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

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.


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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