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Grossman, Vasilii Semenovich

(1905–1964), Russian writer. Vasilii (Iosif Solomonovich) Grossman was born and raised in Berdichev, where his parents belonged to the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia. After graduating as a chemist from Moscow University, he worked in the Donbass (1929–1933), and then returned to Moscow. Beginning in 1934, he devoted himself to literature, becoming a member of the Writers Union in 1937.

In his prewar writing, Grossman often used Jewish settings and characters (as in the sketch “Berdichev ne v shutku, a vser’ez” (Berdichev in All Seriousness; 1929), “Chetyre dnia” (Four Days; 1935), “Tseilonskii grafit” (Graphite from Ceylon; 1935), and the novel Stepan Kol’chugin (1936–1941). In these works, he expressed his beliefs—shared with many Jews of his generation—in the justice of revolution and the inevitability of international brotherhood.

Grossman spent the years of World War II as a frontline correspondent for the military newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star). His first response to the Holocaust was the story “Staryi uchitel’” (The Old Teacher), published in Znamia in 1943. While official silence about the Jewish tragedy did not permit Grossman to express the force of his shock, some of his reaction is evident in the sketch “Ukraina bez evreev” (Ukraine without Jews; 1943), published in Yiddish translation in the newspaper Eynikayt, and intended for Jews outside the Soviet Union. In “Treblinskii ad” (The Treblinka Hell; 1944), he presented the first detailed picture of the extermination camp and the prisoner uprising there. In 1944, he joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. From 1943 to 1945 he worked with Ilya Ehrenburg, collecting and editing material for Chernaia kniga (Black Book) on the destruction of Jews.

Grossman’s novel Za pravoe delo (For a Just Cause; begun in 1943, published in 1952) was intended to be the first part of an epic about the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was composed during the anti-Jewish campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s, forcing Grossman to write with a high degree of self-censorship. In it, for example, he avoids the word Jew. Grossman’s Jewish identity comes through, however, in his attempts to overturn the stereotype of the Jew as a cowardly, alien cosmopolite. Instead, he accentuates his Jewish hero’s fearlessness, patriotism, love of physical labor, and solidarity with the Soviet people.

In the novel Zhizn i sud’ba (Life and Fate; 1953–1960), which he conceived as a continuation of his earlier epic, Grossman reveals an unprecedented level of truth. He exposes the party-controlled state and draws an analogy between communism and Nazism. Soviet camps are juxtaposed with Nazi ones, and Stalin’s destruction of millions of peasants is compared to Hitler’s Final Solution. Grossman’s revelations, along with his depiction of the fate of individuals who attempted to buck the system, marked an act of extraordinary bravery by the author.

Grossman was the first Soviet writer to take up the problem of state antisemitism, which he saw as an inseparable outgrowth of the Soviet system, and he was the first to expose its psychological effects on Jews. Zhizn i sud’ba examines everyday antisemitism as well. In contrast to his viewpoint in “Berdichev ne v shutku, a vser’ez,” where as a young author he had proposed that to overcome everyday antisemitism one “merely had to tell the public about Berdichev,” in Zhizn i sud’ba Grossman declares the opposite: common sense, and even gratitude, are hopelessly outmatched by anti-Jewish hatred. In Zhizn i sud’ba, he shows the strain between the love for Russia expressed by Jewish characters and the fact that they are Jews. The assimilated Jewish heroes (Shtrum, his mother, the fighter pilot Boria Korol’, and others) are aliens in the eyes of their colleagues, neighbors, and fellow soldiers. In Za pravoe delo, Grossman continually emphasizes the bond between his Jewish hero and the Soviet people, the total convergence of their desires and values. In Zhizn i sud’ba, Shtrum’s dominant characteristic is loneliness.

In Zhizn i sud’ba, two assimilated doctors—Sof’ia Levinton and Anna Semenovna Shtrum—confront their bond with the Jewish people before their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. In the case of Sof’ia Levinton, this bond is defined not only through her fate, but through ethnic commonalities: shtetl memories, Yiddish, a specific type of humor.

Grossman’s attempt to publish Zhizn i sud’ba had tragic consequences for him. In February 1960, agents of the KGB searched his apartment and confiscated all his drafts of the manuscript. After Grossman’s death, a hidden manuscript was photocopied by the dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich and smuggled to the West. In 1980, Zhizn i sud’ba was published in Switzerland. A journal variant finally appeared in Russia in 1988.

Two other works written close to the time of Grossman’s death—the tale Vse techet (Everything Flows; 1955–1964) and the sketch of a journey to Armenia, “Dobro vam!” (Peace to You!; 1962–1963)—are connected with Zhizn i sud’ba both in their historical and philosophical outlook and in their ethnic sensibility. The subjects of Vse techet—Soviet labor camps, collectivization and famine in Ukraine, Soviet postwar antisemitism, and the planned deportation of Jews—are united with Grossman’s thoughts on Russian history, Russian national character, and the role of the revolution in suppressing freedom. Grossman believed that Russian history embodied the “growth of slavery.” He traced the cruelties of the Soviet era to the revolutionary dictatorship established by Lenin.

In his postwar works, Grossman consistently referred to the lives of Jews. In Zhizn i sud’ba, a boy sees the prayer shawls of old men who are going to synagogue in a Ukrainian town as “ancient patterns . . . that amazed [him] with their homeless biblical past.” In Vse techet, Grossman traces the fanatic Bolshevism of his character Lev Mekler not only to the social conditions of the Pale of Settlement, but also to the fanaticism of Jews who fought the Romans, perished in the Inquisition, and fought pogroms in Jewish self-defense groups. In the sketch “Dobro vam!” his empathy with Russian, Ukrainian, and Armenian suffering is inseparable from his Jewish awareness. When the journal Novyi mir agreed to print the piece if he removed one paragraph about Armenian sympathy for Jews, Grossman refused.

Grossman died of cancer three and a half years after the confiscation of the most important work of his life. Before his death, musing on his relationship to the Soviet state, he told the writer Boris Iampol’skii, “They strangled me in the doorway.”

Suggested Reading

John Garrad and Carol Garrard, The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman (New York, 1996); Rita Genzeleva, Puti evreiskogo samosoznaniia (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999); Shimon Markish, Primer Vasiliia Grossmana (Jerusalem, 1985); Alice Stone Nakhimovsky, Russian-Jewish Literature and Identity (Baltimore and London, 1992).



Translated from Russian by Alice Nakhimovsky