Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945

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"Based on the notebooks in which Vasily Grossman gathered the raw material for his newspaper articles, A Writer at War depicts the crushing conditions on the Eastern Front during World War II and the lives and deaths of infantrymen, tank drivers, pilots, snipers, and civilians. Deemed unfit for service when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman became a special correspondent for The Red Star, the Red Army newspaper. A portly novelist in his mid-thirties with no military experience, he was given a uniform and hastily taught how to ...
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Toronto 2006 Hardcover First Edition Very Good in Very Good jacket 8vo. pp. xxi [2] 378."Grossman witnessed some of the most savage fighting of the war: the appalling defeats of ... the Red Army, the brutal street fighting in Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk (the largest tank engagement in history), the defense of Moscow, the battles in Ukraine and much more." Read more Show Less

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2006 Hard Cover Good in Very Good jacket Grossman, Vasily A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 Knopf Canada Mississauga, ON, Canada 2006 isbn: ... 978-0676978100 Good/ Very Good Hard Cover HIGHLIGHT and writing throughout the book. Highlight and writing throughtout the book. Read more Show Less

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Overview

"Based on the notebooks in which Vasily Grossman gathered the raw material for his newspaper articles, A Writer at War depicts the crushing conditions on the Eastern Front during World War II and the lives and deaths of infantrymen, tank drivers, pilots, snipers, and civilians. Deemed unfit for service when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman became a special correspondent for The Red Star, the Red Army newspaper. A portly novelist in his mid-thirties with no military experience, he was given a uniform and hastily taught how to use a pistol. Remarkably, he spent three of the next four years at the front, observing with a writer's eye the most pitiless fighting ever recorded." Grossman witnessed almost all the major events on the Eastern Front: the appalling defeats and desperate retreats of 1941, the defense of Moscow, and the fighting in the Ukraine. In August 1942 he was posted to Stalingrad, where he remained during four months of brutal street fighting. Grossman was present at the battle of Kursk (the largest tank engagement in history), and, as the Red Army advanced, he reached Berdichev, where his worst fears for his mother and other relatives were confirmed. A Jew himself, he undertook the faithful recording of Holocaust atrocities as their extent dawned. His report "The Hell of Treblinka" was used in evidence at the Nuremberg tribunal.
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Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Much of the material that filled Grossman's notebooks never made it into print, because it was either politically sensitive or, in the view of the censors, too disturbing for Soviet citizens to read. In A Writer at War, the British historian Antony Beevor and his research assistant, Luba Vingradova, have mined this rich seam of gold, translating and editing generous excerpts from the notebooks (made available by Grossman's descendants) and stitching together a coherent narrative from Grossman's completed articles, his letters and the memoirs of contemporaries, notably his editor at Krasnaya Zvezda. The result is a first-rate volume of war reporting that belongs with the best work of writers like Ernie Pyle, A. J. Liebling and John Hersey.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Soviet author Grossman volunteered for the army when the Germans invaded in 1941 and spent more than three years as a special correspondent at the front for the army newspaper Red Star. His wartime writing established him as a major "voice" of war-a status resembling in many ways that of Ernie Pyle in America. This volume, a perfect complement to the panoramic vision of Ivan's War, collects excerpts from Grossman's notebooks and published dispatches, few of them longer than a couple of paragraphs. And while the dispatches usually describe scenes fitting with Soviet orthodoxy, Grossman's notebooks also record the bloody-mindedness, the despair and the disaffection that permeated Soviet ranks as the Red Army paid its dues of learning how to fight a modern war. That material, of course, was not published at the time. Grossman was a perceptive observer with an eye for essential detail. His vignettes of the fighting at Kursk and the battles that brought the Red Army into Berlin are models of combat reporting, and the elegiac realism of his description of Treblinka merits wide anthologizing in Holocaust literature. This volume stands among the finest eyewitness accounts of Soviet Russia's war on the Eastern Front. (Jan. 10) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Author of the celebrated novel Life and Fate (confiscated by the KGB), Grossman reported for the Red Army's newspaper during World War II. Here's a peak at his notebooks. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“A first-rate volume of war reporting that belongs with the best work of writers like Ernie Pyle, A. J. Liebling and John Hersey. . . . Convey[s] the taste, the smell and the sounds of the front lines.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Overwhelmingly powerful. [Grossman’s] combination of passion and detail, of patriotic fervor and journalistic objectivity, makes A Writer at War one of the greatest documents of World War II.”—The New York Sun

“Gripping...[has] the immediacy of eyewitness observation, but also the novelist's sensitivity to the men and women whose lives and deaths he was recording.”—The Boston Globe

“Excellent...Grossman, like Isaac Babel twenty years before him, lifts war correspondence to new heights.”—Literary Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780676978100
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

VASILY GROSSMAN was born in 1905. In 1941 he became a war reporter for the Red Army newspaper Red Star and came to be regarded as a legendary war hero. Life and Fate, his masterpiece, was considered a threat to the totalitarian regime, and Grossman was told that there was no chance of the novel being published for another 200 years. Grossman died in 1964.

