Plans for a second Holocaust? Stalin’s “Doctors’ Plot”

Stalin'slastcrime

Most people know about Hitler’s virulent attack on the Jewish people, culminating in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Fewer know, however, that Stalin himself was planning a widespread attack on the Jews between the years 1948-1953. Compared to Hitler, up until the end of his life, Stalin was an “equal opportunity” killer. He masterminded the imprisonment, torture, show trials and death of his (real or potential) political adversaries and critics, as well as of countless individuals whom he suspected of independence of thought. Prominent officials and unknown functionaries; wealthier farmers (kulaks) and the poor and the hungry in the Ukraine and other areas of the Soviet Union; Christian religious leaders and Communist atheists: everyone suffered under Stalin’s reign of terror. Even the leaders of the secret police forces (NKVD), including Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, were eventually purged. However, unlike Hitler and the Nazi regime, up until the end of his life, Stalin didn’t target the Jews for being Jewish.

In fact, Jews featured prominently—though they were by no means a majority, as Hitler would claim–in the communist leadership. Granted, when he planned to forge a Soviet-Nazi alliance, Stalin dismissed Maxim Litvinov, the Jewish Foreign Minister. He replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov, the principal signatory of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Later, in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin manifested an uncharacteristic optimism and trust in the strength of his alliance with Hitler. The Soviet leader didn’t react promptly to the news of war. For a few days he isolated himself in shock and even forbade his generals from making preemptive strikes against the German forces gathered at the Soviet borders. Having been deprived of information about the Nazi campaigns against the Jewish people all over Europe, about 4 million Soviet Jews were left vulnerable, on the path of the Nazi attack. Although many of them were able to escape before the Germans invaded their region, a large number of those living in the Western parts of the Soviet Union were trapped by the rapid German advance.

Raul Hilberg documents that Stalin’s decision not to evacuate promptly civilians from the areas invaded by Germany were prompted by two main considerations: “One was the prevention of a hasty flight of people. Their production was needed until the very last moment… The second guideline was applied in cities whose fall was imminent. In these situations, priority for evacuation was usually given to skilled workers, managers, party functionaries, civil servants, students, intellectuals, and various professionals… But there is little evidence of any Soviet attempts to evacuate Jews as such” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 250-251). The refusal to evacuate civilians as quickly and efficiently as possible affected Jews more than other groups, since they were in the greatest danger of extermination by the Nazis. But at this point Stalin’s strategy was not directly aimed at the Jews. They fell victim to his general policy, which affected everyone in Soviet areas occupied by the Germans.

All this changed between the years 1948-1953, when Stalin began mounting a specifically anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union that, some claim, could have led to a second Holocaust. While it’s not clear how far the Soviet leader would have gone with his plans, what is clear is that like Hitler, Stalin began targeting Jews as Jews for discrimination and abuse. There’s also strong evidence that he was planning another massive purge.

As usual, Stalin offered a pretext: the death in 1948 of a prominent Soviet official, Andrei Zhdanov, much as Sergey Kirov’s assassination in 1934 offered Stalin the pretext to launch the “Great Terror” purges of 1937-38. From 1946-7, Zhdanov was Chairman of the Soviet Union. He organized the Cominform, which set the official policy for Communist parties throughout Europe. In his role as Chairman, Zhdanov also set the tone for cultural production in the Soviet Union. He is infamous for his censorship of writers and artists, including the famous poet Anna Akhmatova.

Years later, between 1952 and 1953, Stalin used Zhdanov’s death as a pretext to accuse several prominent doctors, six out of nine of which were Jewish, of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. He cast doubt upon Zhdanov’s cause of death, suggesting a Jewish conspiracy. Aside from turning on the doctors themselves, including his personal physician, A. N. Vinogradov, Stalin also targeted Jewish intellectuals, whom, according to Alan Bullock, the Soviet press labeled “Zionist agents of American imperialism.” (See Hitler and Stalin, 951-952) Lydia Timashuk, a sycophant and political instigator, “discovered” the Doctors’ plot. She even received the Order of Lenin for her false denunciations. Stalin took over the case, ordering that Vinogradov be imprisoned and the other doctors tortured. The media called Jews the “enemies within” and the anti-Semitic campaign and initial arrests were followed by more “spontaneous” pogroms in the Ukraine.

