Life & Fate (Berdychiv, Ukraine Part Two): Vasily Grossman, The Last Letter & A Mother’s Love

On August 6th, 1941 Adolf Hitler visited Berdychiv, Ukraine. He came as an all-conquering warlord. A visit by Hitler to Ukraine could have only meant only one thing. The German Wehrmacht had totally destroyed resistance from the Soviet Army in the west-central Ukraine. Because of this, Hitler felt safe enough to walk the city streets, getting a short tour of what was now the property of the Third Reich.  Ironically, it is doubtful that Hitler’s visit had much of an effect upon the local populace. After all, it was not Hitler’s arrival which signaled the nightmare to come for Berdychiv. That had occurred a month earlier, when on July 7th the German Army had swept into the city. It was not long before they made their presence felt. Locals noticed that German soldiers shouted “Juden kaput” at the city’s Jewish inhabitants. About one-third of the city’s Jewish population had already fled in advance of the German forces, but tens of thousands were still trapped. In a matter of weeks, they would go from relative freedom to being confined in the city’s ghetto. This was merely the first step on the road to extermination, an extermination which would come with a brutal swiftness.

Hitler in Berdychiv - August 6th, 1941

Hitler in Berdychiv – August 6th, 1941 (Credit: Bildarchiv Bayerische Staatbibliothek Hoff 37497)

Greater Germany – A Nightmare Vision
Why was the German Army in Berdychiv? Why did the German Army invade the Soviet Union? In the deepest and what would turn out to be darkest sense, it was to procure “Lebensraum” or living space for the German people. This required pushing into the vast lands of the Soviet Union inhabited by the Eastern Slavic and Jewish peoples. It was in the east where Hitler’s nightmare vision of a greater Germany was going to be created. This would require the extermination of the Jewish population and the subjugation of Slavic peoples.

Hitler expounded upon this idea while he was in Berdychiv. He stated, “The German colonist ought to live on handsome, spacious farms…If only I could make the German people understand what this space means for our future! Colonies are a precarious possession, but this ground is safely ours. Europe is not a geographic entity; it’s a racial entity.” Hitler may not have been able to make the German people understand the allure of these Eastern lands, but the German forces made the Jewish inhabitants understand the intentions behind his idea. They proceeded to carry out one of the most insidious plans of mass murder in the history of humanity.

These plans resulted in the utter destruction of Jewish life in Berdychiv. This was no small thing. The city had a population of approximately 70,000 at the time of the invasion, half of which was Jewish. Berdychiv had been a major urban center for Jewish life going back to Tsarist Russia. During that time, it was the second most populous Jewish city in the Russian Empire. It had survived pogroms, the Bolshevik revolution and in the past decade, a multiplicity of Stalinist terrors. What it could not survive was the clinical, precise evil that was visited upon it by the Nazis.

Jewish citizens of Berdychiv being led away during the summer of 1941

Jewish citizens of Berdychiv being led away during the summer of 1941

Fate – The Holocaust & Berdychiv
A month and a half after Hitler’s visit, the Jewish population that had been trapped in Berdychiv was murdered in ditches and trenches outside the city. Jewish life which had been the defining characteristic of Berdychiv for centuries had been destroyed in a matter of months. It is one thing to look at this genocide in a statistical manner, it is quite another to see it through the prism of one person’s life. Among those citizens of Berdychiv killed by the Nazis was the mother of famed author Vasily Grossman. Grossman had been born to an upwardly mobile, integrated Jewish family in Berdychiv. He would eventually volunteer for the Red Army and become a war correspondent. Though he made it through the war unscathed, the same was not true for his mother. Ekaterina Grossman was trapped in the city as it was occupied by German forces. Her fate became the subject of an entire, unforgettable chapter in Grossman’s World War II novel, Life and Fate.

Her son Vasily could never really know what his mother’s final weeks were like in the ghetto at Berdychiv. He was only able to imagine what she thought, felt and experienced. Yet he did this to astonishing effect in a chapter of what has become one of the most famous novels of World War II, Life and Fate. It is a letter from mother to son (through the characters of Anna Seminovna and Victor Shtrum), a final goodbye that is an expression of life in all its wonderful and horrible guises. Perhaps Grossman wrote this passage to say goodbye, perhaps he wrote it out of survivor’s guilt or maybe he wrote it to honor her memory. Whatever the reason, the passage honors life. It is the triumph of love, the triumph of life, from mother to son and son to mother.

Vasily Grossman with his daughter Katya and mother Ekaterina

Vasily Grossman with his daughter Katya and mother Ekaterina

Life – The Last Letter of Anna Seminovna
One passage near the end of the letter is a particular instance of the triumph of life. Anna writes: “I’m finishing this letter and taking it to the ghetto fence to hand to my friend. It’s not easy to break off. It’s my last conversation with you. Once I send it off, I will have left you forever and you will never know of my last hours. This is our final parting. What can I say to you in farewell, in eternal farewell? That these last days, as during my whole life, you have been my joy. I’ve remembered you at night, the clothes you wore as a boy, your first books….. I’ve closed my eyes and imagined that you were shielding me, my dearest, from the horror that approached. And then I’ve remembered what is happening here and felt glad that you were apart from me – and that this terrible fate will pass you by!”

Anna dies in the book just as Grossman’s mother died in life. In truth though, she lives on, forever. She lives on through Grossman’s words. The words paint such a vivid picture, describing a depth of feeling and experience that is the very essence of love, from mother to son and son to mother. This is also the essence of life, even on the verge of death.

Vasily Grossman during the campaign in Germany, 1945

Vasily Grossman during the campaign in Germany, 1945

Life And Fate – Visiting A Memory
Adolf Hitler and his nightmare vision of German colonization in the East lasted less than three years. This evil, ill-fated enterprise helped sow the seeds of Nazism’s destruction. As for Jewish life in Berdychiv, following the war many of those who had escaped the German onslaught moved back. Life would never be the same again, but at least there was life. In the ensuing decades, many Jews emigrated to Israel or the West. Today, Berdychiv is visited by many aging Jews and the descendants of those who once called this city there home. This is as close to tourism as the city is ever likely to get. Berdychiv will remain unknown, life will go on and the memories will fade, but the city that gave us Vasily Grossman, that was home to his family and a way of life that has now been lost, is not just worth remembering, it is also worth visiting. If for nothing more, than to recall the way things were before life and fate intervened.

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