Ill always remember the summer of 2014 because it was then that
I discovered the work of Vasili Grossman, one of the greatest writers
of the 20th century.
Grossman, born in Ukraine in 1905, came to prominence during WW II when
he served as a correspondent for the Russian army newspaper, Red Star.
Much like his American counterpart, Ernie Pyle, Grossman wrote about the
war from the front lines, risking his life to be with the brave men and
women who were battling the Nazis. He spent nearly four years with the
Russian army, witnessing many of the decisive and bloody skirmishes on
the Eastern Front. He was also in the thick of the fight for Stalingrad,
the most horrendous hand-to-hand battle in human memory.
Grossman put much of what he experienced in Stalingrad into his masterful
novel, Life and Fate (New York Review of Books). Written after WW II ended,
the novel has been compared to Tolstoys War and Peace in the way
it not only centers on a key wartime episode (Austerlitz for Tolstoy,
Stalingrad for Grossman) but also manages to portray the life of an entire
Grossmans canvas is large (the book is 871 pages long) and it is
peopled with a vast range of characters, all of whom are brilliantly realized.
At the heart of the story is a Jewish family headed by Alexandra Shaposhnikova,
an old woman whose spiritual roots are in the populist tradition
of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia; her children, and their families,
are the novels other central figures, explains the books
translator, Robert Chandler.
Two subplots are set in a Russian labor camp and a physics institute;
other subplots deal with friends and relatives of the Shaposhnikova family.
One works at the Stalingrad power station, another is serving at
the front, another tries to organize an uprising in a German concentration
camp; another is transported by cattle-truck to the gas chambers.
Life and Fate is an epic novel, but, as Chandler points out, it contains
many individual chapters that resemble the short stories of Anton Chekhov.
Like Chekhov, Grossman has a subtle understanding of human nature and
a keen insight into the moral complexities of life. But above all, he
is a remarkably bold and courageous writer, one who was not afraid to
denounce the Stalinists for their criminal behavior during the 1930s,
40s and 50s.
Grossman, a secular Jew from an upper-middle-class family, was one of
the Soviet regimes early beneficiaries. His first novels and stories
(mostly about working-class heroes) were published and he became a member
of the Soviet Writers Union, one of the most powerful, prestigious (and
corrupt) organizations in the country (see Inside the Soviet Writers Union
by John and Carol Garrard, The Free Press). Grossman fought hard for the
Soviet Unions survival, but then disillusionment began to set in,
triggered by the Great Terror of the 1930s when many of his friends and
relatives were imprisoned and even murdered by the Stalinist regime.
Grossman, much to his regret, remained silent during much of that wolfish
period, but he made up for that as he matured and came face to face with
the evil of the Holocaust (his first-hand account of the workings of the
Treblinka concentration camp was introduced as evidence at the Nuremberg
It was not just German but Russian anti-Semitism that began to reshape
Grossmans thinking. In 1943 he and his fellow Jewish writer Ilya
Ehrenburg compiled a book called The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry
(Transaction Publishers, translated and edited by David Patterson). A
collection of eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, affidavits and
other documents on the vendettas of the Nazis against the Jews in the
camps, ghettoes and towns of Eastern Europe, the book was suppressed for
many years by Josef Stalin, who did not want the Jews identified as the
primary victims of the Nazis. He also did not want the world to know just
how many Lithuanians and Ukrainians had collaborated with the Nazis in
a gleeful and bloodthirsty way.
Above all, Stalin forbade any mention of the fact that his secret police,
the NKVD, had killed tens of thousands of so-called enemies of the state
in Ukraine and Lithuania in the 1930s.
Grossman began to move closer and closer to a total rejection of communisms
fundamental premises and values. Ultimately in Life and Fate he came to
the traumatic realization that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were in
fact mirror images of each other.
Needless to say, this sentiment, dramatized even more vividly in Everything
Flows (New York Review of Books), Grossmans second post-war novel,
got him in trouble with the Soviet authorities. Although his friends warned
him that Life and Fate was political dynamite-more threatening to
the Stalinists than Pasternaks Dr Zhivago-Grossman, somewhat
naively, believed the books worth would be recognized and that it
would be published. After years of struggle and near-misses with publishers
and apparatchiks, Grossman was told by Russias literary czar that
the book could not be published for 250 years.
