"That borscht haunted me for weeks"

Yesterday I finished reading A Writer At War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (amazon) by Vasily Grossman. A month ago I blogged about needing more information about the Russian front, and I count myself lucky to have found this book. Grossman was a writer first, journalist second, so he brings out the characters he encounters even more than the war itself. He was not a party stooge, and did not simply churn out Communist Party dogma. He did describe in a rather breathless manner the generals who pushed back against the initial Nazi invasion, and especially the men and women who held the line at Stalingrad, but he also spoke very frankly about the epidemic of rape as Russian soldiers advanced across Poland and Germany. This frankness would eventually land him in hot water, especially when he arrived at Treblinka. His article ‘The Hell Called Treblinka’, published in Znamya and reproduced in the book, was a sickening and somehow eloquent description of the horrors Grossman found there.

“Stories of the living dead of Treblinka, who had until the last minute kept not just the image of humans but the human soul as well, shake one to the bottom of one’s heart and make it impossible to sleep. The stories of women trying to save their sons and committing magnificent doomed feats, of young mothers who hid their babies in heaps of blankets. I’ve heard the stories of ten-year-old girls, who comforted their sobbing parents with a heavenly wisdom, about a boy who shouted when entering the gas chamber: ‘Russia will take revenge! Mama, don’t cry!’

Inhabitants of the village of Wulka, the one closest to Treblinka, tell that sometimes the screams of women who were being killed were so terrible that the whole village would lose their heads and rush to the forest, in order to escape from these shrill screams that carried through tree trunks, the sky and the earth. Then, the screams would suddenly stop, and there was a silence before a new series of screams, as terrible as the ones before, shrill, boring through the bones, through the skulls and the souls of those who heard them. This happened three or four times every day.”

As a Jew Grossman must have been overcome by emotion — indeed he suffered from nervous exhaustion on his return from Treblinka — but the article was written with very little of it, save what seems like amazement, or shock, at the scale and savagery of the thing. This frankness would land Grossman in hot water, eventually, as he underestimated the antisemitism of Stalinist Russia. While Grossman reported on the obvious targets of this slaughter, Russia would only allow descriptions of atrocities to specify Russian or Polish citizens, not Jews specifically, and Grossman’s insistence (along with other writers) on highlighting the atrocities against Jews would draw the ire of the Party. Grossman further angered officials by attributing the Stalingrad victory to the soldiers rather than to the Communist Party and to Stalin himself. In both cases Grossman was likely saved from the gulag, or possibly death, by the passing of Stalin in 1953.

Grossman’s greatest work of fiction, based on what he saw in those four years, was Life and Fate (amazon), his 1961 book titled and written as an echo to his mentor Leo Tolstoy‘s most famous work. The KGB seized all copies before it could go to print, but Grossman had given a copy of the manuscript to a friend. It took twenty years for this manuscript to be copied to microfilm and smuggled to Switzerland, by which time Vasily Grossman was long dead. He died disillusioned by Stalinist Russia’s corruption and lies, but enamored to the end with the bravery and determination of the soldiers he fought beside for those four years.