Life and Fate Read Along, Part 1 Chapter 18

This post, covering Part 1, Chapter 18, is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.

“In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkiv, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. … you will not glimpse the swathy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls. / Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered.” (Grossman, “Ukraine Without Jews”)

Vasily Grossman went with the Red Army as it coursed back through Ukraine, pushing back the fascist invaders. And, as Alexandra Popoff notes in Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, everywhere he went, he “heard stories of the mass execution of Jews.” (p.161)

He would turn these stories, this horrible absence of a people, into the article “Ukraine without Jews,” which would only ever be published in Yiddish in the USSR. He also worked on and contributed to an effort to document Nazi war crimes against Soviet Jews known as The Black Book. This, too, would only see a limited release, and again only in Yiddish. 

And as he undertook that work, Grossman — who was born in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev — also searched to find out what had happened to his own family. Popoff includes this letter Grossman wrote to his wife Olga about his time in Kyiv: “It’s hard to convey what I experienced in the few hours visiting the addresses of relatives and acquaintances. [There are only] graves and death. Today I’m going to Berdichev … I have no hope of finding Mama alive. The only thing I’m hoping for is to learn something about her last days and her death.” (p.165)

It’s unclear how much he found out about her or her murder on that journey. But years later, as Popoff notes, he would receive a letter from a former neighbor who would share some details of his mother’s final days in a Nazi-created ghetto; readers of today’s chapter may notice this detail in particular: even in those days, she still taught French to children. (p.167)

Here, in Life and Fate, we find a version of that letter — this time giving a voice directly to Viktor Shtrum’s murdered mother, Anna Semyonova. She narrates her life since the arrival of the German army, starting with rapidly worsening treatment from her neighbors to her eventual imprisonment in a ghetto for Jews. There she teaches French despite their clearly approaching fate.