The question remains why Stalin chose to target the Jews in his plans for new purges. Aside from his all-pervasive sense of paranoia, which led him to suspect treachery and sabotage even from his closest friends and allies, there are several reasons for Stalin’s anti-Semitic turn. Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov, authors of Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 (New York: HarperCollins eBooks, 2010), argue that in the early 1950’s Stalin was planning an even greater purge the one he launched during the Great Terror (1937-38). They maintain that Stalin was motivated by three principal considerations: 1. The need to reestablish the reigns of power through terror and purge the Ministry of Security; 2. The threat he saw in the establishment of the state of Israel and the spread of Jewish Zionism in the Soviet, and 3) the growing tension with the United States after the end of their alliance in WWII. Although the Soviet Union had recognized the state of Israel early on, Stalin perceived the U.S.-Israeli alliance as a threat to the Soviet Union.

Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Soviet Union had the largest remaining Jewish population: according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, about two million Jews. During the war, Hitler and Stalin became archenemies. Ironically, had Stalin lived to carry out the planned purges, he might have accomplished Hitler’s dream.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon 

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Vladimir Naumov

Hateful words: Nazi propaganda and the freedom of expression

Nazi poster, from USHMM.org

Nazi poster, from USHMM.org

 

Hateful words: Nazi propaganda and the freedom of expression

by Claudia Moscovici

 

The freedom of expression is a double-edged sword. Without it, probably no other freedom is possible. Yet this freedom can also lead to the consolidation of totalitarian regimes when groups defined by hatred and discrimination use it to further their political goals. This is exactly what happed with the rise of the Nazi regime. The freedom of expression, which was more or less respected by the Weimar Republic, was turned into propaganda: hateful words and grandiose nationalist promises, used to sway public opinion in support of Nazi ideology.

An inherently manipulative man, Adolf Hitler realized from the start the value of propaganda. His autobiographical treatise, Mein Kampf (1926), includes three chapters on the importance of propaganda in shaping public opinion. Hitler states, quite explicitly: “Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people… The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings…” He continues to argue that these feelings can, and should be, biased as opposed to aiming for the truth: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favorable to the other side, present it to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side” (Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Once the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Hitler promptly set up a Reich Ministry of Propaganda under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels. The propaganda machine took over all forms of expression: including art, film, literature, journalism, theater and the educational system. The media became saturated with messages of blame and scorn for the Jews, described as the cause of all of Germany’s problems. Not content with controlling the content and means of expression in Germany, the Nazi regime also actively suppressed other points of view. As early as 1933, they sent to prison and concentration camps their perceived political opponents.

Propaganda, or hateful words, became an essential tool that enabled the gruesome reality of the Holocaust. By labeling Jews as “subhuman”, the Nazi media justified their racial discrimination and oppression. Newspapers such as “The People’s Observer”, “The Attack” and “The Reich” depicted Jews as parasites that depleted the resources of Western civilization and corrupted the Aryan gene pool. Sending contradictory messages didn’t weaken the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda. By describing Jews as, simultaneously, the greediest capitalists and the leaders of Bolshevism, the Nazi media could reach an even broader audience and political spectrum. However, nationalism remained the Nazi movement’s most effective means of manipulation of public opinion in Germany. Blaming the Jews for Germany’s defeat in WWI and for its subsequent economic collapse helped Hitler gain the support of the masses. Sometimes propaganda functioned as a cover that hid, rather than generated, information. The Final Solution plan to exterminate the Jewish people was alluded to in code and not reported to the general public.

The means of communication became as important as the message itself. The Nazis realized the importance of technology in disseminating their message to the general public. In his speech “Radio as the Eight Great Power”, Goebbels declares: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio… “ Each time Hitler invaded a foreign country, he launched a propaganda campaign that turned the facts upside down. For instance, the German media described the invasion of Poland, both in the country and internationally, as an act of self-defense against a belligerent enemy nation. The same distortion of truth took place shortly before and during the war with the Soviet Union, starting with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Although Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a Nazi-Soviet pact (on August 23, 1939) that made them allies, once Germany launched a war, the Nazis justified their actions in the press as a defensive move made against Bolshevik Jews, who aimed to take over and destroy the world.

