Life and Fate Read Along, Part 1 Chapter 44
This post, covering Part 1, Chapter 44, 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.
How do you convey the meaning of the murder of millions? Levinton wrestles with that question in the previous chapter; and Grossman, too, will be wrestling with it in the coming pages.
Of course, the true meaning is legion and myriad. I can say, ‘yes, the Nazi death machine murdered six million Jews; and five million Roma, Slavs, and other groups.’ But that says nothing of the individual millions killed — many of them erased so completely that not only do we lack their memory, we may no longer know their whole lineage: family recipes, skills passed from parent to child, habits unknowingly adopted from a grandparent.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the narrator writes of the perfect map of an empire, which is so exact that it spans the entire kingdom itself — each cartographic point coincides perfectly with its real-world counterpart. But following generations see it not only as useless but also without compassion, and so they leave it by the wayside.
I would posit to you that the human mind demands interpretation. We will never truly understand the actual cost of the Holocaust, each life lost. But we can understand someone trying to get at the idea of what was lost. And Grossman covers several ways of understanding these elements.
In this chapter, we wrangle with the numerical cost of the Holocaust through the story of Naum Rozenberg. He is a Jewish accountant forced to dig up bodies of Jews — previously shot in their hundreds of thousands by einsatzgruppen across occupied Eastern Europe — and then burn them. Through this whole process, he can’t stop counting.