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Authors: Vasily Grossman

A Writer at War (38 page)

BOOK: A Writer at War

Grossman on the Belgorod Axis after the battle of Kursk.

Oleg Knorring, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Grossman.

A similar operation on the southern side of the Kursk salient led to the recapture of Belgorod, and eventually Kharkov on 28 August. The Germans refer to this extended engagement as the Fourth Battle of Kharkov. As might be imagined, little of the city was left standing. During this fighting on either side of the Kursk salient, Grossman wrote to his father on 28 July.

Dear Papa, I’ve been driving
along lots of roads for three weeks, like a Gypsy. It is much nicer to travel in summer than in winter. One does not need to worry about finding a place to spend the night, the sun is shining, rains are warm, meadows are in brighter blossom than ever. But often these meadows don’t smell of flowers; they have another, frightening smell.

Grossman began to realise that there was also another frightening smell in the Soviet Union – a renascent anti-Semitism. Ilya Ehrenburg, with his acute political nose, had sensed this well before the idealistic Grossman. Early in the war Ehrenburg had noted the Kremlin reaction to Henry Shapiro, the Reuters bureau chief in Moscow. Ehrenburg had known Shapiro since before the war, talking to him for hours in the Metropol and Moskva hotels about their shared love of Paris. Shapiro commented
to Ehrenburg at one point that while Stalin was prepared to talk to Henry Cassidy of Associated Press, he never received him. ‘
With your name
,’ Ehrenburg answered, ‘you’ll never get an answer.’

In November 1941, Ehrenburg had heard anti-Semitic remarks from Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of
And Quiet Flows the Don

You are fighting
,’ Sholokhov told him, ‘but Abram is doing business in Tashkent.’ Ehrenburg exploded, calling him a ‘pogrom-monger’. Grossman, hearing of this, wrote to Ehrenburg about all the Jewish soldiers he had met at the front.

I think about Sholokov’s anti-Semitic slander with pain and contempt. Here on the South-Western Front, there are thousands, tens of thousands of Jews. They are walking with machine guns into the snowstorms, breaking into towns held by the Germans, falling in battle. I saw all of this. I saw the illustrious commander of the 1st Guards Division, Kogan, tank officers and reconnaissance men. If Sholokhov is in Kuibyshev, be sure to let him know that comrades at the front know what he is saying. Let him be ashamed.

But clearly Grossman regarded Sholokhov as an aberration at that stage.

By early 1943, Ehrenburg found that his references to Jewish suffering were being censored. He complained to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the chief of the Red Army Political Department, but Shcherbakov retorted: ‘
The soldiers want to hear
about Suvorov, but you quote Heine.’

Ehrenburg and Grossman, having furiously disagreed with each other in the past on literary matters, now became much closer. ‘
Vasily Semyonovich Grossman came to Moscow
for a short stay,’ wrote Ehrenburg, ‘and we sat together till three in the morning. He told me about the front, and we made guesses about how life would go after victory. Grossman said: “I have a lot of doubts now. But I don’t doubt the victory. This is probably the most important thing.”’

At Ehrenburg’s urging, Grossman joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. One of the leading members of it was the actor Solomon Mikhoels.
Towards the end of 1942, Albert Einstein and other members of the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists contacted the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union to suggest
that they assemble a record of Nazi crimes. Mikhoels was enthusiastic and once official Soviet permission was obtained, Ehrenburg began to organise a group of writers. In the autumn of 1943 he recruited Grossman. Grossman, who saw more of the territories just liberated from the Nazis than anyone, was to prove one of the most important contributors. By the end of 1944, Ehrenburg rightly sensed that the Stalinist authorities would suppress their work and despaired. He fell out with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Grossman, who witnessed at first-hand Majdanek and Treblinka, refused to be thwarted and took over much of the work.