Propaganda remains a risk today in countries that respect the freedom of expression. Given the way in which the mass media has become accessible to everyone, even the most hateful and extremist groups can propagate their message to the general public in democratic societies. For this reason, the U.S. placed a few limitations to the freedom of speech that may diminish the power of hate groups. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares the freedom of religion, of speech and of the press. During the twentieth-century, however, this freedom of expression became subject to certain limitations: 1. Speech (or writing) that presents “a clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. 2. Similarly, “fighting words,” or speech meant to incite immediate violence is also not protected. 3. Libel and slander, or making false statements about an individual or a group of people, likewise don’t qualify as “free speech”. Finally, the First Amendment no longer protects “obscenity.”

Although the freedom of expression isn’t absolute in democratic societies, placing some restrictions upon it may not be enough to prevent hate groups from using propaganda to rise to power. What is said and printed is as important as what is censored. Offering quality information in the media—well-verified facts, with intelligent analyses and commentaries–about events that happen all over the world keeps the public informed, so that we’re better judges of the information we’re presented. Ignorance is far from being bliss. On the contrary, it’s the perfect context for manipulation by dangerous groups hungry for power and blood.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Adolf Hitler, anti-Semitism, Claudia Moscovici, hate groups, literature salon, Nazi Germany, Nazi propaganda, propaganda, Reich Ministry of Propaganda, the First Ammendment

Unbroken: Forgive but never forget

Unbroken the movie

Unbroken the movie

Unbroken: Forgive but never forget

by Claudia Moscovici

There is a powerful phrase among those sympathetic to Holocaust victims and survivors: Never again! This phrase has two meanings: in one sense, it’s particular to the sufferings of the Jewish people (never again allow another Holocaust against the Jews). In another sense, it expresses a universal message for all humanity: Let’s never again allow another genocide based upon discrimination and hatred of any group of people. I interpret the phrase “Never again!” in the second, broader sense, which I believe is the most meaningful. Although the Holocaust was certainly about the massacre of Jews as Jews, any such genocide against any group of people is ethically wrong. For this reason, we should do whatever we can, as a human race, not to allow this to happen to anyone ever again. In this second sense of the phrase “Never again!”, I believe that the incarceration, starvation, torture and killings of American prisoners of war during WWII by the Japanese belongs to the history of the Holocaust.

Remarkably, American prisoners of war captured by the Nazis fared much better than those captured by the Japanese. The Nazis, who killed ten million innocent people in concentration camps and via shooting squads throughout Europe, were rather careful with non-Jewish Allied prisoners of war. Generally speaking, Allied POW’s lived in much better conditions than Jewish, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian prisoners and had a much better chance of survival.

By way of contrast, American POW’s were in extreme danger when captured by the Japanese. They were subjected to similar mistreatment and conditions that Jewish prisoners had to endure at the hands of the Nazis: starvation, filth, disease, physical and psychological torture, slave labor and death. Of the 132,000 POW’s from the U.S., Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Holland forced into concentration and labor camps in Japan, more than one quarter of them—and about forty percent of the Americans—died in captivity. By way of contrast, only one percent of American POW’s held by the Nazis died in captivity. (see Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand, New York: Random House, 2010, 314-315).

Although the Japanese didn’t have crematoria, similarly to the Nazis against the Jews, they adopted a “kill all” policy towards American POW’s during WWII. The Japanese policies were inherently racist. Like the Nazi vision of a superior Aryan race, the Japanese policy was also informed by racial hatred, xenophobia and a sense of supremacy not only vis-à-vis the Americans, but also towards their Chinese, Korean and European captives. Hence there are striking similarities between the racist outlook and behavior of the Japanese under the Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and that of the Germans under Adolf Hitler, his ally in war.

It is therefore not surprising that the remarkable memoir of resiliance and survival, Unbroken, a New York Times best seller in nonfiction and soon to be made into a major motion picture directed by Angelina Jolie, reads like a Holocaust memoir. Beautifully narrated by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the moving life story of Louis Zamperini, a young soldier and star runner of the Berlin Olympics, who defies all odds in his struggle to survive war and captivity. This true story is so incredible that it resembles a Hollywood script.

