Category Archives: book review

Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

 

Fatelessnessbooksforkeeps.co.uk

When Luisa Zielinski interviewed the Hungarian writer, Nobel Prize winner (2002) and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz in the Paris Review during the summer of 2013, the author was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (See Imre Kertesz. “The Art of Fiction”, Paris Review No. 220, interviewed by Luisa Zielinksi) Despite being seriously ill, Kertesz spoke with characteristic lucidity about his fiction as well as about the Holocaust. Born in 1929 in Budapest, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for a short period of time, and then transferred to Buchenwald. His works deal with the Holocaust, yet they are not strictly speaking autobiographical. Fatelessness (Vintage International, 2004) in particular seems to parallel Kertesz’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but the author focuses on the subject’s historic-philosophical dimensions. Kertesz views his description of the Holocaust in Fatelessness as a rupture of civilization that the entire world should examine and take seriously rather than an anecdote of his own trying experiences during adolescence. “I was interned in Auschwitz for one year,” he recalls. “I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with this fresh experience. For this experience was no literary awakening, no occasion for professional or artistic introspection.” Writing as a mode of reflection and communication with others rather than in order to come to terms with his painful personal experiences assumed, at some point, primary importance for him.

Yet, as Kertesz recounts during the Paris Review interview, he didn’t feel destined to be a writer. Rather, he became a writer by painstakingly editing his own texts. The process of writing wasn’t easy, both because of the difficult subject matter he chose and because he had to hide his endeavors from the Communist regime. In fact, the experience of totalitarian repression forms a common thread between his experience of Nazism and of the repressive regime that followed it. “I was suspended in a world that was forever foreign to me, one I had to reenter each day with no hope of relief. That was true of Stalinist Hungary, but even more so under National Socialism,” he declares.

Despite the broad socio-political sweep of his themes, Kertesz’s fiction, particularly the novel Fatelessness, reads like an intimate psychological account of a young man’s disconcerting and painful experience of being uprooted from his family, schoolmates and friends to be thrust into the alien and brutal world of the Nazi concentration camps. Gyorgy Koves, the 15-year old protagonist, first loses his father, who is deported to and dies in labor camp. His stepmother and a Hungarian employee continue taking care of the family business, a store, and are fortunate enough to survive the war and eventually marry each other. But Gyorgy (George) lacks such luck. Along with a throng of teenage boys, he’s rounded up by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and sent to forced labor, then deported to Auschwitz. Fatelessness depicts his experiences there.

There are countless books on the Holocaust. The subject has been written about so much that some readers risk being jaded to it. This novel is especially effective in rendering this familiar topic new and touching. One of the most unique aspects of the novel is its present temporality: the adolescent narrator describes his experiences in the present, as if writing in a diary, noting every character’s expression and interspersing realistic dialogues without offering much judgment or analysis. Kertesz considers this observational technique as appropriate for a child narrator. As he explains, “a child has no agency in his own life and is forced to endure it all”. While few Jewish victims had much agency during the Holocaust, adults at least had the emotional maturity to realize what was happening to them and understand some of the socio-political reasons why. Child victims, on the other hand, were swept by the Nazi extermination machine without being able to comprehend the events that destroyed their lives or do anything about it. Given the almost existentialist nature of Kertesz’s writing, how much of Fatelessness is based on the author’s life and how much of it is historical fiction becomes far less relevant than the narrative’s powerful and immediate connection to generations of readers.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Remembering the “forgotten Holocaust”: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