This film, based on newsreel taken of re-enactments just after the events, was eagerly watched by audiences in the Soviet Union, but few realised quite how staged it was. Film archives contain numerous examples of discarded footage of soldiers getting up after being shot and going through the motions again.

Marshal Konstantin Kostantinovich Rokossovsky (1896–1968), the son of a Polish cavalry officer, was always suspect in the eyes of Stalin. He was arrested in 1937 during the purge of the Red Army and tortured by the NKVD. He was released after the Russo-Finnish war and commanded IX Mechanised Corps during the German invasion in 1941. He played an important role during the battle of Moscow when commanding the 16th Army. In 1942, he commanded the Don Front in the key phase of the Stalingrad campaign. He was the main commander for the battle of Kursk in 1943 and later commanded the 1st Belorussian Front in Operation Bagration and the advance to Warsaw. In late 1944, Stalin moved him to command of the 2nd Belorussian Front, because he did not want a Pole to have the glory of taking Berlin. That honour was given to his friend and rival, Marshal Zhukov. After the war, he was made the Defence Minister of Poland.

It is not entirely clear what Grossman means by this. Considering the Red Army mania for secrecy, it seems surprising that even a correspondent from
Krasnaya Zvezda
would have been told anything about deciphering, and yet his remark appears to reflect the experience of British signals intercepts, that the Luftwaffe’s slack attitude to signals security greatly helped the cracking of their codes.

Just under 100 kilometres south-east of Orel and about 130 kilometres north-north-east of Kursk.

Grossman, like most Red Army men, often talks of a ‘T-6’ tank in the Soviet style of designating armoured vehicles, when actually referring to the Mark VI Tiger. For simplicity, we have put ‘Tiger’ in square brackets whenever the phrase T-6 is mentioned in the original text. Some of his interviewees also use the name ‘Tiger’, and that remains unchanged.

Some historians have even been tempted to cite Kursk as the turning point of the war, but as has been indicated, the defence of Moscow was the geopolitical turning point, and Stalingrad the psychological one.

The prospect of being mutilated or becoming a cripple always represented a far greater fear for Soviet soldiers than being killed. There was of course the unshakeable belief that a woman would never want to look at them again. This may have been a misleading male nightmare, but the true awfulness of their fate did not become apparent until after the war when maimed and crippled Red Army soldiers were treated with unbelievable callousness by the Soviet authorities. Those reduced to a trunk with stumps were known as
. After the war they were rounded up and sent to towns in the Arctic circle so that the Soviet capital would not be made unsightly with limbless veterans.

Grossman in fact wrote ‘the advance’, but the Red Army often used this term when Western armies would refer to the attack or the offensive, or, as in this case, ‘the advance’ was the great counter-attack.

The Ilyushin-2M ‘Shturmovik’, a robust fighter-bomber, well armoured against ground fire, was one of the few effective Soviet aircraft of the Second World War. It was armed with two 23mm cannon and either rockets or anti-tank bombs. The crew consisted of a pilot and a rear-gunner who was also the radio operator.

Ortenberg left
Krasnaya Zvezda
to become a ‘member of the Military Council’, or chief commissar, of an army. It has been suggested that Ortenberg, also a Jew, was moved from such an influential post at a time of rising anti-Semitism within the Stalinist hierarchy.

Sholokhov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (1905–1984), winner of the Stalin Prize in 1941 and the Nobel Prize in 1965. He was accused by Solzhenitsyn among others of plagiarising the work of the anti-Bolshevik cossack, Fyodor Krukov, but subsequent studies have tended to confirm that Sholokhov’s prose was his own.

Mikhoels, Solomon (born Solomon Vovsi, 1890–1948), founder of Moscow State Jewish Theatre, chairman of Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, murdered by the KGB in Minsk.

