Friday, February 2, 2007

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 by Vasily Grossman

What I loved about this book is that Grossman wrote both about the good and the bad. He could admit about the Red Army having 'cowards' in its ranks and about the executions that followed. But at the same time you can read about a soldier who was sentenced to be executed, the executioners gun misfired, the soldier ran away and was hidden by a commissar for days. Eventually after many inquiries and the fact that the soldier came back on his own accord his death sentence was rescinded and he followed the commissar around all the time, when asked why he replied "I am afraid that the Germans may kill you, Comrade Commissar. I am guarding you."

Another recollection is about a soldier who accidentally shot another Red Army man, he was so sick with grief that he eventually killed himself. The retreats of 1941 are covered in some detail as Grossman was right there on the front, a few times even narrowly avoiding the encirclements themselves. He ate with the troops, slept with them, wrote letters with them, and interviewed them again and again. From pilots, to artillery and mortar men, to tank troops and nurses. Stories of how girls went into battle outside of Stalingrad and throughout the war, how they died just as quickly and easily as any man and how they fought just as proudly and courageously risking their lives to bandage the wounded and evacuate them from the battlefield.
Stalingrad of course consumes a large portion of the book as this was Grossman's forte, he was there for a large part of the siege and the stories from this city are captivating to say the least. Snipers were quite popular and he interviewed many of them finding out how they came to be snipers and how they did their jobs so well.

Lastly is the liberation of territory from the Germans and Romanians and of course the war being taken to Germany. He holds nothing back while describing the destruction the German Army reigned over his land and eventually discovering that his mother was among the victims of an execution of the entire Jewish population of his him town. When Treblinka is discovered the reader is presented with a large article about it, some of the stories recounted are heartbreaking and at the same time he shows how many times Jews rebelled and fought back, on dozens of occasions. Covered are the rapes and robberies of Germans and Germany as a whole, Grossman holds nothing back and talks about the screaming of women and their bruised and swollen bodies and faces when he encounters them sobbing and asking for help. One incident stayed in my memory, a Jewish officer was billeted in a house that used to belong to a Gestapo man who had run away. His family, a mother and her girls, begged this man to stay and protect them, this Jewish Red Army officer who had his entire family killed by the Germans.

If you want to understand with what stride these Red Army men fought and died, how easily the line was crossed between life and death and how they eventually triumphed, this book will answer many of your questions.

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