105 of 107 people found the following review helpful
I walk mid shamble smear and stench, The dead I mourn." John Finley.
The Soviet journalist and author Vasily Grossman did more than kneel behind the soldier's trench. He lived with the Red Army from the catastrophic summer of 1941, through the defense of Moscow, the apocalyptic carnage of Stalingrad, the hard-won liberation of Soviet territory, the horrible discoveries of Nazi genocide in Madjanek and Treblinka, and the final bloody, triumphant march into Berlin. Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova's "A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945" is a marvelous examination of both "Grossman's war" and the war itself.
Vasily Grossman is something of a forgotten, unsung giant of Soviet literature. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine in 1905, Grossman rose to prominence and received national acclaim as a war reporter for Red Star, the official newspaper of the Red Army. Although never a member of the Communist Party, Grossman was, for most of his life, a strong supporter of the Soviet Union. Grossman's reporting was realistic (despite editing by Party censors) and was enormously popular among both high ranking officers and foot soldiers. After the war, Grossman returned to writing. His magnum opus, Life and Fate was not published in the USSR until 1988. When it was originally submitted for publication the Soviet authorities `arrested' the book and told Grossman that it would not be published for 200 years. Fortunately, a copy of the manuscript survived, was smuggled to Switzerland and published in Europe in 1980, fifteen years after Grossman's death. Life and Fate was based, in good part, on Grossman's wartime experiences. Consequently, Beevor's work provides both an historical, ground-level examination of the war generally and a great deal of insight into the life experiences that formed the moral foundation of Grossman's novels.
Beevor (and his translator and collaborator Vinogradova) have taken Grossman's notebooks, war diaries, personal correspondence and his Red Star articles and set them out as part of their narrative. The transition from Grossman's text to the commentary is well thought out and seamless. Beevor is no stranger to the Eastern Front, (he has written two well received books"Stalingrad" and "The Fall of Berlin") and he does an excellent job of putting Grossman's writings into the context of his times.
Grossman is swept into the war as a reporter for Red Star immediately after the German invasion in June, 1941. Grossman's writing (and Beevor's commentary) takes us through that first disastrous summer of defeat, despair, death, and retreat. The magnificent and bloody defense of Stalingrad follows and the success of Operation Uranus in November, 1942 that resulted in the encirclement and destruction of General Paulus' Sixth Army follows. The next portion of the book has Grossman writing about the Red Army on the offensive, from the Battle of Kursk through the liberation of the Ukraine and then Poland. It is here that Grossman first learns of the horror that was the holocaust.
Grossman's reports from Treblinka were the first, first-hand accounts of the Nazi death camps and what Grossman saw changed his life. Although Jewish, Grossman had always considered himself a secular citizen of the USSR. The death camps and the murder of his mother at the hands of Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators reawakened his sense of a Jewish identity even though he remained totally secular. Grossman's experience of the camps and the evidence he saw there of man's innate inhumanity to man stunned him even after almost 4 years of living with brutality on an unfathomable scale. In ending one of his reports Grossman writes: "It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask: "Why write about all this, why remember all that?" It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it."
It is clear from reading A Writer at War and two of Grossman's novels, "Life and Fate" and "Forever Flowing" that Grossman took his duty to tell his terrible truth seriously. Beevor has done Grossman a good service by letting Grossman's voice be heard again. I hope this book creates renewed interest in Grossman's life and writing.
58 of 60 people found the following review helpful
What I loved about this book is that Grossman wrote both about the good and the bad. He could admit about the Red Army having 'cowards' in its ranks and about the executions that followed. But at the same time you can read about a soldier who was sentenced to be executed, the executioners gun misfired, the soldier ran away and was hidden by a commissar for days. Eventually after many inquiries and the fact that the soldier came back on his own accord his death sentence was rescinded and he followed the commissar around all the time, when asked why he replied "I am afraid that the Germans may kill you, Comrade Commissar. I am guarding you."
Another recollection is about a soldier who accidentally shot another Red Army man, he was so sick with grief that he eventually killed himself. The retreats of 1941 are covered in some detail as Grossman was right there on the front, a few times even narrowly avoiding the encirclements themselves. He ate with the troops, slept with them, wrote letters with them, and interviewed them again and again. From pilots, to artillery and mortar men, to tank troops and nurses. Stories of how girls went into battle outside of Stalingrad and throughout the war, how they died just as quickly and easily as any man and how they fought just as proudly and courageously risking their lives to bandage the wounded and evacuate them from the battlefield.
