The Second World War—particularly its chronological-cum-geographical segment known as the Soviet people’s Great Patriotic War and the Nazis’ [End Page 179] annihilation of the Jews—changed the persona of the Berdichev-born Soviet writer Vasily (Iosif) Grossman. Significantly, for the first time in his life Grossman became a member of a Jewish organization, the Jewish Antifascist Committee (JAC), which included under the same Soviet institutional umbrella both Yiddish language and Russian language intellectuals. Together with Ilya Ehrenburg, he edited a collective volume of testimony, best known under the title Black Book, about the persecutions of Jews in the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories. Intellectuals did not volunteer to join the JAC, which misleadingly looked like a civic-society organization. In reality, it was a subdivision of the Soviet Information Bureau, or Sovinformburo, the main Soviet news agency in 1941–61, whose members and personnel had been carefully selected by corresponding officials of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Grossman’s 1934 story “In the Town of Berdichev” could turn the officials’ attention to him in their search of suitable candidates for the JAC’s membership. In any case, this decision reflected the limited pool of “Jewish” (that is, with Jewish themes in their oeuvre) writers outside the compartmentalized world of Soviet Yiddish letters, because “In the Town of Berdichev” hardly falls under the category of “Jewish literature.” The Magaziniks, the poor and presumably traditional family to whose house the pregnant Red Army commissar Vavilova has been billeted, reveal very little signs of their Jewishness. Either Grossman was not interested in depicting them as such or, more probably, the writer, who grew up in a thoroughly assimilated family, simply did not know how to do it. Ironically, the non-Jewish director Aleksandr Askoldov made his 1967 film Commissar, based on Grossman’s story, more Jewish than the original story itself.
The characters of Grossman’s 1943 story “The Old Teacher,” one of the first works of fiction about the Shoah in any language, also carry little traceable Jewishness, apart from their recognizably Jewish names and their tragic destiny. Granted, we learn that the protagonist, Boris Rosenthal, once “had taught in a Jewish trade school; later he had taught geometry and algebra in a Soviet school.” Again, either Grossman did not want to portray “Jewish Jews” or simply was not equipped to do it. Due to the ideological pressure and the acculturation of Jewish literati, token Jewish characters generally populated literary and other products of the Socialist Realist culture.
Together with other members of the JAC, Grossman tended to celebrate the heroism of Jewish soldiers and resistance fighters in the occupied territories, but was reluctant to write about anything that smacked of kiddush-hashem (sanctification of God’s name by martyrdom) and its associated [End Page 180] readiness to die without showing any resistance. Only heroic Soviet martyrdom could find a positive response among the JAC’s writers and journalists. In the story “The Old Teacher,” Haim Kulish the blacksmith attacks one of the guards, knocking him down and then smashing the face of an Unteroffizier. Moral resistance was also regarded as an acceptable form of heroism. The old intellectual Boris Rosenthal meets death, proud of his non-Jewish compatriots: “the Fascists miscalculated. They meant to unleash hatred, but what has been born is compassion.” Grossman’s teacher spells out the official Soviet interpretation of the Shoah:
The Fascists have created an all-European system of forced labor and, to keep the prisoners obedient, they have constructed a huge ladder of oppression. The Dutch are worse off than the Danes, the French are worse off than the Dutch, the Czechs are worse off than the French. Things are still worse for the Greeks and the Serbs, worse still for the Poles, and last of all come the Ukrainians and Russians. These are the rungs of the ladder of forced labor. . . . And then, at the very bottom of this huge, many-storied prison is the abyss to which the Germans have...