Never Undemanding of Ourselves

John Garrard and Carol Garrard, The Bones of Berdichev:  The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman
Wednesday 1 August 2012

Vasily Grossman represents an inspiring figure of engagement, and old fashioned Russian insistence on telling the truth and standing for justice.  He had his flaws and his guilt to overcome, for his younger years when he was playing it safe, and going along.

And then there is the Nazi barbarism against the Jews, the Ukrainian collaboration against the Jews, and the Soviet anti-Semitic policies.  Grossman discovered his Jewishness, “thanks to” the Nazis and Soviets.  Raised on the European and humanist classics, he had thought of himself as a Russian.   

Here’s the Russian (Jewish?) fervent belief in the power of the word: Life and Fate was to be imprisoned for 250 years, it was so dangerous to the state.  A literary dissident, Grossman sends me back to War and Peace, not a book to read, but one to meditate on, as he evidently did during the street-fighting in the battle at Stalingrad.

Norman Finkelstein stressed courage in his brief examination of the Mahatma, so I quote Gandhi here: “It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means putting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.” Grossman had the courage to write the truth and not falter.

Also more broadly, this is part of my history, as my grandmother’s family fled Russia early in the 20th century, and here’s the historical context: “From 1881 to 1905, no fewer than 115 new pieces of anti-Jewish legislation were made the law of the land. They caused as much bitterness and hostility, and lost human potential as did the Jim Crows laws in the American south at the same time. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the country altogether, others joined revolutionary groups; pogroms caused great destruction and loss of life.” 

A few passages from the Garrards’ book—

Grossman:  “It seems to me that, in the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil. We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.”  171

He had distanced himself from the shtetl Jews of Berdichev. Now the Holocaust would force him to reconsider his Jewish background and decide how he should respond to his mother’s murder and to the massacre of all the other Jews of Ukraine.  176

Already Grossman’s guilt about his mother’s capture was tinged by a terrible fear  that that the Soviet government was determined to erase the Jewishness of the genocide and with it the memory of his own mother’s death.  226

Goya would have had to live a thousand years to paint all the horrors committed by German troops against civilians in the Soviet Union. 241

His books testify to the achievements of a human being who went through the fires of hell and emerged with his soul intact. Few who saw what he saw and felt what he felt were able to make sense of their experiences. Grossman did, and in the most generous fashion possible: he conveyed his message and his struggle to his compatriots in Russia and to us, wherever we live. Still alive in his books, Grossman calls upon us to take up the burden of history and to make sure that the tragedies of the “wolfhound century” are never permitted to return and haunt our descendants. 345

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