Military history

PART FOUR

From the Dnepr to the Vistula 1944

TWENTY-ONE

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.1

A report arrived that a girl from the medical battalion, Galya Chabannaya, had been killed. Both Gorishny and his deputy, Colonel Vlasenko, cried out.2 ‘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.’

On a windy and overcast morning, we met a boy on the edge of the village of Tarasevichi, by the Dnepr. He looked about thirteen to fourteen years old. The boy was extremely thin, his sallow skin was tight on his cheekbones, large bumps protruded on his skull. His lips were dirty, pale, like a dead man’s who had fallen face flat on the ground. His eyes were looking in a tired way, there was neither joy nor sadness in them. They are so frightening, these old, tired, lifeless eyes of children.

‘Where is your father?’

‘Killed,’ he answered.

‘And mother?’

‘She died.’

‘Have you got brothers or sisters?’

‘A sister. They took her to Germany.’

‘Have you got any relatives?’

‘No, they were all burned in a partisan village.’

And he walked into a potato field, his feet bare and black from the mud, straightening the rags of his torn shirt.

But soon Grossman was to hear of far worse horrors wrought by the German occupation.

People who had come from Kiev told me that the Germans had surrounded with a ring of troops a huge mass grave in which the bodies of 50,000 Jews killed in Kiev in the autumn of 1941 were buried. They were hastily digging up the corpses, putting them on trucks and taking them to the West. They tried to burn some of the corpses on the spot.

As Grossman says, even before Kiev fell, details had already started to emerge of a great massacre of Jews – a Gross-Aktion by SS Sonderkommando 4a from Einsatzgruppe C and two police battalions. This had taken place at Babi Yar at the end of September 1941. The round-up of Jews in Kiev had been organised for the SS by staff officers with the headquarters of the German Sixth Army, then commanded by the Nazi, Field Marshal von Reichenau.

Planning for this Gross-Aktion had begun on 27 September 1941. The army town commandant issued posters ordering the Jews of Kiev to prepare for ‘evacuation’. This was a deliberate attempt to conceal their fate. ‘You should bring with you identity papers, money and valuables as well as warm clothing,’ they were told. Soviet Jews, who had been told nothing of Nazi anti-Semitism, partly as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact, turned up as ordered with little idea of the fate awaiting them. The SS Sonderkommando, which had expected between 5,000 and 6,000 to turn up, was amazed when 33,771 Jews appeared, just over half of the Jewish population of Kiev. The crowd was so enormous that more Sixth Army troops were summoned to assist in the transport of the Jews out to the ravine of Babi Yar, where the killing squads were waiting along the lip of the ravine.

The Kiev Jews were first forced to hand over their valuables, then told to strip naked before being shot. The executions took place over two days. The site was later used for more massacres of Jews, Roma Gypsies, partisans and Communist Party members. Altogether approximately 100,000 people died there. Soviet civilians, slipping through the lines in October 1943, reported that the Germans had ringed off the site in an attempt to eliminate traces of the massacres by exhuming the corpses for burning.

Grossman was attached to the headquarters of General Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front and heard of these reports. His fears about the fate of Jews in the Ukraine proved to be an underestimate. The scale of the slaughter was numbing. In the autumn of 1943 he had written an article entitled ‘Ukraine without Jews’. This appears to have been turned down by Krasnaya Zvezda and it appeared in Einikeit, the journal of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

There are no Jews in the Ukraine. Nowhere – Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin – in none of the cities, hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black, tear-filled eyes of little girls; you will not hear the pained voice of an old woman; you will not see the dark face of a hungry baby. All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people has been brutally murdered.

It soon became clear to Grossman that his reports on what was to be known later as the Holocaust were unwelcome to the Soviet authorities. The Stalinist line refused to accept any special categories of suffering. All victims of Nazism on Soviet soil had to be defined as ‘citizens of the Soviet Union’ without qualification. Official reports on atrocities, even those describing corpses wearing the yellow star, avoided any mention of the word Jew. In late 1943, Grossman joined Ilya Ehrenburg on a commission to gather details of German crimes for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, an organisation which later attracted the suspicion of the Stalinist authorities. Ehrenburg and Grossman planned that all the material collected should be published in a ‘Black Book’ but this would be suppressed after the war, partly because of the Stalinist position on Soviet suffering – ‘Do Not Divide the Dead’ – and partly because the involvement of Ukrainians in the anti-Semitic persecution was embarrassing for the authorities. The subject of collaboration during the Great Patriotic War was almost entirely suppressed until after the fall of Communism.

The Red Army reaches the Dnepr at Kiev.

