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
What most strikes the American Jewish reader about this story, and about Life and Fate as a whole, is how close Berdichev feels to Moscow. We are inclined to think of Berdichev and the other traditional centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe as places out of time, shtetls frozen in a Vishniac photograph. But Grossman, who was born there in 1905, knew that Berdichev became part of the Soviet Union in 1917, and that by 1943 its life was thoroughly dominated by the Soviet version of modernity. And part of that Soviet identity was a willing surrender of Jewishness, a refusal to think of oneself as in any way defined by tradition or religion. Viktor Shtrum “thought incessantly about his mother,” Grossman writes. “And he thought about something he would never have thought about but for Fascism: the fact that he and his mother were Jews.”
The same thing happens, even more dramatically, to another Jewish character in the novel, Sofya Levinton. Sofya, a middle-aged Jewish doctor, is a classic example of homo [or mulier] sovieticus: For her, the coming of Communism meant liberation and a world of opportunities that would have been impossible for a Jewish woman under Tsarism. When she finds herself in a cattle car being deported to a German death camp, she is surrounded by similarly emancipated, Sovietized Jews—teachers, radio technicians, engineers, veterinarians. “Previously, such professions had been unheard of in the shtetl,” Sofya reflects.
Yet the Jewishness of these Soviet citizens, long discarded and suppressed, has become the central—the only—factor determining whether they would live or die. “The most fundamental change in people at this time,” Grossman writes, “was a weakening of their sense of individual identity; their sense of fate grew correspondingly stronger.” And Sofya Levinton’s fate is a Jewish fate. After a day in the cattle car, Grossman writes, she finds herself beginning sentences with the words “Brider yidn”—fellow Jews, a Yiddishism from a childhood she thought she had put behind her.
Sofya Levinton and Anna Shtrum are just two of the hundreds of characters in Life and Fate, an epic whose title, structure, and themes demand comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Grossman even makes a little joke at Tolstoy’s expense, when a Red Army commander complains about the way Soviet newspapermen cover the Great Patriotic War: “They’re certainly no Tolstoys. People have been reading War and Peace for a century and they’ll go on reading it for another century. Why’s that? Because Tolstoy’s a soldier, because he took part in the war himself. That’s how he knew who to write about.” Another officer is left with the unenviable task of pointing out that the commander is mistaken: Not only did Tolstoy not take part in the Napoleonic Wars, he was writing half a century after they took place.
The joke is also at Grossman’s own expense. He was a former engineer turned writer who became famous as a journalist covering World War II for the Red Star newspaper; his dispatches were immensely popular and made him one of the Soviet Union’s leading writers. That’s why it came as such a shock to the authorities when, in 1960, he submitted the manuscript of Life and Fate for publication. It is, on the one hand, a paean to Soviet heroism in World War II, especially at the crucial battle of Stalingrad, which forms the backdrop to the novel. Yet at the same time, it is a brilliantly honest account of the horrors of Stalinism, and its running theme is that Communism and Nazism were two sides of the same coin.
One of the central scenes in the novel is a dialogue between a Gestapo officer, Liss, and a Russian prisoner of war, Mostovskoy, who is an old and loyal Bolshevik. In this dialogue, deliberately patterned after the Grand Inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Nazi tells the Communist that their warring systems are in fact identical: “When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate—no, we’re gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age.”
It’s no wonder that, even during the relative openness of Khrushchev’s thaw, Grossman’s book was judged too incendiary for publication. Indeed, the KGB confiscated not just the manuscript but even the ribbon from Grossman’s typewriter. Life and Fate would not be published in the West until after Grossman’s death in 1964, and not in Russia itself until the glasnost period under Gorbachev.
Grossman’s evolution from Soviet propagandist to dangerous dissident was driven, above all, by his experience as a Jew. He was one of the Jewish writers involved with “The Black Book of Fascism,” a documentary record of the Holocaust, and was shocked when Stalin derailed the project after World War II: Suddenly, it became politically unacceptable to point out that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. The murders of Yiddish writers and the 1953 Doctors’ Plot confirmed that Stalin was preparing to follow Hitler down the road of anti-Semitism. “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews,” Liss tells Mostovskoy. “Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”
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