Holocaust Literature Week 2: Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka”

This semester I’m blogging about my class on Holocaust literature. Here is the first installment.

Vasily Grossman (1905-64), who we studied at the beginning of Week 2 of the course, is not nearly as well known in the canon of Holocaust literature as someone like last week’s author, Primo Levi (or some of the other writers we’ll study this semester, like Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski).

I can think of at least two reasons why. First, the reception of Holocaust literature in North America has been biased towards texts written in Western European languages. At least in part, this preference was a function of the inaccessibility of documents and archival material in Soviet-occupied Europe during the Cold War. Second, Grossman was not a survivor, per se, though his mother was murdered by the Nazis along with more than 20,000 other Jews in the family’s hometown of Berdichev in the Ukraine.

Grossman was born to an assimilated Jewish family. He did not have a Jewish education. It is unlikely he knew Yiddish. Berdichev, an important banking center, had one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a prosperous, cosmopolitan world quite unlike the shtetl world made famous in Sholem Aleichem’s work and depicted in the early parts of Wiesel’s Night.

Grossman studied to be an engineer, but turned to writing in the 1930s. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Grossman was assigned to the Red Army newspaper. He became one of the most famous Soviet war correspondents, taking on many dangerous assignments, including a posting in Stalingrad. He accompanied the Red Army on its march westwards, where he reported on what has been called “the Shoah by bullets” (the death meted out by the Einsatzgruppen—mobile units or death squads—across Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. These firing squads murdered approximately tow million people in the years 1941-44, 1.3 million of them Jews, among them Grossman’s mother). Later, in 1944, he also reported on “the Shoah by gas.” He was with the Red Army when it arrived at the extermination camp Treblinka in August 1944.

Immediately he set about writing an essay called “The Hell of Treblinka.” Published in November 1944, it is one of the earliest accounts of the death camps. After the war, it was submitted as evidence by the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials. This extraordinary work is readily available—translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler together with Olga Mukovnikova—in an invaluable collection of Grossman’s essays, stories, and journalism called The Road (New York Review Books).

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I began by asking the class to recall the question I’d given them at the end of the previous meeting as a way to guide their reading: What does Grossman value?

Hands shot up. I was relieved to see it, since, on the face of it at least, this is an easy question. Grossman is a passionate writer, not shy to render judgment and lay blame. And since that is what students want to do too, at least when it comes to the Holocaust, they take to him immediately. Of course, Grossman also gives us the tools to complicate what seem like straightforward categorizations.

Life, people, humanity, came the answers. Each student who spoke—and I reminded students that if they hadn’t yet said anything in class this was absolutely the day to chime in because soon, maybe already by the next class, their identity would be sealed: they would be a person who doesn’t talk in class—had to point to a specific passage to support their claim. “The most precious valuable in the world—human life.” “The epitaph history will write for [the victim] is: Here Lies a Human Being.” “Killing turned out to be supremely easy… This must be unflinchingly borne in mind by everyone who truly values honor, freedom, and the life of all nations, the life of humanity.”

These were all good examples. I pointed to another quintessentially Grossman-ian formulation: the victims, he says,

were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human heart.

The list of attributes and qualities here is typical; Grossman loves lists. (At one point in the essay he simply names, for almost ten lines, the belongings the new arrivals would have left scattered on the ground, commenting only, tartly, “It requires real skill to sort out, in the course of only a few minutes, all these thousands of objects.”) This particular list is a strange one. Ranging from physiology (the coughing) to emotion (love and wonder) to human accomplishment (reason and science), it seems to want to encompass everything that might go under the name the human condition in a single sentence.

Grossman absolutely believes in the idea of the human condition. This emphasis on common humanity is at least in part a political and ideological choice. In the course of this forty page essay, Grossman only mentions once that most of the victims were Jewish. That decision is a function of the Soviet insistence that only the suffering of Mother Russia rather than any individual group of people be commemorated. Grossman’s insistence on a kind of universal brotherhood of mankind is also evident in his insistence that the victims looked out for each other. Solidarity of this sort did exist in the camps, but so too did its opposite. Many of the course texts, I noted, will offer a quite different view of affairs.

Grossman was no doctrinaire Marxist—in the essay he even obliquely criticizes Stalinism; after the war he fell into disfavour and his great masterpieces Life and Fate and Everything Flows were written “for the desk drawer” and only survived because they were smuggled to the West in the Krushchev period. But he also insists in classic Marxist fashion that “what engenders a particular regime is the material and ideological relations existing among a country’s citizens… the nature of these relations is what should appall us.”

Yet Grossman never interprets Nazi Germany this way. Instead, as the students noted, he regularly describes them as demonic monsters, purveyors of “bestial madness.” They are refused any redeeming qualities; indeed, they aren’t even human: “The beast that triumphantly kills a man remains a beast.” What, I asked the class, is the effect of Grossman’s rhetoric? What is implied by this way of thinking and talking? (To offer compelling interpretations, students need to be able to draw out the implications of their observations, so I wanted them to practice drawing out the consequences of their ideas.) It’s like they’re not real people, someone said. Exactly, I responded. And why does that matter? Well, they were people, said another. Yes, I added, people like us.

