In Becoming a Jewish Novelist, Vasily Grossman Also Became a Great One

May 21, 2019 | Joseph Epstein
About the author:

Between writing his first novel, Stalingrad, in the aftermath of World War II and his second, Life and Fate, after the death of Stalin, the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman became utterly disillusioned with Communism—a transformation that, to Joseph Epstein, is part of what makes the former merely “an important book” and the latter “a masterpiece.” While part of this change in perspective was due to the revelations of Stalin’s crimes, Epstein writes that Grossman’s growing sensitivity to his own Jewish identity played a role as well:

In covering [World War II] as a journalist, Grossman also learned about the slaughter of Jews in Ukraine. Along with his article on the inhuman ghastliness at Treblinka, which was put in evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, Grossman saw Babi Yar, the ravine outside Kiev where nearly 100,000 Jews were executed and dumped into mass graves in 1941. He knew that many Ukrainians had been complicit in the slaughter of Jews during the Shoah. Add to this his mother’s murder [by the Nazis in the Ukrainian city of] Berdichev.

During these years Grossman worked in collaboration with Ilya Ehrenburg on a volume called The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a book that was not allowed publication in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin, himself an anti-Semite, had famously declared, “Do not divide the dead,” by which he meant that emphasizing the mass murder of Jews was prohibited. . . .

Life and Fate offers several brilliant pages on anti-Semitism, Soviet and worldwide. “Anti-Semitism,” Grossman writes, “is also an expression of a lack of talent, an inability to win a contest on equal terms—in science, in commerce, in craftsmanship, or in painting. States look to the imaginary intrigues of World Jewry for explanations of their own failure.” He sets out the different levels of anti-Semitism and notes that “historical epochs, unsuccessful and reactionary governments, and individuals hoping to better their lot all turn to anti-Semitism as a last resort, in an attempt to escape an inevitable doom.” In this novel, too, Grossman offers a brilliant portrait of Adolf Eichmann, which one wishes Hannah Arendt had read, as it might have prevented her from writing her wretched book portraying Eichmann as a mere banal bureaucrat.

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