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Authors: Vasily Grossman

A Writer at War (6 page)

BOOK: A Writer at War

We had lunch in a cosy little canteen. There was a pretty waitress and Nemtsevich moaned with desire when he looked at her. He spoke to her in a fawning, shy, pleading voice. She was ironically indulgent. This was that brief triumph of a woman over a man in the days, or maybe even hours, preceding the ‘surrender’ of her heart. It is strange to see in this handsome and masculine commander of a fighter regiment this timid submissiveness to the power of a woman. Evidently, he is a great skirt-chaser.

We spent the night in a huge, multi-storeyed building. It was deserted, dark, frightening, and sad. Hundreds of women and children were living here a short time ago, families of pilots. At night we were woken by a frightening low humming and went out into the street. Squadrons of German bombers were flying eastwards over our heads, evidently, those very ones Nemtsevich spoke about during the day, the ones he said had no fuel and were destroyed.

There was the roar of engines starting up, dust, and wind – that very special aircraft wind, flattened against the ground. Aircraft went up into the sky one after another, circled and flew away. And immediately the airfield became empty and silent, like a classroom when the pupils have skipped away. It’s like poker: the regimental commander threw his whole fortune into the air. The playing field is empty. He is standing there alone looking into the sky, and the skies above him are empty. He’ll either be left a pauper, or will get everything back with interest. That’s a game, where stakes are life and death, victory or defeat. I am forever feeling as if I am on a cinema screen, not just watching it. Major events are coming thick and fast.

Finally, after a successful attack on a German column, the fighters returned and landed. The lead aircraft had human flesh stuck in the radiator. That’s because the supporting aircraft had hit a truck with ammunition that blew up right at the moment when the leader was flying over it. Poppe, the leader, is picking the meat out with a file. They summon a doctor who examines the bloody mass attentively and pronounces [it] ‘Aryan meat!’ Everyone laughs. Yes, a pitiless time – a time of iron – has come!

Ortenberg, David I. (took the non-Jewish name of Vadimov in
Krasnaya Zvezda

Captain Gastello, a famous hero who had fought as a pilot in the Spanish Civil War, was a squadron commander with the the 207th Regiment of the 42nd Aviation Division. A German anti-aircraft gun damaged the fuel tank of his aircraft on 26 June 1941 in the area of Molodechno. The aircraft began to burn, and Gastello drove the burning aircraft at a column of German vehicles on the road. The explosion and fire that followed was said to have destroyed dozens of vehicles, enemy soldiers and tanks. Gastello was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, posthumously.

General A.I. Yeremenko (1892–1970) took part in the partition of Poland in 1939. After the fighting round Gomel in August 1941, he took command of the Bryansk Front, and that autumn he was badly wounded in the leg and nearly captured when Guderian’s panzers outflanked his forces. He was later the commander-in-chief of the Stalingrad Front, where Grossman interviewed him.

Roslavl was some two hundred kilometres to their north-west, so the area around Gomel was left dangerously exposed. It soon became known as the Gomel salient.

General Heinz Guderian (1888–1953) was the commander of the Second Panzer Group (later the Second Panzer Army). Grossman was almost captured by his forces on two occasions.

These dogs were trained on Pavlovian principles. Their food was always given to them under a tank so that they would run under armoured vehicles as soon as they saw one. The explosive was strapped to their backs with a long trigger arm, which would detonate the charge as soon as it touched the underside of the target vehicle.

This entry presumably inspired the passage in his novel
The People Immortal
: ‘
Bogaryov saw a family of boletus
mushrooms in the grass. They were standing there on their fat white stems, and he remembered with what passion he and his wife had been picking mushrooms the year before. They would have been mad with joy had they found so many boletus. But he was never so lucky in peacetime.’

The Terrible Retreat

A general impression of the first few months of the Nazi-Soviet war is one of constant movement, of rapid advances and sweeping panzer encirclements. But on the Soviet side there were also many brief periods of inaction, to say nothing of confusion, rumours and waiting as orders failed to get through or were countermanded. Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring were taken back to the front. Grossman once again jotted everything down which caught his eye or his imagination, using one of his tiny notepads, with squared pages similar to a schoolboy’s maths exercise book.