Stalingrad of course consumes a large portion of the book as this was Grossman's forte, he was there for a large part of the siege and the stories from this city are captivating to say the least. Snipers were quite popular and he interviewed many of them finding out how they came to be snipers and how they did their jobs so well.
Lastly is the liberation of territory from the Germans and Romanians and of course the war being taken to Germany. He holds nothing back while describing the destruction the German Army reigned over his land and eventually discovering that his mother was among the victims of an execution of the entire Jewish population of his him town. When Treblinka is discovered the reader is presented with a large article about it, some of the stories recounted are heartbreaking and at the same time he shows how many times Jews rebelled and fought back, on dozens of occasions. Covered are the rapes and robberies of Germans and Germany as a whole, Grossman holds nothing back and talks about the screaming of women and their bruised and swollen bodies and faces when he encounters them sobbing and asking for help. One incident stayed in my memory, a Jewish officer was billeted in a house that used to belong to a Gestapo man who had run away. His family, a mother and her girls, begged this man to stay and protect them, this Jewish Red Army officer who had his entire family killed by the Germans. If one wants to understand with what stride these Red Army men fought and died, how easily the line was crossed between life and death and how they eventually triumphed, this book will answer many of your questions.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2006
I have done a fair amount of reading on the "Russian War" and have read Grossman's "Life and "Fate." Of all these books "A Writer at War" stands out. Anthony Beevor has done a fine job of creating the narrative, filling in the gaps and explaining the situation the Russian Army and Vasily Grossman found from 1941 to 1945.
This book brings the overall arc of the war, the great battles and the agony of officers, soldiers and civilians into full view. Most memorable are his up close descriptions of Stalingad and his searching interviews in his Ukranian hometown where his mother was executed along with twenty thousand Jews. His description of the heroism of young women at Stalingard is extremely moving. The section on the Treblinka concentration camp, where nearly a million people were exterminated, was used at the Nurenberg Trials and has an immediacy that is profoundly affecting even after all these years and all we know about the Holocaust.
I cannot recommend this book too highly, particularly in conjunction with "Life and Fate" and other histories of the Russian-German cataclysm.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
I started this book with misgivings. The introduction informed me it was the unpublished notes of Grossman's war correspondence, rather than the stories themselves. I've been a reporter, and let's just say my unpublished notes will never win a National Book Award. I also gathered that "Life and Fate", rather than this, was Grossman's masterwork, so perhaps I should have gone directly to it.
I was completely and thankfully wrong. Edited by noted historian Anthony Beevor, an expert on Stalingrad, and collaborator Luba Vinogradova, the book expertly sets vignettes from Grossman's notes into ample background material putting it all in context.
Grossman's reportage sweeps from the stunning fall of the western Soviet Union following Germany's invasion in June 1941, to the epic battle of Stalingrad in 1942 and early 1943, to the reconquest of Soviet lands, the taking of Berlin, and war's end.
Grossman distinguishes himself both by his willingness to expose himself to combat and his ability to get everyone to open up to him, from peasant soldiers to tight-lipped generals. This was no mean feat for a Jewish intellectual whom many Russians despised just for who he was.
You see an entire nation shell-shocked by war. They've fought so long they can't remember what peace is like. They've lived so long in the mud they can't remember what it's like to be clean or warm or dry. They don't care about getting paid because there's nothing to buy at the front. They have seen so much death; millions of people take it for granted they won't survive the war, and many are right. They die fighting with a uniquely Slavic romanticism otherwise vanished from the modern world, and despite the violence behind them - just at Stalingrad, thousands of Red Army soldiers were executed by their own commissars.
We see the heroism of countless soldiers thrown into the meatgrinder of Stalingrad, on the banks of the Volga, where Stalin finally realizes he's got no more ground to give and must stop the Nazis now.
Powerful too, and more unique, are later chapters where Grossman covers the Red Army's rollback to the west, where he learns what actually happened to more than a million Jews living there - including his hometown of Berdichev, where his mother was murdered.
He writes the first take on the Holocaust wherever he goes from 1943 to 1945. He was the first reporter into much of the annihilated Jewish Pale in the Ukraine and Byelorussia; the first into Treblinka and Majdanek. But the Communists stunningly censored any reference to the Holocaust's victims as Jews. Stalin wanted them seen merely as Soviets, and the Ukrainian complicity covered up to ease the Ukraine's postwar reabsorption.
