No Straight Path From Dogma to Dissent

Vasily Grossman Went From Apologist to Treblinka Chronicler

Dogmatic to Dissent: An unsparing new account details Jewish writer Vassily Grossman’s path under Soviet rule.
courtesy of nyrb classics
Dogmatic to Dissent: An unsparing new account details Jewish writer Vassily Grossman’s path under Soviet rule.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 10, 2012, issue of July 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Vasily Grossman has received many well-deserved tributes as a dissident writer who dared state what is now the obvious — that when reviewing the wreckage inflicted upon humanity by such dictators as Stalin and Hitler, there are more similarities than differences to be found in their legacies. Paying tribute to this conclusion, and to the blunt, powerful language through which Grossman expressed it, in recent years The New York Review of Books has produced editions of his works, such as “Life and Fate,” “Everything Flows” and “The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays.”

In 2011, a BBC Radio 4 dramatization of “Life and Fate” starred Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant and Janet Suzman. The impression that these worthy productions give is that of a ready-made courageous dissenter, whereas as it turns out, for much of his life Grossman was an avid believer in Marxist-Leninist dogma. This apparent paradox is documented in “Vasily Grossman: A Combative Author,” a massively detailed new biography published in March by Les Éditions du Seuil.

Written by Myriam Anissimov, who previously published biographies of Primo Levi and Romain Gary, the book is an unsparing look at one Jewish writer’s complex path to dissidence under Soviet anti-Semitic oppression. Anissimov sifts the evidence with gimlet-eyed attention and, unlike the uncritical hosannas of praise that have likened Grossman as a novelist to Leo Tolstoy, lucidly distinguishes between when the author wrote admirably and when he disappointed.

When, in 1905, Iosif Solomonovich Grossman was born in Berdychiv, in northern Ukraine, Berdychiv was about 80% Jewish, hence its nickname, “the Jerusalem of the Volhynia.” A historic region in western Ukraine, its lore included such notables as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, cited in Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters.” In 1928, Grossman published an essay, “That’s Enough Joking About Berdychiv!” addressing the status of his native shtetl as a target for Russian anti-Semitic jests. Yet Grossman’s essay does not defend Jews on cultural grounds; instead, he argues that Jews fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and therefore Marxist class-consciousness should make Soviets aware that “Marxism itself is the cure for anti-Semitism,” as Anissimov describes Grossman’s naive, if well-intentioned, argument.

Though by his seminal 1959 book “Life and Fate” Grossman underlines similarities between Stalinist and Nazi anti-Semitism — while defining anti-Semitism as the “benchmark of man’s lack of talent” — ideological blinders also seem to have affected Grossman’s first efforts in fiction. In 1934 he was employed as the chief chemist at Moscow’s Sacco and Vanzetti Pencil Factory, an establishment named in honor of two men officially seen as martyrs to American capitalism. That year, Grossman published a tale, “In the City of Berdychiv,” in a literary review controlled by the Union of Soviet Writers. As Simon Markish points out in “The Grossman Case,” a penetrating critique that was published in French in 1983 and is long overdue for translation into English, Grossman’s story contains a highly selective presentation of local Jewish life.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.