ANTONY BEEVOR's books include Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945, which has been translated into 25 languages.

DR. LUBA VINOGRADOVA is a researcher, translator, and freelance journalist. She has worked with Antony Beevor on his three most recent books.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

Baptism of Fire

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union began in the early hours of 22 June 1941. Stalin, refusing to believe that he could be tricked, had rejected more than eighty warnings. Although the Soviet dictator did not collapse until later, he was so disorientated on discovering the truth that the announcement on the wireless at midday was made by his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, in a wooden voice. The people of the Soviet Union proved rather more robust than their leaders. They queued to volunteer for the front.

Vasily Grossman, bespectacled, overweight and leaning on a walking stick, was dejected when the recruiting station turned him down. He should not have been surprised, considering his unimpressive physical state. Grossman was only in his mid-thirties, yet the girls in the next-door apartment called him 'uncle'.

Over the next few weeks he tried to get any form of employment he could which was connected with the war. The Soviet authorities, meanwhile, gave little accurate information on what was happening at the front. Nothing was said of the German forces, more than three million strong, dividing the Red Army with armoured thrusts, then capturing hundreds of thousands of prisoners in encirclements. Only the names of towns mentioned in official bulletins revealed how rapidly the enemy was advancing.

Grossman had put off urging his mother to abandon the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine. His second wife, Olga Mikhailovna Guber, convinced him that they had no room for her. Then, before Grossman realised fully what was happening, the German Sixth Army seized Berdichev on 7 July. The enemy had advanced over 350 kilometres in just over two weeks. Grossman's failure to save his mother burdened him for the rest of his life, even after he discovered that she had refused to leave because there was nobody else to look after a niece. Grossman was also extremely concerned about the fate of Ekaterina, or Katya, his daughter by his first wife. He did not know that she had been sent away from Berdichev for the summer.

Desperate to be of some help to the war effort, Grossman badgered the Main Political Department of the Red Army, known by the acronym GLAVPUR, even though he was not a member of the Communist Party. His future editor, David Ortenberg, a commissar with the rank of general, recounted later how he came to work for Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet armed forces which was far more attentively read during the war than any other paper.

I remember how Grossman turned up for the first time at the editorial office. This was in late July. I had dropped in at the Main Political Department and heard that Vasily Grossman had been asking them to send him to the front. All that I knew about this writer was that he had written the novel Stepan Kolchugin about the Donbass.

'Vasily Grossman?' I said. 'I've never met him, but I know Stepan Kolchugin. Please send him to Krasnaya Zvezda.'

'Yes, but he has never served in the army. He knows nothing about it. Would he fit in at Krasnaya Zvezda?'

'That's all right,' I said, trying to persuade them. 'He knows about people's souls.'

I did not leave them in peace until the People's Commissar signed the order to conscript Vasily Grossman into the Red Army and appoint him to our newspaper. There was one problem. He was given the rank of private, or, as Ilya Ehrenburg liked to joke about both himself and Grossman, 'untrained private'. It was impossible to give him an officer's rank or that of a commissar because he was not a Party member. It was equally impossible to make him wear a private's uniform, as he would have had to spend half his time saluting his seniors. All that we could do was to give him the rank of quartermaster. Some of our writers, such as Lev Slavin, Boris Lapin and even, for some time, Konstantin Simonov, were in the same situation. Their green tabs used to cause them a lot of trouble, as the same tabs were worn by medics, and they were always being mistaken for them. Anyway, on 28 July 1941 I signed the order: 'Quartermaster of the second rank Vasily Grossman is appointed a special correspondent of Krasnaya Zvezda with a salary of 1,200 roubles per month.'

The next day Grossman reported at the editorial office. He told me that although this appointment was unexpected, he was happy about it. He returned a few days later fully equipped and in an officer's uniform. [His tunic was all wrinkled, his spectacles kept sliding down his nose, and his pistol hung on his unfastened belt like an axe.]

'I am ready to depart for the front today,' he said.

'Today?' I asked. 'But can you fire that thing?' I pointed to the pistol hanging at his side.

'No.'

'And a rifle?'

'No, I can't, either.'

'So how can I allow you to go to the front? Anything can happen there. No, you will have to live at the editorial office for a couple of weeks.'

Colonel Ivan Khitrov, our tactical expert and a former army officer, became Grossman's coach. He would take him to one of the shooting ranges of the Moscow garrison and teach him how to shoot.

