Eyewitness to Hell

A Soviet military correspondent reveals the unique human stories in his reporting of World War II.

"Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War" by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (eds.), Pimlico, 378 pages, 8.99 pounds sterling

When his acquaintances were asked to describe Vasily Semyonovich Grossman's appearance and manner, the most common description was: "a typical civilian." In other words, someone who was not exactly cut out to be a soldier.

This description is backed up by the many photographs in "Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War," which depicts his exploits during World War II and conveys the image of an intellectual of modest dimensions, whose round glasses stood out prominently on his face. His uniform did not change this image. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Grossman volunteered to serve in the Red Army; however, the army's physicians found him physically unfit for military service and sent him home.

A Jew who was born in Berdichev, Ukraine, and who was a mining engineer by profession, Grossman would never say die. When the war broke out, he was in his early 30s and was already known as a talented writer who had not yet made his mark in the Soviet literary world. The Soviet Union's leading author at the time, Maxim Gorky, loved Grossman's writings, and Grossman tried with all his might to find a way out of what he considered a boring profession as an engineer.

After being rejected for active duty in the army, he proposed his services as a military correspondent to the editor of the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvyezda (Red Star). The editor, General David Ortenberg - who was also Jewish, but, unlike Grossman, was an ardent member of the Communist Party and a devoted Stalinist - was delighted to recruit him and immediately sent him off to the battlefront to report, in a patriotic and "Soviet" spirit, on the events there to the newspaper's readers, the soldiers.

Grossman's superiors at Red Star had no cause to regret the decision to enlist him as a military correspondent. For more than three years - from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union until the collapse of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich in a Berlin bunker - the readers enjoyed Grossman's absorbing reportage. He did more than just transmit dry facts about the fighting: With his writer's eye, he skillfully uncovered the hidden stories behind the war's headlines. He was a fervent Soviet patriot and his reports, even during the difficult days of the siege of Stalingrad, were a source of inspiration and encouragement to millions of readers on the battlefields and in the cities of the beleaguered Soviet Union. When the war ended, Grossman utilized his experiences from the period of the siege of Stalingrad in his great work, "Life and Fate," a stormy epic in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace."

Faithful witness

Historians have long recognized Grossman's reports and memoirs as a major source of information on the conduct of the war on the eastern front. In his memorable "Stalingrad," British historian Antony Beevor makes excellent use of Grossman as a faithful witness of the dark days of the siege. Beevor openly expressed his gratitude to Grossman and his writings, but also took an unusual step that has dramatically heightened the value and importance of Grossman as a military correspondent.

Grossman's daughter entrusted to Beevor her late father's wartime notebooks, which turned out to be a fascinating source of information, providing raw material that is even more interesting and gripping than Grossman's published writings. Passages from the notebooks are the core of this important and unique book that has been produced by Grossman's editors and translators, who have added extensive material to connect the various entries. This extensive supplementary material provides the background to the subject matter. Sometimes, passages from Grossman's articles and even entire articles as they appeared in Red Star are presented, and readers can effectively study his techniques and artistry. For example, they can learn about the principles applied by the editors in censoring his reports: Any reference to the distress and suffering of the Jews was eliminated so that the newspaper's readership would not get the impression that the Soviet Union's Jewish citizens deserved any special consideration, as compared to other citizens. The message was that the dead, the tortured and the persecuted were all good, faithful citizens of the majestic Soviet Union.

To all this material, the editors/translators have added excerpts from letters written by Grossman and others, and this special amalgam authentically conveys the spirit of that period - especially that of the unique individual who occupies stage center here. The editors wisely chose "A Writer at War" for its title because the most prominent element in the writings in question - as evident not only in the upbeat reports he sent his newspaper, but also in the entries and references he makes in his notebooks - is the fact that he is first and foremost a writer who knows that beneath the surface of every story lurks a hidden, fascinating face.

Grossman is a writer with a "literary awareness." Thus, when he retreated together with the battalion to which he was assigned, in the face of advancing German troops, he convinced its commanders to make a slight detour for a brief visit to Tolstoy's home, Yasnaya Polyana. In another day or two, General Heinz Guderian of the German army would occupy this estate; however, all of its occupants were then busy packing and rescuing precious artifacts, to keep them from falling into the hands of the approaching Germans.

All those who will read the depiction of this scene in Grossman's notebook and in the article he would write based on that entry cannot avoid the obvious analogy: The occupants of the Tolstoy estate are busy preparing a rapid evacuation just as the residents of Moscow and Prince Bolkonsky, the chief protagonists in "War and Peace," make a quick escape in the face of Napoleon Bonaparte's advancing army.

Harsh details

As a skilled writer, Grossman knows how to present things in concentrated form. The scene he paints is full of harsh details, the Soviet Union's fate is still unknown, yet, for those seeking comfort in analogy, Grossman offers consolation: Ultimately, Napoleon's troops were forced to beat a shameful retreat from Moscow's outskirts and at a heavy price. As has already been noted, he was an ardent Russian patriot.

Yet the charm and uniqueness of this special book lie not in the depiction of the major events of the war, but rather in the human interest stories. Grossman was especially adept in drawing people out, and his editors in Moscow were continually amazed at the way he managed to extract frank statements from tough-minded generals known for their ominous silences. He conversed not only with officers and generals, but also with ordinary soldiers. Furthermore, he would always mention their name and their hometowns, and offer a brief description of them.

