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No Exit

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

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Leora Laor, Wanderland #137, 2001-2003 (Courtesy Andrea Meislin Gallery.)
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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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I just finished reading “Life and Fate”–a Goodreads buddy put me onto it–and since then, I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know. The Holocaust sections are almost unbearably wrenching, and the chapters where Viktor Shtrum is slowly ostracized from Soviet society, to the detriment of the Russian war effort, are absolutely staggering. I think it should be required reading for seniors in Jewish high schools.

June Getraer says:

I had not heard of “Life and Fate” before reading this article. Thank you for this great review. I am going to pick up a copy of the book today and thanks to Helen’s comment, pass it on to my grandsons.

Robert Chandler says:

Thank you for this, Adam. And may I just add (as Grossman’s translator) that Grossman’s very last works – the short novel EVERYTHING FLOWS and some of the short stories in THE ROAD – are at least as fine as LIFE AND FATE. R.C.

Thanks for the information, Mr. Chandler! I’ll pick them up. You did an incredible job with the translation, it really sings.

It must be remembered that Vassily Grossman was a major reporter of the Soviet advance from Stalingrad to Berlin(before he became disillusioned with the regime)

Michael in Ohio says:

Adam, an excellent review of an excellent book. Well done.

I read Life and Fate many years ago.

The review made me take the book down again and reread it.

Great article on a great novel.

Joseph Shier says:

Your review captures part of the power of the novel but omits what makes it so overwhelming: its relentless, unyielding honesty. From that letter from Viktor’s mother to the end, Grossman takes the reader by the throat and continues to tighten his grip. He refuses to soften anything, to allow any character to hide from the truth.

You write that Life and Fate is one of the very greatest Holocaust novels. That is like saying War and Peace is one of the greatest war novels. Life and Fate deals with the very essence of the 20th century and is the greatest novel of that century.

jacob arnon says:

What Mr. Shier said.

Gabriel Goodliffe says:

This is a wonderfully written review (as always), although as an epic and sprawling novel that can be rightfully compared to “War and Peace,” I think, to someone who hasn’t read “Life and Fate”, Kirsch perhaps overstates the centrality of the Holocaust as its principal theme (say, in comparison to a book like Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” in which the Holocaust is the overwhelmingly central backdrop and which incidentally indisputably draws on Grossman’s magnus opus.) Kirsch is of course right to focus on the totalitarian parallels drawn by Grossman between the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and his highlighting of the central role played by anti-Semitism in cementing their respective apparatuses of repression, but I would aver that that this accounts for only half the story in this sweeping historical narrative. The other half is about the heroism and sacrifice displayed by the Russian people conceived as a pluralistic and multiethnic whole (notably as cast as characters in the Red Army) first, in the face of the Nazi onslaught (in this sense, it is significant that the one constant historical backdrop which anchors the novel is Stalingrad), and then in the face of the Stalinist one.

In this sense, I read this book somewhat more ecumenically (something that I think a long-standing Communist like Grossman would have appreciated), the Jewish experience of suffering serving to illuminate for me the broader experience of the suffering of all Russians during World War II and what followed. By emphasizing the centrality of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust and then the second Stalinist purge as the novel’s central thematic motif, I think that Kirsch somewhat underplays this broader ecumenical theme that undergirds the novel, and which for me makes Grossman one of the true humanist writers of our time–in the sense of being able to empathize so deeply with the human condition and write so movingly about it–like a Tolstoy, a Balzac, or a Dostoevsky before him

In this and all others (any other that I read) review and commentaries the readers are missing the central point of the story, its pinnacle – a telephone call from Stalin to nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum. Try to imagine that one day you receive a personal call from Mr. Obama who asks you how are you doing, how is your job and how he can help you? What chance do you have to receive such call? Well, Stalin was not Obama, he was the “leader of all nations for all times”. It was more like receiving personal call from God himself. The point Grossman was trying to make was to ask the reader: were Stalin and Hitler indeed unique individuals among people or almost everybody in their situation would act in a similar way (can power corrupt everybody or just certain individuals?). By giving Viktor Shtrum such enormous power (which Stalin’s call gave him) Grossman wants to see how this honest and compassionate person (who from the beginning hated dictatorship with all his guts), how is he going to use it in the small environment of his workplace, family, among his neighbors. (Not as the leader of the whole country) Mr. Grossman invites every reader to judge Viktor’s actions and think how he or she would act in his place. This, central point of the novel, for some reason is missed in all the comments that I read.

Earl Ganz says:

I’ve just finished Life and Fate. Think of the 60s Oh Wow! school of criticism. I’m
speechless. It’s the best novel I’ve ever read. But Adam Kirsch didn’t get me to it. The person who did was a former Chairman of the U. of Montana’s English Department. Merrel Clubb turned 90 last month and has published a WW2 memoir with the U of W Press. He said L and F was the best novel he’d ever read and he’s not even Jewish. We’d been waiting for the great WW2 novel.
It was already written, just not published,
then not translated. I’ll be 79 on the 14th so on behalf of old guys everywhere I would like to thank Mr. Chandler for his trans-lation and The NY Review of Books Press for their publication. We almost didn’t make it. But we did! Hooray! It’s a great novel

Bob Schwalbaum says:

I just finished “LIFE and FATE”.

As an American Jew spared the horrors of the Holocaust.. reading it was a very bitter but worthwhile experience.

Grossman was obviously a man of great courage.

If it was hard for me to read it.. imagine the agonies suffered by Grossman in writing it!

I’m two hundred pages into “Life and Fate” and reading very slowly as I don’t want this book to end…as was once said of “War and Peace”(and I paraphrase),It’s not a Novel but Life.

John Garrard says:

thank you for your incisive analysis of Life & Fate–you have gone to the heart of this immense book. You may be interested to know that the second edition of my and my wife’s biography of Vasily Grossman will be published in the spring of 2012 by Pen & Sword in the U.K. and in the summer of 2012 by their U.S. Partner. It will be retitled “The Life & Fate of Vasily Grossman,” though it originally appeared as The Bones of Berdichev: the Life & Fate of Vasily Grossman” in 1996 with the Free Press. As translated into Italian in 2009, it won the Italian national prize for biography/history, the Giovanni Comisso. the Italians have created an entire center, “The Center for the Study of Vasily Grossman and the Battle of Stalingrad” at torino, Italy, and it contains a travelling exhibit which has been all over the world.
Sincerely, John Garrard, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies, U of Arizona

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No Exit

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