On May 1943, young Louis Zamperini’s plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean. The are only three survivors: Louis and two of his friends, who are compelled  by misfortune to embark on an Odyssean voyage across the world. They’re stranded on a raft without food or water, drifting for thousands of miles, constantly threatened by bad weather conditions and assailed by sharks. They catch fish using bird meat as bait and collect rainwater to stay alive. They patch up the raft when it is pierced by bullets and fight off sharks using their bare hands. Weakened by starvation, thirst, exhaustion and depression, one of them, Francis McNamara (Mac), gives up the fight for survival and perishes before reaching land. The other two, Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips (Phil), brave a typhoon and make it to an island.  The most difficult part of their journey, however, comes not from natural threats but from attacks by fellow human beings.

They young men are captured by the Japanese, incarcerated, interrogated, then sent to concentration camps for POW’s. Louis is first sent to Ofuna, then to Naoetsu. In those camps, the conditions are inhumane. The goal of their captors, as for the Nazis, is total human degradation. Louis recalls two particularly sadistic guards who got a sexual thrill out of beating and torturing prisoners: Sueharu Kitamura, known as “the Quack”, who beat Louis’s friend, the brilliant Bill Harris, to unconsciousness, and Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, dubbed “the Bird,” a vicious psychopath whom prisoners dreaded the most. “The Bird” particularly enjoyed tormenting Louis, the star American athlete. Alternating between savage beatings and fake shows of compassion, this monster became the bane of Louis’s existence, haunting him years after he was freed from captivity.

Much of Louis Zamperini’s post-traumatic stress disorder after liberation takes the form of nightmares in which he envisions strangling his former tormentor. This doesn’t relieve his pain, however. As the narrator wisely states, “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant” (Unbroken, 366). Though welcomed as a hero back home, Louis can’t escape the trauma of his war experiences. He drowns his bitter memories with alcoholism and sinks into a deep depression. Religion, along with his supportive and loving family, helps him overcome this last challenge. Louis’s greatest strength, however, stems from his own internal resilience: namely, from the capacity forgive his tormentors without forgetting his painful past.  In fact, one of the most compelling messages of this incredible story is let go of the pain, so you can move on, but not of the memory. “Never again!” means, in part, forgive the enemy but never forget the experience, so it can offer wisdom to future generations.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Angelina Jolie Unbroken, Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Japanese concentration camps, Laura Hillenbrand Unbroken, Louis Zamperini, POW WWII

Romanian film and topics at the Berlin Film Festival 2014

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Romanian film and topics at the Berlin Film Festival 2014

article by Mihai Fulger

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

As is well known, a soccer game and a film (better said, a motion picture) have in common a standard time frame: both of them last, without extensions, about 90 minutes. Thus, theoretically, from any soccer game reproduced in real time one could make a motion picture. Only, as far as I know, the first cinematographer who actually did this is Corneliu Porumboiu. I’m speaking of the film The Second Game, the fourth motion picture created by the Romanian director, presented in the section Forum at the Berlin Film Festival 2014. The game in question is Dinamo-Steaua, from winter of 1988. Since we’re dealing with this period, this means a game between the top two teams from Romanian First Division, each one filled with top-notch players (moreover, one of them had recently won the European Champions Cup) and, equally symbolic, a confrontation between the Army and the Security (Securitate).

You can read the rest of the article on LiterNet on the link below:

http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/17905/Mihai-Fulger-Claudia-Moscovici/Romanian-film-and-topics-at-Berlin-Film-Festival-2014.html

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Filed under Romanian film, Romanian film and topics at the Berlin Film Festival 2014

The boy in the striped pajamas: An instructive fable

The-Boy-In-The-Striped-Pyjamas-fanpop.com

The boy in the striped pajamas, the controversial 2006 novel by the Irish author John Boyne, is described in its subtitle as “a fable”. By its own admission, therefore, this novel doesn’t propose to offer a realistic historical account of the Holocaust. A fable, by definition, uses make-believe characters and circumstances to illustrate a simple moral lesson. This novel is very short: only 216 pages. The author stated that he wrote it in one swoop, in two and a half days. Written simply, almost naively, from the perspective of a German nine-year-old boy whose father is in charge of the Auschwitz concentration camp, this novel is commonly taught, along with The Diary of Anne Frank, in U.S. middle schools and high schools as an introduction to the Holocaust.

