The battle of Stalingrad had wound down in the city itself during December 1942. Fierce fighting took place only out in the frozen wastes of the Volga–Don steppe where seven encircling Soviet armies were trying to crush the diseased and starving Sixth Army. But the Wehrmacht at bay was still a formidable force. In the city, there was a slight sense of anti-climax which came from a mixture of exhaustion, relief and sadness at the terrible losses. Grossman was profoundly moved when he discovered his nephew’s grave on 29 December.
Grave of Yura Benash by Mikhailov’s command post – you have to go up just behind it. The commanding heights. There are four graves right above the cliff.
He wrote about it to his wife as soon as he was back on the east bank.
My dearest Lyusenka, I’ve just come back from the city, in order to write things up. I crossed the river walking over the ice. This recent excursion has caused me a lot of deep impressions. Imagine, my darling, there is the grave of Yura Benash, Vadya’s son, on the cliff above the Volga. I found his regimental commander, and he told me in detail about Yura. Yura was a battalion commander. He was fighting like a hero. His anti-tank company had hit sixteen enemy tanks. He led crazy attacks. Everyone talked of him with admiration. He knew that I was here, he kept trying to get in touch with me through people from the front editorial office, he wrote letters to me, but I never received a single one of them. Well, I’ve found him now.
. . . Lyusenka, so much has passed before my eyes, so much that it’s hard to comprehend how my soul, my heart, my thoughts and my memory can still take all this in. I feel as if I am full to the brim with all this . . . Tomorrow I am going to sit down and write a very long essay.
At the same time he wrote a similar letter to his father, recounting that Yura had received the Order of the Red Star and had been killed in an explosion a month before.
There is no one to cry for him – neither mother nor a grandmother . . . I’ve wandered a lot over the last few days, I’ve seen a lot of interesting things, now I will sit down and write. I’d like to scribble something serious and big . . . I don’t know what to write about, there are so many thoughts and impressions, I wouldn’t know where to start. When I see you and we sit together, I’ll sit down in the red armchair and we will talk and talk.
After the intensity and importance of the battle of Stalingrad, Grossman found it was hard to accept that life moved on in its usual way, that goodbyes could be hurried and casual after such momentous events.
A commander leaves his regiment. Empty goodbyes: ‘Write,’ ‘All right, all right.’ Haste. And the man has been through all the hardships of fighting in Stalingrad.
His own farewell to the place was made in his article for Krasnaya Zvezda entitled ‘Today in Stalingrad’.
The winter sun is shining over mass graves, over handmade tombstones at the places where soldiers had been killed on the axis of the main attack. The dead are sleeping on the heights by the ruins of factory workshops, in gullies and balkas. They are sleeping now right where they had been fighting when alive. These tombstones stand by the trenches, bunkers, stone walls with embrasures, which never surrendered to the enemy, like a great monument to a simple, blood-washed loyalty.
The Holy Land! How one wants to keep for ever in one’s memory this new city which gives its people a triumphant freedom, a city that has grown up among the ruins, to absorb it all – all the underground lodgings with chimneys smoking in the sun, nets of paths and new roads, heavy mortars raising their trunks among the bunkers and dugouts, hundreds of men wearing quilted jackets, greatcoats, ushanka hats, doing the sleepless labour of war, carrying mines under their arms like loaves of bread, peeling potatoes by the pointed trunk of a heavy gun, squabbling, singing in low voices, telling about a grenade fight during the night. They are so majestic and matter-of-fact in their heroism.
Grossman was surprised by his own sense of pain when Ortenberg ordered him down to the Southern Front away from Stalingrad.
We were leaving Stalingrad on New Year’s Eve. We are moved to the Southern Front. What sadness! Where did it come from, this feeling of parting, I never had it before during this war.
Ortenberg had decided to replace him with Konstantin Simonov, who would have the glory of covering the final victory. Simonov had visited Stalingrad with Ortenberg in the September days (when they had fallen asleep in Yeremenko and Khrushchev’s bunker on the west bank and awoken to find that the whole headquarters had disappeared in the night to transfer to the east bank). Grossman was the Krasnaya Zvezda correspondent who had spent by far the longest in the city and Ilya Ehrenburg was one of those who thought this decision unjust and illogical. ‘Why did General Ortenberg order Grossman to go to Elista and send Simonov to Stalingrad instead? Why was not Grossman allowed to see the ending? This I still cannot understand. Those months that he spent in Stalingrad and all that was associated with them remained in Grossman’s soul as the most important impressions.’
