Monday, 30 July 2018
War and disquiet with Grossman and Lipke
Two remarkable men, a Russian and a Latvian, share equal honours here for respective perfection of the work and of the life. Above is Vasily Grossman in the thick of it in 1945, and below is Žanis Lipke in 1977 holding the 'Righteous Among the Nations' medal which bears the inscription 'He who saves one life saves the world'. You'll have to read some way on to find out how Lipke did it.
First time round with Grossman's long-concealed Life and Fate, I stopped around the page-180 mark. Who were all these people zooming into sight around Stalingrad with very little in the way of introduction? When I read in translator Robert Chandler's introduction that many of them had already featured in a previous novel dealing with the earlier stages of the German invasion, For a Just Cause, published in 1952, which to this day remains untranslated into English, I felt we were being cheated, presented with Life and Fate as a self-contained entity rather than part of a diptych.
It's complicated. For a Just Cause, according to Chandler, doesn't stick its neck out against the Soviet regime in the way that Life and Fate so startlingly does. Grossman thought the latter might be published during the Khrushchev thaw. He was wrong. In February 1961 KGB officers came to his apartment to confiscate the manuscript and anything related to it. But Grossman had left two other copies with friends, one of which was smuggled out on microfilm to the west with the help of Andrey Sakharov, among others, in 1974, a decade after Grossman's death; the novel was finally published in 1980.
Though Grossman wrote Life and Fate with the benefit of hindsight, and compressed into 1941-2 a timescale which actually extends up to Stalin's big drive against Russian Jews with the 'Doctors' Plot' a decade later, he lived through the events it describes as a reporter (his war journalism will be my next reading once I've finished Elena Ferrante's tetralogy).
The most lacerating transferal of his own experience into that of the man who becomes the novel's main character, Jewish physicist Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, is of the loss of his mother, who was sent to her death in Treblinka from Berdichev, which he reached too late. This is why the last letter of Viktor's mother in Chapter 18 of Life and Fate's first part is one of the most powerful of all literary testimonies to the horrors of the Holocaust; no wonder it has been adapted for the stage both as a monologue and within Lev Dodin's very selective Maly Theatre adaptation, which led me back to the novel.
The other sequence that I found almost unbearable is the strand following unmarried teacher Sofya Osipovna Levinton's journey to Auschwitz, and her poignant adoption of a Jewish boy who dies in her arms. Later stages deal with the tragicomic compromises of Shtrum, who finds himself suddenly of use to Stalin again when Russia needs to develop a nuclear bomb. The book, unlike (as I am led to believe by one who's read it) its predecessor, makes it clear that Stalin's horrors, not least the indelible mark of the 1937 Terror, scar people as much as Hitler's. As with the even-handed condemnation of Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, this is what made Life and Fate unpublishable in Soviet Russia.
Shafts of light are often extinguished, despite the profound Tolstoyan humanity throughout. Another seminal chapter is devoted to the manuscript of Ikonnikov, a so-called 'Holy Fool' in another German camp. He decries the inevitable corruption of the 'common good' principle and contrasts it with
a kindness outside any system of social or religious good...Even at the most terrible times...this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atoms of radium...This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil!
Later, the army driver Semyonov is taken in by an old peasant woman who tells him she has seen good and bad on both sides. Khristya Chunyak is the embodiment of Ikonnikov's 'stupid kindness'.
There is a memorial in Rīga to another, real person who epitomises the personal good, Žanis Lipke. Not exactly an ordinary Latvian - stevedore, dockworker and smuggler, he had always been a stalwart left wing activist. But when he was working at a warehouse under German command and heard that Riga's Jews were being massacred in the woods near the city, he devised an elaborate rescue scheme to make sure that many of the Jewish workers did not return to the ghetto and certain eventual death at the end of the day - unnoticed, miraculously - but to various shelters around the city. His reason? That it was simply the duty of a human being. When circumstances became too dangerous for the escapees there he transported them across the broad Daugava river to his home in semi-rural Ķīpsala.
There eight to 12 people at any one time were housed in a three-by-three-metre hole in the ground. All the family were involved in the task, including his wife Johanna, whose words and eloquent visage (such eyes!) are so movingly captured in an interview you view on a screen at the bottom of the new building's central well,
and young son Zigfrids who stood guard above. As the numbers grew, Lipke arranged with a distant parish to shelter people in three farmsteads. He saved around 50 lives. None of the 25 people who helped him was ever betrayed. Later, when he was interrogated by the NKVD, he told his questioners that the Communists were even worse than the Nazis - the latter shot you while looking you in the eye, the other shot you in the back. Astonishingly, he wasn't carted off to Siberia for that. Pictured below, Johanna and Žanis in 1946, seated to the right with some of the Jews they rescued.
Ķīpsala is still a beautiful part of town with many wooden houses and much greenery, but the main reason for visiting is to see the stunningly-constructed memorial, created by architect Zaiga Gaile at the end of an alley with an almost hidden entrance (you only grasp the building properly on exiting at the other end). Māris Gailis, businessman and former Latvian Prime Minister, and film director Augusts Sukuts wanted to make the tribute because what we usually hear is how Latvians welcomed in the Germans all too readily (as in Estonia, it was complicated; life under Soviet rule had been so harsh that many citizens thought at first the Germans would be more 'civilized'. They soon found out how wrong they were). The Žanis Lipke Memorial was opened in 2013, and it's a model in its restraint and simple artistry. In the opening ceremony, Shimon Peres echoed Grossman when he said:
I don't think I've ever seen a museum like this one anywhere in the world. It's special, it's different, it's deep, it's moving....I'm not sure that the majority of people are saints. But I'm sure there is a minority of people who are brave, who are right, who are just. And I do believe that this minority saves lives.