Grossman's soldiers are real-life human beings with names and identities. He listens to their stories, takes pains to record their grievances, and displays extreme sensitivity to the process by which the soldiers created a unique army slang. He is curious to hear their jokes and pays close attention to their songs. For example, we discover the immense popularity enjoyed by the romantic song, known in Israel in its Hebrew translation as "The Blue Scarf." Apparently, the soldiers of the Red Army sang this song constantly, so much so that they even included its title in their famous battle cry. It is a well-known fact that these troops, when storming German positions, would shout, "Za rodinu, za stalina" ("For our homeland, for Stalin"). Grossman relates, however, that their actual battle cry was "Za rodinu, za stalina, za sini plachek" ("For our homeland, for Stalin, for the blue scarf").

Here is another amazing anecdote: In November 1942, after failing to defeat the besieged city of Stalingrad and as the Russian winter approached, tens of thousands of German soldiers found themselves isolated, surrounded by Soviet troops, without food or any prospect of reinforcements. Against this background, various rumors developed. In the German camp, soldiers spread the story that, one night, covertly and disguised as a corporal, Hitler himself visited his despairing troops and promised them that he would quickly send them food and reinforcements and that victory was close at hand.

During this very same period, on the other side of the battlefield, rumors spread that Stalin had visited the city named after him, covertly, of course, to encourage his troops and raise their morale. He too promised them a sweeping victory.

Neither rumor had any basis in fact, and readers might recall similar stories that were current during other days of war. British soldiers in the trenches during World War I were ready to swear that one night, their chief of staff, wearing the uniform of a common soldier, visited his troops, tried to raise their morale and promised them a rosier, happier future.

In his splendid book on that war, "The Great War and Modern Memory," Paul Fussell, a historian and a cultural scholar, presents this anecdote and his version of what actually happened. The British troops, especially the officers, brought their cultural world and heritage to the battleground. They had all studied, read and even learned by heart passages from Shakespeare's plays. Indeed, anyone who has ever read "Henry V" is familiar with the scene in which the commander of the army visits his troops secretly, to gladden their hearts. According to Fussell, this is the source of the anecdote. Yet how can we explain the source of the rumor that circulated simultaneously among the German and Soviet troops at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942? Shakespeare will not be of much help here.

Jewish prowess

Vasily Grossman never denied his Jewish identity; however, like many other Russian Jewish intellectuals, he fervently believed in the unifying power of the new Soviet state. When he went off to war, he left behind him his mother in Berdichev, half of whose population of 60,000 was Jewish; the reports of atrocities committed by German soldiers in occupied Ukraine troubled him greatly. Nonetheless, until he accompanied the Soviet troops in their counter-offensive against the Nazi forces, he did not dwell too much on the uniqueness of the Jewish problem. In his journal entries, he devotes considerably space to his hurried meetings with Jewish soldiers, constantly noting with pride their excellent military prowess.

Grossman was one of the first eyewitnesses to the colossal and gruesome scope of the Holocaust and he was visibly shocked by what he saw. The most impressive and strongest passages in this book are those concerning his encounter with the death camps and with the destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe by the Nazis. A colleague, who was deeply committed to the Soviet cause, the highly influential Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenberg, persuaded him to help the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Grossman heeded the call without hesitation.

Beevor, whose hatred of Soviet communism was prominent in his book on the siege of Stalingrad, appears to delight in telling his readers repeatedly how displeased Grossman's editors were with the growing nationalist (that is, Jewish) slant in his reports. Initially, Grossman complained about the faulty editing of his reports from the front; he later found that his editors were censoring him politically. They were highly reluctant to draw attention to the unique fate of the Jews in the war and, if they had published his reports regarding that subject, they would have been forced to tell the entire world about the role played by Ukrainian collaborators in the murder and massacre of the Jews. They knew that their newspaper had an immense readership. The Red Army soldiers looked forward to Grossman's articles and he was beloved by Soviet citizens as well. Regarding the Jewish question, however, the editors were forced to turn a deaf ear to the urgent requests of their faithful correspondent.

Grossman had to find other forums for his "Jewish" articles. In this context, it should be pointed out that the major project on which he, Ehrenberg and others worked extensively - "The Black Book," a frightening elegy to the Jews of Eastern Europe - was never published in the Soviet Union.

Grossman wrote in great detail and concealed nothing in his depiction of what he saw at Treblinka and what he heard from the few eyewitnesses who survived that man-made hell. He openly mourned the thousands of towns that no longer had any Jewish residents and, when he reached Berdichev together with the Red Army, he discovered what he had long suspected: His mother had been murdered by the Nazis only a few days after they had occupied the city, in September 1941. He did not write about his mother in his newspaper reports, but did present her as an impressive figure in his major novel, "Life and Fate." In his archives, which his daughter carefully preserved, the editors found two letters that grieving Grossman wrote to his dead mother. The most recent one was written 20 years after her murder and only a few years before his own death, in the summer of 1964.

Grossman completed "Life and Fate" in 1960. As could be expected, the Soviet authorities outlawed its publication: The "high priest" of Soviet culture at the time, Mikhail Suslov, instructed that every copy of the manuscript be destroyed and predicted that 100 years would pass and the book would still not be published. As in other matters, Suslov erred here as well. The manuscript was smuggled to the West and the book was published in several languages, including Hebrew.

Beevor and Luba Vinogradova have done a great service to one of the 20th century's most important authors. We now know that he was also a great, original and fascinating journalist.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel teaches history at Sapir Academic College.