WRITING THE STORY of the Holocaust is a futile ambition—not because the events of 1939 to 1945 are too horrible to be told, but because they are too various to be compressed into one definitive or representative story. The 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis came from every part of Europe, from every social class and profession and age group, from every point on the spectrum of Jewish life between militant atheism and traditional piety. All these stories had a similar ending—but then, so do all human stories, and the monotony of death does not annul the immense multiplicity of life.
Inevitably, however, we tend to create a generic Holocaust narrative out of the tales we hear most often, and find most easy to identify with. As Americans, we respond to stories of assimilated Western European Jews who are gradually shut out of their country’s life, like that of the German diarist Victor Klemperer. As city dwellers, our imaginations are compelled by Anne Frank’s experience of hiding out in a crowded apartment, invisible in the multitude. And as members of an advanced industrial society, we are compelled by the image of the gas chamber, which writers since Hannah Arendt have made the central emblem of the Holocaust—the ultimate reduction of human life to inanimate matter.
All of these are truths about the Holocaust, but they are not the only truths. As many Jews died by simple shooting as in gas chambers; far more died in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe; millions were killed almost as soon as their towns and villages were occupied by the Germans, with no chance to hide out or adjust in any way to life under Nazism. Statistically speaking, the representative Holocaust story might not feature concentration camps or hiding places or repressive laws at all; it might simply be the story of waking up one morning to find German tanks in your street and a month later being shot and buried in a mass grave. It might sound like this:
People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish—it’s just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukrainian police drive up and recruit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two or three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about. …
Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine—I still go on seeing patients and saying, “Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.” I’m taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year. … Meanwhile the Germans burst into people’s houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.
This is the voice of Anna Semyonovna Shtrum, writing her last letter to her son Viktor, in Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. Anna’s letter takes up a whole chapter of the novel, and it haunts the 800-page book just as it haunts Viktor, a Soviet nuclear physicist who is one of its half-dozen main characters. Viktor lives in Moscow, which never fell to the German Army, so he and his family survive the war. If only Viktor had allowed his mother to come and live with him, she would have survived; but his wife, Lyudmila, didn’t get along with Anna, so she remained in Berdichev and died. It’s a situation Grossman could have invented out of sheer authorial sadism, in order to burden Viktor Shtrum with the maximum amount of guilt—except that it was Grossman’s own story. Grossman’s mother never had a chance to smuggle a letter out of Berdichev before she died, so the son invented one for her, setting down the grief and guilt that defined his postwar life:
But my fate is to end my life alone, never having shared it with you. Sometimes I’ve thought that I ought not to live far away from you, that I love you too much, that love gives me the right to be with you in my old age. And at other times I’ve thought that I ought not to live together with you, that I love you too much. Well, enfin, Always be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.
What most strikes the American Jewish reader about this story, and about Life and Fate as a whole, is how close Berdichev feels to Moscow. We are inclined to think of Berdichev and the other traditional centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe as places out of time, shtetls frozen in a photograph. But Grossman, who was born there in 1905, knew that Berdichev became part of the Soviet Union in 1917, and that by 1943 its life was thoroughly dominated by the Soviet version of modernity. And part of that Soviet identity was a willing surrender of Jewishness, a refusal to think of oneself as in any way defined by tradition or religion. Viktor Shtrum “thought incessantly about his mother,” Grossman writes. “And he thought about something he would never have thought about but for Fascism: the fact that he and his mother were Jews.”
The same thing happens, even more dramatically, to another Jewish character in the novel, Sofya Levinton. Sofya, a middle-aged Jewish doctor, is a classic example of homo [or mulier] sovieticus: For her, the coming of Communism meant liberation and a world of opportunities that would have been impossible for a Jewish woman under Tsarism. When she finds herself in a cattle car being deported to a German death camp, she is surrounded by similarly emancipated, Sovietized Jews—teachers, radio technicians, engineers, veterinarians. “Previously, such professions had been unheard of in the shtetl,” Sofya reflects.
Yet the Jewishness of these Soviet citizens, long discarded and suppressed, has become the central—the only—factor determining whether they would live or die. “The most fundamental change in people at this time,” Grossman writes, “was a weakening of their sense of individual identity; their sense of fate grew correspondingly stronger.” And Sofya Levinton’s fate is a Jewish fate. After a day in the cattle car, Grossman writes, she finds herself beginning sentences with the words “Brider yidn”—fellow Jews, a Yiddishism from a childhood she thought she had put behind her.
