Vasily Grossman on Treblinka

Vasily Grossman was an important Soviet writer and journalist from the 1930s through his death in 1964. He was a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905, and his mother died in a mass execution of Jews in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1941. He was a man of the “bloodlands”, in Tim Snyder’s term. During World War II he became one of the best-respected war correspondents in the Soviet Union, and he accompanied the Red Army through many of the bloodiest battles of the war against Hitler, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He was also present with the Red Army at Babi Yar in Kiev in 1943. His writings under a totalitarian state and throughout the Holocaust present an unusual example of courage and independence in a time in which the forces of dictatorship and repression were supremely powerful across both Nazi and Soviet spheres. His greatest work was Life and Fate, a thousand-page novel aimed at expressing the human and political realities of the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and 1989 because of its supposed anti-Soviet tendencies, long after Grossman’s death.

After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad Grossman accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, and was the first journalist to visit the site of the the recently-destroyed extermination camp of Treblinka in September 1944. Treblinka was a place specifically designed for mass murder, only sixty kilometers from Warsaw in Poland. Grossman’s 1944 documentary essay on Treblinka, “The Treblinka Hell” (link), is detailed, grim, and unblinking; it should be an essential element of our efforts to understand the realities of the Holocaust. Grossman’s article is one of the first extensive reports on the details of Nazi extermination of the Jews. It is brutally honest and explicit, and — unlike the preferred Soviet narrative — it is explicit in recognizing that this was an extermination camp for Jews, along with a small number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. The article is a remarkable piece of documentary journalism and historical reportage. Further, as Zsuzsa Hetenyi notes in “Facts and Fiction in Vasily Grossman’s Prose” (link), the piece also has much of the narrative evocativeness and empathy that Grossman displays in his fiction writing. It is a powerful piece of contemporary witness reportage of the realities of the Shoah.

When capture by the Red Army appeared imminent, the Germans at Treblinka made every effort to destroy all the evidence of what had taken place there:

Early in the morning of July 23, the guards and SS men took a stiff drink and set to work to wipe out all trace of the camp. By nightfall all the inmates had been killed and buried. Only one man survived — Max Levit, a Warsaw carpenter, who was only wounded and lay beneath the bodies of his comrades until nightfall, when he crawled off into the forest. He told us how as he lay there at the bottom of the pit he heard a group of some thirty young lads singing a popular Soviet song, “Vast is my Native Land,” before being shot down; heard one of the boys cry out: “Stalin will avenge us!”; heard the boys’ leader, young Leib, who had been everyone’s favourite in the camp, scream after the first volley: “Panie Watchman, you didn’t kill me! Shoot again, please! Shoot again!” 373

Grossman and other Red Army investigators learned a great deal about the workings of the camp, including the names of the commander and many guards. Prisoners in Camp 1, the labor camp, received a food ration of 170-200 grams of bread — less than 530 calories, a starvation diet. Random murders by the guards were frequent, including murders of children. Conditions in Camp 1 were hellish. And yet Camp 2 was much, much worse. Camp 2 of Treblinka was a death camp. “Everything in this camp was adapted for death.” Train after train arrived in the camp every day, and no one departed. “For thirteen months or 396 days, the trains returned empty or loaded with sand; not a single one of those who were brought to Camp No. 2 ever returned.” And who were these people? “Who were the people brought here by the trainload? Mainly Jews, and to a lesser extent Poles and Gypsies” (377).

By the spring of 1942 almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany and the western districts of Byelorussia had been rounded up in ghettos. Millions of Jewish workers, artisans, doctors, architects, engineers, teachers, art workers, and other professionals together with their wives and children, mothers and fathers lived in the ghettos of Warsaw, Radom, Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of other smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were about 500,000 Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of the Hitler plan for the extermination of the Jews. (377)

The trains that came to Treblinka from the West-European countries — France, Bulgaria, Austria and others — were another matter entirely. These people had not heard of Treblinka and up to the last minute they believed they were being sent to work. The Germans painted alluring pictures of the pleasures and conveniences of the new life awaiting the settlers. Some trains brought people who thought they were being taken to some neutral country. Victims of a gruesome hoax, they had paid the German authorities large sums of money for passports and foreign visas. (377)

Some of Grossman’s prose is haunting and poetic, and contributes to a more human understanding of the evil and grief of the Shoah —

Anything up to 20,000 people passed through Treblinka every day. Days when only six or seven thousand came out of the station building were considered wasted. The square was filled with people four and five times a day. And all of these thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with the frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, these pretty dark-haired and fair-haired girls, the stooped and baldheaded old men, the timid youngsters — all of them merged into a single flood that swept away reason, human knowledge, maidenly love, childish wonder, the coughing of old men and the throbbing hearts of living human beings. (380)

Grossman goes through every step of the journey from disembarkment from the train to killing in the gas chamber, and the indignities and brutality — and murder — that occurred in between. The gas chambers at Treblinka made use of carbon monoxide generated by large engines to asphyxiate the victims, or pumps that evacuated the oxygen from the chamber, leading once again to asphyxiation.