Reaching the front. The humming of artillery is becoming increasingly loud. Anxiety and tension are growing. Artillery, ammunition and horse-drawn carts are moving on a wide, white, sandy road, in the golden dust of sunset, among the red pines. Infantry is on the march. A young officer covered in dust and sweat, with a huge yellow dahlia lit by the setting sun. They are heading towards the west.

At the front, when there’s trench warfare, Germans shout every morning: ‘Zhuchkov, surrender.’ Zhuchkov answers sullenly: ‘Fuck you.’

A Red Army soldier with a beard. Officer: ‘Why don’t you shave?’ Soldier: ‘I haven’t a razor.’ Officer: ‘Very well, you’ll go on a reconnaissance mission, with your beard.’ Soldier: ‘I’ll shave today, comrade commander.’

Ganakovich – a wonderful man – puffing on his pipe, radiating waves of calmness and common sense. He is sad sometimes, and likes to sit alone. He sits thinking for a long, long time. He uses colourful language. ‘Well, I remember the cavalry from 1914. They
steal chickens and fuck women even as far as two hundred kilometres behind the front.’

Battle at night. Cannonade. Field guns bang, shells howl, first in a shrill tone, then humming like wind. Barking of mines. A lot of rapid, white fire. The tap dance of machine guns and rifles is the most disturbing. Green and white German rockets. Their light is mean, dishonest, not like daylight. A ripple of shots. People are neither seen nor heard. It is like a riot of machines.

Morning. A battlefield. Shell craters, flat like saucers, with earth spilt around them. Gas masks. Flasks. Little holes dug by soldiers during the attack for machine-gun and mortar nests. They did themselves no good when they dug the holes so close to one another. One can see how they huddled together, two holes – two friends, five holes – soldier comrades from the same region. Blood. A man killed behind a haystack, his fist clenched, leaning back like a frightening sculpture –
Death on the Field of Battle
. There is a little pouch with
[black tobacco] and a box of matches.

The bottom of a German trench is covered with straw. The straw has kept the shapes of human bodies. By the trenches there are empty cans, lemon peel, wine and brandy bottles, newspapers, magazines. There are no traces of food by the machine-gun nests, only a lot of cigarette butts and multicoloured cigarette boxes. One wants to wash one’s hands carefully after touching anything German – newspapers, photographs, letters.

The divisional commander, the tall, embittered Colonel Meleshko, wore a soldier’s padded jacket. To a correspondent’s sugary remark about how happy and excited are the faces of wounded soldiers when they return from the battle, he remarked, with a sardonic grin: ‘Especially the faces of those wounded in the left hand.’

Soldiers frequently shot themselves through the left hand in a naive attempt to escape battle. In fact, such a wound, whatever the circumstances, was automatically deemed to have been self-inflicted and thus an attempt to evade battle. The soldier faced summary execution at the hands of the NKVD Special Departments (later SMERSh counter-intelligence). A few Red Army surgeons dared to save a boy’s life by amputating the hand
entirely before the Special Department checked the wounds of every new patient.

A German PoW on the edge of a forest – a miserable dark-haired boy. He is wearing a white-and-red neckerchief. He is being searched. The main feeling of soldiers towards him is surprise, as he is a stranger, a total stranger to these aspens, pines and the sad harvested fields.

The shifting sense of danger. A place seems frightening at first, but afterwards you will remember it being as safe as your Moscow apartment.

A cemetery. Fighting is going on below in the valley, the village is burned out. Twelve German bombers are diving over to the left. The cemetery is quiet, [but] chickens are cackling in the smoking village. They are laying, and our driver Petlyura says with an arch smile: ‘I’m going to fetch some eggs for you in a second.’ At this very moment, a Messerschmitt attacks with a howling roar and Petlyura scurries into a gap between graves, forgetting the eggs.

Grossman then heard that Utkin, a famous poet, had been wounded nearby.

