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.
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It turns out that unlike literary predecessors such as Isaac Babel and Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote about Red Army pogroms against Jewish populations in the region, in his story Grossman simply revisits the theme of how in 1920 Berdychiv’s Jews helped battle the invading Polish army. Even more conspicuously, Grossman’s writings from this era overlook a massive national tragedy, one affecting not just Jews. From 1932 to 1933, Ukraine suffered from a widespread famine caused by Stalinist agricultural policies. This cost the lives of well over 1 million people.

Some estimates of mortality exceed 7 million — historian Robert Conquest even doubles that figure — and in 2008, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognized this Stalin-made famine as a “crime against humanity.” This highly visible suffering is nowhere described in Grossman’s writings of the time, not even in private letters written to his family while traveling through Ukraine. Markish and Anissimov concur that though he must have witnessed atrocious hardships, Grossman showed loyalty to the regime, which officially denied the existence of any famine in Ukraine by never describing it in writing.

By swallowing the rigid rules of socialist realism in literature, Grossman was permitted to publish his early fiction. Yet, as Markish points out, “Most distressingly, even after the war, [Grossman] never disavowed these stories and he intended to have them reprinted.” Efim Etkind, the Russian Jewish author of “Notes of a Non-conspirator,” which appeared in 1978, echoed this view that in his early publications, Grossman “voluntarily, without the least hesitation, donned the corset of [Soviet] ideological orthodoxy.” Only after the historical upheaval of the Holocaust would Grossman become more acutely expressive of his Jewish identity and of the sufferings of his people under Stalinism.

In 1941, the Nazis exterminated about 25,000 Jews who remained in the Berdychiv ghetto, including Grossman’s mother, Ekaterina Savelevna. Although confirmation of this tragedy would only come in 1944, Grossman’s quasi-certainty of his mother’s fate colored his wartime journalism, which has been collected in “A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist With the Red Army, 1941–1945,” out from Vintage in 2007. Here, Grossman’s writings focus on heroic Jewish efforts to support the Soviet-armed struggle, as when poet and journalist Iosif Utkin was gravely wounded while reporting on Red Army maneuvers. Grossman notes that a female surgeon marveled about Utkin: “While I was carving him up, he recited verse to me!”

Yet curiously, Grossman made no mention either in his private writings or published articles about the 1942 formation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, co-chaired by actor and director Solomon Mikhoels. The committee would mobilize world opinion significantly against the Nazi foe. Instead, in his notebook, Grossman described one Soviet army interpreter as “a semi-literate Jew who spoke in Yiddish.” The fact that the interpreter spoke Yiddish instead of Russian was enough for Grossman to imply that he was insufficiently educated. Elsewhere, Grossman reports, but does not challenge, one Russian captain’s implication that Jewish soldiers were not fighting as fiercely as they should have been.

By 1944, Grossman’s ambivalent descriptions of Jews would mostly be a thing of the past. Learning about his mother’s murder and getting a better idea of the full amplitude of the Holocaust changed Grossman’s ambivalence into advocacy. Indeed, in postwar works, Grossman would do more than boldly conjecture what was going on inside the heads of Hitler and Stalin; he even attempted to describe in “Life and Fate,” based on his training as a chemist, what it felt like to be murdered in a gas chamber.

Grossman also reported in highly emotional terms on the Red Army’s liberation of the Treblinka and Majdanek extermination camps, and he was a co-author of an attempt to document the Holocaust, “The Black Book.” It would be published in only the Russian language, in Ukraine in 1991 and in Russia in 2010. In 1952, postwar anti-Semitism led the USSR to demand that not just Grossman, but also prominent Jewish musicians such as violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels sign a letter decrying Zionists as “allies of the rich and ignoble enemies of Jewish workers.”

Despite such low points, Grossman continued his literary projects, inspired by a 1955 visit to Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. There he was transfixed by Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” then on view as war booty although it would later be returned to its prewar home in Dresden, Germany. Grossman interpreted the famous Italian Renaissance canvas as a tragic Jewish story of maternal love, which he associated in his mind with imagined scenes from the gas chambers of Treblinka. This appropriation and blending of heart-wrenching themes provided the groundwork for Grossman’s later literary achievements. In terms of his own Judaism, as well as his relationship with Stalinist power, he thus slowly and painfully evolved toward a clear break with the conventional attitudes expressed in the first part of his literary career. Some literary dissidents are made, not born.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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