Commentary Magazine

The Black Book

Since the close of World War II, a multitude of firsthand material about the destruction of European Jewry has been published, including diaries, memoirs, and the reports of Nazi officers to their superiors in Berlin. But until recently, the slaughter of Jews on Soviet territory has not been as well documented, mainly because the Soviet government has been reluctant to acknowledge that the Jews were the primary victims of Nazi hatred. One-and-a-half million Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, four shooting units that followed the Wehrmacht into Soviet territory. Their reports were found in Nazi archives and many officers were interrogated after the war as well. But unlike what happened in Poland and Western Europe, where German documents have been supplemented by the testimony of survivors, we have few if any accounts from the side of the victims in the enormous area of Soviet territory which was occupied by the Germans.

This serious gap has now been addressed by the publication of The Black Book.1 Like many manuscripts to reach us from the Soviet Union, this one has a long and complicated history. The present volume was prepared at Yad Vashem (Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) in Jerusalem, but it represents the work of more than forty writers and journalists who, from 1944 to 1946, collected and prepared material on the destruction of Soviet Jewry. Excerpts were published in the Moscow journal Znamya (The Banner) as long ago as 1944, with a preface by the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Two sections of the book in Yiddish translation also appeared in Moscow by 1945, again with prefaces by Ehrenburg. In 1946, a much longer section was published in Rumania.

That same year, Ehrenburg traveled to the United States and showed parts of the manuscript to Albert Einstein. He also gave a good deal of firsthand material to a committee in New York. This committee issued a “Black Book” in 1946 which contained eyewitness testimony about Nazi atrocities throughout Europe, but there was no indication of what The Black Book really was, of its ambitious scale, of how the testimonies were collected, or of what happened to the documents that Ehrenburg gave the committee in New York. (According to B. Z. Goldberg, a prominent Yiddish journalist in New York who for many years had been outspokenly pro-Soviet, Albert Einstein wrote a preface for the book, but it was rejected by American participants in the committee because it had a “Zionist angle.”) The present volume is based on a Russian-language manuscript that the Yiddish poet Abram Sutskever delivered to Yad Vashem in 1965.

More serious obstacles to publication intruded in the Soviet Union itself. In Ehrenburg’s memoirs, People, Years, Life, which began appearing in 1961 in the liberal Moscow journal Novy Mir (New World), he mentioned The Black Book, which he had edited with another journalist named Vasily Grossman, and told how the regime had prevented its appearance after the war. What readers of the memoirs did not know was that Ehrenburg had written much more extensively about The Black Book, but the censors insisted he remove most of it.



Ilya Ehrenburg was one of the most controversial and contradictory figures in Soviet literary history. A Jew, he was an avowed assimilationist who voiced little support for Zionism or Israel. He lived and traveled widely abroad, an unusual circumstance for a Soviet citizen. He survived the Stalin years when many of his friends and colleagues—writers, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and Jews—were cut down.

Because of his contacts and the many years he spent living in the West, Ehrenburg was extremely useful to Stalin in the decades before and after World War II. In the 1930’s, he helped to organize the International Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture which took place in Paris in June 1935. Along with other Soviet apologists, he tried to prevent discussion of the fate of Victor Serge, a revolutionary anarchist who was then under arrest in the Soviet Union. (In his memoirs, Serge later referred to Ehrenburg as a “hack agitator-novelist.”)

After the war, too, Ehrenburg spent time in the West, this time as the architect and principal spokesman for the Soviet-sponsored “struggle for peace” campaign. He traveled all over the world, extolling Stalin’s foreign policy and his peaceful intentions—at a time when the Red Army was consolidating control of Eastern Europe and Soviet scientists were laboring to overcome the U.S. monopoly of atomic weapons. The Russian emigré writer Roman Gul wrote about Ehrenburg during this period that his principal “line of business was to lie to the West about Russia, and in Russia to lie to the Soviet people about the West. Because the regime is faced with a catastrophic lack of knowledgeable and intelligent people who know the West, they have no one for this role other than Ehrenburg.”

Ehrenburg’s service to the Soviet regime during these years takes on a particularly sinister dimension when we remember that they coincided with Stalin’s assault on Soviet Jewry. At the height of the anti-Semitic hysteria, when prominent Jews were unmasked and denounced as “cosmopolitans,” when more than a score of Yiddish writers were secretly executed, and when Jewish doctors were accused of attempting to poison the Kremlin leaders, Ehrenburg survived and could even be said to have flourished. He later wrote in his memoirs that this period was among “the most painful in my whole life.” We know now that he also feared arrest, and that he objected to Stalin’s plan to deport the Jews of European Russia to Siberia. No one can say for certain why Ehrenburg survived, but there is no denying his usefulness to the regime as an informed and quick-witted spokesman in the West, a role Stalin depended on to help maintain the duplicitous nature of his dictatorship.