Still Grossman persisted, if only because he had worked for ten years
on his novel. Then, on Feb. 14, 1961, three KGB colonels barged into his
Moscow flat and arrested the manuscript of Life and
Fate. Grossman himself was not taken into custody; only his book
was put in handcuffs.
The original mss. of Life and Fate still sits in a Russian secret-police
safe. Chances are, Grossman would have been sent to a Gulag had Stalin
not died in 1953. Though technically free, the writer still could not
help but feel that he had been strangled on his own doorstep.
Fortunately, two carbon copies of Life and Fate were smuggled to the West
and published there. It was not until 1988, 24 years after Grossmans
death, though, that the book was finally published in Russia.
The major English-language biography of Vasili Grossman is The Bones of
Berdichev (The Free Press), by John and Carol Garrard, both of whom speak
fluent Russian and have traveled numerous times to Russia in search of
those who knew or have written about Grossman. On one of their trips they
visited the Ukrainian town where Grossman was born and raised. Once home
to 30,000 Jews, Berdichev in 1994 was almost Jew-free (as
the Nazis would have put it.)
It was the Nazis, greatly aided by the Ukrainian polizei (and by vast
numbers of ordinary locals), who on Sept. 15, 1941 slaughtered the Jewish
population of Berdichev (making it the starting point of the Holocaust).
Among the victims was Grossmans mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, a
charming, witty woman with a fine sense of humor, very widely read, an
entertaining conversationalist, and very attentive to others, said
a woman who had been her French pupil in the 1930s.
We know that she was 70 years old when she was killed, that she
walked with a cane because diabetes had caused vascular problems in one
leg, and that she had eczema. We know that she spoke excellent French
and had lived abroad, the Garrards explain.
Grossman was already working as a war correspondent when the Wehrmacht
attacked the Ukraine. He had two weeks from the Nazi invasion on
June 22 until the capture of Berdichev on July 7 to get on a train and
bring her back to safety in Moscow. But because his shrewish wife
refused to take Yekaterina into her home, Grossman did nothing. His
failure to act would cost his mother (and his cousins) their lives and
torment him thereafter.
Out of that guilt and torment, Grossman would replay his mothers
death over and over in Life and Fate, examining it from many different
perspectives, adding various details each time. This multi-faceted
perspective gives his account of the Holocaust on Soviet soil its unique
realistic texture, said the Garrards.
Grossman also wrote a letter in his mothers voice which has become
one of the novels most famous chapters. It is a letter written while
the polizei were rounding up their victims and getting ready to butcher
them. This last letter from mother to son is, in my opinion,
one of the most powerful, profound and heart-rending epistles ever written.
In 2000 Frederick Wiseman produced and directed a 60-minute theatrical
version of Le Derniere Lettre in Paris, starring the actress Catherine
Samie. He later presented the solo play in New York and Moscow (on the
centenary of Grossmans birth). Wiseman also made a film of the play;
it is available from Zipporah Films (Zipporah.com).
In 1950 and 1961, Grossman wrote two letters to his mother as if she were
still alive; they too are extraordinary in their intensity, compassion
and poignancy. They can be found in The Road (NYRB), along with his provocative
essay on Raphaels The Sistine Madonna. In Grossmans estimation,
maternal love was the strongest force on earth.
Grossman died in obscurity and frustration, thinking that his magnum opus
Life and Fate would never be published. Fortunately, he was wrong in that
regard; his novel is with us now and will forever be enshrined in the
hearts of those who take the time to read it.
The message of Life and Fate-and many other of Grossmans works-is
a universal one. He tried, as the Garrards point out, not simply
to maintain his own personal integrity but to engage in that eternal struggle
of remembering against forgetting that is the lot and duty of all people,
whether they live in Russia or anywhere else. He attempted to live as
a human being in inhuman times. It is this persistence of the humane in
the wolfhound century that makes his life so fascinating.
What is the effect on a given human being of the most lethal disasters
in recorded history? Grossmans experience is compellingand
consolingbecause he reassures us that no matter what, the human
species endures and the survivors continue to live as human beings. This
is his great theme. The measure of his spirit may be taken by juxtaposing
his hope in the human condition against the violence, torment, bewilderment
and disintegration of his age.