The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

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The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

by John Garrard and Carol Garrard
Free Press, 1996
437 pp. $25.50
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Berdichev is a small Ukrainian city not far from Kiev. On September 15 and 16, 1941, while the Wehrmacht's 11th Panzer division was moved to Zhitomir and entertained with films and musical theater, segments of the German SS systematically finished butchering the last 20,000 of the city's 30,000 Jews, half its population. Thus began the Holocaust. Vasily Grossman, who died in 1964, was a Soviet novelist with a talent rivaling Solzhenitsyn's, and he was a courageous and renowned war reporter who covered every major battle from Stalingrad to Kursk. His mother was among the 20,000 who died on those September days. The Garrards use that horror, which Grossman personally inspected on the heels of the retreating Germans, as a centerpiece for their biography. Around it they pull together the strands of Grossman's life, from his relatively privileged childhood in Berdichev and his early successes and clashes as a young fiction writer, through his intellectual and personal compromises, to his postwar literary probes into Soviet life, including his great novel, Life and Fate, which was "arrested" by the authorities in 1961. That's right -- a book was arrested, not its author. Grossman is a sufficiently important Soviet cultural figure to deserve a biography, and through his the Garrards say a good deal about cultural politics, internal repression, and antisemitism in the Soviet Union.