The boy in the striped pajamas (New York: Random House, 2006) fared well worldwide, selling over 5 million copies and becoming a bestseller in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia.  The novel achieved such popularity that it was subsequently made into a film in 2008 (with the same title), directed by Mark Herman, starring Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie and Ruper Friend. Although widely acclaimed, The boy in the striped pajamas has also been criticized. Rabbi Benjamin Blech indignantly called it “not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation.” He’s not alone in arguing that the novel offers readers a completely false and misleading impression of what life in concentration camps was like.

The boy in the striped pajamas is, admittedly, very unrealistic. It describes the encounter between Bruno, the privileged nine-year-old son of a prominent Nazi party leader, and Shmuel, the downtrodden young prisoner in Auschwitz who has the same birthday and age as Bruno. The two meet nearly every day and talk for hours, for about a year, across the fence of the concentration camp. Even one such encounter would have been highly improbable. A meeting between a prisoner and the Nazi officer’s son lasting hours, day after day, would have been impossible, needless to say. The fences at Auschwitz were highly monitored by guards with weapons, by attack dogs, and by an electric fence. Moreover, Jewish prisoners observed a very strict regimen, which involved slave labor, roll calls that would take hours and forced marches that were sheer torture. Generally, children under the age of 15 were immediately selected for extermination as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz.  So no Jewish nine-year-old could have been absent for hours a day to chat amicably with a German boy, much less the son of a prominent Nazi officer. Moreover, if even one conversation could have taken place, presumably it would have quickly dispelled Bruno’s ignorance and naiveté about how Jewish children and their parents were treated at Auschwitz. The German boy would have ceased to wonder, for a year, why Shmuel was so thin and why he was always so hungry.

However, in assessing the merits of this novel, we need to keep in mind that The boy in the striped pajamas is not presented as either fact or historical fiction. It’s a fable with a moral. The main literary technique it uses in adopting the more or less innocent, if privileged, perspective of Bruno, is what the Russian formalist critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, called “ostranenie” or “defamiliarization”. Bruno’s innocent perspective exposes the assumptions of the grownups he deals with: his father, the Nazi leader; his mother, who is rather apolitical but nonetheless a beneficiary of her class and of the Nazi system; the servants who are afraid to speak their minds; and even his older sister, twelve-year old Gretel, who has already begun to accept the anti-Semitism and prejudices of the adults around her. Only Bruno can’t understand why his new friend, Shmuel, is skeletal; why he must wear every day striped pajamas; why the Jews are mistreated in this fashion; and why he, himself, has to live isolated from his peers in a big house near Auschwitz. Though not unintelligent, and more critical and curious than the adults around him, Bruno acts younger than his years. His childlike innocence fits more closely with the perspective of a six or seven year old—if not younger–boy.

As historical fact, the novel can be regarded as a failure. As fable, however, The boy in the striped pajamas delivers a worthwhile message. It shows that the mistreatment and prejudice against any group of people is wrong and unnatural. But the technique of defamiliarization in the novel goes deeper than this obvious moral lesson. It shows how even loving parents can corrupt the young into believing others—other religions, ethnicities or races—are subhuman and inferior to them. It reveals the social process, which begins at home, that normalizes class and racial hierarchies as well as prejudice, violence and hatred against the Jews (or any other social group). These perspectives are so counterintuitive to Bruno that willingly steps into Shmuel’s shoes—or, in this case, leaves his behind–in order to help his friend find his lost father in the concentration camp. You can imagine where such a venture leads.

Though far removed from the stark realism of Holocaust memoirs as well as from the objectivity of well-documented histories, The boy in the striped pajamas is nevertheless a successful thought-experiment. This fable invites readers to imagine what it must feel like to learn prejudice and racism from a very young age in a culture that artificially, and immorally, divides people in terms of the binary categories of human and subhuman.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Holocaust Memory

Isaac Babel, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

 

Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel

“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” Isaac Babel

The Stalinist purges assumed monstrous proportions with an opportunity: Sergei Kirov’s assassination. Eugenia Ginsburg begins her memoir about her arrest in 1937 and experience in labor camps, Journey into the Whirlwind (Mariner Books, 2002), by stating as much: “That year, 1937, really began on December 1, 1934,” the day when Kirov, the head of the Communist party organization in Leningrad, was murdered. This assassination, which some suspect was facilitated by the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), provided Stalin with the perfect pretext to launch “the Great Terror”. The Soviet leader started a witch hunt for traitors, Trotskyist conspirators, saboteurs, and “enemies of the people” that would culminate in the spectacular show trials, incarceration, torture, enslavement in labor camps and often death of leading cultural, military and political figures. Like Ginsburg herself, the notable short story writer Isaac Babel also fell prey to Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia. Best known for his collections of short stories Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa, Babel is considered to be one of the best Jewish Russian authors. Although he knew both Yiddish and Hebrew, Babel most admired the nineteenth-century French classics: particularly Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert’s works. He was arrested in May of 1939, tortured, then shot on the standard made-up charge of being a Trotskyite terrorist and spy, in January 1940.

Isaac Babel was well known both for his fiction and for his adventurous romantic life. In the 1930’s he made the mistake of becoming romantically involved with Nikolai Yezhov’s second wife, Yevgenia Feigenberg. She was a sensual and promiscuous woman notorious for her intrigues that ran a popular literary salon in Russia. Babel would pay for his transgression, as well as for his lack of enthusiasm for the communist regime, with his life. Yezhov himself, the head of NKVD from 1936-1938, was dubbed the “bloody dwarf”. Under his leadership of the secret police, Stalin began the Great Terror, staging show trials that relied upon forced confessions and purging millions of people from all strata of society. Leading cultural figures, particularly those known for independence of mind, were favorite targets of the regime. Having a liaison with Yezhov’s wife, however, put Babel in a particularly vulnerable position. The NKVD began closely monitoring the famous writer right up to his arrest on May 15, 1939, by which time Lavrenty Beria, Yezhov’s equally bloodthirsty successor, had taken over the secret police.
In a last, desperate note to Beria, Babel famously wrote: “I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…”

Archivist'sStory

It was not only Babel’s life that was threatened with extinction, but also his writing, which would be burned without a trace by the NKVD. The contemporary American writer Travis Holland masterfully captures Isaac Babel’s last days in prison in his critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story. This novel offers a window into the Great Terror. Without scenes of graphic violence, only through strong characterizations and vivid descriptions, The Archivist’s Story reveals the palpable fear and great strain weighing upon all human relationships during the Stalinist purges. Even the most intimate bonds–between mother and son or among friends and lovers–are threatened by suspicion, fear and forced denunciations. Incredibly, and to his credit, Holland is able to humanize even the employees of the NKVD. He reveals some of them not as Stalin’s heartless marionettes, but as complex human beings, with their own inner struggles and family bonds. Prisoners and prison guards, writers threatened with not only death but also extinction and archivists in charge of destroying their works, are all entrapped in the same totalitarian system where nobody is safe or free.

The novel follows the life of Pavel Dubrov, a former teacher in the prestigious Kirov Institute who was demoted to the position of Lubyanka prison archivist following a political scandal.  His new job is to classify and destroy “deviationist” literature. Risking his own safety, Pavel attempts to save some of Isaac Babel’s short stories from being obliterated by the NKVD. In a sense, the protagonist has little to lose. Although young, he’s already lost much of what made life meaningful. His beloved wife, Elena, died in a suspicious train accident. His best friend, Semyon Borisovich Sorokin, was demoted and wanted by the NKVD for criticizing a popular Soviet professor, a puppet of the regime.  His mother, to whom Pavel used to be very close, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffers, increasingly, from blackouts. He, himself, languishes in a position antithetical to his former profession and principles. As Pavel’s world crumbles around him, he continues to fight the regime in the only way he can. He tries to help those around him threatened with imprisonment to escape to safety and attempts to save some of Babel’s fiction as a record of literary value; as pages of living history.