From the Dnepr
to the Vistula
The Killing Ground of Berdichev

After the victory at Kursk, Stalin and his marshals launched a general offensive during the late summer of 1943. This was intended to push the Germans back to the line of the River Dnepr. Hitler for once recognised the need for withdrawal and agreed that the Dnepr with its high western bank offered the best line of defence. Leaving terrible destruction in their wake, German units raced back ahead of the exhausted and overextended Red Army. Smolensk was recaptured at the end of September and Kiev was retaken on 6 November. Along the way, Grossman attached himself to the headquarters of General Gorishny, whose 95th Rifle Division he had encountered in Stalingrad.

A report arrived that a girl
from the medical battalion, Galya Chabannaya, had been killed. Both Gorishny and his deputy, Colonel Vlasenko, cried out.
‘Oh, God,’ Gorishny said. ‘When we left Stalingrad after the victory, we would run out of carriages at the stations and throw each other into the snow. And I remember how we rolled her in the snow, and she laughed so loudly that the whole train could hear. There wasn’t another person in our division who laughed more loudly or more happily.’

The deputy battalion commander, Lieutenant Surkov, has come to the command post. He hasn’t slept for six nights. His face is overgrown with a beard. One can see no tiredness in this man, he is still seized by the terrible excitement of fighting. He will perhaps fall asleep half an hour later, field bag under his head, and then it would be useless to try to wake him up. But now his eyes are shining and his voice sounds harsh and excited. This man, who had been
a history teacher before the war, seems to be carrying within him the glow of the Dnepr battle. He tells me about German counterattacks, about our attacks, about the runner whom he had to dig out of a trench three times, and who comes from the same area as he and was once his pupil at school. Surkov had taught him history. Now they both are both taking part in the events about which history teachers will be telling their pupils a hundred years from now.

When they reached the bank of the Dnepr, the soldiers didn’t want to wait for the pontoons and other official river crossing transport to arrive. They crossed the wide and fast-flowing river on rafts, in fishing boats, on pontoons improvised from barrels and covered with planks of wood. They crossed under the enemy’s heavy artillery and mortar fire, under attack from German bombers and fighters. There were cases when soldiers transported regimental guns on gates, and when a group of Red Army soldiers crossed the Dnepr on groundsheets stuffed with hay.

The Liberation of the Ukraine was an emotional process, especially for those like Grossman who remembered bitterly the late summer of 1941.

Old men, when they hear Russian words, run to meet the troops and weep silently, unable to utter a word. Old peasant women say with a quiet surprise: ‘We thought we would sing and laugh when we saw our army, but there’s so much grief in our hearts, that tears are falling.’

When our troops enter a village, and the cannonade shakes the air, geese take off and, flapping their wings, fly heavily over the roofs. People emerge from the forest, from tall weeds, from marshes overgrown with tall bullrushes.

Every soldier, every officer and every general of the Red Army who had seen the Ukraine in blood and fire, who had heard the true story of what had been happening in the Ukraine during the two years of German rule, understands to the bottom of their souls that there are only two sacred words left to us. One of them is ‘love’ the other one is ‘revenge’.

In these villages, the Germans used to relieve themselves in the halls and on the doorsteps, in the front gardens, in front of the windows of houses. They were not ashamed of girls and old women.
While eating, they disturbed the peace, laughing loudly. They put their hands into dishes they were sharing with their comrades, and tore boiled meat with their fingers. They walked naked around the houses, unashamed in front of the peasants, and they quarrelled and fought about petty things. Their gluttony, their ability to eat twenty eggs in one go, or a kilo of honey, a huge bowl of smetana, provoked contempt in the peasants . . .

Germans who had been withdrawn to the rear villages were searching for food from morning till night. They ate, drank alcohol and played cards. According to what prisoners said and [what was written in] letters found on dead German soldiers, the Germans considered themselves the representatives of a higher race forced to live in savage villages. They thought that in the wild eastern steppes one could throw culture aside. ‘Oh, that’s real culture,’ I heard dozens of people say. ‘And they used to say that Germans were cultivated people.’

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