“To tell the terrible truth” -- Vasily Grossman

Katalin Dobó

Grossman in Schwerin, 1945.
Grossman in Schwerin, 1945.
Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) was a Russian writer and a decorated, famous war correspondent for the central military newspaper of the Red Army ‘Red Star’ during WWII. He spent more than 1000 days at the front, reported from the battles of Moscow, Kursk, Stalingrad and Berlin.

In 1941 his mother was killed by the Nazis in the Ukrainian village Berdichev. The farewell letter Anna wrote to his son from the ghetto of Berdichev is one of the most gripping parts of Grossman’s huge epic novel on World War II entitled Life and Fate. Grossman himself never received any such letter from his mother; for months he did not even know that his daughter, then living with her grandmother, survived the massacre in Berdichev. Here you can hear the letter in BBC Radio 4 adaptation of the novel.

His mother’s death prompted Grossman to become an early chronicler of the Holocaust. One of the first accounts of the genocide, his 1944 article “The Hell of Treblinka” was used as evidence in Nuremberg as he was the first journalist-eyewitness to enter the Treblinka concentration camp liberated by Soviet troops.

Together with Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman also edited a volume of documents entitled the “Black book of Russian Jewry” (Chernaia kniga o zlodeiiskom povsemestnom ubiistve evreev…) which was the first documentation of the genocide on Soviet citizens of Jewish ancestry by the Nazis. The idea to compile a volume of evidence was first raised by Einstein when the war was not yet over. In an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere, the editors collected survivors’ accounts, last letters of the perished about the heinous crimes the German occupiers committed against the Jews in the Soviet Union. The chapter on Berdichev was written by Grossman based on testimonies of people of his native town. Comparing the testimonies in The Black Book and the fictitious farewell letter in the novel reveals haunting similarities of details (youngsters were told they were needed to “dig up potatoes” but what they did dig was their own and their families’ mass grave).

However, head of the propaganda department of the party, a certain Aleksandrov, wrote a denunciatory report to Zhdanov saying that the apparent purpose of the book was to convey the idea that the Germans robbed and killed only the Jews, belittling the suffering of the Soviet people. As a result, all the copies, even the metallic printing plates were destroyed in 1948 by the authorities. The members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, who contributed to the book with documents and testimonies were all executed in August 1952 at Stalin’s command. The Black Book first appeared in Jerusalem in 1989, well after the death of authors. The 27 volumes of documents on which the book was based are open for research in the Russian State Archives since 1989. The pages typed up in 1945 show thorough censoring: all reference to anti-Semitism and collaboration of local people with the Nazis are crossed out in red and blue pencil, and were banned from the later destroyed book. OSA has a copy of a later publication where the deleted sections were restored.

In February 1961 the KGB raided Grossman’s apartment as well as the editorial offices where he had submitted the manuscript of his main work, Life and Fate, which he wrote for 10 years. All typescripts and drafts were seized and the author was told by Mikhail Suslov, the party’s chief ideologue, that his novel would not let be out for at least 200 years. Thereafter Grossman lived under the KGB’s surveillance and died of cancer three years after his book was confiscated. The manuscript was believed to have been lost or destroyed by the authorities, but his friends preserved a final version of the novel for two decades. It was smuggled to the West on microfilm, where it first appeared in 1980 -- the OSA Library has a copy of that Swiss edition, originally obtained by Radio Liberty. The volume is a typical “tamizdat”: the text was squeezed onto 600 pages, printed in the smallest possible letters to facilitate smuggling the compact copies back behind the Iron Curtain; naturally, printing costs must have played a role too. (For the sake of comparison, the standard English translation is 900 pages, while the Hungarian is nearly 1100.) The novel soon became a bestseller, and eight years later a shortened version was published in the Soviet Union during the so called glasnost period.

Grossman’s writings have attracted attention from scholars, and are recognized as a valuable historical source -- Robert Conquest or Anne Applebaum used the chapter of Grossman’s last book “Everything flows” depicting Ukraine’s famine as a historical document; the English military historian Antony Beevor, author of the Booker Prize work on Stalingrad, edited his war diary “Writer in War”.

Alexandra Popoff: Vasily Grossman and the Soviet century. Yale UP, 2019.
Vaszilij Grosszman: Élet és sors . Budapest, Európa, 2013. Afterword by Hetényi Zsuzsa