Anna Semyonovna’s Last Letter
From Life and Fate by Vasilly Grossman
Vitya, I'm certain this letter will reach you, even though I'm now behind the German front line, behind the barbed wire of the Jewish ghetto. I won't receive your answer, though; I won't be here to receive it. I want you to know about my last days. Like that, it will be easier for me to die.
It's difficult, Vitya, ever really to understand people ... The Germans entered the town on July 7th. The latest news was being broadcast on the radio in the park. I was on my way back from the surgery and I stopped to listen. It was a war-bulletin in Ukrainian. Then I heard distant shooting. Some people ran across the park. I set off home, all the time feeling surprised that I'd missed the air-raid warning. Suddenly I saw a tank and someone shouted: 'It's the Germans.'
'Don't spread panic!' I warned. I'd been the day before to ask the secretary of the town soviet when we'd be evacuated. 'There'll be time enough to talk about that,' he'd answered angrily. 'We haven't even drawn up the lists of evacuees yet.'
Well, it was indeed the Germans. All that night the neighbors were rushing round to each other's rooms-- the only people who stayed calm were myself and the little children. I'd just accepted that the same would happen to me as to everyone else. To begin with I felt utter horror. I realized that I'd never see you again. I wanted desperately to look at you once more. I wanted to kiss your forehead and your eyes. Then I understood how fortunate I was that you were safe.
When it was nearly morning, I fell asleep. I woke up and felt a terrible sadness. I was in my own room and my own bed, but I felt as though I were in a foreign country, alone and lost.
I got a further reminder from some of my own neighbors. The caretaker's wife was standing beneath my window and saying to the woman next door: 'Well, that's the end of the Jews. Thank God for that!' What can have made her say that? Her son's married to a Jew. She used to go and visit him and then come back and tell me all about her grandchildren.
The woman next door, a widow with a six-year-old daughter-- a girl called Alyonushka with wonderful blue eyes, I wrote to you about her once-- came round and said to me: 'Anna Semyonovna, I'm moving into your room. Can you clear your things out by this evening?' 'Very well, I'll move into your room then.' 'No, you're moving into the little room behind the kitchen.'
I refused. There isn't even a stove there, or a window.
I went to the surgery. When I came back, I found the door of my room had been smashed in and all my things piled in the little room. My neighbor just said: 'I've kept the settee for myself. There's no room for it where you are now.'
It's extraordinary-- she's been to technical school and her late husband was a wonderful man, very quiet, an accountant at Ukopspilk. 'You're outside the law!' she said, as though that were something very profitable for her. And then her little Alyonushka sat with me all evening while I told her fairytales. That was my house-warming party-- the girl didn't want to go to bed and her mother had to carry her away in her arms. Then, Vityenka, they opened the surgery again. I and another Jewish doctor were both dismissed. I asked for the previous month's pay but the new director said: 'Stalin can pay you whatever you earned under the Soviet regime. Write to him in Moscow.' The assistant, Marusya, embraced me and keened quietly, 'Lord God, Lord God, what will become of you, what will become of you all?' And Doctor Tkachev shook me by the hand. I really don't know which is worse-- gloating spite, or these pitying glances like people cast at a mangy, half-dead cat. No, I never thought I'd have to live through anything like this.
Many people have surprised me. And not only those who are poor, uneducated, embittered. There's one old man, a retired teacher, seventy-five years old, who always used to ask after you and send you his greetings and say, 'He's the pride of our town.' During these accursed days he's just passed me by without a word, looking in the other direction. And I've heard that at a meeting called by the commandant, he said: 'Now the air feels clean at last. It no longer smells of garlic.' Why, why?- words like that are a stain on him. Yes, and how terribly the Jews were slandered at that meeting ... But then of course, Vityenka, not everyone attended. Many people refused. And one thing-- ever since the time of the Tsars I've associated anti-Semitism with the jingoism of people from the Union of Michael the Archangel. But now I've seen that the people who shout most loudly about delivering Russia from the Jews are the very ones who cringe like lackeys before the Germans, ready to betray their country for thirty pieces of German silver. And strange people from the outskirts of town seize our rooms, our blankets, our clothes. It must have been people like them who killed doctors at the time of the cholera riots. And then there are people whose souls have just withered, people who are ready to go along with anything evil-- anything so as not to be suspected of disagreeing with whoever's in power.
People I know are constantly coming round with bits of news. Their eyes are mad and they seem quite delirious. A strange expression has come into vogue: 'hiding away one another's things.' People somehow think a neighbor’s house is going to be safer. The whole thing is like a children's game.
