Jewish diaspora fiction has always been problematic for me, largely because the authors I have read will either champion an overtly Jewish perspective without taking competing gentile ones into account (Saul Bellow, Chaim Potok, Isaac Bashevis Singer) or perceive themselves as ethnic outsiders and attempt to subvert gentile societies which are, of course, inherently bad (Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, Nathaniel West). As with anything, the quality varies, and there is much more to the crude categorizing I resort to above. Arthur Koestler’s excellent Darkness at Noon bucks the trend, as does Stanislaw Lem’s Polaris in the science fiction genre. And what to make of Ayn Rand? But if I had to distill my feelings for Jewish diaspora fiction in one sentence, this, unfortunately, would have to be it.
These two author types rely on the spurious Jew Good/Gentile Bad dichotomy which is essentially opposite sides of the same shekel, so to speak. The classic example, of course, is Sholem Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof (and I am referring to the popular musical and film adaptations and not so much to Aleichem’s Teyve the Milkman stories). In Fiddler, Jews are portrayed as charmingly innocent salt-of-the-Earth types who are at best heroic and honorable, and, at worst, eccentric in their picadilloes. In such a worldview, the anti-Jewish wrath of gentiles resembles natural disasters in that they attack without warning or reason, and leave devastation in their wake. Unlike natural disasters, however, this is the work of Man, and so can be ascribed to Evil and therefore dealt with. That Jews commit deadly sins of their own which cause equal devastation among the gentiles never enters the plotlines of these stories. Neither does any good resulting from self-identifying, nationalistic non-Jews. As a result, much of Jewish diaspora fiction amounts to little more than libel of the goyim.
Very few Jewish fiction authors can overcome this dichotomy. Better they forget their Jewishness and write simply to enthrall gentiles, or keep their Jewish identity and write strictly for Jews, preferably in Hebrew.
Jewish author Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate fails to escape this dichotomy and yet retains a great deal of value for its realistic depiction of the enforced conformity of mid-century Soviet life. It also deserves note for its narrative reporting of the Battle of Stalingrad and depiction of the Soviet gulag. Completed in 1960 and suppressed by the KGB, it was smuggled to the West and published in 1980 to instant acclaim, sixteen years after the author’s death. Fortunately, it avoids the trap of modernism, and weaves its many plots and subplots together in a complex yet comprehensible fashion. Stream of consciousness, fragmentation, Freudianism, nonlinear storytelling, and other postmodern tricks are thankfully eschewed. So is all hint of degeneracy. This makes Life and Fate one of the breeziest long novels I have ever read. That it is uneven, tendentious, strident, overpopulated, and lacking the majestic story arc worthy of its 870-odd pages keeps it from the ranks of great novels. It also tells almost as much as it shows, which sucks much of the power out of the story. For example, when one of our female protagonists decides to toss over her lover (a brilliant tank commander) for her ex-husband (a disgraced commissar languishing in the Lubyanka prison), we learn about it after the fact from the narrator. But we don’t get to see it. Grossman glosses over several important plot points in the same manner.
Even worse, when the author speaks as a Jew—directly to his readership, which he does several times—he’s little better than a bad poet lecturing us on the evils of anti-Semitism. His gnashing of teeth over the poor, noble-hearted Jews being sent to their deaths are as manipulative as anything in Schindler’s List. For example, upon entering a German concentration camp, the saintlike Sofya Levinton realizes she could save herself because she has medical training, but chooses not to. She opts instead to remain by the side of a little orphan boy named David as they tragically get gassed together.
From Part Two, Chapter 46:
Death was standing there, as huge as the sky, watching while little David walked towards him on his little legs. All around him there was nothing but music, and he couldn’t cling to it or even batter his head against it.
As for the cocoon, it had no wings, no paws, no antennae, no eyes; it just lay there in its little box, stupidly trustful, waiting.
David was a Jew…
Grossman, editorializing transparently through his narration, is also quick to dishonestly condemn fascism and Nazism, while failing to condemn the demonstrably greater evils of communism and Bolshevism just as directly. (To be fair, Grossman does do this, but through character and plot over hundreds of pages—that is, appropriately, and never in the didactic manner with which he dismisses fascism.) For example, in Part One, Chapter 2, he writes the following series of lies:
National Socialism had created as new type of political criminal: criminals who had not committed a crime. [Tell that to A.I. Vipper, the prosecutor of the 1913 Menahem Beilis trial who was shipped off to a concentration camp by the Bolsheviks in 1919 and never heard from again.]
The detainment of prisoners-of-war in a concentration camp for political prisoners was another innovation of fascism. [Apparently, Grossman had never heard of the Solovki prison camp, which was established in 1923 by the Soviets to detain perceived enemies of the newly formed Bolshevik state.]
Giving common criminals power over political prisoners was yet another innovation of National Socialism. [A falsehood repeatedly exposed in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The Soviets were doing this as early as the 1920s, before the rise of National Socialism.]