Before the NKVD has the chance to arrest him, Pavel manages to stow away a few valuable things in the wall, hidden behind a brick: Babel’s short stories and an anonymous postcard from his mother telling him that she loves him. “If he can save Babel’s story, save some remnant of his work, perhaps he can redeem himself, if there is anything in him left to redeem. Perhaps it is not too late” (The Archivist’s Story, Bantam Bell Publishing Group, 2007, 159).  Although, like millions of others taken away by the NKVD during the Great Terror, Pavel has little chance of survival, he manages to salvage what matters to him most: his own humanity.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

Chance by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Chance, by Razvan Petrescu

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

The hollow noise of the spades got lost in the sound of the rain. The three

men worked without verve, quietly, sloshing through the mud. The ditch deepened

and they disappeared, little by little, in its midst. From the street one could

only see the flaps of their hats, soaked by the rain. Shovelfuls of black earth

were constantly hoisted in the air, deepening the hole in the ground. The smaller

bits of earth would roll unto the asphalt. After awhile, the conductor appeared.

From adistance it resembled the stomach of an enormous fish, buried there since

God knows when. The crack could be seen clearly, stretching for approximately

half a meter. What a hole… Go see if we have what we need, in the car. Don’t

forget the bolts. Laur hoisted himself out of the hole and started walking

to the truck. The windshield was shinny, covered by round raindrops. He opened

the trunk and started looking through the tool box. After a few  seconds, he

checked his watch. Boys, it’s time that we grab something to eat. It’s ten after

three. The other two raised their heads. What time did you say? Three? Well I’ll

be darned, we were so busy we lost track of time… Then leave all that and

let’s get the lunch bags. They’re under the bench. Laur leaned down, felt them,

smelled them, his mouth started watering. He returned with the lunch bags

underarm and sat down on the rim. Did you bring the bottle? Of course! Here it

is. He sniffed it. Sighed. What stupid drizzle. It’s okay, it will stop.

Begonie rubs his numb hands. After a few minutes, the rain stopped. Their wet

windbreakers were stuck to their backs. With impatient gestures they opened the

newspapers in which their food was wrapped. The noise of wet, torn paper.

Cracked and dirty fingers, avid, grabbing. Where’s the onion? Aha! It’s damn

spicy! Be quiet and take some cheese. It soothes your heart, doesn’t it? The food

disappeared fast, leaving greasy traces in their beards. Little long stains that

shone dimly. Come on man, hurry up. Trandafir removed the bottlecap with his

teeth, took a gulp and handed the bottle to the others. Their veiny necks moved

up and down, like pistons. Now it’s raining on the inside, even harder, Begonie

laughed. Cheers! From time to time a car would pass by fast by the three men

perched on the little mound of earth. They stared blankly ahead and chewed their

food. Wrinkled, jaundiced faces, stained around the mouth. The sky was purple.

It had darkened gradually, like the cheek of a giant dead man. Goddamned life!

Trandafir swore looking up. Who the heck wants to work in this kind of weather?

The team with similar names; men with the names of flowers. This lucky bouquet

that smells like… Listen, forget the poetry and tell me where you put

the hammer. Because I don’t see it. It’s there in the ditch. Don’t worry, nobody

will steal it. You’d better take a swig too. That’s right. Thin vapors emerge

from their clothes, their lips, the earth. Tell me, will we finish it in two

hours? Begonie glanced for a few moments at his muddy shoes, sighed, then let

wind loudly. Eh, we finish or not, today? I don’t know, Laur, my man, since

even my mother-in-law doesn’t have a crack like this. But we may get to the

bottom of it, before the evening. The wind started to blow. The greasy papers

slowly floated around the leftover bread, cheese, bacon and onion rimes. Is the

flask empty? There’s a bit more, here! Trandafir threw his head back and gulped,

noisily, the last drop of vodka. He smacked his lips, pleased. It’s good! Now

all that’s missing is a whore, to… On this wetness, that’s all you need! A wet

whore. To screw her holding an umbrella over your head… You could hear a growl

and a giggle. Wait a minute. I want to tell you something. You boys, with your

worries. Yes, boss, yes. Laur, hit him over the head with something. Good. And

what I wanted to tell you, is that she had an ass like you’ve never seen in your

sorry  life. Why sorry? Because. You didn’t see it. A booty all the way to

here.Your pants fell down on their own when she moved it. She rumbled like a

heater. I don’t even remember  how I took my clothes off… Listen, didn’t she

faint when she smelled your stick? What, you think that she didn’t? Laur grinned

showing his teeth covered in the cheap material. What can I say, Trandafir, you’re right.