Grossman wrote to his father just before leaving Stalingrad.
Well, my [dear Father], I will say goodbye to Stalingrad tomorrow and travel towards Kotelnikovo [and then] Elista. I am leaving with a feeling of sadness, you know – as if I were leaving some person dear to me, as so many memories, so many thoughts and feelings, depressing and significant, exhausting, unforgettable are associated with this city. This city has become human for me. Father, things are going well at the front, and my spirits are now higher.
The Southern Front extended through Kalmykia from the empty steppe south of Stalingrad, right into the northern Caucasus, from where Field Marshal von Manstein was withdrawing Army Group A in great haste. A second major Soviet offensive in the second half of December, Operation Little Saturn, threatened the Germans’ route of withdrawal around the Sea of Azov. This rapid retreat allowed Grossman to study what life had been like under German occupation, especially in Elista, the main town of the region some three hundred kilometres west of Astrakhan.
Kalmykia. The steppe. Snow and yellow dust and whitish-yellow drifting snow whipped up by the wind on a road. Empty houses. Silence. There’s no silence quite like it anywhere else. The roads are mined. ‘You go first,’ [people say, playing their] tricks: ‘We’ll have a smoke and breakfast.’ ‘And we’ll put some more oil into the tank!’ ‘And we’ll melt some snow to top up the radiator.’ [Such is the] terror of a mined road. An armoured vehicle, a truck, another truck a little further on, each one destroyed by an explosion. The dead bodies of soldiers have been blasted out of trucks by the force of the explosion. Horses with their bellies ripped out. They are lying side by side, just like when they were drawing the cart. Another truck. The fear of mines – it’s a disease.
It’s empty and quiet. A dog is running along the road, a human bone between its teeth. Another one is running after it, its tail between its legs. Villages – the men have left . . . A Russian house. Komsomol member Bulgakova [lives there] with her baby. She is the only one in the whole area who kept her Komsomol identity card, which she hid under kizyaks.1
Gramophones, cosiness and fear. There are gangs all around. A man who has come back from prisoner-of-war camp. Who is he? A spy or a reliable man? It’s a mystery. There’s a shadow over him. He is an unknown quantity. He says he has walked 4,000 kilometres. He had escaped three times. Death was never far away, and with death hovering over him his suffering was great: he had been captured near Smolensk, and escaped from prison near Elista. One cannot believe him, but one cannot disbelieve him either. A tragic figure.
There isn’t a single cock in the village: women killed them all, because Romanians discovered where chickens had been hidden by the cries of the cockerels. The steppe – its smoothness and waves, fog, dust, snow, hoarfrost, frozen sagebrush, horsemen in the fields.
Elista. [The Germans] burned Elista, and once again, like fifteen years ago, Elista is a village. There isn’t a town here any longer . . . The town commandant of Elista was a Major Ritter.
Grossman interviewed the schoolteacher who had continued to work under the Germans throughout the occupation. ‘I was tormented by the feeling that it was wrong to work for them,’ the teacher told him.
Lavrenty Beria’s NKVD, which descended on Kalmykia soon afterwards to root out traitors, would have been pitiless. Grossman named the teacher in an article (see below) as Klara Frantsevna, but we do not know if that was her true name or not. The Kalmyks suffered terribly in the Stalinist wartime purge of the southern nationalities, but not quite as badly as the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. Many Kalmyks had welcomed the Germans as liberators, and proudly wore the green uniform of Kalmyk auxiliary police.
School. History had been removed from the curriculum as a subject. Geography of the USSR was replaced by a physical study of Europe as a part of the world (without any countries), the position of Europe, the borders of Europe, the seas surrounding Europe, islands, peninsulas, climatic conditions, mountains, surface.
Russian language: [the Germans] didn’t give us a new textbook, they just amended the old one by tearing out all the pages to do with the politics of the USSR. They suggested to children that they should tear out those pages themselves. A German officer spoke to the children. (He had studied in a classical school in Odessa and was a teacher of chemistry for senior pupils).
Reading: the reading book was banned (‘Gorky isn’t a writer, he is a charlatan’).2 They introduced a book [entitled] What Will Happen After? and the magazine Hitler the Liberator. (Albrecht’s ‘In the basements of the GPU’.)3
Maths: they removed from the textbook all the questions to do with Soviet affairs [and replaced them with]: this number of Soviet aircraft has been shot down, etc.