At Treblinka, the Nazis, having spent almost two years mass murdering the Jews of Poland and neighboring areas, then spent more than six months disinterring 800,000 bodies from mass graves to destroy the evidence - starting, Grossman learns, precisely when Stalingrad fell to the Russians and the Germans realized the war was lost. They burned those corpses in bonfires that, day and night, could be seen 25 miles away. Grossman describes this in grisly detail.
Inmates rebelled and destroyed the camp in the summer of 1943 and the Germans subsequently destroyed it, trying to disguise the site as a farm - one where, however, countless bits of human bone and scraps of clothing and documents and household goods were littered throughout the soil. These attested to the truth of what Grossman was told by a handful of survivors who emerge at liberation from nearby forests. Grossman's retelling of what happened to victims from the moment they emerged from the trains to their walk naked down a sandy path to the gas chambers, shocks even those of us now familiar with the subject. Think how much stronger this would have read when the world was first hearing about it. History and time have added detail, but not essence, to what Grossman, first on the scene, has to say about it.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2006
Vasily Grossman's "A Writer at War" is a firsthand account by a Soviet newspaper correspondent of life with the Red Army on the Eastern Front. There are no punches pulled here and Grossman vividly describes the absolutely catastrophic impact Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 1941 had on the Red Army. In the first six months of the war the old Red Army was virtually annihilated by the German Wehrmacht, suffering more than five million casualties, including some 3.3 million Soviet soldiers captured. In all, more than 177 Soviet divisions were lost. Grossman describes the panic, cowardice, desertion, treason and just plain command incompetence as the Red Army struggles to escape its attackers.
He also shows, however, that as newly formed divisions were pushed forward and the situation slowly stabilized, Red Army soldiers were keen to strike back at the Germans. "Night. Snowstorm. Vehicles. Artillery," writes Grossman. "They are moving in silence. Suddenly a hoarse voice is heard at a road junction: 'Hey, which is the road to Berlin?' A roar of laughter." This was in January 1942, when the Red Army was still being hammered by the Germans. Indeed, on New Years Day 1942, Grossman writes his wife: "The horizon is clearing for us. There is a feeling of confidence and strength in the army, and each day brings the victory closer..."
Editor and noted historian Anthony Beevor augments the excellent text throughout the book with insightful and informative footnotes. For example, Beevor notes that some 422,700 Red Army soldiers died in punishment battalions during the war trying to expiate their crimes. Beevor also describes the Soviet soldiers fear of being mutiliated or crippled. "There was of course, the unshakeable belief that a woman would never want to look at them again," writes Beevor.
What makes Grossman's story so compelling is that he was a Jew and witnessed almost all the major battles of the Eastern Front. He thus experienced anti-Semitism, both latent and blatant, which ran relatively rampant in the Red Army. Still, he undertook to record events as accurately as possible, presenting the reader with a tremendously well written (Grossman was a novelist before the war) and incredibly insightful and well balanced view of the war and the Red Army.
Later, as the atrocities of Holocaust were uncovered, Grossman undertook to record them. His report "The Hell of Treblinka" was used as evidence at the Nurnberg tribunal. Still, after the war the Soviet government prevented him from publishing his masterful novel "Life and Fate", about the seige of Leningrad. Years later it was smuggled out and published in the West.
Vasily Grossman's "A Writer at War" is an important contribution to the new World War II memoirs by soldiers of the Red Army and ranks among the best works in that genre written to date.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2006
Teh broad history of the German invasion of Russia is well known, but most of our information comes from German sources. The secrecy surrounding the Communist Government after the war prevented wide spread distribution of the Russian side of the story. Only lately have the Russian stories begun to imerge.
This book is likely to be one of the standards by which others are compared. Vasily Grossman, mid-thirties, portly, Jewish was deemed unfit for service in the Red Army. Instead he became a war correspondent for 'The Red Star,' and spent the war reporting on almost all of the major events on the Eastern Front. He appears to have been everywhere: The Battle of Moscow, Kursk, Stalingrad followed by Treblinka. He made copious notes and later converted these into his articles. Here two new translators have taken his original notes and converted them to a narrative of the war years.
Mr. Grossman was not a favorite of the Communists. He reported on the plight of the Jews, against the communist wishes that all suffering Russians be treated alike. And as the Red Army advanced into Germany he reported on their actions in ways that again the communists didn't like.
