OPERATION BARBAROSSA & THE FINAL SOLUTION ON GERMAN-OCCUPIED TERRITORY
Films to Watch
Books to Read
Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, by Brian Moynahan
A powerful study that focuses on the desperate, dying citizens of Leningrad as well as Dmitry Shostakovich and how he composed, and the starving members of the Leningrad Symphony, played, his monumental seventh symphony. Rebecca Reich’s laudatory review in The New York Times. If you’re able to attend a performance, be sure to get seats toward the rear. This is monumental stuff.
Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War, by Jonathan Dimbleby
This is one of best books of military history we’ve read this year. Save for a lengthy epilogue, the book ends in December, 1941, as Dimbleby lays out the case that the Germans were already defeated, in many cases already in retreat, and although Soviet losses of men and materiel were much greater, so were their reserves. His chapters on the murder of Jews is beyond harrowing and how Heydrich and Himmler came to realize that shooting Jews individually was causing “emotional problems” for their SS men. The Final Solution would be the result, and it began in 1942. Keith Lowe’s stellar review in The Daily Mail.
Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder
An important, ground-breaking book of Holocaust history, certainly not without its detractors. Snyder describes how these lands between Russia and Germany were brutalized, raped, and nearly destroyed—some of them first by Stalin in 1932, then by Hitler after 1939 and 1941, and then again by Stalin after 1944. Well worth the read. Neil Ascherson, one of the most astute journalists specializing in Eastern Europe, commends the book in this review in The Guardian.
The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, The Holocaust Revealed, by Wendy Lower
While Snyder paints with a very broad brush indeed, Wendy Lower, an historian now at Claremont College, focuses on a single gruesome incident. When she was conducting research in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, two Czech journalists showed Lower a photograph of Ukrainian auxiliaries and German SS men murdering a child and his mother. They were being shot just on the edge of a ravine in the Ukrainian town of Miropol.
Lower takes her readers along as she travels to Germany, Ukraine, and Israel, all in service of uncovering as much about this photograph as possible. The work she presents is masterful and heart- wrenching. David Mikics has written an insightful review of the book for Tablet.
Lower also tells us something about Germans facing their past. As in far too many cases, they didn’t. But that leads into another topic of discussion, well discussed in Mary Fulbrook’s Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice.
Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel
Ukraine-born Boris Drayluk, editor of The LA Review of Books, has been busy with new translations of Isaac Babel’s works, as well as Russian writers we’ve never heard of. Babel’s Odessa Stories takes us into the seamy underside of Jewish Odessa in the interwar years. A delight to read. Babel himself was arrested by Stalin’s henchmen in May, 1939, and executed the following year. In The Guardian, the ever-entertaining critic Nicholas Lezard describes this new edition as ‘criminally good.’
City of Lions, by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands
Also from Pushkin Press is this literary oddity: City of Lions, by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands.
To the Austrians it was Lemberg; the Poles call it Lwów; the Ukrainians Lviv. Once a teaming outpost of Vienna’s empire, the city still exudes old-world charm and an air of Habsburg nostalgia. Not, of course, if your Jewish family was one of those hunted down and murdered there, and often by locals. Wittlin left the city before the carnage and wrote his essay in 1946. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Wittlin writes “[w]e are plainly refugees throughout our lives: from cradle to grave we are always running away from something.”
Sands, a well-known human rights barrister, podcaster, historian, and writer of the highly praised East-West Street and The Ratline, adds an essay to Wittlin’s, with a foreword by Eva Hoffman. You can chew through this short book in an evening and here’s a review in the Dublin Review of Books to motivate you.
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman
Grossman then spent years writing his masterwork, Life and Fate, a nine-hundred page tribute to those who fought at Stalingrad. In Grossman’s telling, not every German is evil. Not every Soviet citizen is pure. After naively submitting the manuscript to his publisher in 1961, he was soon visited by the KGB. They not only confiscated every copy he had on hand, they even took the ribbon from his typewriter. The Communist Party’s chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov reportedly told Grossman the novel could not be published for at least two hundred years. Grossman was dead three years later, felled by stomach cancer.
A single copy of Life and Fate was microfilmed, in part, by Andrei Sakarov, then smuggled out to Switzerland, where it was printed in Russian in 1980. Translated into English by Robert Chandler and published in 1985, the book’s reputation grew steadily, and critics have been lining up ever since to call it what it is: one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature.
Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman
An impressive reconstruction. Robert Chandler and his wife Elizabeth recently located several original drafts of Stalingrad, the prequel to Life and Fate. Working diligently, they literally re-assembled the novel, all nine hundred sixty one pages of it, and have given us a far better work than the censors turned it into back in the early 1950s. Stalingradis not the masterpiece Life and Fate is, but it does come close. Here’s a fascinating review by Linda Grant in The Guardian.
The Road, by Vasily Grossman, edited and translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Olga Mukovnikova
Chandler has assembled for us short stories, essays, journalism, and letters by Grossman. The book is confusingly laid out and a bit difficult to follow but it is well worth the read. Here is where you’ll find what some historians call one of the most important pieces of reportage on the Holocaust. Grossman arrived in Treblinka with the Red Army in August, 1944, and spent weeks painstakingly re-assembling and describing how this factory of death operated. 780,000 Jews were gassed, burned and buried here. As stated above, this report was used in Nuremberg. The entire report is published here in English for the first time.
Grossman, an only child, was extremely close with his mother, who remained behind in Berdichev, where she was murdered, along with tens of thousands of other Jews. The Chandlers found two letters Grossman had written her, consumed by guilt, well after her death. Powerful indeed. A review of The Road by Bill Jamieson in The Scotsman.
A Writer at War, by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova
It seems once Grossman’s writing inhabits your mind, it doesn’t let go, and the great British historian Antony Beevor worked with Luba Vinogradova to assemble Grossman’s wartime, front-line reportage in a collection they’ve called A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945. Grossman did not tell sweeping stories. As a reporter who lived and slept alongside frontline soldiers, his genius is for painting the miniature portrait, telling us what war was like a hair’s breadth away. William Grimes provided this New York Times review, although it will most likely be behind a paywall.
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff
Moscow journalist and award winning author Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman. Well worth the read for those who have been smitten by her subject. Popoff ends her book by telling us that while Grossman is now considered—in the West—as one of the towering figures of twentieth century literature, at home in Russia his name still languishes. That is because, in Putin’s world, Grossman’s continued questioning of authority is still better left in the dark. A review in Kirkus.