But since you were born you polluted the air. As if you smelled like lilacs. You

smell like a corpse, if you want the truth. I’m wasting my breath anyway. You’re

an expert on women like I am on foreign languages. They continued to fight for a

few more minutes, then they hit each other, then, after awhile, they fell

silent. They glanced at the solitary tree that was sketched on the corner of the

street. It grew thin, cutting a complicated line against the violet afternoon

sky. A heavy truck passed by very close  and splattered them with drops of mud.

Mother fucker! Hand me a cigarette! Laur removed a wrinkled package, half-wet.

He lit up a cigarette cupping his hand, then handed the pack to the others. They

smoked in silence, coughing from time to time and spitting phlegm. Man, it’s

damn cold. I’m frozen solid. That’s it, I’m splitting. Begonie got up, threw the

package and jumped out of the hole. He grabbed the shovel and stuck it deeply

under the pipe. There was a dry noise, followed by a rumble. Afterwards,

nothing. What are you doing there, Boss? Quiet. Wouldn’t you know it, this one

broke a bone.  Hey! Answer me, man, for once! Begonie raised his head over the

rim of the trench. He smiled from ear to ear. Trandafir and Laur looked at him

quizzingly. Why are you smiling? I heard something crack in there. What was it?

Begonie winked. Come down in here, I have to show you something pretty amazing.

The two of them jumped in without needing other explanations. Eh? What do you

say? Isn’t it wonderful? He lifted it up, twirling it on his finger. Laur and

Trandafir stared at the blackened skull, then burst into laughter. How did this

get here? Maybe it’s your grandmother. She escaped from the cemetery.  Watch out

that she doesn’t bite your finger. Let’s take it to the museum. Dead for the

canal. Maybe she’ll give us some vodka. Another burst of laughter and they got

out of the trench. They laughed with tears, grabbing their stomachs. The mud

blinked gently. After they were done, they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves

and quieted down abruptly, exhausted. Begonie pushed his hat back, scratched his

crotch and said between his teeth, “Boys, I’ve got to tell ya, I have to pee.

So, if nobody’s opposed… He grinned and set the cranium down. He urinated at

length until the liquid started reversing through the eye holes. The other two

watched without a sound, with an awkward smile. Begonie zipped up his pants.

That’s it, let’s get back to work, he said in a raspy voice. Or else we’ll be

here until night. They began to work again.  The sounds rose, spreading

rhythmically on the street. It was quiet in the neighborhood. People gathered in

living rooms, among kitchen utensils. Slippers, little shoes, coats and

umbrellas drying on the racks, few words. Here’s the soup. The sun rose slowly

behind the apartment buildings, golden, humid. Laur, leave that hammer alone,

for God’s sake. Do you hear me? Begonie straightened up, irritated. Where are

you? Hammer! he screamed at the top of his lungs. Trandafir also stopped

working; blew his nose with his fingers and glanced around. Raindrops fell to

the ground, trembled on tree branches, sparkling from time to time. Laur gently

lifted the skull and wiped it carefully. It was so light… Alas! In the palm of

his hands unknown words grew, racing faster and faster towards his temples.

Alas! “Poor Yorik. I knew him… He hath borne me on his back a thousand

times….” What the hell are you talking about? Are you nuts? “Those lips that I

have kissed I know not how oft…” Trandafir and Begonie exchanged glances. Man,

speak like a human being. What’s come over you? Laure, throw that thing away and

stop joking around! All of the sudden the sounds disappeared and he quieted

down. “WHERE BE YOUR GIBES NOW? YOUR GAMBOLS? YOUR SONGS?”

All of the sudden the  sounds disappeared and he quieted down.

With an awkward motion he put the skull  on the  ground and closed his eyes.

Maybe it’s the weather! He got up and wiped his face with his hand, with a tired gesture.

He felt the sweat drying on his temple. He spit to the side, then turned and looked at his comrades.

With the words stuck in their throats, Trandafir and Begonie remained motionless.

(short story from the volume "Rubato”, by Razvan Petrescu, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) 
Republished on Literatura de Azi: http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/şansa#sthash.Skg9TqNA.dpuf

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Filed under Chance by Razvan Petrescu, contemporary fiction, Rubato by Razvan Petrescu, Rubato Curtea Veche Publishing, Rubato Editura Curtea Veche, Sansa, Sansa de Razvan Petrescu