Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s indispensable account of the horrors of Stalinism and the Holocaust, puts Jewishness at the heart of the 20th century
Writing the story of the Holocaust is a futile ambition—not because the events of 1939 to 1945 are too horrible to be told, but because they are too various to be compressed into one definitive or representative story. The 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis came from every part of Europe, from every social class and profession and age group, from every point on the spectrum of Jewish life between militant atheism and traditional piety. All these stories had a similar ending—but then, so do all human stories, and the monotony of death does not annul the immense multiplicity of life.
Inevitably, however, we tend to create a generic Holocaust narrative out of the tales we hear most often, and find most easy to identify with. As Americans, we respond to stories of assimilated Western European Jews who are gradually shut out of their country’s life, like that of the German diarist Victor Klemperer. As city dwellers, our imaginations are compelled by Anne Frank’s experience of hiding out in a crowded apartment, invisible in the multitude. And as members of an advanced industrial society, we are compelled by the image of the gas chamber, which writers since Hannah Arendt have made the central emblem of the Holocaust—the ultimate reduction of human life to inanimate matter.
All of these are truths about the Holocaust, but they are not the only truths. As many Jews died by simple shooting as in gas chambers; far more died in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe; millions were killed almost as soon as their towns and villages were occupied by the Germans, with no chance to hide out or adjust in any way to life under Nazism. Statistically speaking, the representative Holocaust story might not feature concentration camps or hiding places or repressive laws at all; it might simply be the story of waking up one morning to find German tanks in your street and a month later being shot and buried in a mass grave. It might sound like this:
People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish—it’s just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukrainian police drive up and recruit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two or three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about. …
Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine—I still go on seeing patients and saying, “Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.” I’m taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year. … Meanwhile the Germans burst into people’s houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.
This is the voice of Anna Semyonovna Shtrum, writing her last letter to her son Viktor, in Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. Anna’s letter takes up a whole chapter of the novel, and it haunts the 800-page book just as it haunts Viktor, a Soviet nuclear physicist who is one of its half-dozen main characters. Viktor lives in Moscow, which never fell to the German Army, so he and his family survive the war. If only Viktor had allowed his mother to come and live with him, she would have survived; but his wife, Lyudmila, didn’t get along with Anna, so she remained in Berdichev and died. It’s a situation Grossman could have invented out of sheer authorial sadism, in order to burden Viktor Shtrum with the maximum amount of guilt—except that it was Grossman’s own story. Grossman’s mother never had a chance to smuggle a letter out of Berdichev before she died, so the son invented one for her, setting down the grief and guilt that defined his postwar life:
But my fate is to end my life alone, never having shared it with you. Sometimes I’ve thought that I ought not to live far away from you, that I love you too much, that love gives me the right to be with you in my old age. And at other times I’ve thought that I ought not to live together with you, that I love you too much. Well, enfin, Always be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.
Known for Middle Eastern, African, and Hasidic motifs in her music, Basya Schechter adds a new note on her latest album—Yiddish poetry