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Eyewitness to war's worst -- and its best Add to ...

A Writer at War:

Vasily Grossman with the Red Army,

1941-1945

Edited and translated

by Antony Beevor

and Luba Vinogradova

Knopf Canada, 416 pages, $39.95

The Second World War was lost and won not at Normandy or at Iwo Jima, as important as those battles were, but on the Eastern Front in Europe. It is there that the decisive encounters took place, on the outskirts of Moscow, at Stalingrad and at Kursk. It is there, amid the smoke and fury of battle, that incredible horrors took place, the genocide of the Jews and the mass murder, by the millions, of civilians.

As two brutal regimes, those of Hitler and Stalin, confronted each other, all rules of civilized engagement were abandoned and a new barbarism, germinating since the devastating inferno that was the First World War, became the norm. In this war of extermination ( Vernichtungskrieg) launched by Hitler, Russian losses were stunning, approaching 30 million. The Russians, many of them prodded by the heartless violence that had accompanied Bolshevism and Stalinism, responded in kind.

We in the West appreciate little about that war. We know a good deal about the Holocaust, but less about its broader context: life and strife, ethnic, religious and ideological, in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. But those conflicts bear lessons for us today, as similar confrontations now occur on a global scale, as the microcosm that was Eastern Europe has been transposed to the world stage. Our world has become one huge borderland.

This is why Vasily Grossman, who is virtually unknown in the West, is so important. His life amounted to a remarkable journey through the hell of what Osip Mandelstam called "the wolfhound century" to a spiritual transcendence by the end of his life. Born in Ukraine in 1905, Grossman moved to Moscow in 1923 to study chemistry. He then worked as an engineer in the Donbass coalfields in eastern Ukraine, but in 1932, having decided to become a writer, he returned to the Russian capital. His early work was tentative and conformed broadly to the rules of socialist realism. He played the game. When friends were arrested during the terror of the mid-1930s, he held his tongue. If not exactly a hack, he was an intellectual apparatchik.

His greatest work, Life and Fate, about the battle of Stalingrad, he would complete only in 1960. A work of Tolstoyan grandeur, it is luminous in its humanity, the exact reverse of his early work. Grossman had moved from subservience to revolt. The KGB under Nikita Khrushchev, who incidentally had been chief commissar for Stalingrad during the war, confiscated what it thought were all copies of the manuscript, including notes and drafts, and told Grossman that he would have to wait two centuries before he could publish his epic novel. He died a non-person, in 1964, of stomach cancer, in poverty and great pain.

The turning point for Grossman was the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War was called in the Soviet Union. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941, Grossman volunteered for the army but was turned down for health reasons. He became a war correspondent instead, writing mainly for the army newspaper Red Star.

Next to Ilya Ehrenburg, he became the reporter most cherished by Russian soldiers because he told their story with honesty, literally from the front line -- the smell of which, he said, reminded him of both a morgue and a blacksmith's. He covered the early German assault on Moscow, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the entry into ruined Warsaw and then, in 1945, the victorious march of the Red Army, with its rape, pillage and random revenge, on Berlin. His was also the first extensive report on a Nazi death camp, Treblinka. He saw it all, and he wrote about it from the point of view of the common soldier whom he came to venerate, indeed love, and therefore occasionally scolded.

There was personal loss as well. In 1944, he learned that his mother, who had remained in Ukraine, had been murdered during the initial German onslaught in 1941.

In this world of incomprehensible violence and inexpressible grief, all categories seemed to be reversed: Victims became heroes and heroes victims. The only constant, anywhere, it seemed, was the individual human being, with his or her basic instincts and longings. No political system, no matter how merciless, and no war could ever destroy this humanity, with its potential for compassion, courage and love.

With help from Grossman's daughter and stepson, the irrepressible British historian Antony Beevor and his assistant in this project, Luba Vinogradova, have pieced together selections from Grossman's wartime notebooks and correspondence. It's a fascinating and rewarding compilation, accompanied by helpful editorial interjections. No one, of late, has done more than Beevor, with his popular books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin, to stress the importance of the Eastern Front in the Second World War.

Grossman's trajectory, from an intense patriotism, overriding the death-dealing ideology of Stalin, to, by the end, a tragic humanism, is made wonderfully clear by the selections. The last entry chosen by Beevor from the notebooks of this Jew from Ukraine is not about Russians, or Ukrainians, or Jews. It's about lovers. "On a bench, a wounded German soldier is hugging a girl, a nurse. They see no one. When I pass them again an hour later, they are still sitting in the same position. The world does not exist for them; they are happy."

In 1980, Grossman's Life and Fate was published in Switzerland, and five years later in English translation in London and New York. A microfilm copy, purportedly made by dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, had been smuggled to the West by novelist Vladimir Voinovich. "Man's fate," Grossman wrote in his epic, "may make him a slave, but his nature remains unchanged. Man's innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed." Vasily Grossman was reflecting here on the human condition but also on his own life. The battle for Stalingrad was central to both.

NOTES FROM THE FINAL JOURNEY AS A WAR CORRESPONDENT, ON HIS WAY TO BERLIN, APRIL 1945

A village that had been burned by the Germans. All that remains of it are low sandy hills of collapsed handmade brick, an abandoned well, and a few rusted metal constructions. Smoke was rising from a depression not far away, where former inhabitants of the village were living in earth bunkers dug by Red Army soldiers during the fighting. A white-haired woman, a mother whose sons had been killed in the war, brought us water in a can and said in a melancholy voice: "Will there be resurrection for us?" and she indicated the burned village with a movement of her head.

And further on, along all the great roads, leading to the Neva, and the Volkhov, and to the Terek, to the tall forests of Karelia, to the steppes and mountains of the Caucasus, there are hills and hillocks, burial mounds of soldiers' graves.

Our dead children, the Red Army soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants, our good boys are asleep there for ever. Everywhere along the roads of our advance there are these kurgans, hills and hillocks, graves of our killed sons marked by plywood boards on sticks, tilted to one side, with washed-off inscriptions. The rain washed off the soldiers' names when it was crying over the graves, and united them under the single name of the killed son.

The vehicle broke down close to the Polish border, and we had to spend many hours in a field. While [the Jeep]was being repaired, I visited a hamlet. It was Sunday, and the main resident of the hamlet and her children had gone to church. Only an old woman and a traveller, a soldier dismissed from the army because of his wounds, were at home. He told me he didn't have to walk very far now: he was going to the Orel area. We began to talk. The traveller, whose name was Alexei Ivanovich, was over forty. He had served at the front since the first days of the war, and had been wounded three times. He had been in a mortar unit. His greatcoat was torn by shrapnel and covered in black stains, he was wearing a ushanka winter hat, foot bandages and heavy boots. This soldiers' gear was something he could bring back home. He had been living at the hamlet for about two weeks, helping the woman to sow, in return for which she gave him three poods [about 48 kilograms]of rye. He would be given a lift to the station at dawn, with her horses. There he intended to board an empty train going back from the front and get closer to home. Alexei Ivanovich was very happy about having earned this grain. He even led me to the hall and smiled, watching me pat the fat dense sack.

He then told me how Germans had burned his village, and his family are living in an earth bunker. "Its good that I'm not going back empty-handed." he said. "I'll bring them some grain from the war, because I saw how hard it'd become for them when I went back on leave after I was wounded the second time. What sort of life is it under the earth? It's dark and wet, and there insects. It's not so bad in the summer, but in winter it's hard."

-- From A Writer at War

Modris Eksteins teaches history at the University of Toronto. His reflections on the period Grossman describes were published as Walking Since Daybreak.

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