Grossman was determined to emphasise the personal tragedy as much as the vast collective crime. He sensed instinctively that horror on such a scale should never be reduced to statistics which dehumanised the victims. This is why he always searched for names or some sort of personal detail to return their individuality.

There’s no one left in Kazary to complain, no one to tell, no one to cry. Silence and calm hover over the dead bodies buried under the collapsed fireplaces now overgrown by weeds. This quiet is much more frightening than tears and curses.

Old men and women are dead, as well as craftsmen and professional people: tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, house painters, ironmongers, bookbinders, workers, freight handlers, carpenters, stove-makers, jokers, cabinetmakers, water carriers, millers, bakers, and cooks; also dead are physicians, prothesists, surgeons, gynaecologists, scientists – bacteriologists, biochemists, directors of university clinics – teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry. Dead are professors, lecturers and doctors of science, engineers and architects. Dead are agronomists, field workers, accountants, clerks, shop assistants, supply agents, secretaries, nightwatchmen, dead are teachers, dead are babushkas who could knit stockings and make tasty buns, cook bouillon and make strudel with apples and nuts, dead are women who had been faithful to their husbands and frivolous women are dead, too, beautiful girls, and learned students and cheerful schoolgirls, dead are ugly and silly girls, women with hunches, dead are singers, dead are blind and deaf mutes, dead are violinists and pianists, dead are two-year-olds and three-year-olds, dead are eighty-year-old men and women with cataracts on hazy eyes, with cold and transparent fingers and hair that rustled quietly like white paper, dead are newly-born babies who had sucked their mothers’ breast greedily until their last minute.

This was different from the death of people in war, with weapons in their hands, the deaths of people who had left behind their houses, families, fields, songs, traditions and stories. This was the murder of a great and ancient professional experience, passed from one generation to another in thousands of families of craftsmen and members of the intelligentsia. This was the murder of everyday traditions that grandfathers had passed to their grandchildren, this was the murder of memories, of a mournful song, folk poetry, of life, happy and bitter, this was the destruction of hearths and cemetries, this was the death of the nation which had been living side by side with Ukrainians over hundreds of years . . .

Khristya Chunyak, a forty-year-old peasant woman from the village of Krasilovka, in the Brovarsky district of the Kiev oblast, told me how Germans in Brovary were escorting a Jewish doctor, Feldman, to be executed. This doctor, an old bachelor, had adopted two peasant orphans. The locals were very fond of him. A crowd of peasant women ran to the German commandant crying and pleading for Feldman’s life to be saved. The commandant felt obliged to give in to the women’s pleas. This was in the autumn of 1941. Feldman continued to live in Brovary and treat the local peasants. He was executed in the spring of this year. Khristya Chunyak sobbed and finally burst into tears as she described to me how the old man was forced to dig his own grave. He had to die alone. There were no other Jews alive in the spring of 1943.

General Vatutin’s armies, having established bridgeheads across the Dnepr, then exploited their success south of Kiev towards Grossman’s home town of Berdichev. Field Marshal von Manstein counter-attacked repeatedly during December, trying to turn Vatutin’s right flank, but on Christmas Eve, he was surprised by a well-concealed Soviet offensive launched near Brusilov.

Red Army soldiers talking to Soviet citizens liberated by their advance.

At the beginning of 1944, Wehrmacht commanders faced the painful truth that despite all the casualties they had inflicted, the Red Army had become a formidable fighting machine in the course of just over a year. German divisions were severely reduced and the new drafts of troops insufficiently trained. Their panzer divisions had not recovered from the battle of Kursk, while Soviet armoured forces were constantly replenished with tanks rolling off the vast production lines in Chelyabinsk just beyond the Urals. Red Army formations had also acquired a vastly superior mobility, thanks to the constant shipments of Dodges and Studebakers supplied by the United States. It is an irony unacknowledged by Russian historians that the Red Army managed to advance as rapidly as it did to occupy Central Europe thanks largely to American aid.

During the winter offensive which began in late December 1943, the Red Army pushed forward in the north to force the Germans back from Leningrad. In the south, the four Ukrainian Fronts launched coordinated attacks from Kiev down to the Black Sea. Vatutin’s operation with the 1st Ukrainian Front, which began on 24 December from the bridgehead just south of Kiev, took Zitomir on New Year’s Eve. Kazatin, seventy kilometres to the south, was also seized, and the town of Berdichev in between the two was finally cleared on 5 January 1944, after heavy fighting by the 18th Army and the 1st Tank Army.