On 5 August, Ortenberg allowed Grossman to set off for the front. He arranged for him to be accompanied by Pavel Troyanovsky, a correspondent of great experience, and Oleg Knorring, a photographer. Grossman described their departure in some detail.

We are leaving for the Central Front. Political Officer Troyanovsky, camera reporter Knorring, and I are going to Gomel. Troyanovsky, with his thin dark face and big nose, has received the medal 'For Achievements in Battle'. He has seen a lot although he isn't old, in fact he is some ten years younger than me. I had at first thought that Troyanovsky was a real soldier, a born fighter, but it turned out that he had started his career in journalism not long ago as a correspondent of Pionerskaya Pravda [the Communist Youth Movement newspaper]. I was told that Knorring is a good photo-journalist. He is tall, a year younger than me. I am older than the other two, but alongside them I am a mere baby in matters of war. They take a perfectly justified pleasure in regaling me with the forthcoming horrors.

We leave tomorrow by train. We will travel in a 'soft' railway carriage all the way to Bryansk, and from there by whatever transport God sends our way. We were briefed before our departure by Brigade Commissar Ortenberg. He told us that an advance was about to take place. Our first meeting was at GLAVPUR. Ortenberg had a conversation with me and finally told me that he thought I was an author of children's books. This was a big surprise for me, I had no idea that I had written any books for children. When we were saying goodbye I said to him: 'Goodbye, Comrade Boev.' He burst out laughing. 'I am not Boev, I am Ortenberg.' Well, I paid him back. I had mistaken him for the chief of the publications department of GLAVPUR.

I have been drinking all day, just as a recruit should. Papa turned up, as well as Kugel, Vadya, Zhenya and Veronichka. Veronichka was looking at me with very sad eyes, as if I were Gastello. I was very touched. The whole family sang songs and had sad conversations. The atmosphere was melancholy and concentrated. I lay alone that night, thinking. I had a lot of things, as well as people, to think about.

The day of our departure is a lovely one, it's hot and rainy. Sunshine and rain alternate suddenly. Pavements and sidewalks are wet. Sometimes they shine and sometimes are slate grey. The air is filled with hot, stifling moisture. A beautiful girl, Marusya, has come to see Troyanovsky off. She works at the editorial offices [of Krasnaya Zvezda], but apparently she is seeing him off on her own initiative, not at the editor's request. Knorring and I are tactful. We avoid looking in their direction.

Then the three of us [go to the platform]. I have so many memories of the Bryansky railway station. It's the station I arrived at when I first came to Moscow. Perhaps my departure from it today is my last. We drink lemonade and eat disgusting cakes in the cafeteria.

Our train pulls out of the station. All the names of stations along the line are familiar. I passed them so many times as a student, going back to Mama, to Berdichev, for my holidays. For the first time in a long while I can catch up on sleep in this 'soft' compartment, after all the air raids on Moscow.

[After reaching Bryansk] we spend a night at the railway station. Every corner is filled with Red Army soldiers. Many of them are badly dressed, in rags. They have already been 'there'. Abkhazians look the worst. Many of them are barefoot.

We have to sit up all night. German aircraft appear above the station, the sky is humming, there are searchlights everywhere. We all rush to some wasteland as far as possible from the station. Fortunately, the Germans don't bomb us here, they only frighten us. In the morning we listen to a broadcast from Moscow. It is a press conference given by Lozovsky [the head of the Soviet Information Bureau]. Sound was bad, we were listening hungrily. He used a lot of proverbs as usual, but they didn't make our hearts feel any lighter.

We go to the freight station to look for a train. They put us on a hospital train going to Unecha [midway between Bryansk and Gomel]. We board the train, but then suddenly there is panic. Everyone starts running, and firing. It turns out that a German aircraft is machine-gunning the railway station. I myself was caught up in this considerable commotion.

After Unecha, we travelled in a freight car. The weather was wonderful, but my travel companions said this was bad, and I realised this myself. There were black holes and craters from bombs everywhere along the railway. One could see trees broken by explosions. In the fields there were thousands of peasants, men and women, digging anti-tank ditches.

We watch the sky nervously and decided to jump off the train if the worst came to the worst. It was moving quite slowly. The moment we arrived in Novozybkov there was an air raid. A bomb fell by the station forecourt. This train wasn't going any further. We lay on the green grass, waiting and enjoying the warmth and grass around us, but we still kept glancing up at the sky. What if a German [aircraft] turned up all of a sudden?

