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Jews in the Rubble: A Reading List

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Polly Zavadivker wrote about S. Ansky, Isaac Babel, and Vasily Grossman’s chronicles of the catastrophe of the Russian twentieth century. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Gussakov, Galicia, during World War I. Photograph taken by Bernard Bardach. Leo Baeck Institute, New York

My husband likes to say that I specialize in rubble. He is only half-joking.

I study the history of Jews in Russia and the USSR during the First and Second World Wars. Over the years, I have encountered many texts written by eyewitnesses that stood out to me for their historical insights, literary styles, and the compelling personalities that animate them. Originally written in Yiddish and Russian, the majority of them have unfortunately not been translated into English. Among those that are available in English, here is a brazenly biased list of five of my favorites:

1. The 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front: I found this diary so compelling that I translated it in order to share with others. Approximately five months’ worth of diary entries, written from January to March and September to October, 1915, are what remain of the diaries that S. An-sky kept during World War I. They later became the basis for a 600-page Yiddish memoir that he completed in 1920, Khurbn Galitsye (The Destruction of Galicia). In simple, stark words, he recounts wartime experiences in the capital cities of Moscow, Petrograd, and Kiev; his travels across Russian-occupied Galicia as an aid worker among Jewish civilians; his encounters with Russian and Cossack troops on trains; and his close encounters with death and destruction. To my knowledge, this is the only eyewitness account available in English by a Jewish writer on the Russian side of the Eastern Front lines of World War I.

2. Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary: Babel, a Jewish literary genius born and raised in Odessa, recorded his experiences as a bespectacled Jewish Communist traveling with a Red Army detachment during the Polish-Bolshevik War in summer 1920. A secular Jew who intended to make a place for himself in the new Soviet order, he was nonetheless deeply troubled by the prospect of what that new order had in store for the Jews. His diary provides evidence of his emotional reactions to encounters with Hasidic rebbes, centuries-old synagogues, and violent Red Army troops. The diary remained a hidden source for Babel’s famous Red Cavalry story cycle for nearly seventy years, and resurfaced in the 1990s, with multiple printings in Russian, German and an excellent translation into English by Carol Avins.

3. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, edited by David Roskies: This is an indispensable tome of literary sources written by East European Jews from the First to the Second World War. Roskies culled translations from Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and Hebrew texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, memoirs, diaries and journalism.

4. The Road: Stories, Journalism and Essays by Vasily Grossman: This collection includes three deeply moving texts that are essential to understanding the lesser known aspects of the Holocaust: Grossman’s essay about the death camp at Treblinka, whose liberation he witnessed as a journalist traveling with the Red Army in 1944; his 1943 short story “The Old Teacher,” about the mass shooting of Jews in an unnamed village in Ukraine; two brief but powerful letters that Grossman wrote to his mother in 1950 and 1961 on the anniversary of her death in the city of Berdichev, where she was killed by Germans in a mass shooting in September 1941.

5. Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation: Beautifully crafted Yiddish short stories by Der Nister, or “The Hidden One,” pseudonym of the Soviet Yiddish writer Pinhas Kaganovich. A native son of Berdichev, like Vasily Grossman, Der Nister’s stories describe the destruction of Jewish families and communities under Nazi occupation of Soviet territory. His psychological insights and imagery convey the depth of damage done to the inner lives of victims and those left in the aftermath.

Polly Zavadivker is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the editor and translator of the recently published 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front.

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On Writing Catastrophe: Jewish Chroniclers of War in 20th-Century Russia

Monday, April 18, 2016 | Permalink

Polly Zavadivker is the editor and translator of the recently published 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

An-sky’s notes taken in Tarnow, Galicia, February 14, 1915

What does it mean to write in a war zone? For Russian Jewish writers during the first half of the twentieth century, this was not a hypothetical question. Some of the best known writers of the Russian Jewish literary canon—among them S. An-sky, Isaac Babel, and Vasily Grossman—witnessed and survived massively destructive wars of the twentieth century as they wrote about them. An-sky traveled across the western Russian Empire and Austrian Galicia as a relief worker from 1914 to 1917; Babel crossed from Ukraine into Poland as a political officer and journalist with the Red Army in 1920; and Grossman served as a war correspondent behind front lines from Stalingrad to Berlin for the Soviet newspaper Red Star between 1941 and 1945.

These writers entered the war zones with the intention to write about them. They undertook journeys across the cities, towns, and villages of war torn Eastern Europe at great personal risk. Like disaster tourists at a time of almost global disaster, they became witnesses to colossal human catastrophes that unfolded before them. As writers, they turned aside from the horror they saw in order to document it in ink and pencil, on the small pads of paper and notebooks that they carried on themselves. They wrote while sitting in military trucks, trains, and horse-drawn carts, and in hotels, military headquarters, and civilians' homes. From the notes they hastily scribbled at the time of war, they created stories about what they had seen and remembered. Their notes and later stories became first drafts of history.

As Jews, writers like An-sky, Babel, and Grossman also felt compelled to represent the experience of Jews in Eastern Europe during wartime. Their war writings are therefore also histories of the Jewish experience of watershed events in twentieth-century history. Jewish chroniclers of catastrophe traversed the heartlands of devastation, along the frontier that lies between historic Poland and Russia (the Pale of Settlement, as it was known before 1917). These borderlands—in today’s Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic states—were home to the largest segments of Europe's Jewish populations until 1945. Consequently, they became the places where the largest segments of Europe's Jewish population fell victim to violence in each war. During World War I, the Russian military deported nearly half a million Jews from northwestern Russia and Galicia to the Russian interior and carried out hundreds of pogroms; in 1919 and 1920, the Jews of Ukraine and Belarus fell victim to devastating massacres at the hands of Russian, Ukrainian, Cossack, and Polish troops during the Russian Civil War; during World War II, German Einsatzgruppen units shot 1.5 million Jews just in occupied Ukraine alone.

Russian Jewish war writers chronicled each of these catastrophes, and they were able to gauge the extent of destruction to Jewish life and culture in these regions not only because they had witnessed the effects of war firsthand, but also because they possessed intimate knowledge of these places. They were native sons, born and raised in the shtetls and cities of the territories that became war zones between 1914 and 1945.

These writers knew what war meant, then, for the Jewish people. They understood that battles between armies result in more than the death of human lives; war also destroys culture and civilization—it destroys history. How will the Jewish people's experiences of war be remembered if the victims’ stories are lost? If their stories do reach audiences in the future, will readers believe what they read? And will they have the capacity to comprehend what has taken place? The writers pursued these questions with a sense of urgency during and after the different wars. The diaries, letters, poetry, stories, journalism, and notes they left bring us as close as we can come to those dark moments in history, the starting points for understanding the Jewish experiences of the series of wars that ended with the total destruction of Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

Polly Zavadivker is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware.

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