Grossman had his own very personal reasons for wanting to be in the Ukraine. He was determined to discover what had happened in Berdichev where he feared that his mother and other relations had perished. He wrote to his wife as soon as he was close to Berdichev.

Dearest Lyusenka, I reached my destination today. Yesterday I was in Kiev. It’s hard to express what I felt and what I suffered in the few hours when I visited the addresses of relatives and acquaintances. There are only graves and death. I am going to Berdichev today. My comrades have already been there. They said that the city is completely devastated, and only a few people, maybe a dozen out of many thousands, tens of thousands of Jews who lived there, have survived. I have no hope of finding Mama alive. The only thing I am hoping for is to find out about her last days and her death . . . I’ve understood here how dear to each other the handful of survivors must be.

He also wrote to his father, probably on the same day in January, telling him of the death of a friend in Kiev.

I am going to Berdichev today. People say that the Jewish population there has been killed, and the town is almost completely destroyed and empty. I embrace you, my dear one. I have such a heavy feeling in my soul. Your Vasya

Grossman visited the execution sites out by the airstrip and the Yatki ghetto where the Jews of Berdichev had been rounded up. Tirelessly, he interviewed witnesses, both the few Jewish survivors and local Ukrainians. For him, the greatest shock was to discover the major role which local Ukrainians had played in the horror. Many had been recruited as auxiliary police by the German authorities, who gave them rifles and peaked hats and white armbands. They encouraged them to torment the Jews, then to assist in the round-ups and executions.

Grossman, who had tended as a young man to avoid the Jewishness of Berdichev, now felt doubly burdened with guilt. Out of Berdichev’s population of 60,000, just over 30,000 were Jews. Between 20,000 and 30,000 had been murdered in Berdichev in the first major massacre in the Ukraine. Grossman recognised that many Ukrainians were taking revenge for the Stalinist repression and famines in the 1920s and 30s, using the Jews as scapegoats. They were also shameless in looting the possessions of the Jewish population of the town. But Grossman noted the fact that most of the Jewish survivors he interviewed had in fact been saved or helped by ethnic Russians or Ukrainians. His notes from his interviews went towards his work for The Black Book.

About 30,000 Jews were killed in Berdichev. The brothers Pekilis, Mikhel and Wulf, survived. Many people in the city knew the Pekilis family. They were well-known stonemasons, the father and five sons. They built houses in Berdichev, built factories in Kiev, and even took part in building the Moscow underground. When the Germans came, Mikhel and Wulf escaped. They were building beautiful stoves for peasants and lived under the stoves. Then they dug a hole under a German establishment in Sverdlovskaya [Street], where they sat for 145 days. A Russian engineer, Evgeny Osipovich, was feeding them. Then, they fled from this coffin and found the partisans. Mikhel and Wulf Pekilis took part in the liberation of Berdichev.

A boy from Berdichev: ‘They called me Mitya Ostapchuk, but my name is Khaim Roitman. I am from Berdichev. I am thirteen now. Germans killed my father, and my mama, too. I had a little brother, Borya. A German killed him with a sub-machine gun, killed him in front of me . . . It was so strange, the earth was moving! I was standing on the edge of the hole, waiting. Now they’ll shoot me, [I thought]. A German came up to me, squinted. And I pointed: “Look, there’s a watch!” There was a piece of glass glittering there. The German went to pick it up, and I ran as fast as I could. He was running after me, shooting, a bullet made a hole in my cap. I ran and ran, and then stumbled and fell. I don’t remember what came next. An old man, Gerasim Prokofievich Ostapchuk, picked me up. He said: “Now you’re Mitya, my son.” He had seven children, I became the eighth.

‘Some Germans came once, all of them were drunk. They began to shout, they’d noticed I was dark. They asked Gerasim Prokofievich: “Whose boy is he?” And he answered: “Mine.” They scolded him, said he was lying, because I was dark. And he answered, so calmly, you know: “He is my son by my first wife. She was a Gypsy.”

‘When Berdichev was liberated, I went into town. I found my big brother, Yasha. He survived, too. Yasha is big, he is sixteen. He is fighting. When Germans were leaving, Yasha found the swine who’d killed our mama, and shot him.’

Grossman’s article, ‘The Killing of Jews in Berdichev’, was censored by the Soviet authorities with the double purpose of reducing emphasis on the Jews as victims and camouflaging the degree of Ukrainian collaboration in the atrocities.

The seizure of Berdichev by the Germans was sudden. German tank units broke through to the city. Only a third of the population could get away in time. The Germans entered the city on Monday, 7 July, at seven in the evening. The soldiers were shouting: ‘Jude kaputt!’ from their trucks and waved their arms. They knew that almost all the Jews were still in the city.