ViktoriaNachtpinterestTheRape ofNanking

Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII describes one of the most brutal mass murders in world history: the massacre of over 300,000 Chinese men, women and children by Japanese soldiers in what she calls “an orgy of cruelty” in the (then) capital city of Nanking, during the winter of 1937. The blood bath took place in the span of about six weeks, from December 12, 1937 to February 10, 1938. As Chang states, “Indeed, even by the standards of history’s most destructive war, the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (The Rape of Nanking, New York: Penguin books, 1997, 5). What is remarkable about the sheer cruelty of Japanese attack is not only the mass murder of countless innocent civilians, but the also the systematic rape, torture and maiming of women and children.
Chang describes in gruesome detail how Japanese soldiers would gang rape women, ranging from girls only nine or ten years old to elderly women in their 80’s and 90’s. Nobody was safe anywhere, at any time. The rapes occurred at all hours of the day and night, everywhere: in homes, in the streets, in apartments, in offices or stores. Often girls would die from these savage rapes. Not content with raping and humiliating women in a culture that prized female virtue and chastity, some of the Japanese soldiers went on to savagely beat their victims, maim them, cutting off their breasts or vaginas, disemboweling them, ripping babies out of the bellies of pregnant women, and even impaling them with bayonets. Their sadism knew no bounds.
Men were not immune from harm either. In fact, the Japanese first targeted soldiers—and prisoners of war–luring them in groups of about 200 men to designated parts of the city with promises of food, water, and humane treatment. Nothing could have been further from the truth than these false promises. After leaving them without food and water for days, thus weakening their health and spirit, the Japanese soldiers would round up the Chinese prisoners and murder them. Sometimes these mass murders would turn into game-like killing sprees, in which some of the Japanese soldiers would compete with one another in who could kill the most Chinese prisoners. After luring Chinese soldiers to their deaths, thus depriving the city of its defense, the Japanese soldiers turned their rage upon the civilian population of Nanking.
How can one explain this brutality? Chang traces historically the roots of Japan’s martial mentality, starting with the samurai warrior class. She also discusses the more recent, twentieth-century doctrine, of racial superiority to the Chinese. Then she outlines some of the economic factors—particularly the depression of the 1930’s—that, along with the doubling of the population of Japan to 65 million persons, made it “increasingly difficult for Japan to feed its people” (26). The country’s leaders came to view imperial expansion, particularly the conquest of China and its territories, as a solution to these economic and demographic problems.
Ultimately, however, part of the explanation has to do, as in Germany’s case with Hitler, with the malicious decisions of evil leaders. The Japanese leadership—perhaps Prince Asaka himself—issued a clear order to the rank-and-file soldiers: “KILL ALL CAPTIVES” (40). This command was motivated by a total disregard for human life (at least, for the lives of the Chinese captives), as well as by practical concerns. Killing their victims would mean having fewer mouths to feed, fewer people to shelter, and fewer worries about Chinese retaliation. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), the temporary commander of the Japanese forces in Nanking, was known for his ruthlessness in war. Kesago Nakajima (1881-1945), the Lieutenant General of the Imperial Japanese Army largely responsible for the atrocities committed in Nanking, was far worse. By all accounts, Nakajima was a reputed sadist. According to Chang, David Bergamini describes him in Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy as a “small Himmler of a man, a specialist in thought control, intimidation and torture”. Even his biographer, Kimura Kuninori, calls him “a beast” and “a violent man” (37).
The rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the many atrocities of WWII don’t prove that humanity, as a whole, is evil. However, these massive atrocities across cultures do prove that there is a percentage of human beings who are capable of unleashing boundless violence in the right conditions. As Chang herself states, “Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin—one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war” (55). The Rape of Nanking is a well-documented, remarkable history that goes a long way in making sure that “the forgotten Holocaust” will be remembered by generations to come.Iris

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

Thebookthiefcover

The Book Thief (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2007), a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, accomplished a rare feat for Holocaust literature: the novel won numerous literary awards and became a long-standing international best seller, including being on the New York Times best seller list for a record of 230 weeks. What’s even more surprising about the novel’s success is not only its somber theme, but also the fact it’s a work of literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction), a style of writing that rarely becomes a mainstream hit. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry—for instance, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, fits both genres–I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique narrative style.  Death characterized the Holocaust, and Death is the real narrator of the novel, which begins with the heroine’s end: Liesel Meminger’s death, many years after WWII, after she’s lived a full life and had children and grandchildren of her own. As Death carries the elderly woman’s soul to the other side, it also takes and narrates her childhood diary.

In the late 1930’s and early 40’s, Liesel is a young adopted girl living in Germany. She has her first encounter with Death when her brother, Werner Meminger, who is also given up for adoption along with her, dies on the train to Molching. He’s buried by the railway station. That day, Liesel’s obsession with books—and death–begins. She picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book dropped by the funeral director at her brother’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, the distraught girl joins what might be seen as a typical German family, with whom she bonds quickly. Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans Hubermann, is a loyal German, who served during WWI, but is not sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Despite his reservations, Hans is enlisted in the German army during WWII. Artistic and sensitive—a painter and accordion player–Hans probably characterizes the attitude of a vast majority of Germans who were not anti-Semitic yet were forced to participate in the Nazi regime. His wife, Rosa, is a no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a loving heart. She washes people’s clothes to supplement their income but gradually, one by one, her customers fire her.

