Saturday, March 19, 2016

European RC #5

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army - Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor (Editor), Luba Vinogradova (Translator)

During World War II, Grossman was a war correspondent for a Soviet Army newspaper. He was embedded with various units of the Russian army as it fought the Germans from Stalingrad and Kursk, through the Ukraine and Poland, and finally to Berlin. His reporting on the war made him famous with both the troops and civilians. This book is a collection of gleanings from his notebooks. 

This collection is made up of hundreds of stories, some mere sentences long, some a page or two. For instance, near the end of the book a Russian soldier, abroad for the first time in his life, was struck by Germany’s tidy towns, well-cultivated fields, well-maintained roads, and its overall appearance of an ancient and rational culture. He wondered “Why would the attack us? Why did they come to us? What could they want that they had not already?”

Grossman's editors routinely changed his words as censors spiked his stories. But by writing on the unconquerable spirit of the Red Army (as required by Stalin and his minions), he also described regular soldiers and their experience of battle. He wrote about the sufferings of the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and Jewish people under Nazi occupation. In Poland and Germany he was the first to collect the first-hand testimonies of the local population with regard to the Red Army’s looting, gang rapes, and other disgusting crimes that were censored by the propaganda machine that wanted the Russian soldier painted as a bearer of peace and progress.

I must confess I could only skim the chapter on the liberation of the death camp Treblinka. It was heavily censored because the Stalinist line did not allow the disclosure of the crimes perpetrated on a specific group. It allowed journalists only to refer to crimes against the Soviet people. This line anticipated persecution of Jewish people in the USSR and its satellites after the war.

Grossman has the ability to convey in a few words the raw barbarity and humanity in a theater of war. Readers interested in the Eastern Front and Holocaust will get much out of this book.

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