Woodworker Girsh Giterman, who escaped from Berdichev on the sixth day of the occupation, told me about the first crimes committed by Germans towards Jews. German soldiers had forced a group of people to leave their flats in Bolshaya Zhitomirskaya, Malaya Zhitomirskaya and Shteinovskaya Street. All these streets were close to the leather plant. The people were then brought to the tanning unit of the plant and forced to jump into huge pits filled with astringent catechu.3 Those who resisted were shot, and their bodies were also thrown into the pits. The Germans thought this execution funny: they were tanning Jewish skin.

A similar comical execution was carried out in the old city: Germans ordered the old men to put on their tallit and tefillin and hold a service in the old synagogue, praying to God to forgive their sins against Germans.4 The door of the synagogue was locked, and it was set on fire. A third farcical execution was carried out near a watermill. They seized several dozen women, ordered them to undress, and announced to them that they would spare the lives of those who made it to the other bank. The river was very wide by the mill, as it had been dammed up. Most women drowned before they reached the opposite bank. Those who did make it to the west bank were forced to swim back at once.

Another example of a German ‘joke’ is the story of the death of an old man, Aron Mazor, kosher butcher by profession. A German officer looted Mazor’s flat and ordered the soldiers to carry off the belongings that he had selected. He himself stayed behind with two soldiers in order to have some fun. He had found Mazor’s big knife and discovered Mazor’s profession. ‘I’d like to see your work,’ he said, and ordered the soldiers to bring in the neighbour’s three little children.

The minds of these thousands of people were unable to comprehend a simple and terrifying truth, that the state itself encouraged and approved these ‘unsanctioned’ executions, that Jews were outlaws who were the most natural objects for torture, violence and murder. However, not one of those who had been moved to the ghetto imagined that the move was just the first step towards the well-prepared killing of all the 20,000 Jews.5

An accountant from Berdichev who had visited the family of his friend, the engineer Nuzhny, in the ghetto, told me how Nuzhny’s wife had cried a lot and was very worried because her ten-year-old son Garik would be unable to go back to his Russian school in the autumn.

Old doctors in Berdichev lived with the hope that the Red Army would come back. There was a moment when they comforted each other with the news, which someone had reportedly heard on the radio, that the German government had received a note demanding them to stop outrages against Jews. But by this time [Soviet] prisoners of war brought by the Germans from Lysaya Gora, had already started digging five deep trenches in the field close to the airfield, where Gorodskaya [Street] ends and a paved road leading to the village of Romanovka begins.

On 4 September, a week after the ghetto was established, 1,500 young people were ordered to prepare for agricultural work. The young people packed little bundles with food, said goodbye to their parents and set off. On the very same day all 1,500 boys were shot between Lysaya Gora and the village of Khazhina. The executioners had so cleverly misled their victims that none of the doomed people had suspected the forthcoming murder until the last minute. It had even been hinted that after the work was completed they would be allowed to take a few potatoes home to the old people in the ghetto. And during the few days remaining to them, those who had stayed in the ghetto never learned the fate of the young boys. This execution removed from the ghetto almost all the young men who were capable of resistance.

Preparations for the operations were completed. Pits were dug at the end of the Brodskaya Street. Units from an SS regiment arrived in Berdichev on 14 September and the city police was put on standby. The whole area of the ghetto was surrounded during the night of 14 September. At four in the morning [on 15 September] the signal was given, and the SS and police began driving them out and on to the market square. The way they behaved showed people that their last day had come. The executioners killed those who could not walk, old people and cripples, in the houses. The whole city was woken by the terrible screams of women and children’s crying. Soon the market square was filled with many thousands of people.

Four hundred people had been selected, including the elderly doctors Tsugovar, Baraban, Liberman, female doctor Blank, electrician Epelfeld, photographer Nuzhny, shoemaker Milmeister, old stonemason Pekelis and his sons Mikhel and Wulf, and tailors, shoemakers, metal workers and several hairdressers. These professional people were allowed to take their families with them.

Many of them were unable to find their wives and children whom they had lost in the crowd. The witnesses tell about the shocking scenes that they saw there: people shouted the names of their wives and children trying to sound louder than the distraught crowd, while hundreds of doomed mothers were trying to hand them their sons and daughters, begging them to say that they were theirs and save them from death. ‘You won’t find yours anyway in this crowd.’