The German language was included in the curriculum. An officer searched children’s schoolbags looking for pages that they didn’t tear out. A book by Lenin was found in the bag of one girl. There was a great deal of shouting, but the girl was not expelled.
Natural science: the last chapter, ‘On the Origins of Humans’, was banned.
They had two hours of German every week. Punishments were introduced: ‘You could even beat children.’
Singing: Russian folk songs, ‘Ripe apple’. ‘Children, get ready for school.’
This school was not typical for the occupied territory – the Germans [on the spot] were acting on their own authority. ‘One German asked: “And could they read from War and Peace?”4 I said: “They are too young for that.”’
Library. All books on politics were removed, as well as Heine and all Soviet writers.
Metises (half-Germans) received German food rations. There was an announcement: ‘All metises must register at the commandant’s office. It is in their own interests.’ They were given a pure-bred cow which cost a thousand roubles, chocolate, white flour, sweets. Some Russians were given the same status as metises.
‘A [German] soldier came and found sugar. He sucked a piece of sugar. I pointed at the baby, he smiled and went away. They love sweet things, they always suck sugar.’5
Sign on the lavatory: ‘Entrance forbidden to Russians.’
Germans in Elista. In August, they were walking around and riding motorbikes in their underpants.6
Grossman also heard of atrocities against the Jewish population, which were presumably carried out by the short-lived SS Sonderkommando Astrachan, formed in October 1942 and disbanded in December soon after the front collapsed. Despite its name, thisSonderkommando was based in Elista.
Death of ninety-three Jewish families. They’d smeared the children’s lips with poison.
It is hard to know exactly what he meant about the death of the children, a term in Russian which includes babies and infants. The implication seems to be that the SS was experimenting with a new poison.
He also interviewed a teacher who had been raped by a German officer.
Teacher (I decided not to ask her name and surname). At night, an officer, helped by his orderly, raped her. She was holding a six-month-old baby in her arms. He fired at the floor, threatening to kill the baby. The orderly went away and locked the door. Some of our prisoners of war were in the next room. She cried out and called, but there was dead silence in the next room.
Using his interviews in Elista, Grossman tried to recreate what it was like to be occupied by the Germans. It is hard to imagine that Grossman would have been able to publish it, considering that it deals with the taboo subject of collaboration with the enemy.
The old teacher . . . On 5 June 1942, he was sitting in the yard. Dogs, who had already experienced many air raids, went into the slit trenches after the women, their tails between their legs. The women kicked them and screamed: ‘We are sick even without you! Do you think we want you here with your fleas! Get out, cholera take you!’ But the dogs rolled on to their sides and refused to leave.
Voronenko announced that Germans had dropped a two-hundred-kilo bomb, and anti-aircraft guns were missing their targets at about five hundred metres. Old woman Mikhailyuk was muttering: ‘If only the Germans could come quicker and end all this nightmare. During yesterday’s alarm some parasite stole a pot of borscht from my stove.’
Boys would appear first, they would run in, with exact information: ‘A bomb fell right opposite Rabinovichka’s house, Zabolotsy’s goat killed, old Miroshenko’s leg was torn off, they took her to a hospital on a cart, and she died on the way, her daughter is mourning so much that one can hear her from four blocks away.’
‘There’s one thing that I fear most of all,’ the teacher said, ‘and that’s the people with whom I’ve lived my whole life side by side, whom I love, whom I trust, that they would give in to a dark, mean provocation.’
It was only at noon that German motorcyclists appeared. They were wearing forage caps, shorts and gym shoes, and had a dark tan. Each of them had a wristwatch. An old woman looking at them said: ‘Ah, my God, they are shameless, naked in the main street. Such godlessness!’
The motorcyclists poked round the houses, took the priest’s turkey who came out to pick through some horse dung, hurriedly ate two and a half kilos of honey at the church starosta’s house, drank a bucket of milk and moved on, having promised that the commandant would arrive in about two hours.
During the day, two of Yashka’s friends, deserters, came to visit him. They were all drunk and sang in a chorus: ‘Three tankists, three jolly friends.’ They probably would have been singing a German song if they knew one. The agronomist was walking around the yard and asking women with an arch smile: ‘So, where are all our Jews? I saw neither children nor old people for the whole day today, as if they’d never existed. And only yesterday they were carrying five-pood baskets from the bazaar.’
