Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 37

Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 37
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 37 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.

Bach watches as one of his soldiers — Stumpfe, previously one of the most respected men in the company — scrounges for any remaining morsels of food he can find. An enormous man, his appetite keeps him at this task constantly during the days of encirclement. 

We join this scene just as Stumpfe has found some meager treasures, some cabbage leaves and acorn-sized potatoes. He is so consumed in his task that he only notices an old woman combing the snow — a Soviet citizen of some nationality — once she is almost upon him. 

The pair pause as they notice each other. Then, slowly, Bach watches as Stumpfe greets the woman and offers her a cabbage leaf. It’s unclear if she takes it; the woman looks at the Wehrmacht soldier “with dark eyes that were full of kindness and intelligence” and returns the greeting. (p. 743)

Perhaps here the narrator is posing to us a German and Soviet peoples returned their humanity. For Grossman, the question of humanity is not an amorphous one; much of this novel has been grappling with what exactly our humanity is. Can it be taken away? Can we give it away? And if that is the case, can we regain it? 

A corollary question to that is: what do we owe our fellow humans? This question takes many forms. Mutatis mutandis, this question is at the root of the conflict between Ikonnikov and Mostovskoy’s POW resistance earlier in the novel. 

As Bach watches this exchange, he is struck with this description: “It was a summit meeting between the representatives of two great peoples.” (p. 742). This comment may strike the reader as ironic — a starving fascist footsoldier and a mismatched scavenger hardly seem like ideal representatives on first glance. 

On the other hand, perhaps these two are the perfect forms to represent their peoples. Our core humanness is rarely assertive in Grossman’s work; the rest of our identity seems to be built upon this foundation. When stripped of what usually makes us us — family or friends (now lost to war); jobs (shuttered under bombardment); even simple pleasures (regular meals, etc. — the only thing we seem to be left with is our humanity.