The first sub-machine-gun bursts sounded. I do not know whether the Germans did this on purpose, or whether they just did not realise that the execution site was only fifty to sixty metres from the road along which the doomed people were being brought in. The column passed the ‘scaffold’ and thousands of pairs of eyes saw the dead falling down . . . Then the people were taken to sheds at the airfield where they waited for their turn, and then walked back again, this time to the place where they would be killed.

This slaughter of the innocent and helpless went on all day. Their blood poured on to the yellow clay ground. The pits filled with blood, the clay soil was unable to absorb it, blood overflowed the pits and there were huge puddles of it on the ground. Rivulets of it flowed, accumulating in depressions . . . The executioners’ boots were soaked with blood.

Grossman never wrote in any of his articles or for The Black Book about the fate of his mother. This finally came out in his novel Life and Fate, where she is given the identity of Anna Shtrum. His mother had been one of the thousands of victims executed out by the airfield. His sense of guilt and horror can best be estimated by the two letters which he wrote to her after the war. The first was in 1950.

Dear Mama,

I learned about your death in the winter of 1944. I came to Berdichev, entered the house where you used to live and which Aunt Anyuta, Uncle David and Natasha had left, and I felt that you had died. But as far back as September 1941 my heart already felt that you weren’t here any more. One night at the front I had a dream. I entered your room. I knew for sure that it was your room, and I saw an empty armchair, and I knew you had slept in it. A shawl with which you’d covered your legs was hanging down from the armchair. I looked at it for a long time, and when I woke up I knew that you weren’t any longer among the living. But I didn’t know then what a terrible death you had suffered. I only learned about it when I came to Berdichev and talked to people who knew about the mass execution that took place on 15 September 1941. I have tried, dozens, or maybe hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you had walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you. He was the last person to see you. I know you were thinking about me a lot during all that time.

Now it’s been more than nine years since I’ve stopped writing letters to you, telling you about my life and work. And I’ve accumulated so much in my soul in these nine years that I’ve decided to write to you, to tell you, and, of course, to complain to you, as no one else is particularly interested in my sorrows. You were the only one who was interested in them.

I can feel you today, as alive to me as you were on the day when I saw you last, and as alive as when you read to me when I was a little boy. And my pain is still the same as it was on that day when your neighbour in Uchilishchnaya Street told me you were dead. There was no hope of finding you among the living. And I think that my love for you and this terrible sorrow will not change until the day I die.

He wrote again in 1961 on the twentieth anniversary of her death.

My darling, twenty years have passed since the day of your death. I love you, I remember you every day of my life, and my sorrow has never left me in these twenty years.

I last wrote to you ten years ago, and in my heart you are still the same as you were twenty years ago . . . I am you, my own one. And as long as I am alive, you are alive, too. And when I die you will live in the book which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is so like yours.5 And it seems to me now that my love for you is becoming greater and more responsible because there are so few hearts left now in which you still live. I’ve been thinking of you all the time during these last ten years when I was working . . .

I’ve been rereading today, as I have for many years, the few letters to me which have survived out of the hundreds that you had written. I also read your letters to Papa. And I cried today once again reading your letters. I cried when I read: ‘Zema, I also don’t think I will live long.6 All the time I am expecting a disease to get me. I am afraid I will be very ill for a long time. What is the poor boy going to do with me then? It would be so much trouble for him.’

I cried when you – you, so lonely, whose only dream in life would be to live under the same roof with me – wrote to Papa: ‘It seems to me sensible if you’d go and live with Vasya if he’s got room. I am telling you this once again, because now I am well. And you don’t need to worry about my spiritual life: I know how to protect my inner world from things around me.’ I cried over your letters because you are in them: with your kindness, your purity, your bitter, bitter life, your fairness, your generosity, your love for me, your care for people, your wonderful mind. I fear nothing because your love is with me and because my love is with you always.

1 The 95th Rifle Division had become the 75th Guards Rifle Division.

2 Major General (later Lieutenant General) Vasily A. Gorishny (1903–1962) and Colonel (later Major-General) Aleksei M. Vlasenko.

3 Catechu is a tannin obtained from the tree Acacia catechu.

4 The tallit is a prayer shawl and tefillin are ritual black leather boxes containing scriptural passages attached to the head and to the hand.

5 The figure of 30,000 cited earlier was established later, when the full scope of the massacres became apparent.

5 He is of course referring to Life and Fate. It has been suggested that this letter is an answer to the last letter written by Anna Shtrum to her son in the novel, the letter which Grossman felt his mother had never had time to write to him herself.

6 Zema was her diminutive for Vasily Grossman’s father, Semyon Osipovich Grossman (1870–1956).

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