It’s easy for us to imagine that these events have nothing to do with us. It allows us to approach the Holocaust as a kind of macabre spectator sport. But if we treat the Nazis as monsters, we effectively let ourselves off the hook. We don’t need to think of ourselves as in any way implicated in their way of viewing the world. In this way, Grossman risks devaluing the idea of humanity he values so much. In an oblique way, this risk is evident too in his treatment of what the historian Raul Hilberg would later call bystanders, in this case the local Poles who Grossman uses as mere neutral evidence for German actions. He doesn’t’ consider more complicated questions of implication or degrees of guilt, concepts that someone like Primo Levi would develop in his essay “The Grey Zone,” which we’ll read in a week or so.

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Whenever I teach “The Hell of Treblinka,” I work towards a close reading of a single passage. This time, I left it too late and we didn’t have the time to really do justice to it. But that’s okay. The work the class did in pointing to specific passages to support each claim, although time-consuming, was worth it. I want students to see that they can’t just go with their gut, can’t just offer a vague sense of what the text is saying (which often amounts to what they wish it were saying). They have to work with what’s there. Only then will their readings convince.

At any rate, here’s the passage that to my mind gets to the heart of Grossman’s enterprise. Having described the chaos new victims would have experienced on arrival—separated from loved ones and possessions, shaved and otherwise physically humiliated, herded along a path lined by high fences towards an imposing brick building—Grossman explains what would have happened next:

The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut […] Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, “Patience now—this is the end.” Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, “Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?” Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people’s glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? OF the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: “Ah, so that’s why he was laughing…” Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony… No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold. (Ellipses in original unless bracketed)

Here Grossman imagines the ground zero of the Holocaust, the centre of what the French political prisoner David Rousset, a survivor of Neuengamme and Buchenwald, called l’univers concentrationnaire. He takes us into the gas chamber. What happened there? Historians and forensic researchers can tell us a lot: we know that people were so desperate to escape that they clawed at the walls. We know from the evidence of the piles of corpses that those who were bigger and stronger climbed over those who were smaller and weaker to get the last bit of air. But the desire to enter into that scene—to turn it into a scene—is both taboo and inescapable in Holocaust literature.

Remember this passage, I told the students, when we read Maus: we’ll see how self-consciously Spiegelman points to the limits of eyewitness testimony. Remember this scene when we watch Schindler’s List: we’ll see how dubiously Spielberg flirts with exploiting our dark compulsion to enter into this space.

For now, I want us to see that when Grossman wonders whether we can “find the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt” he is asking a real question. This vivid passage aims to make us feel present—we see that most clearly in its use of physical and corporeal details: the clammy sweat, cracked bones, and crushed rib cages.

It even imagines how people might have acted and thought in those final moments. What kind of actions are these, I asked the students. They’re kind actions, caring. An old man shouts “Patience,” a mother seeks to make space for her child. The people evoked are vulnerable: that old man, that woman with her child, the young woman who wants to live. There’s even the intimation of revenge and resistance—someone, the only person here who isn’t described in any way, shouts out “a holy curse,” which he or she, as well perhaps as Grossman himself, insists, which is to say, hopes, must be fulfilled. These aren’t just victims; they are also resisters, not least in their staunch avowal of basic human dignity. They resist by maintaining solidarity with each other: “they stood as if they were a single human being.” Here we have Grossman’s credo in a phrase.

With only a minute or two left, I asked the class to tell me what happens in the passage between the sentence starting “Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat” and the one starting “Someone, perhaps some wise old man.” A moment’s silence: the students were tired but still game. They hadn’t packed up their stuff yet. But they knew there was an answer I was looking for and it made them wary.

Look at the verbs, I prompted. They shift from past tense to present, someone said, half-hesitantly, half-triumphantly. Yes, I said, pointing out examples: someone makes an effort; a mother tries to make more room for her child; heads spin; throats choke. What’s the effect of this shift? It’s like replacing statistics with stories, one student said. Yes, but that doesn’t explain this particular choice on Grossman’s part. What does the shift to present tense suggest? It makes it more intense, another said. Normally, I would have payed out this suggestion further, getting the student to expand on what she meant by intensity. But I was in a hurry, so I finished the thought. Right, it makes the scene immediate, vivid. In a way, it undoes what happened in the chamber, bringing the dead to life.

And yet, I concluded, these attempts at immediacy fail. The dead don’t live. Even if the passage returns to present in the final sentence (suggesting an ongoing duration—these bodies are in some way still standing there) the penultimate sentence, like the rest of the essay, is in past tense. In that sense, the key statement here is: “No, what happened in the that chamber cannot be imagined.” We are left only with a statement of absence: “All we know is that they cannot speak now.” Grossman has tried to do that for them, but ultimately refuses the possibility.

Grossman’s passionate desire to do justice to the victims and his equally ardent disgust for the perpetrators is matched by his modesty and reserve. He speaks for them only inasmuch as he rejects that speaking.

We’re returning to Primo Levi next class, I said, as the clock showed two minutes past the hour and the next group of students milled around outside the room. Think about Grossman’s humanism as you read Survival in Auschwitz. Will Levi’s humanism look like Grossman’s?

Class dismissed.