His experiences in the War became the basis for many of Mr. Grossman's books. They were banned by the Soviets. He died in 1964, convinced that his life's work had been a failure. This book, and all the others now available from Amazon prove that it was not.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2006
With 'A Writer at War', Anthony Beevor has produced a remarkable book that succeeds in a number of ways: as a biography of a crucial period in an important writers life, as a compelling eye-witness account of the most brutal conflict in history, and in revealing the inspiration and source material for two of the most significant works of literature from the last century, 'Life and Fate' and 'The Black Book'. This last aspect is the most original and most revealing, as throughout this wonderful piece of research Beevor points you to characters and events that were to appear in both books, although sadly Grossman didn't live to see either published; as both were suppressed by Stalin.
Most readers of 'A Writer at War' will come to it from an interest in the events and time period it covers, but I hope they will leave with a desire to read Grossman's masterpiece 'Life and Fate', as everything he witnessed during that tumultuous period of history are contained within it's pages.
My full review can be found at thebookforum.com
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2008
Vasili Semenovich Grossman was a decorated Soviet military journalist best known in the West for his epic novel, Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics). In 'A Writer at War' editors and translators Anthony Beevor (Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943), an esteemed historian and author in his own right, and Luba Vinogradova, follow Grossman's progression through the war by piecing together stories from his notebooks and writings. At times one would have liked a bit more context to be provided by Beevor, but that is a minor quibble.
Grossman, while still a loyal Communist at this point, managed to maintain a relatively objective viewpoint. He often pushed his editors to allow him to write stories they did not want written, in particular regarding the fate of the Jews in the Ukraine under German occupation and the role of the Ukrainians.
While at time the stories have to be stitched together from bits and pieces, `A Writer at War' is a gold mine and provides a rare view into the inner workings of the Soviet military and Soviet military journalism in particular. Grossman experienced the initial German onslaught and the Russian flight from it, Stalingrad, the tank battle at Kursk, and the death camps. The book includes an extensive article on the workings of the German death camp Treblinka. Earns the highest recommendation.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2010
In June of 1941, an out-of-shape writer in his mid-thirties and walking with a cane reported to the recruiter's office to volunteer for active duty, and to help repel the German invaders that were rolling back the Red Army. His name was Vasily Grossman, and he was turned down. Undaunted, he continued to look for a way to contribute, until finally he caught the ear of the editor for the armed forces newspaper, The Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda), and eventually he was sent to cover the front. He remained at that post for most of the war years, intensely covering the siege of Stalingrad, the Soviet advance through Poland, the liberation of Treblinka, and finally, the assault on Berlin. His accounts from the front lines were read not only by the armed forces, but also followed closely by the civilian population. And during these years, he also kept notebooks of details he noticed along the way - some of which would reappear in his columns, some in the novels he still had to write, and some which, if found, would have sent him to the gulag. 'A Writer at War' is a selection of these jotted observations, compiled in chronological order and interspersed with explanatory text by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova - and they are a fascinating testament to not only their particular time, but to the human condition.
Because Grossman's eyewitness accounts are so powerful, it seems almost like foul play to award this book anything but five stars, but the truth is that it isn't Grossman's writing that's off here, but the way the material is assembled. The editors made a choice here to present these notebook excerpts as a corollary to a general history of the eastern front. As such, there are long, expository sections to explain Grossman's whereabouts and to list the units he covered, followed only then by his observations of the people and places. Students of 'The Great Patriotic War' will likely find little that is new here, other than Grossman's rather unconnected notations. His notebooks (at least those excerpted) are not concerned with strategy, or with the larger picture of the war, but with the individual's reaction to and actions during the fighting.
So the effort to make a cohesive story from the fragments is likely to be too general for the scholar - but as a reader more or less *only* interested in the individual experiences during the war, the constant intrusion of the editors to mention this unit and that commander and this village and that river began to wear on me after a while. I began to lose interest in the entire project, and found it difficult to maintain my interest level all the way through.
With a title like 'A Writer at War', I think the editors missed an opportunity to do something unique with Grossman's notebooks. As a journalist, Grossman was extremely popular, and his writing in The Red Star was followed by civilians as well as the troops. This is mentioned several times - and all I could wonder about was where were the finished efforts inspired by these notebooks. If, instead of commenting on the general history of the war, the editors had reprinted sections from the notebooks, and then followed them with the actual columns Grossman wrote (with perhaps some brief explanatory notes for context), then I think they might have fully explored the possibilities inherent in the title they chose. What *does* a writer do during wartime? And what makes that different from the observations of a butcher or baker? Though we can't know how those on-the-spot notes developed into a narrative that those far from the front could follow and appreciate, the chance to compare and contrast is the closest thing to it.