Morning. We went to the field hospital to see Utkin, whose fingers had been torn off by shrapnel. It was overcast, raining. There were about nine hundred wounded men in a little clearing among young aspens. There were bloodstained rags, scraps of flesh, moans, subdued howling, hundreds of dismal, suffering eyes. The young red-haired ‘doctoress’ had lost her voice – she had been operating all night. Her face was white – as if she might faint at any minute. Utkin had already been taken away in a staff car. She smiled. ‘While I was making incisions, he recited poetry for me.’ One could barely hear her voice, she was helping herself speak with gestures. Wounded men kept arriving, they were all wet with blood and rain.

Like all Russians, Grossman was touched by stories of the war orphans, the countless innocents whose lives had been destroyed.

When this lieutenant colonel was walking from Volkovysk, he found a three-year-old boy in a forest. He carried the boy in his arms for hundreds of kilometres though marshes and forests. I saw them at the headquarters. The blond boy was asleep hugging the lieutenant colonel’s neck. The lieutenant colonel was red-haired and his clothes were all rags.

A joke about how to catch a German. One simply needs to tie a goose by the leg and a German would come out for it. Real life: Red Army soldiers have tied chickens by the leg and let them out into a clearing in the woods, and hid in the bushes. And Germans really did appear when they heard the chickens clucking. They fell right into the trap.

In the third week of August, part of General Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzer Group swung southwards to outflank the Soviet forces in the Gomel salient. The German advance forced the Red Army to abandon the city, and soon the last part of Belorussian territory fell to the enemy. Grossman encountered the leaders of the Belorussian Communist Party at an outdoor meeting of its Central Committee with senior military officers.
Grossman developed the scene in his novel the following year.

Who can describe the austerity
of this session held on the last free patch of the Belorussian forest? The wind coming from Belorussia sounded melancholy and solemn, and it seemed as if millions of voices were whispering in the leaves of oaks. People’s Commissars [government ministers] and members of the Central Committee, men in military tunics with tanned and tired faces, were brief in what they said . . . It became dark. The artillery opened fire. Long flashes lit the dark skies in the west.

In the original notebook, he wrote:

Session of the Central Committee of Belorussian Communist Party – on the last piece of Belorussian soil . . . Severe matters are being resolved, not a single unnecessary word is spoken . . . Ponomarenko – speaking to a Red Army commander: ‘You can’t use foul language about a member of the Central Committee.’ The General was frightened: ‘I didn’t curse him, I was cursing in general.’

The order was received during the night to bombard Novo-Belitsa and Gomel. The sky was burning. A subdued conversation in the commander’s hut. Voice of the commander: ‘
If you remember, in
Travel to Arzrum
.’ Another voice: ‘Karaims aren’t Jews, they descend from Khazars.’

Dogs rush over the bridge from the burning city of Gomel alongside cars.

During the bombing, an old man climbed out of the trench to retrieve his hat, and his head was chopped off together with all of the neck.

News of the growing military disaster spread among the civilian population. Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring were a part of the flight south to avoid Guderian’s panzer columns. This took them into the north-eastern tip of the Ukraine. The companions escaped south along the main road to Kiev as far as Chernigov, then eastwards to Mena. In both places, Red Army staff officers did not take the danger seriously, as Grossman discovered.

Stalin in the Kremlin also refused to face the reality of the threat. Guderian’s panzers, striking south from Gomel, could cut off the Ukrainian capital Kiev from the north, but by the time the Soviet leader
recognised the danger, it was too late. This was to be the biggest single military defeat in Soviet history. In the ‘Kiev concentration’, the Red Army lost more than half a million men captured and killed. Grossman and his companions only just escaped the trap as the 3rd, 4th and 17th Panzer Divisions drove south from Gomel into eastern Ukraine. The 3rd Panzer Division captured the crucial bridge over the River Desna near Novgorod-Seversky on 25 August.

Troyanovsky described their route. ‘
We were driving and driving
past smouldering ruins. The ruins of Chernigov, Borzna, Baturin were smouldering . . . Whenever there was an air raid, P.I. Kolomeitsev would organise small arms fire at the fascist aircraft. Even such utterly civilian men as Oleg Knorring and Vasily Grossman would fire at the aircraft with their rifles.’ Grossman, however, was equally concerned with the human tragedy about them.

Civilians. They are crying. Whether they are riding somewhere, or standing by their fences, they begin to cry as soon as they begin to speak, and one feels an involuntary desire to cry too. There’s so much grief!

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