Here is my favorite, from Part One, Chapter 42—lurid, hysterical, and impossible to refute:
If fascism should ever be fully assured of its final triumph, the world will choke in blood. If the day ever dawns when Fascism is without armed enemies, then its executioners will know no restraint: the greatest enemy of fascism is man.
Yet when Grossman forgets his Jewishness and gives us the nuts-and-bolts narrative of how the Soviets emerged victorious at Stalingrad, he’s first rate. He presents a splendid array of characters: from a true-believing commissar with a dark secret, to a skeptical and reticent tank commander, to a war-weary power station director, to a womanizing staff officer, to an independent-minded soldier fighting fearlessly in the rubble. His mastery of geography and scenery is complete as well, from the dusty Kalmyk steppes, to the dingy apartments of Kazan, to the demolished city blocks of Stalingrad. His sympathetic portrayals of German General Friedrich Paulus and other officers of the Wehrmacht while they were locked in deadly struggle over that nearly-conquered city were some of the most moving for me. And this all makes sense, given that Grossman was a war correspondent who was in Stalingrad and many other places during the fighting. For the war scenes of Life and Fate, he certainly wrote what he knew, and what we get is punchy, insightful, gripping historical fiction, which serves almost as much as a critique of the oppressive groupthink associated with communism as it does of the German invasion itself. But this is about half the novel.
The other half, which is dominated by the drama surrounding Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum and his family, focuses on Stalinism and how it tempts ethnic Russians to commit the twin sins of nationalism and anti-Semitism. This predictably evokes the stereotypically Jewish fear of the vengeful gentile so prevalent in Fiddler on the Roof and other diaspora works. And as translator Robert Chandler admits in the novel’s introduction, this makes Grossman a liar since the Russian pushback against Jewish dominance didn’t occur until the late 1940s and early 1950s—not as early as 1942 as Grossman depicts. Shtrum’s story also has little to do with the battle of Stalingrad, and could have been culled out of Life and Fate to constitute a completely different novel. As such, we’re left with a disjointed narrative which is much longer than it needs to be.
But this is one of the novel’s lesser flaws. Its greatest (and the one likely to be of most interest to Occidental Observer readers) is how Grossman, try as he might, cannot overcome Aleichem’s Curse. Gentiles remain tainted in Life and Fate. They are the source of all evil, while Jews maintain their existential innocence in the face of injustice and oppression.
In Grossman’s USSR, Jews never willingly identify as Jews. Instead, they are simply honest and industrious participants in the Soviet experiment. They self-identify only when they are betrayed by anti-Semitic gentiles who remind them of their Jewishness. This happens first by the Nazis, then by the Soviet leadership, and finally by ordinary Russians who, according to one Jewish character, enjoy not having to smell garlic now that all the Jews are gone. This, of course, is pure Judeophilic cant. Given the complicity of Jews in the bloodiest years of the Soviet Union as well as their well-documented ethnocentrism and xenophobia, this reviewer will never disbelieve that Jews are at all times keenly aware of themselves a distinct ethnic group—which is indeed why gentiles everywhere have anti-Jewish feelings to begin with.
Often in the novel we are reminded that Viktor Shtrum never once thought of himself as a Jew until he came face to face with Fascism. Part One, Chapter 18 is the (admittedly heartbreaking) text of Shtrum’s mother’s final letter to her son before being herded off to the camps, and in it she writes: “That morning I was reminded of what I’d forgotten during the years of the Soviet regime—that I was a Jew.”
This is the first key to Jewish innocence in Life and Fate. The second is that while Jews are pure Soviets, Russians are either Russians in Soviet clothing or they are willing to bow down when their co-ethnics exhibit such insidious nationalism. Of course, not all Russians in Life and Fate are like this—not Shtrum’s estranged wife Lyudmila, who’s mourning the loss of her son in battle; not her first husband Abarchuk, who’s languishing in a gulag; not Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik who’s about to stage a hopeless rebellion in a German prison camp; and certainly not Marya Ivanovna, the wife of Shtrum’s colleague for whom he has deep feelings. Grossman handles all of these characters (and others) impeccably. What isn’t impeccable is how he depicts only the villainous, the cowardly, and the ignorant as expressing the gentile nationalism which he as a Jew finds so threatening.
Here is Getmanov, a calculating and menacing commissar complaining about affirmative action (Part One, Chapter 52):
A frown suddenly appeared on his face. ‘Quite frankly,’ he went on angrily, ‘all this makes me want to vomit. In the name of the friendship of nations we keep sacrificing the Russians. A member of a national minority barely needs to know the alphabet to be appointed a people’s commissar, while our Ivan, no matter if he’s a genius, has to “yield place to the minorities”. The great Russian people’s becoming a national minority itself. I’m all for the friendship of nations, but not on these terms. I’m sick of it!’