Liesel also meets Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by the Hubermann family from the Nazis, whose father fought during WWI alongside Hans Hubermann. Liesel befriends him. When Hans becomes ill, she reads to him. He eventually recovers, in part, the novel suggests, because of the power of friendship transmitted through the act of reading. Liesel and her family have a close call with the Gestapo, as soldiers search their house to see if they can use their basement as a shelter. Fortunately, they deem it too shallow and they leave.
In all respects, Liesel blends in with her adoptive family. Their hardships and struggles become hers as well. She becomes especially close friends with Rudy Steiner, a blond “Aryan” boy a few months older than her, who develops a crush on her. Although the girl refuses to kiss him, together they embark on many adventures, which bond them to one another. Together, they become book thieves when the Mayor and his wife also fire Rosa. Their love of books and of the forbidden, representing a kind of protest against the Nazi regime and against injustice in life in general, binds the two children even more. e murders perpetrated by the Nazis, but it is not sympathetic to them. Rather, Zusak depicts Death as a kind of Humanist, philosophical character: humane and disapproving of senseless violence, hatred and destruction. In parts, Death touches upon the comic and the absurd, needing “a vacation” from its job during the war.
I think the strength of this novel lies in its complex characterizations: the German characters in particular are nuanced and multifaceted, not stereotyped in any way. They too struggle with the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime and try to help victims, as much as they can. In the end, however, they too become victims of Hitler’s war, as Rosa, Hans and Rudy all die when the Hubermann house is bombed. Rudy doesn’t even get to experience Liesel’s first kiss, dying seconds before she finally declares her love for him and kisses him. Only Liesel survives and gets the chance to have a full life.
If I were to identify any weakness in the novel it would be in the narrative style. Since style functions as a kind of author’s unique fingerprint in literary fiction, it’s largely dependent upon each reader’s subjective taste. The choppy, short sentences and disjointed, subjective structure of the novel weren’t to my personal taste, particularly since I usually look for a dense, sweeping and well-informed description of lived history in Holocaust literature. This novel, however, is impressionistic in both style and structure. But these stylistic features also made The Book Thief popular with readers of all ages, particularly with young readers, who could identify with the characters and appreciate its accessible form. Due to its literary success, The Book Thief was recently made into a movie directed by Brian Percival, released in November 2013. The movie, however, unlike the book, received mixed reviews.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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“Constantinople” by Minodora Perovici: A great work of historiography and a labor of love

Constantinople under the banner of the Crusaders and of the Ottoman Empire by Minodora Perovici offers an incredibly erudite and well-informed history of this magnificent city that marks the transformations of entire civilizations during the medieval period. This book is also, clearly, a labor of love.  Ms. Perovici relies upon primary texts–chansons de geste and chronicles by contemporaries (DucasGiorgio SphrantzesLaonic Chalcocondil, Geoffroy de Villehardouin and Pseudo-Phrantzes) to describe not only how the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and eventually Ottoman empires changed hands, but also the social and economic systems that made this city the heart of medieval Europe. The author also describes in detail the motivations of the Crusaders, and the complex system of vassalage, relying upon the words of chroniclers who followed the Crusades themselves. Ms. Perovici then traces the rise of this city during the 12th century, when it became the biggest and wealthiest in Europe. She also describes its conquest in 1261 by the Crusaders, under the leadership of Michael VIII Palaiologos and  its ultimate fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. With the death of one civilization came the rise of another, as Constantinople, henceforth known as Istambul, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. If I call Ms. Perovici’s historiography “a labor of love” it’s because her book combines an incredible breadth of knowledge, covering the fate of Constantinople throughout several centuries, with a great attention to detail. The book’s depth and breadth of knowledge stems from the author’s deep appreciation of the cultures which conquered and revived this great medieval city, and of the texts of the chroniclers who lived through its upheavals and transformations.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

ConquestOfConstantinopleByTheCrusadersIn1204

Backcover description: “Constantinople under the banner of the Crusaders and of the Ottoman Empire” is a work that goes beyond the usual historical study because it is based on direct observation of historical facts described by the contemporary chroniclers themselves. They record the events that marked the course of history which they were familiar with directly and lived through. The French historian Geoffroy de Villehardouin participated directly in the fourth Crusade. He lived, side by side with the Crusaders, their longings, emotions, doubts, joys and difficulties, considering the conquest of Constatinople a big victory and completely forgetting the real goal of the Crusaders: the fight against the “infidels”. His chronicles, found at the Academy Library in French, was translated by the author (Minodora Perovici). So was a part of the French epic poetry (les chansons de geste) included in the text to explain the nature of feudal relations between Lords and their vassals, on which the formation of the Crusader armies were based and which shaped the foundation of the Latin states in the Orient. Those who lived through the tragedy of the Constantinople conquered by the Ottoman empire, the drama of the king and the devastation of the empire can be considered to be the real authors of this text. This book is based on a dialogue with the Byzantine chroniclers Ducas, Giorgio Sphrantzes, Laonic Chalcocondil and Pseudo-Phrantzes. Their narratives are truthful: although sometimes they’re dramatic, even picturesque, in the manner and style of the times. Conquered in 1204 by the Catholic Crusaders, Constantinople will be reconqured in 1261 by the Orthodox Byzantines, only to yield to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.”

