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.


David Damant said...

Not only the Baltic States but other parts of the USSR initially welcomed the German armies as liberators, after the horrors of the Stalin Terror,and in Ukraine especially after the starvations and deaths of the famine and the ruthless collectivisation of the farms when millions died. Had Hitler been more astute on this point, he could have made allies of these national states and had a better chance of overthrowing the Stalin regime ( as he thought though not in enough depth " This colossal state in the East is ripe for dissolution"). But he saw all the slavs as untermenschen, less than human. As for comparisons between Stalin and Hitler, I suggest that the best answer was given by Dr Johnson " Sir, there is no awarding of a precedent between a louse and a flea"

David said...

Yes,all true, sadly. As for comparisons, I think I may have recited to you before the limerick one between Stalin and Lenin, which I first heard from Robert Service:

There was an old bastard called Lenin
Who did fice or six million men in.
That's a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That bastard called Stalin did ten in.

Anonymous said...

So many died in the Baltic countries killed by both the Nazis and by locals. To rescue Jews or others took incredible courage in that context. As for the author, I am saddened that he did not live to see his chronology published but those who preserved it and who smuggled it out are to be lauded for their courage. Hitler and Stalin were both evil but they would not have been able to commit murder by the millions without willing accomplices. It is far too easy to palm off all the guilt on the leaders.. ordinary men and women did the deeds. Thank you for this article.

David said...

Indeed. The enabling by ordinary people is a complex question that only films and novels can attempt to render; the history books do not, though memoirs are important.

Susan said...

A rich post—I’m reminded of many things by what you’ve written. First, I’m reminded how struck I was I on learning of Estonian and Finnish responses to Germany and Russian during WWII, the first of which I was introduced to by Lembit Beecher’s documentary oratorio “And Then I Remember,” centered on his Estonian grandmother’s recounting of her experiences in WWII. Those experiences significantly complicate how many in the West view that time.

The quote about “stupid kindness” puts to mind an encounter I had while canvassing with a woman who was perfectly comfortable with the US administration’s policy of ripping children from their parents at the border. She believes in rules, she said. If she had been caught shoplifting with her children, she’d be separated and sent to jail. She saw this as no different. In an attempt to find some sliver of common humanity on which to build, I pointed to families who presented for asylum, following all the rules. She brushed it aside, saying, “There are only a few cases like that.” Further on, I again sought to find common ground by citing our candidate’s stated values of hard work, dedication to service, and accountability. She was on board with all of that. At the close of the interaction, she clearly felt listened to and respected, even though she knew we didn’t agree. She even expressed that she would definitely take a look and consider voting for our candidate. Reflecting on this, I had misgivings. What, I wondered, was missing in this equation? I wonder now whether she would have responded so positively had I included others of our candidate’s values, notably empathy and compassion—or perhaps, in other words, stupid kindness.

David Damant said...

As you often say, David, I can easily shoot off down a side path, but I will comment that the question of why nations follow evil leaders has indeed been covered by historians. A central aspect of the matter is that we in happier countries have not suffered the long histories of authoritarian rule that Russia and Germany saw. There were some " willing accomplices", but for the majority of the people in these nations it was rather that they had no history of involvement with political questions - mostly they were powerless, and usually docile. In the case of Germany, as Jonathan Steinberg wrote in his biography of Bismarck "When Bismarck left office the servilty of the German people had been cemented, an obedience from which they never recovered [and] the upper reaches of society had been debased.....and they too never recovered". In the case of Russia, centuries of autocratic rule was followed by decades of the horrible and corrupt regime of communism, from which, as Robert Conquest points out, Russia is to a lesser degree still suffering

Peter Kassebaum said...

There was a non fiction book from a number of years ago that was entitled "Ordinary Men..." about a police reserve unit in the Nazi era that became part of the kill squads.

Zimbardo in his famous "prison experiment" at Stanford University uncovered how quickly normal folks can adopt roles that are sinister in situations that call for such roles. Steiner in his post WW2 gave personality inventories to veterans of the SS and came to the conclusion that they were not pathological but had conformed to the expected norms. It would be comforting to think that all war criminals were cut from a different cloth but unfortunately for all of us.. most are ordinary.

David said...

Sue, the example you give shows perfectly how the 'they're different from us' principle works today - and indeed, the child caging is the worst sign of fascism testing the waters I've encountered. I even met a British Trumpeter, an early music bigot, at a French festival, who when the question arose came up with that old lie of the right 'Obama did it first'.

David and Peter, good examples, thank you.

Susan said...

Speaking of Obama (and I beg your indulgence for my one-track mind these days), the Obamas today issued a “first wave” of endorsements, 22 of which were for House candidates, and only one of which was in New York: Antonio Delgado.

David said...

Any excuse! But well done for all your hard work. Looks like America can't wait for the elections to get rid of the ever more outrageous Monster in Chief, though. In Mueller we trust.