Sofya Levinton and Anna Shtrum are just two of the hundreds of characters in Life and Fate, an epic whose title, structure, and themes demand comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Grossman even makes a little joke at Tolstoy’s expense, when a Red Army commander complains about the way Soviet newspapermen cover the Great Patriotic War: “They’re certainly no Tolstoys. People have been reading War and Peace for a century and they’ll go on reading it for another century. Why’s that? Because Tolstoy’s a soldier, because he took part in the war himself. That’s how he knew who to write about.” Another officer is left with the unenviable task of pointing out that the commander is mistaken: Not only did Tolstoy not take part in the Napoleonic Wars, he was writing half a century after they took place.
The joke is also at Grossman’s own expense. He was a former engineer turned writer who became famous as a journalist covering World War II for the Red Star newspaper; his dispatches were immensely popular and made him one of the Soviet Union’s leading writers. That’s why it came as such a shock to the authorities when, in 1960, he submitted the manuscript of Life and Fate for publication. It is, on the one hand, a paean to Soviet heroism in World War II, especially at the crucial battle of Stalingrad, which forms the backdrop to the novel. Yet at the same time, it is a brilliantly honest account of the horrors of Stalinism, and its running theme is that Communism and Nazism were two sides of the same coin.
One of the central scenes in the novel is a dialogue between a Gestapo officer, Liss, and a Russian prisoner of war, Mostovskoy, who is an old and loyal Bolshevik. In this dialogue, deliberately patterned after the Grand Inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Nazi tells the Communist that their warring systems are in fact identical: “When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate—no, we’re gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age.”
It’s no wonder that, even during the relative openness of Khrushchev’s thaw, Grossman’s book was judged too incendiary for publication. Indeed, the KGB confiscated not just the manuscript but even the ribbon from Grossman’s typewriter. Life and Fate would not be published in the West until after Grossman’s death in 1964, and not in Russia itself until the glasnost period under Gorbachev.
Grossman’s evolution from Soviet propagandist to dangerous dissident was driven, above all, by his experience as a Jew. He was one of the Jewish writers involved with “The Black Book of Fascism,” a documentary record of the Holocaust, and was shocked when Stalin derailed the project after World War II: Suddenly, it became politically unacceptable to point out that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. The murders of Yiddish writers and the 1953 Doctors’ Plot confirmed that Stalin was preparing to follow Hitler down the road of anti-Semitism. “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews,” Liss tells Mostovskoy. “Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”
In Life and Fate, this resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism, which actually took place in the late 1940s and early ’50s, is fictionally backdated to the World War II period, so we can see it unfolding in the life of Viktor Shtrum. As a brilliant nuclear physicist, Shtrum enjoys a life of privilege under the Soviet regime: As the novel opens, he has been evacuated from wartime Moscow to the safety of Kazan, and he soon returns to his cushy life in the capital. But when he makes an important theoretical breakthrough—which Grossman describes in necessarily vague terms—Shtrum incurs the jealousy and backbiting of his colleagues, who accuse him of being too oriented to Western science, not deferential enough to the spirit of Lenin, and—above all—too Jewish. “Your work stinks of Judaism,” one colleague announces, and another calls it “Talmudic.” Shtrum’s Jewish assistants in his laboratory are fired, and he is subjected to public criticism of the kind that usually leads to arrest. Only a last-minute intervention by Stalin himself saves Shtrum from annihilation.
Life and Fate is about more than the Holocaust, and more than Jewish life under Stalinism—it is a panorama of Soviet society in the war years, and for that reason one of the really indispensable books about the twentieth century. But, as if it were in spite of himself, Grossman came to realize that Jewishness and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust were central to any diagnosis of his age. “The first half of the twentieth century may be seen as a time of great scientific discoveries, revolutions, immense social transformations and two world wars,” he writes. “It will go down in history, however, as the time when—in accordance with philosophies of race and society—whole sections of the Jewish population were exterminated.”
That is why writing about the Holocaust leads Grossman to the novel’s central ethical and political conclusions, about the value of human freedom and the preciousness of every human life. After an almost unreadably powerful description of a young boy’s death in the gas chamber, Grossman asks the question that lies at the heart of Life and Fate: “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depend on the answer to this question.”
There are no simple morals or happy endings in Life and Fate: Grossman constantly reminds us of the way totalitarianism forces people to betray others and themselves, making fear the mainspring of society. But he concludes that life can never be completely subdued by death. This is the lesson of the Holocaust itself: “When a person dies, they cross over from the realm of freedom to the realm of slavery. Life is freedom, and dying is a gradual denial of freedom.” And Life and Fate is one of the very greatest Holocaust novels because it has the courage to move from the most unsparing description of death to the most convincing affirmations of the value of each individual life:
What constitutes the freedom, the soul of an individual life, is its uniqueness. The reflection of the universe in someone’s consciousness is the foundation of his or her power, but life only becomes happiness, is only endowed with freedom and meaning, when someone exists as a whole world that has never been repeated in all eternity. Only then can they experience the joy of freedom and kindness, finding in others what they have already found in themselves.
This piece originally appeared in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.