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The Holocaust in more personal terms

 

photo by Magdalena Berny

photo by Magdalena Berny

For every book I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, there is a personal motivation as well as what I’d call a more “universal” element. I have to feel a strong personal connection to the subject of the book, since, after all, I’ll be studying that subject and writing about it for several years. At the same time, I have to believe that it’s a subject that has some historical weight to it, so that it can interest others as well. This was the dual motivation behind writing my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2009), translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche, 2011). This novel draws upon, in part, my family’s story. But it represents, above all, a slice of life about communist Romania during the dismal last years of the Ceausescu regime.

Right now, I’m working on two books about the Holocaust. The first one, called Holocaust Memory, will be a collection of book reviews of some of the most significant and resonant memoirs, histories and novels about the Holocaust that I can find written (or translated) in English. The subject, I believe, is universal. Although the history of the Holocaust concerns most the Jewish people, this topic is also about social psychology, WWII, and the history of Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and the U.S. during one of the most trying moments of our collective past. As usual, however, there is also a personal component to my interest in this topic: I’m still haunted by some of the stories my Jewish grandparents told me about the Holocaust when I was a child.

In a fragment of Velvet Totalitarianism which I’d like to share with you below, I pieced together some of the life stories culled, here and there, from conversations with my Jewish grandparents about their experiences during WWII. This is by no means a history of the Holocaust in Romania. It offers a tiny kaleidoscope of family stories filtered by memory which, I hoped as I was writing my novel about communism years ago, I would one day have the know-how and the courage to explore in greater depth.

 

Chapter 10

[…]

“Grandma, what’s a pogrom?” Irina asked.

“You’re too young to learn about these terrible things,” Grandma Sara replied.

“Please tell me. I’ll do my best to understand,” the girl pleaded.

“I know you will. But these are adult subjects. They’re too sad for kids.”

“I’m not a kid any more. I’m already eleven!” Irina objected.

“You’re not a little kid, but you’re still a kid,” the grandmother stroked Irina’s hair.

“But, Grandma, since this happened to our own family…I have the right to know,” Irina insisted with the stubbornness of a child.

Grandma Sara gave in and told Irina, as far as she could recall, an abbreviated version of her family history. “What do you want me to say? We went from a rock to a hard place, as they say. My family’s originally from the Ukraine, a country next to Romania that was part of the Russian empire. Ironically, the reason we came to Romania is because we were running away from the pogroms there.”

“You still haven’t told me what that word means,” Irina reminded her.

“That’s what I’m about to explain,” the grandmother answered. “Long ago, Jews weren’t allowed in Russia itself; they had to live only in this area called the Pale of Settlement, which was part in Poland, part in the Ukraine. Like I said, our family lived in the Ukrainian part. And from time to time, when the tsar or hordes from neighboring villages were looking for someone to blame for their problems, they attacked Jewish villages, stole property, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people.”

“Even children?” Irina wanted to know.

“Yes. Women and children also.”

“But how can people be so mean?” Irina’s pupils expanded.

“The more downtrodden you are, the more you’re mistreated,” was all Grandma Sara could say.

By reading histories of the Holocaust, Irina later learned the details that her grandmother wouldn’t tell her, or didn’t know, or perhaps wanted to forget. Some Jews were shot in mass, but most lost their lives in “death trains” and concentration camps in Transnistria. Thousands of human beings were packed together like cattle in closed, windowless train compartments. Left for days on end without fresh air, water, food or latrines, they died of suffocation, dehydration or illnesses as the train wondered aimlessly around the countryside. Well, not aimlessly. Because by the end of its journey, the objective had been reached. All of its passengers were dead.

“Your grandfather was one of them,” Grandma Sara once told her.

“How did he manage to escape?” Irina asked with a shudder.

Her grandmother shook her head, as if the answer was beyond her grasp: some kind of miracle. “With God’s help, somehow, he jumped from the moving train. He still limps to this day. But at least he’s alive.”

Eventually, many Romanian Jews found their way to what later became the state of Israel, including all of her grandparents’ surviving siblings. In fact, Irina found out from her grandmother, her grandparents were the only ones who didn’t leave the country.

“Why did you and Zeida decide to stay behind?” Irina wondered. “Why didn’t you move to Israel like the rest of the family?”

Her grandmother shrugged: “Romania’s the only place we know. We were born here and so were our parents. This is our country, the only place we called home.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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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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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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