An announcement was soon made about the resettlement of the Jews. We were each to be permitted to take 15 kilograms of belongings. Little yellow notices were hung up on the walls of houses: 'All occupants are required to move to the area of the Old Town by not later than 6.oo p.m. on 5 July, 1941. Anyone remaining will be shot.'
And so, Vityenka, I got ready. I took a pillow, some bedclothes, the cup you once gave me, a spoon, a knife and two forks. Do we really need so very much? I took a few medical instruments. I took your letters; the photographs of my late mother and Uncle David, and the one of you with your father; a volume of Pushkin; Lettres de mon moulin; the volume of Maupassant with Une vie; a small dictionary ... I took some Chekhov-- the volume with 'A Boring Story' and 'The Bishop'-- and that was that, I'd filled my basket. How many letters I must have written to you under that roof, how many hours I must have cried at night-- yes, now I can tell you just how lonely I've been.
I said goodbye to the house and garden. I sat for a few minutes under the tree. I said goodbye to the neighbors. Some people are very strange. Two women began arguing in front of me about which of them would have my chairs, and which my writing-desk. I said goodbye and they both began to cry. I asked the Basankos to tell you everything in more detail if you ever come and ask about me after the war. They promised. I was very moved by the mongrel, Tobik-- she was particularly affectionate towards me that last evening. If you do come, feed her in return for her kindness towards an old Yid.
When I'd got everything ready and was wondering how I'd be able to carry my basket to the Old Town, a patient of mine suddenly appeared, a gloomy and-- so I had always thought- rather callous man called Shchukin. He picked up my belongings, gave me 300 roubles and said he'd come once a week to the fence and give me some bread. He works at the printing house- - they didn't want him at the front because of his eye trouble. He was a patient of mine before the war. If I'd been asked to list all the people I knew with pure, sensitive souls, I might have given dozens of names- - but certainly not his. Do you know, Vityenka, after he came, I began to feel once more that I was a human being-- it wasn't only the yard-dog that still treated me as though I were.
He told me that a new decree was being printed: Jews are to be forbidden to walk on the pavements; they are required to wear a yellow patch, a Star of David, on the chest; they no longer have the right to use public transport, baths, parks, or cinemas; they are forbidden to buy butter, eggs, milk, berries, white bread, meat, or any vegetable other than potatoes; they are only allowed to make purchases in the market after six o'clock, when the peasants are already on their way home. The Old Town will be fenced off with barbed wire and people will only be allowed out under escort-- to carry out forced labor. If a Jew is discovered in a Russian home, the owner will be shot-- just as if he were harboring a partisan.
Shchukin's father-in-law, an old peasant, had travelled in from the nearby village of Chudnov. He had seen with his own eyes how all the Jews there were herded into the forest with their parcels and suitcases. All day long he heard shots and terrible screams; not one Jew returned. As for the Germans who'd commandeered his rooms, they didn't come back till late at night. They were quite drunk and they carried on drinking and singing till dawn, sharing out brooches, rings and bracelets right under the old man's nose. I don't know whether the soldiers just got out of hand or whether that's a foretaste of our common fate.
What a sad journey it was, my son, to the medieval ghetto. I was walking through the town where I have worked for the last twenty years. First we went down Svechnaya Street, which was quite deserted. Then we came out onto Nikolskaya Street and I caught sight of hundreds of people all on their way to this same accursed ghetto. The street was white with little parcels and pillows. There were invalids being led by the hand. Doctor Margulis's paralysed father was being carried on a blanket. One young man was carrying an old woman in his arms while his wife and children followed behind, loaded with parcels. Gordon, a fat breathless man who manages a grocery shop, was wearing a winter coat with a fur collar; sweat was pouring down his face. I was struck by one young man; he had no belongings and he was walking with his head high, a book held open before him, and a calm, proud face. But how crazy and horror-struck most of the people beside him looked!
We all walked down the roadway while everyone else stood on the pavement and watched. At one moment I was walking beside the Margulises and I could hear sighs of compassion from the women on the pavement. But everyone just laughed at Gordon's winter coat-- though, believe me, he looked more terrible than absurd. I saw many faces I knew. Some nodded goodbye, others looked away. I don't think any eyes in that crowd were indifferent; some were pitiless, some were inquisitive, and some were filled with tears.