During World War II, Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman both worked for the army newspaper Red Star, which gave them unique visibility. and prestige. “Never in my life have I worked so hard,” Ehrenburg wrote in People, Years, Life. “Every day I wrote three or four articles; at home I sat at my typewriter, in the evening I went to the Red Star office, prepared an article for the next issue, read German documents and intercepted radio messages, edited translations and wrote captions for photographers.”

As the war continued and the scope of Nazi atrocities became clearer, Ehrenburg actively sought out material on the destruction of Soviet Jewry, asking the soldiers to send him eyewitness accounts. In the midst of all this work, he planned to compile three volumes about the Jews and the war: a black book on Jewish suffering; a red book on the exploits of Jewish soldiers; and a yellow book on Jewish partisans.

For a time he must have had good reason to think his project would succeed. The Soviet Union needed allies, so Stalin had allowed the formation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to reinforce the support of Western Jews for the wartime alliance. Ehrenburg was a member of the committee; the Yiddish theater director Solomon Mikhoels and the Yiddish poet Itzik Fefer, two leaders of the committee, traveled abroad where they aroused intense enthusiasm—speaking, for example, to a crowded Polo Grounds in New York about the Soviet war effort, Nazi crimes, and the solidarity of the Jewish people.

Ehrenburg set up a literary commission under the auspices of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to prepare the three books. But once Soviet armies began to advance, he sensed a change in mood. His articles began to be censored more heavily; he was told “there was no need to mention the exploits of Jews in the Red Army,” even when addressing an American audience. (During the war Jews received the third highest number of Hero of the Soviet Union medals among Soviet troops, after Russians and Ukrainians, who are by far the most numerous ethnic groups in the country. Yet to this day Jewish heroism is often ignored or derided, obscured by the popular myth that “Ivan fought at the front while Abram was in Tashkent.”)

Ehrenburg’s book, One Hundred Letters, a collection of communications he had received from soldiers, was due to appear in 1945. But it came out only in French (in Moscow) while the Russian edition was withdrawn. Ehrenburg sought an explanation, but all he was told was “this isn’t 1941.” Presumably, the book’s account of Jewish suffering (which was only part of its content) was too much for the censor.

The Black Book had a similar fate. The literary commission was dissolved by 1945 and the material Ehrenburg had collected was returned to the Committee. According to the editors of this volume, the Committee reduced the size of the book and altered some of the text. Ehrenburg still tried to get it published. “The type was set up,” he writes in his memoirs, “the book reached proof stage, and we were told it would be published in 1948.” But Stalin had other plans: Mikhoels was murdered, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was dissolved along with its Yiddish publishing house, and The Black Book never appeared.2



Ehrenburg did what he could to preserve the original documents. He filled three enormous albums with the material, including “a Greek-language prose work on the tragedy of Greek Jewry, a long poem written in French on cigarette paper in a death camp, an approximately 200-page drama written in Hebrew, the diaries of several Jewish children who had found refuge in Catholic churches, and poems and notes in Yiddish.” He gave it all to the Jewish museum in Vilnius on the condition that the albums be returned if the museum were to be closed. When that indeed occurred, two workmen discreetly brought the material to Moscow where he kept it. As late as 1965, Ehrenburg still had the albums in his apartment. That summer, Novosti (the Soviet overseas publishing agency) called him to seek permission to publish The Black Book abroad. “In which languages?” he asked. “French, German, Spanish, English,” they replied. “And Russian?” he inquired. When they said no, Ehrenburg turned them down. Perhaps it is coincidental, but sometime that year Abram Sutskever (a native of Vilnius who knew Ehrenburg during the war and prepared parts of the book) brought the text of The Black Book to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The manuscript was in poor condition; parts were lost, pages could barely be read. It took years to restore a good deal of the text and prepare the manuscript for publication. An additional factor impeding progress toward publication was opposition based on the book’s Soviet character—positive references to Stalin, the emphasis on the help given by non-Jews to Jewish victims of Nazism, and little mention of collaboration. These qualities are present in The Black Book, but they do not obscure its significance. For this is an eloquent, disquieting, and courageous document.