Here is Sokolov, Shtrum’s colleague (and Marya Ivanovna’s husband) who ultimately fails to stand by Shtrum when he’s about to be arrested for anti-Soviet thoughtcrimes (Part One, Chapter 64):
‘Allow me to love Tolstoy—and not only because of what he wrote about the Tartars. We Russians, for some reason, are never allowed to be proud of our own people. And if we show such pride, we’re immediately taken for members of the Black Hundreds.’
It should be noted that this speech occurs in a conversation with a wholly sympathetic Tartar named Karimov who calls for the banning of Dostoevsky because “[a] great writer in this country has no right to persecute foreigners, to despise Poles and Tartars, Jews, Armenians and Chuvash.”
Here is the internal monologue of tank commander Novikov on the nationalistic Russian apparatchiks who force him to promote Russians over non-Russians (Part Two, Chapter 4):
… his superiors had always been men who were ignorant of the calibres of different guns, men who were unable to read without mistakes a speech that had been written for them by someone else, men who were incapable of making sense of a map or even of speaking proper Russian. Why had he had to report to them?
And here is the internal monologue of Lieutenant Bach, a well-meaning and thoughtful German officer who’s warming to the idea of the Final Solution (Part Two, Chapter 11):
The law that determines the birth of a nation-state is something miraculous and wonderful. A state is a living unity; it alone has the power to express what is most precious, what is truly immortal in millions of people—a German character, a German hearth, a German will, a German spirit of sacrifice.
And speaking of Germans, who can forget the gratuitous chapter Grossman includes on the young Adolf Eichmann who was sidelined into the Nazi Party because he simply wasn’t smart or talented enough to compete with Jews for work or for acceptance into universities? Such people Grossman summarily condemns in Part Two, Chapter 31 as “fools, reactionaries and failures.”
The final key to Jewish innocence in Life and Fate is that there are no Jewish villains. Grossman does absolutely no Jewish soul-searching. Yes, Genrikh Yogoda gets mentioned a few times as a bugbear of the Great Terror from the 1930s. But he is never outed as a Jew. Grossman (to his credit) discusses terror famines, dekulakization, and other Soviet atrocities in his text, but never does he even hint of Jewish culpability in these crimes. The closest he gets is stating in Part Two, Chapter 31 that “during the epoch of revolutionary struggle, many of the most important revolutionary leaders were Jews.” That’s not enough.
In Life and Fate, Jews are portrayed as victims more often than not. For example, a Jewish fighter pilot who gets harassed by an anti-Semitic comrade ultimately gets shot down. Rubin, a friend of Abarchuk’s, gets murdered in the gulag—and having read Chapter 20 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 200 Years Together, it’s hard to believe that Jews were murdered as often as gentiles in similar circumstances. Further, Shtrum’s junior colleagues, all of whom are smart, competent, and Jewish, fail to get promotions for dubious reasons.
Meanwhile, Shtrum is portrayed as downright sublime as he solves an important problem of theoretical physics. What lands him in trouble with his narrow-minded superiors is how he refuses to renounce Einstein and how he speaks of science in Part Two, Chapter 6 “as though it were a religion, an expression of man’s aspiration towards the divine.” He rejects the Party understanding of his field and instead insists that he keep his mind free from dogma. And when such scandalous individualism puts him on the brink of arrest, not one gentile colleague stands by him.
Ultimately, Vasily Grossman wishes to impress upon his readers that ethnonationalism is bad and that Jews would never indulge in a such a sin. Instead, we must worship individualism, as he states plainly in Part One, Chapter 53:
Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, to feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! the only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.
Yes. This is how Jews like their gentiles: atomized, isolated, and unprotected from predatory minority groups—such as the Jews—who have no intention of relinquishing their common identity and agenda. If Grossman had addressed this fatal flaw of the Jews as well, his novel may have achieved greatness. But that would have required reversing Aleichem’s Curse and transcending the Jew Good/Gentile Bad dichotomy which defines so much Jewish diaspora fiction, something Grossman was unfortunately not strong enough to do. (He was strong enough to defy the Soviet authorities, but not this.) This kind of overt political messaging also has nothing to do with the Battle of Stalingrad and reinforces my point that Life and Fate would have been better as two novels: one about the war and the other about Viktor Shtrum’s struggles against the Soviet Machine. Further, the latent anti-Russianness of the latter undercuts the accuracy of former since, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out in Chapter 19 of 200 Years Together, calls to Russian nationalism during the darkest days of the war were what helped the Russian people ultimately defeat the Germans.
There is much that is worthy about Life and Fate. Aside from its substantial literary qualities, it pre-dated The Gulag Archipelago by over a decade in its unveiling of the Soviet Union’s horrific crimes. It also superbly portrays the communist republic’s oppressive cultural atmosphere. The KGB had good reason to suppress Life and Fate, since the book did speak truth to power at a time when such an act could prove lethal for an author. The problem, however, is that we only get half the truth from Grossman. Sadly, he’s too much of a Jew to give us anything more.