with a local woman.

And he finds freedom. In caustic, furious language, Grossman uses the story of Ivan to talk about the Russian “slave soul,” the sins and cruelties of Stalinism, the power of stupid people. He has informers reveal why they become informers; he portrays the terror and suffering of those who refuse to inform, and those who starve; he traces a direct line from Lenin to Stalin — and from them to Hitler and Mussolini. A close observer of the psychology of totalitarianism, Grossman shows how the terror they all unleashed could rely on the slavishness of followers:

Neither within nor outside the camps were people willing to admit that everyone had an equal right to freedom. Some of the Right Deviationists believed themselves to be innocent but thought that it had been right to sentence the Left Deviationists. Left and Right Deviationists were alike in their hatred of “spies” — of those who had corresponded with relatives abroad or who simply had Polish, Latvian, or German surnames that they had inherited from Russified parents.

And however much the peasants insisted that they had worked all their lives by the sweat of their brow, the political prisoners refused to believe them: “A likely story! Why would the authorities arrest a peasant unless he’s exploiting others?”

Ivan Grigoryevich had once said to a former Red Army commander, his neighbor on the bedboards, “You’re a hero of the Civil War. You dedicated your whole life to the ideals of Bolshevism. And now here you are — sentenced for espionage!”

The man had replied, “With me they made a mistake. There haven’t been any others — I’m a special case.”

Grossman died of stomach cancer at 58 in 1964. “They strangled me in a dark corner,” he would say of his censors and tormentors. Still, he viewed the struggle of good versus evil with some hard-won optimism, as he wrote in Life and Fate: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

Zelda Gamson, a contributing writer to our magazine, is a sociologist who was on the faculty of the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts. She is currently working on climate change and affordable housing issues, and is a board member of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

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