Grossman reflects as a human being on this sequence of monstrous inhumanity:

Great is the power of humanity; humanity does not die until man dies. And when there comes a brief but terrifying period in history, a period in which the beast triumphs over man, to his last breath the man slain by the beast retains his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and warmth of feeling. And the beast who slays the man remains a beast. In this immortal spiritual strength of human beings is a solemn martyrdom, the triumph of the dying man over the living beast. Therein, during the darkest days of 1942, lay the dawn of reason’s victory over bestial madness, of good over evil, light over darkness, of the power of progress over the power of reaction; an awesome dawn breaking over a field of blood and tears, an ocean of suffering, a dawn breaking amid the screams and cries of perishing mothers and infants, amid the death rattle of the aged. The beasts and the philosophy of the beasts foreshadowed the end of Europe, the end of the world; but people remained people. They did not accept the morals and laws of fascism, fighting with all the means at their disposal against them, fighting with their death as human beings. (389-390)

And how many were there of these innocent victims? Grossman tries to estimate the dead in different ways, based on the frequency of train arrivals and the capacity of the ten gas chambers. He estimates that three million men, women, and children were murdered at Treblinka in the 13 months of its operations. This is probably an over-estimate; the camp was not as efficient in killing as Grossman believed. The article on Treblinka published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives an estimate of 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs (link). But whether three million victims or one million, Treblinka was a place of unspeakable evil.

And what about the guards and executioners? What was their psychology? Grossman has a view on this question as well, and it stands in counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil.

It must be noted here that these creatures were by no means robots who mechanically carried out the wishes of others. All witnesses speak of a trait common to all of them, namely, a fondness for theoretical argument, a predilection for philosophizing. All of them had a weakness for delivering speeches to the doomed people, for boasting in front of their victims and explaining the “lofty” meaning and “importance” for the future of what was being done in Treblinka. They were profoundly and sincerely convinced that they were doing the correct and necessary thing. They explained in detail the superiority of their race over all other races. (400)

Grossman describes the uprising at Treblinka, which, according to Grossman’s account, was surprisingly successful. Prisoners succeeded in burning much of the camp and killing some of the guards and executioners, and about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were subsequently tracked and killed, but about a third survived to tell their story. The mutiny and the German defeat at Stalingrad appear to have led to the Germans’ efforts at erasing Treblinka completely in 1943. Grossman reflects on the Nazi efforts at erasing Treblinka:

What was the object of all this destruction? Was it to hide the traces of the murder of millions of people in the hell of Treblinka? But how did they expect to do this? Did they really think it possible to force the thousands who had witnessed the death trains moving from all corners of Europe to the death conveyor to keep silent? Did they believe they could hide that deadly flame and the smoke which hung for eight months in the sky, visible by day and by night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and small towns? Did they think they could make the peasants of the Wulka village forget the fearful shrieks of the women and children which lasted for thirteen long months and which seem to ring in their ears to this very day? (405)

The essay has moments of poetic transcendence. Here are Grossman’s words describing his own entrance into Treblinka as part of the Stalingrad Red Army:

We enter the camp. We are treading the soil of Treblinka. The lupine pods burst open at the slightest touch, burst open by themselves with a faint popping sound; millions of tiny peas roll on the ground… The earth ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing; it refuses to keep its awful secret. These things emerge from the unhealed wounds in the earth. (406)

And here are the closing words of the article, Grossman’s own assessment of this great evil:

Every man and woman today is in duty bound to his conscience, to his son and his mother, to his country and to mankind to examine his heart and conscience and reply to the question: what is it that gave rise to racism, what can be done in order that Nazism, Hitlerism may never rise again, either on this or the other side of the ocean, never unto eternity.

The imperialist idea of national, race, or any other execeptionalism led the Hitlerites logically to Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Oswiecim and Treblinka.

We must remember that racism, fascism will emerge from this war not only with bitter recollections of defeat but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.

This must be solemnly borne in mind by all who value honour, liberty and the life of all nations, of all mankind. (408)

There is a strong moral voice in Grossman’s writings. Here Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide. He believes profoundly that the Holocaust, mass extermination, and totalitarianism must be confronted honestly and without fear.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

Grossman is one of the most important and passionate contemporaneous observers of the Shoah (and the crimes of Stalinism as well), and his texts and novels demand our attention. In collaboration with Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman compiled a massive set of documents offering witness to the crimes committed against the Jews, by the Nazis and by the Stalinists, in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. The manuscript was complete by 1944, but characteristically, Soviet censors never permitted publication of the massive compilation. A Russian edition was published in Kiev in 1991.

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