The Black Book we have today is a collection of accounts from scores of cities and villages on Soviet territory which were occupied by German forces. Once the Nazis retreated, Soviet writers and journalists came with the Red Army to interview survivors and document the massacres.

The war brought out the best in many of these writers, giving them a chance to speak honestly about the suffering around them. It would be years before Soviet writers would dare approach their own country’s history with similar passion, directness, and sincerity. They could not write about Magadan or Vorkuta in the Gulag, but Vasily Grossman could visit Treblinka and be the first to interview survivors, describe how the camp worked, and document the diabolical charade that accompanied the prisoners’ march from the trains to the gas chambers:

Here, according to witnesses, the heartrending scenes usually began. The instinct of maternal, conjugal, filial love told the victims that they were seeing one another for the last time. Handshakes, kisses, blessings, tears, briefly murmured words invested with all the love, all the anguish, all the tenderness and despair that filled them were now exchanged. The SS psychiatrists of death knew that these emotions had to be stamped out at once. The psychiatrists of death were familiar with the primitive laws that operate in all the slaughterhouses of the world, laws which in Treblinka were applied by the cattle to the human beings.

Grossman was the first person anywhere to write about Treblinka. His essay appeared in the Soviet Union in 1944 and was then translated and published in several foreign languages the following year. It has long been neglected; its inclusion gives The Black Book genuine literary distinction.



Other writers too produced vivid accounts, based on material they were handed by Ehrenburg or collected on their own from survivors. Abram Sutskever and Ovady Savich spoke with survivors in Lithuania. Margarita Aliger worked on testimonies from the Brest area in Byelorussia. Ehrenburg himself prepared about a third of the material in this edition: letters from children in Byelorussia, from soldiers who lost their families, and testimonies he must have taken from survivors in a host of towns and villages. Ehrenburg relates one story, about a man who hid under the kitchen stove, with almost biblical concision:

Natalya Emelyanovna hid her husband in a hole under the stove. He spent more than two years there. He had to sit bent over, since there was not room to lie down or stand up. When he sometimes came up at night, he was not able to straighten out. It was concealed from the children that their father was hiding in the cellar. Once the four-year-old daughter looked in a crack and saw large black eyes. She was frightened and shouted: “Mama, who is there?” Natalya Emelyanovna calmly answered: “It’s a very large rat; I noticed it a long time ago.”

Natalya Emelyanovna fell ill with typhus. She was taken away to the hospital, and a neighbor took in her children. At night Isaak Rosenberg crawled out and ate the glue from the wallpaper for two weeks. In the hospital Natalya Emelyanovna worried that she might give away her husband in a delirium.

In September 1943, units of the Red Army came almost right up to the small town. Monastyrshchina is a crossroads, and the Germans resisted strongly at that point. The battles went on, and armed Germans were next to the Rosenberg house. Like the other residents of Monastyrshchina, Natalya Emelyanovna took the children and fled into the forest. She returned when Red Army soldiers entered the town. She found still-smoking ashes and the stove; the house had burned down. Isaak Rosenberg had died from asphyxiation. He had sat out twenty-six months in the cellar and died two days before Monastyrshchina was liberated by Soviet units.



As Margarita Aliger comments, “The entire time, in all these hiding places and cellars, from every pit and through every crack came scenes, each more terrible than the others. A bloody panorama of life was unfolding—a monstrous and daily spectacle of death.”

These writers were equal to their task. Although the events they describe will seem sadly familiar to even the most casual reader of Holocaust literature, the stories are told with an emotional immediacy produced by the freshness of the events themselves and the unmistakable identification of these writers with their subject.

Publication of The Black Book has been long overdue; from now on, no history of the Holocaust will be complete without reference to it. And no evaluation of Ilya Ehrenburg’s career will be fair unless it takes into account his attempt to compile and preserve a record of the greatest catastrophe to befall Soviet Jewry.


1 Edited by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by John Glad and James S. Levine, Holocaust Library/Schocken, 595 pp., .$19.95, $9.95 (paper).

2 Curiously, a book on Jewish partisan resistance was issued by Der Emes publishing house in October 1948 in a limited Russian-language edition. Entitled Partisan Brotherhood, it was compiled by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The Israeli journalist Binyamin West prepared a Hebrew translation in 1968. Just this year Jack Nusan Porter, whose father was a partisan hero in the Ukraine, edited an English version, Jewish Partisans, A Documentary of Jewish Resistance in the Soviet Union During World War II (University Press of America).

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