The recent publication of “A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941-1945” (Pantheon) brings attention to a writer who deserves to be better known and whose personal story illuminates the tragic dimension of Russian Jewry during the Communist era.
Grossman (1905-1964) was a journalist as well as the author of short stories and novels, most notably “Life and Fate,” which is to be reissued this spring by New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics. His reporting during World War II was the great crucible in which he forged himself as a person and as a writer, and it was what made him famous. What he witnessed during the war also fueled his great disappointment with Soviet society during the second half of his life.
Grossman was raised in Berdichev, once considered “the most Jewish city in Ukraine” — half its population of 60,000 were Jewish. Grossman, however, was fully assimilated and never practiced Judaism. He and his family embraced the Russian revolution enthusiastically, hoping that communism would mean an end to the pogroms and racial discrimination that had rained on Jews until then. And it did, at first.
Thanks to the Soviet regime, Grossman attended high school, was sent to Moscow University where he earned a degree in chemistry in 1929 and was able to find work as a scientist. For all this he was grateful, as it would have been almost impossible under the czarist regime. But more important to Grossman, he was able to become a writer — and he was appreciative of the opportunities the state provided.
His stories helped him gain admittance to the Soviet Writer’s Union. As a successful writer, the state treated him well: He was paid handsomely, had good housing (an apartment in the center of Moscow) and was invited (and allowed) to take his family on vacation to a dacha on the Black Sea.
When war broke out with Germany in 1941, Grossman, a patriot, volunteered for service. He was rejected as too old and not physically fit. Undeterred, Grossman went to the offices of Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the official Red Army newspaper and asked to be sent to the front.
There is a long tradition of writers going to war. On the American side, certainly Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come to mind. On the Soviet side, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” looms large (although Tolstoy himself did not experience the Napoleonic assault on Moscow); and before Grossman, there was Isaac Babel who rode with the Cossacks.
Grossman spent 1,000 days covering the war, more than any other Soviet reporter. He covered the original German advance though Ukraine, the battle in the South and he was there for the battle of Stalingrad.
He was respected by infantry and generals alike for his courage under fire. His accounts were read by the general public and the troops and were universally admired for delivering what Grossman called, “the ruthless truth of war.”
Through his reporting, one experiences how Russia, unprepared for war, endured enormous casualties to stop the German advance, in the process transforming itself into a victorious fighting machine that turned the tide of the combat against the Nazis on the Eastern Front.
“A Writer at War,” edited and translated by Antony Beevor (a historian of Stalingrad), and Luba Vinogradova is based on Grossman’s notebooks. However, while the authors do their best to give context to each comment integrated with excerpts from Grossman’s reportage — what is missing is more Grossman. Reading this book just made me want to read the actual accounts.
The battle of Stalingrad transformed Grossman. Just as it changed the course of the war, Grossman believed that moment would redefine the Soviet nation. The soldiers’ bravery and their unity were, for Grossman, the socialist dream realized. He believed that what he witnessed during the war, both the good and the bad, would help the Soviet nation become the just, egalitarian society he believed it could be. He was to be deeply disappointed.
Grossman followed the Soviet army as it reclaimed Ukraine, and he was there as it uncovered the crimes of the Nazi regime — the mass murders and the mass graves. He learned that in his hometown of Berdichev, over the course of two days after the Germans arrived, the entire Jewish population of 30,000 men, women and children were marched to a ditch outside town and shot.
“There are no Jews in Ukraine,” Grossman wrote. “All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people has been brutally murdered.”
In 1944, Grossman was among the first reporters at the Majdanek concentration camp, and then among the first to arrive at the great cemetery of Polish Jewry, Treblinka. Grossman’s reporting on the latter, “The Hell of Treblinka,” was read into evidence at the Nuremberg trials. Grossman was with the Soviet troops as they entered Berlin, and he visited Hitler’s compound in the Chancellery (and pocketed some stamps and souvenirs from the Fuhrer’s office that remained in his desk until the day he died).
The Soviet authorities encouraged Grossman to be part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, an international organization founded by Albert Einstein, among others, to record the crimes and atrocities committed against Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. Grossman and Ilya Ehrenberg collected accounts and reports of the murder of Soviet Jews. But once assembled, “The Black Book,” as it was called, was suppressed by the Soviet authorities, who now deemed singling out the death of the Jews as too “nationalistic” in accordance with Stalin’s decree: “Do not divide the dead” (which meant don’t mention that they are Jewish). “The Black Book” would not be published until 1968, after Grossman’s death; and only at first in the West, smuggled out of Russia, thanks to Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich.
Grossman was bitterly disappointed by the Soviet turn against his account, but his novel of Stalingrad, “For a Just Cause,” nevertheless drew praise. He believed that the message of Stalingrad would help to create a more just society. But Grossman could not have been more wrong. This was the time when Stalin began his purges; his “doctors’ trial” signaled the return of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Grossman found himself criticized in the pages of Pravda. Even after Stalin’s death, which Grossman hoped would signal a new openness, he suffered. The Soviet authorities refused to publish Grossman’s epic novel “Life and Fate” which he submitted for review in 1960. He appealed directly to Kruschev, but the authorities told him his novel would only give ammunition to the enemies of the Soviet Union. “Life and Fate” was not published in Grossman’s lifetime, either.
Here is the irony of the lives of Soviet Jews: Although many were accomplished and assimilated, nonpracticing and nonobservant with little knowledge or experience of things Jewish, their lives were nonetheless defined by being Jewish.
This was painfully true for members of my own family as well. When World War II broke out in 1939, Tarnopol came under Soviet control. My father’s cousin, Meyer Teichholz, lived there (today his name is Mike Sherwood). A teenager at the time, he joined the Komsomol (the youth wing of the Communist Party). When the Germans invaded in 1941 he went into hiding. Liberated by the Russians in 1944, he was sent to work in the Urals. There he was arrested on trumped-up political charges and sent to a gulag. Exonerated in 1947, he was repatriated to Poland and from there was able eventually to travel to Israel and then the United States. His older brother, Fedor, remained trapped in the Soviet Union. Although Fedor was a decorated Soviet War hero and a doctor — people in his town in the Urals, referred to him as “the Jew.” When it came time to say Kaddish for his parents, he would lock himself in the hall closet for fear the neighbors would hear him speaking Hebrew and denounce him to the authorities.
Grossman had a secret, too. He always regretted that when war broke out with Germany, he had not traveled back to Berdichev to rescue his mother. By the time, Grossman realized the speed of the German advance, it was too late.
That Grossman could not save his mother who was murdered for being a Jew; that the Soviet state he believed in, and had witnessed in all its glory in Stalingrad, would not let him speak out about the murder of the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators; that Stalin would promote state-sponsored anti-Semitism; and that Kruschev who served at Stalingrad would not publish his novel “Life and Fate,” all this left Grossman feeling deeply betrayed. In the end, he realized whom he was and what he had to do.
Just before Vasily Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, he made a last request: that his coffin not be put on display in the Writer’s Union building. He also didn’t want to be buried in a Writer’s Union plot. Instead, Vasily Grossman asked to be buried in Moscow’s Jewish cemetery.
Today, he lies buried in a neglected Moscow cemetery next to his wife (because she wasn’t Jewish, they are not buried in a Jewish Cemetery). He lies there, waiting, like his great works, to be rediscovered.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.