Chekhov and Capa of the USSR

Publication of Vasily Grossman’s ‘The Road’ is an occasion for celebration and ‘Through Soviet Jewish Eyes’ is a fascinating and meticulously documented history.

Fighting near the Don 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fighting near the Don 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
MARTIN AMIS HAS called Vasily Grossman “the Tolstoy of the USSR,” and Grossman’s vast World War II novel “Life and Fate” is ample support for such a claim. Now with “The Road,” the first collection of Grossman’s short fiction to appear in English, the writer also might well merit the accolade as the “Chekhov of the USSR.”
Many a writer would blush and perhaps even shudder at the prospect of living up to such superlative models. Grossman so deeply esteemed both of those predecessors that he almost certainly would have rejected the comparisons. No matter; Grossman was enough of his own man that such rankings are moot. But, by any measure, publication of “The Road” is an occasion for celebration.
In Russia, the career of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) was decidedly bumpy. His early socialist realist novels and his war reporting for Red Star and other publications – journalism that covered everything from the siege of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad to the liberation of the death camps and the Red Army’s capture of Berlin – won him both official praise and great popularity.
But much of his postwar work was banned during his lifetime.
This included “The Black Book,” the documentary anthology on the Holocaust that he edited with Ilya Ehrenberg and others, and the major novels “Life and Fate” and “Everything Flows.” Indeed, only Stalin’s death in 1953 forestalled Grossman’s arrest and likely execution as an enemy of the state. When the novels finally appeared in 1985, a generation after Grossman’s death from cancer, they did not greatly stir glasnost-era Russians.
Grossman’s perceived literary offenses were two-fold; first, that his writings, especially those concerned with the Holocaust, were “too Jewish,” and second, that his fiction was critical of Communism. (“Life and Fate” indeed draws parallels between Hitlerism and Stalinism.) Such charges also might well have been leveled against much of the material in “The Road.” For example, “The Hell of Treblinka,” the first full-scale account of a death camp to appear in any language (and appearing here in complete form in English for the first time) was published in November 1944, both in magazine and in book form, shortly after the Soviet forces rolled in.
Grossman’s report, based on interviews with survivors, captured prison guards and local peasants, was even submitted as evidence in the Nuremberg trials. But Grossman’s Soviet masters, shying away from admitting that any single ethnic group had been especially persecuted by the Nazis, would not allow the victims of Treblinka to be identified as Jews. Instead, they were “prisoners” or “people.”
The same blinkers are in evidence in such short stories as “In the Town of Berdichev,” “The Old Teacher” and “In Kislovodsk.” In general, the dutifully patriotic Grossman went along with his ideological editors. But for all that, these remain superb and extremely moving stories, each marked with the same odd mixture of journalistic factuality and agonized lyricism that infuses “The Hell of Treblinka.” From the latter: “Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy, mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, ‘Patience now – this is the end.’ Someone shouts out some terrible curse. Aholy curse – surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort, a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, ‘Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?’ Heads spin. Throats choke...”
Happily, not all of Grossman’s writing was sicklied o’er by the horrors of the 20th century. “A Dog,” published in 1966, is a playful biography of a stray mutt chosen to be sent into orbit in a space capsule, while “Eternal Rest,” written in the late 1950s and published in 1989, is a sunny meditation on cemeteries. (“While Mama paints the fence around Papa’s grave, a little girl is hopping about on one foot, trying to get all the way around the grave without letting her other foot touch the ground.”) Yet pain and heartache are rarely absent from the mind and pen of this totally non-observant but deeply Jewish witness and recorder of the human condition. Every piece in this collection, from the meditation on Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” to the letters to Grossman’s murdered mother are achingly beautiful. And we must not overlook “The Road,” the stunningly creative story of an Italian Army mule fated to serve his masters from the deserts of Ethiopia to the snowy steppes of Stalingrad.
Bolstered by eminently readable translations and valuable notes and essays, this collection is a triumph.
IF WAR CORRESPONDENT VASILY GROSSMAN HAD A photojournalistic equivalent, it would arguably be Evgenii Khaldei, a Soviet Jewish camera-wielder, whose career was nothing short of breathtaking.
Khaldei (born in the Ukraine in 1917, died in Moscow in 1997) provided many of the most famous images of the Great Patriotic War and beyond. His photos included the very first documentation of a Nazi mass murder (Kerch), numerous battle and death camp pictures and, most memorably, the raising of the Soviet banner over the Reichstag (the iconic mirror image of Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the Stars and Stripes being hoisted atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima).
Khaldei also captured famous images of Hermann Goering in the dock at Nuremberg.
The photographer even raced to Manchuria to document the collapse of the Japanese regime there after Hiroshima. And before the war, Khaldei documented ethnic communities throughout the vast reaches of the new Soviet Union, with special attention to the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan. Much of his work appeared on Ogonyok, a pictorial magazine often compared to America’s Life and headed for many years by Jewish editors Emmanuel Golomb and Efim Davidovitch Zozulya.
But as David Shneer makes clear in “Through Soviet Jewish Eyes,” Evgenii Khaldei was only one of scores of notable Soviet Jewish photographers.
Shneer, who directs the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, presents an almost obsessively researched study of such largely unknown figures as Sergei Levitsky, Moisei Nappelbaum, Arkady Shaykhet, Semyon Fridlyand, Mark Markov-Grinberg, Emmanuel Evzerikhin, Georgii Zelma, Georgii Zelmanovitch, Dmitrii Baltermants and many others. His text nonetheless remains eminently readable and utterly fascinating.
Shneer begins with an essay on how photography very early on became a Jewish profession in Eastern Europe, with itinerant peddlerlike cameramen traveling from shtetl to shtetl and providing much desired family photographs for Jews who in the late 19th century were leaving for the West or moving to the cities. Shneer notes as well that photography afforded an artistic outlet for Jews without the requirement of admission to specialized schools or approval by academies. (One of Marc Chagall’s first jobs, Shneer tells us, was as a photo retoucher, first in his native Vitebsk and later in St. Petersburg.) Before long, Jews were photographing the Romanoffs, and not long after that were providing propagandistic images that Lenin and other revolutionary leaders maintained were crucial to the success of Communism.
“Through Soviet Jewish Eyes” contains about 100 black and white photos, but this is no coffee table book. It’s fascinating and meticulously documented history. Along with Vasily Grossman’s “The Road,” it’s one of the outstanding Jewish books of recent times.