I am well aware that Grossman's articles that saw publication were edited by the authorities to keep them firmly within the party line, and that it might be impossible to draw a straight line from his notebooks to his journalism as printed. Still, Grossman's commitment to recording the 'ruthlessness truth of war', and the fact that, if the editor's are correct, of all the journalists reporting from the front, Grossman was one of the least edited, makes me think that 'A Writer at War' could have been a remarkable testament to the mind of a writer. There's no denying its effect as it is - but could it have been even better?
One final note - Grossman's article 'The Hell at Treblinka' is included, and the detailed story of the camp where over three-quarters of a million people were murdered will surely have such a powerful impact that potential readers may at first be tempted to pass up the book so as not to be exposed to its grim reality. I would count myself as one of them. But within the text of this same article, Vasily Grossman refutes the feeble reasons for turning away. 'It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask: 'why write about this, why remember all that? It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it. Everyone who would turn away, who would shut his eyes and walk past would insult the memory of the dead.'
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2007
It is now fashionable to detect substantial improvement in Politburo attitudes during the Nikita Khrushchev years. Unquestionably, his widely-trumpeted "deStalinization program" included a new tolerance for carefully selected literature that might be considered critical of earlier Soviet behavior. Works including Solzhenitsyn's mildly complaining _One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich_ was published in Moscow with the unabashed assistance of Premier Khrushchev himself. But unbridled power rarely permits open critique of its own actions. And the system which supported Khrushchev's near autocracy must be protected from the derogatory gaze of the "liberal press." A case in point was the 1961 arrest and suppression of Vasily Grossman, perhaps the Soviet Union's greatest novelist. Grossman, a Ukrainian Jew originally named Iosif, had achieved his incredible fame in the increasingly anti-Semitic Soviet Union through sheer force of his descriptive writing talents, and through a courageous insistence on presenting truth, even during his role as a war reporter while a uniformed soldier of the Soviet Army. To most Russians of the 1950's, Vasily Grossman remained a loyal hero of the victory against Hitler. To the Khrushchev regime, Grossman's greatest novel, _Life and Fate_, would be threat if published. Then as now, national heroes might be sacrificed in the struggle to maintain executive power.
We can only speculate on what Khrushchev found so threatening in _Life and Fate_, a fictionalized account of the defense of Stalingrad. When Grossman submitted the manuscript to the censors in 1961, the accurate portrayals of post-war purges of so called "Trotskyists-fascists" and the "cosmopolitans," would still have been embarrassing to Khrushchev. But Grossman's convincing depiction of the heroic Russian peasantry achieving its protracted victory against the "Third Reich," despite an incompetent Soviet high command, called into question the wartime viability of the, so called, "dictatorship of the proletariat." This could not be tolerated.
In 1961, KGB agents stormed Grossman's apartment and the living quarters of his typists. All copies of _Life and Fate_ found were confiscated, as were Grossman's notes, carbon paper, and typewriter ribbons. All of his prior publications became taboo, and were withdrawn from circulation by order of the Cultural Section of the Central Committee. An unemployed pariah on the outs with the Soviet Writer's Union, this hero of the Battle of Stalingrad died of stomach cancer in 1964. Grossman could not have foreseen that an unaccounted copy of the manuscript in the possession of a friend would be smuggled out of Russia in 1980. Published in Switzerland, the work became an overnight bestseller. It was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1989.
_Life and Fate_ is a novel. Polished prose and seamless narration combine to enhance the coherence of the fictionalized account of the events Grossman witnessed firsthand. Yet Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova's collection, _A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945_ recaptures the reservoir of experience that fed that novel. Writer at War provides a competently guided tour to Grossman's own notebooks and journalistic sketches from his three years on the western front.
Grossman's initial fame as a writer emerged from these news reports, not from his posthumously published novels. This well edited collection offers readers a sensitive portrayal of humans, somehow coping with the absolute war happening around them. Some of the earliest unclassified reports of the holocaust found their way into the Russian press through the careful medium of Grossman's pen. Among the first Russians to open the destroyed Treblinka death camp, Grossman tells the first published story of the heroic uprising that destroyed the camp. The collection's editors situate each report and notebook within an up-to-date historical backdrop that sometimes corrects, but always makes Grossman's original more coherent, while preserving the intrinsic drama and feel of an eyewitness account. This important memoir should be read by the hoards of WWII buffs who often forget the nightmare that occurred in the eastern theater of the European war. But literary historians and students of cultural resilience will find fascinating this well crafted chronicle.