When the German army sped across the Soviet border in June 1941 in a double-cross that left the more-than-adequately forewarned Stalin shocked and a few of his most prominent generals conveniently scapegoated and summarily shot, Vasily Grossman, too, was caught unawares. The Ukrainian novelist was fat, brainy, and Jewish, credentials that were more “counter” than “revolutionary” and earned him a nyet at the nearest recruiting station. He was, it turns out, fortunate just to have had the opportunity.

In the introduction to their new collection of Grossman’s wartime writings, A Writer at War, translators and editors Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova describe the pre-Barbarossa Grossman as “truthful and politically naïve,” “gauche and ingenuous.” “He was an extremely kind and devoted friend,” insisted the poet Ilya Ehrenburg, “but could sometimes say giggling to a fifty-year-old woman: ‘You have aged a lot in the last month.’ I knew about this trait in him and did not get offended when he would remark suddenly: ‘You’ve started to write so badly for some reason.’” Stalin’s purges rendered such a character ripe for the Gulag. “It was a miracle that he survived,” the authors remark dryly. And this was before the invasion, before Grossman eventually signed on with the Red Army newspaper and logged a thousand days at the front, before the prolonged horrors of Stalingrad and Kursk, before Majdanek, before Treblinka, before Berdichev, where the SS shot Grossman’s elderly mother and tossed her into a trench. If giggly Vasily came of age in a famine-plagued country where, the authors write, “parents crazed by hunger ate their own children,” he finally grew up in a world where a son couldn’t save his mom.

A Writer at War is an important book not only because Grossman would go on to write Life and Fate, a 1960 novel about the siege of Stalingrad and an undisputed masterpiece of 20th-century Russian literature. It’s also important for the necessary emphasis it places on the barbarity of the Eastern Front. We Americans know or care little about this part of the Second World War. It exists for us as a vague threat hurled by Colonel Klink at Sergeant Schultz, not as the venue for perhaps the bloodiest battle in human history. In last year’s The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, Marianna Torgovnick asks her readers to estimate Allied and American losses on D-Day. Omaha Beach is where the war turned, we have always been taught, where so many brave GIs fell that Spielberg was forced to make a film. So how many? A hundred thousand? Fifty thousand? Try 3,581. By contrast, more than three-quarters of a million Soviets fell at Stalingrad, and many more Germans than that. Torgovnick is quick to add that it’s not a contest; it’s just that for reasons both cultural and political, D-Day looms much larger in our imagination. (For those of you who might object that D-Day—apart from the full Normandy campaign—was but 24 hours while Stalingrad lasted 199 days, here’s some quick math: At a rate of 3,581 casualties per day over 199 days, you still end up with 712,619 killed and wounded, or about ten days of slaughter short. But imagine it: 209 consecutive D-Days!)

Grossman’s account of the war comes from censored stories he wrote for Krasnaya Zvedzda, the official Red Army newspaper, as well as letters to his wife and parents, and uncensored notes that he concealed from Communist Party authorities. These sources are skillfully threaded together by clean and consistently understated prose from the editors, who periodically explain, fact check, or contextualize Grossman without ever getting in his way. When Grossman describes his first battle, his writing—no more than a few scribbled notes—nevertheless betrays the eye of an artist, the dedication of a journalist, and the nose of a critic:

The picture of burning Gomel in the eyes of a wounded cow.

The colors of smoke. Typesetters had to set their newspaper by the light of burning buildings.

We stay the night with a tyro journalist. His articles aren’t going to join a Golden Treasury of Literature. I’ve seen them in the Front newspaper. They are complete rubbish, with stories such as ‘Ivan Pupkin has killed five Germans with a spoon’.

By Stalingrad, however, his concerns have become less aesthetic: “Soldiers burned to death in the houses. Their charred corpses were found. Not one of them had fled. They burned holding out.” There is black humor, of course, as there always is in war. At one point during the siege, Grossman is asked to help deliver a pair of packages—gifts of an American women’s organization—addressed to the two “most courageous women defending Stalingrad.” The two lucky nurses opened their presents excitedly, only to find inside swimming suits and slippers. Remembered Grossman’s boss: “Everyone was extremely embarrassed. The luxurious swimming costumes looked so strange in this environment, under a thundering cannonade of the Stalingrad battle.”

A Writer at War is also important because it reminds us that Grossman bore powerful witness to the Holocaust. In particular, he wrote about Treblinka, a camp he visited shortly after its liberation by the Red Army. He found only about 40 survivors there, huddled and hiding in the surrounding pine forests, and he immediately began interviewing them all. Approximately 800,000 Jews had been gassed and burned at Treblinka in the previous 13 months, an operation presided over by a mere 25 SS men and about a hundred of their Ukrainian flunkies. How was such a thing possible logistically, never mind morally? Grossman’s essay, “The Hell Called Treblinka,” is a far more detailed explanation than the average reader may be prepared for.

“Now we know the whole story …” he wrote. “We know about death from starvation, about the swollen people who were taken outside the barbed wire on wheelbarrows and shot.” Grossman’s words are all the more powerful for their irony in the wake of David Irving’s recent conviction on charges of Holocaust denial. He spares no detail, not even the detail assigned to sweeping up the camp square after the “heaps of letters, photographs of new-born babies, brothers, fiancées, yellowed wedding announcements” have been gathered, sorted, and trashed. His psychological insights, meanwhile, are devastating: “When stripped,” he notes, “a person immediately loses the … instinct to live and one accepts one’s destiny like a fate. A person who used to have an intransigent thirst for life becomes passive and indifferent.”

It is no wonder that this essay was read at Nuremburg.

It is a wonder that Grossman himself does not get lost in such a book, overwhelmed by the enormity of the events he lived and wrote about. Instead, we are gently reminded of how unlikely it is that he should ever have survived Stalin; how unlikely it is that a man who walked with a cane and wore round, college-professor spectacles should so quickly toughen up and turn into what the Russians called a frontovik, or front-line soldier; how unlikely it is that a Jew, even a non-observant one, should be able to so easily insinuate himself into the lives of peasants and generals alike. At one point during the siege of Stalingrad, he even coaxed his divisional commander, a battle-hardened and reserved Siberian, to talk with him for six uninterrupted hours. Grossman, then, becomes a man we grow to know and care about over the course of this patchwork volume. We know, for instance, the guilt he felt in not working hard enough to save his mother, but when, near the end, we are presented two letters he wrote to her after her death, it makes for difficult and emotional reading.

Grossman’s Life and Fate will be republished by the New York Review of Books later this year. Until then, however, A Writer at War provides an unflinching and uncommon look into the last century’s heart of darkness.

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941–1945, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (Pantheon, 378 pages)
The Quarterly Conversation, February 2006