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
In Life and Fate, this resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism, which actually took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is fictionally backdated to the World War II period, so we can see it unfolding in the life of Viktor Shtrum. As a brilliant nuclear physicist, Shtrum enjoys a life of privilege under the Soviet regime: As the novel opens, he has been evacuated from wartime Moscow to the safety of Kazan, and he soon returns to his cushy life in the capital. But when he makes an important theoretical breakthrough—which Grossman describes in necessarily vague terms—Shtrum incurs the jealousy and backbiting of his colleagues, who accuse him of being too oriented to Western science, not deferential enough to the spirit of Lenin, and—above all—too Jewish. “Your work stinks of Judaism,” one colleague announces, and another calls it “Talmudic.” Shtrum’s Jewish assistants in his laboratory are fired, and he is subjected to public criticism of the kind that usually leads to arrest. Only a last-minute intervention by Stalin himself saves Shtrum from annihilation.
Life and Fate is about more than the Holocaust, and more than Jewish life under Stalinism—it is a panorama of Soviet society in the war years, and for that reason one of the really indispensable books about the 20th century. But, as if it were in spite of himself, Grossman came to realize that Jewishness and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust were central to any diagnosis of his age. “The first half of the twentieth century may be seen as a time of great scientific discoveries, revolutions, immense social transformations and two world wars,” he writes. “It will go down in history, however, as the time when—in accordance with philosophies of race and society—whole sections of the Jewish population were exterminated.”
That is why writing about the Holocaust leads Grossman to the novel’s central ethical and political conclusions, about the value of human freedom and the preciousness of every human life. After an almost unreadably powerful description of a young boy’s death in the gas chamber, Grossman asks the question that lies at the heart of Life and Fate: “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depend on the answer to this question.”
There are no simple morals or happy endings in Life and Fate: Grossman constantly reminds us of the way totalitarianism forces people to betray others and themselves, making fear the mainspring of society. But he concludes that life can never be completely subdued by death. This is the lesson of the Holocaust itself: “When a person dies, they cross over from the realm of freedom to the realm of slavery. Life is freedom, and dying is a gradual denial of freedom.” And Life and Fate is one of the very greatest Holocaust novels because it has the courage to move from the most unsparing description of death to the most convincing affirmations of the value of each individual life:
What constitutes the freedom, the soul of an individual life, is its uniqueness. The reflection of the universe in someone’s consciousness is the foundation of his or her power, but life only becomes happiness, is only endowed with freedom and meaning, when someone exists as a whole world that has never been repeated in all eternity. Only then can they experience the joy of freedom and kindness, finding in others what they have already found in themselves.
Known for Middle Eastern, African, and Hasidic motifs in her music, Basya Schechter adds a new note on her latest album—Yiddish poetry