We jump to our feet in the middle of the night. There is a hospital train going to Gomel. We take hold of the handrails when the train is already moving. We hang on the steps, knock at the door, pleading with them to let us at least on to the platform of the freight car. Suddenly a woman looks out and shouts: 'Jump off this second! It is forbidden to travel on hospital trains!' The woman is a doctor whose calling is to relieve people's suffering. 'Excuse us, but the train is moving at full speed, how are we to jump off?' There are five of us holding on to the handrails, we are all officers and all we are asking for is to be allowed to stand on the covered platform. She starts kicking us with her great boot, silently and with extraordinary force. She punches us on the hands with her fist, trying to make us let go of the handrails. Things are looking bad: if one lets go, that would be the end. Fortunately, it dawns on us that we aren't on a Moscow tram, and switch from the defensive to the attack. A few seconds later, the covered platform is ours, and the bitch with the rank of doctor is screaming in a frightened way and disappears very quickly. This is our first taste of fighting.

We arrive in Gomel. The train stops very far from the railway station, so we have a painful walk along the track in the dark. One has to crawl under the carriages to cross railways. I bang my forehead on them and stumble; my damned suitcase turns out to be extremely heavy.

Finally we reach the station building. It is completely destroyed. We utter 'Ahs' and 'Ohs' looking at the ruins. A railway worker who is passing reassures us by saying that the station had been demolished just before the invasion in order to build a bigger and better one.

Gomel! What sadness there is in this quiet green town, in these sweet public gardens, in its old people sitting on the benches, in sweet girls walking along the streets. Children are playing in the piles of sand brought here to extinguish incendiary bombs ... Any minute a huge cloud may cover the sun, a storm may whip up sand and dust, and whirl them about. The Germans are less than fifty kilometres away.

Gomel welcomes us with an air-raid warning. Locals say that the custom here is to sound the alarm when there are no German aircraft around and, on the contrary, to sound the all-clear as soon as bombing starts.

Bombing of Gomel. A cow, howling bombs, fire, women ... The strong smell of perfume - from a pharmacy hit in the bombardment - blocked out the stench of burning, just for a moment.

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

The colours 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'.

We went to meet the editor, regimental commissar Nosov, who kept us waiting for a good two hours. We had to sit in a dark corridor, and when finally we saw this tsar-like person and spoke with him for a couple minutes, I realised that this comrade was, to put it mildly, not particularly bright and that his conversation wasn't worth even a two-minute wait.

The headquarters of the Central Front was the first port of call for Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring. The Central Front, commanded by General Andrei Yeremenko, had been set up hurriedly following the collapse of the Western Front at the end of June. The Western Front's unfortunate commander, General D.G. Pavlov, was made the chief scapegoat for Stalin's refusal to prepare for war. In characteristic Stalinist fashion, Pavlov, the commander of Soviet tank forces during the Spanish Civil War, was accused of treason and executed.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Translators’ Note
Glossary

PART ONE

The Shock of Invasion 1941

1. Baptism of Fire August 1941
2. The Terrible Retreat August to September 1941
3. On the Bryansk Front September 1941
4. With the 50th Army September 1941
5. Back into the Ukraine September 1941
6. The German Capture of Orel October 1941
7. The Withdrawl before Moscow October 1941

PART TWO

The Year of Stalingrad 1942

8. In the South January 1942
9. The Air War in the South January 1942
10. On the Donets with the Black Division January and February 1942
11. With the Khasin Tank Brigade February 1942
12. ‘The Ruthless Truth of War’ March 1942 to July 1942
13. The Road to Stalingrad August 1942
14. The September Battles
15. The Stalingrad Academy Autumn 1942
16. The October Battles
17. The Tide Turned November 1942

PART THREE

Recovering the Occupied Territories 1943

18. After the Battle January 1943
19. Winning Back the Motherland The Early Spring of 1943
20. The Battle of Kursk July 1943

PART FOUR

From the Dnepr to the Vistula 1944

21. The Killing Ground of Berdichev January 1944
22. Across the Ukraine to Odessa March & April 1944
23. Operation Bagration June & July 1944
24. Treblinka July 1944

PART FIVE

Amid the Ruins of the Nazi World

25. Warsaw and Lódz January 1945
26. Into the Lair of the Fascist Beast January 1945
27. The Battle for Berlin April & May 1945

AFTERWORD
The Lies of Victory
Acknowledgements
Bibliography
Source Notes
Index

Maps
Gomel and the Central Front, August 1941
In the Donbass, January to March 1942
Stalingrad, Autumn and Winter 1942
The Battle of Kursk, July 1943

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2009

    Captivating

    What a fantastic account of life and death at the front with the Red Army from Moscow to Berlin from 1941 to 1945.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2008

    Read about the other side!

    Grossman was there to record the Soviet side of the war. Grossman is censored by his own publishers, but posthumously has his writings smuggled out of Communist Russia and then published. Through losses and victories, he speaks with soldiers, civilians, the enemy, POW's and more. He is also a surprisingly good help to the men he walks with. For a different view and the other side of Nazi defeat, look here.

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    Posted December 5, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted November 16, 2008

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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    Posted June 2, 2010

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