Days passed. The agronomist was made the person responsible for the block. Yashka was serving in the police, the most beautiful girl in town played the piano at the officers’ café and lived with the commandant’s orderly. Women went to villages to swap their belongings for wheat, potatoes, millet, and they were cursing German drivers who demanded an enormous fee for transporting the stuff. The employment office was sending out hundreds of call-up notes, and girls and boys walked to the station with backpacks and boarded freight cars. A German movie theatre, an officers’ brothel and a soldiers’ brothel were set up in the town. A big brick toilet was built in the main square, with the sign ‘For Germans only’ in Russian and Italian. At the school, teacher Klara Frantsevna set first-year pupils the problem: ‘Two Messerschmitts have shot down eight Red fighters and twelve bombers, and an anti-aircraft gun shot down eleven Bolshevik attack aircraft. What is the total of Red aircraft shot down?’ Prisoners of war were marched through the town. They were ragged and they staggered from starvation. Women ran to them and gave them pieces of bread and boiled potatoes. The prisoners fought over the food, and the guards were beating them to establish order.
Yashka said, mockingly and with an air of mystery: ‘You’ll soon have a lot of space for living. I’ve seen towns which have been cleared completely . . . Down to the last little root.’
The old woman, Weisman, started to cry for her granddaughter. ‘Dasha,’ she said, ‘I’ll leave my wedding ring to you, and then you’ll be able to get about fifteen poods of potatoes from our vegetable garden, as well as pumpkins and beets. You’ll be able to feed my girl somehow until the spring. I’ve also got a piece of cloth for a lady’s coat. You can exchange it for bread.’ She eats very little, she has got no appetite.
On 17 February, Grossman wrote to his wife about his longing to be back in the centre of things after his time in the wastes of Kalmykia.
I am waiting for the plane with a lot of nervousness . . . Grandiose events are taking place, I’ve already missed Kharkov. I was going to be there during the assault . . . My essays on Stalingrad are enjoying a great success.
Grossman was still unaware that the over-optimistic advance following Operation Little Saturn was a repeat of Stalin’s blunder the previous January, when the success around Moscow was turned into a general offensive. In the south, the Red Army faced the formidable talents of Field Marshal von Manstein who was preparing a counter-offensive which would retake Kharkov. Grossman, however, had his own disappointment, as he explained in a letter to his wife.
I was very disturbed and offended by this thing about the prize. Never mind, this has not reduced respect for me in literary circles and among readers. Please don’t get upset about it. It is all in the past now.
The commission which chose the winner for the Stalin Prize in 1942 had voted unanimously for The People Immortal, but Stalin crossed out Grossman’s name. Perhaps the subject matter, dealing with the disaster of 1941, was an uncomfortable subject for the Great Leader who had made such catastrophic mistakes. The winner as a result of Stalin’s intervention was Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Fall of Paris. In December 1944, during de Gaulle’s visit to Moscow, Stalin mischievously told Ehrenburg to present the French leader with a copy.
Ehrenburg himself seemed uneasy in that Stalingrad winter at his own fortune and Grossman’s misfortune. ‘People say that some are born under a lucky star,’ he wrote. ‘But the star under which Grossman was born was definitely an unlucky one. I was told that Stalin had deleted his novel, The People Immortal, from the list of those proposed for the prize.’
Grossman had hardly endeared himself to the political controllers of Soviet literary life. Ortenberg noted that in the summer of 1942 ‘we received a note from Vasily Grossman. He asked me to “give refuge” to his friend Andrey Platonov.7 “He is defenceless and unsettled.” This was a difficult task. Platonov at the time was persona non grata in our literature.’ But Grossman got his way, and Platonov was given a job at Krasnaya Zvezda.
7 Platonov, Andrey Platonovich (1899–1951), writer, poet and literary critic, was a special correspondent of Krasnaya Zvezda from October 1942 to the end of the war.
1 Compressed dung used as fuel in stoves.
2 Gorky, of course, had helped Grossman at the start of his literary career.
3 This long article by a renegade communist was published in Nazi Germany in Karl Albrecht’s book Der verratene Sozialismus (1941).
4 Presumably the German wanted to know whether Tolstoy was seen by the Soviet state as a tsarist writer.
5 Burial parties could soon distinguish a German skull from a Soviet one simply by the teeth. The Soviet skulls contained much healthier teeth and lacked amalgam fillings.
6 The German motorcyclists were almost certainly wearing shorts, an article of clothing seldom seen in out-of-the-way places.