I realized there were two different crowds: there were the Jews-- the men in winter coats and hats, the women wearing thick dresses-- and there were the people in summer clothes on the pavement. There you could see bright dresses, men in shirt-sleeves, embroidered Ukrainian blouses. It was as though even the sun no longer shone for the Jews on the street, as though they were walking through the cold frost of a December night…
We came to the gateway into the ghetto and I said goodbye to my companion. He pointed out where we were to meet at the fence.
Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I'd expected to feel horror. But just imagine-- I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don't think it's because I'm a born slave. No. No. It's because everyone around me shares my fate: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway like a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I'm no longer a beast deprived of rights - simply an unfortunate human being. And that's easier to bear.
I've settled down, together with a colleague of mine, Doctor Sperling, in a small two-roomed house. The Sperlings have got two grown-up daughters and a twelve-year-old son, Yura. I gaze for hours at his thin little face and his big, sad eyes; twice I've called him Vitya by mistake and he's corrected me: 'I'm Yura, not Vitya.'
How different people are! Sperling, at fifty-eight years of age, is full of energy. He's already managed to get hold of mattresses, kerosene and a cart for carrying firewood. Last night he had a sack of flour and half a sack of haricot beans brought to the house. He's as pleased as punch at each little success of his. Yesterday he was hanging out the rugs. 'Don't worry, don't worry, we'll survive,' he repeated. 'The main thing is to get stocked up with food and firewood.'
He said we ought to start up a school in the ghetto. He even suggested I gave Yura French lessons in exchange for a bowl of soup. I agreed.
Sperling's fat wife, Fanny Borisovna, just sighs, 'Everything's ruined, we're all ruined.' At the same time she keeps a careful watch on her elder daughter, Lyuba-- a kind, good natured girl-- in case she gives anyone a handful of beans or a slice of bread. The mother's favourite is the younger daughter, Alya. She's the devil incarnate -- mean, domineering and suspicious-- and she's always shouting at her father and sister. She came on a visit from Moscow before the war and got stuck here.
God, what poverty there is everywhere! If only the people who are always talking about how rich the Jews are, how they've always got something put by for hard times, could have a look at the Old Town now. Hard times have come indeed- there can be no harder. But the people who've been resettled with fifteen kilograms of baggage aren't the only inhabitants of the Old Town: there have always been craftsmen living here-- together with old men, workers, hospital orderlies ...What terrible crowded conditions they live in! And what food they eat! If you could only see these half-ruined shacks that have almost become part of the earth.
Vityenka, I've seen many bad people here, people who are greedy, dishonest, capable even of betrayal. We've got one terrible man, Epstein, who came here from some little town in Poland-- he wears a band round his sleeve and helps the Germans with their interrogations and searches; he gets drunk with the Ukrainian policemen and they send him round to people's homes to extort vodka, money and food. I've seen him twice, a tall handsome man in a smart cream-colored suit- - even the yellow star sewn on his jacket looks like a chrysanthemum.
But what I really want to talk to you about is something quite different. I never used to feel I was a Jew: as a child my circle of friends were all Russian; my favorite poets were Pushkin and Nekrasov; the one play which reduced me to tears, together with the whole audience-- a congress of village doctors-- was Stanislavsky's production of Uncle Vanya. And once, Vityenka, when I was fourteen, our family was about to emigrate to South America and I said to my father: 'I'll never leave Russia- -I'd rather drown myself.' And I didn't go.
But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with a maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before. It reminds me of my love for you, my dearest son. I visit the sick in their houses. Dozens of people are crowded into minute little rooms- - half-blind old men, un weaned babies, pregnant women. I'm used to looking into people's eyes for symptoms of diseases-- glaucoma, cataract. Now I can no longer look at people's eyes like that; what I see now is the reflection of the soul. A good soul, Vityenka! A sad, good-natured soul, defeated by violence, but at the same time triumphant over violence. A strong soul, Vitya!
If you could only see with what concern the old men and women keep asking after you. How sincerely people try to console me, people I've never complained to and whose situation is far more terrible than my own.
Sometimes I think that it's not so much me visiting the sick, as the other way round-- that the people are a kind doctor who is healing my soul. And how touching it is when people hand me an onion, a slice of bread, or a handful of beans.
And believe me, Vityenka, that's not a matter of payment for my visit. Tears come to my eyes when some middle-aged workman shakes me by the hand, puts two or three potatoes in a little bag and says, 'There, Doctor, I beg you.' There's something about it which is pure, kind, fatherly-- but I can't find the right words.
I don't want to console you by saying that things have been easy for me-- no, it's surprising that my heart hasn't broken from grief. But please don't worry that I'm going hungry-- I haven't once felt hungry. Nor have I felt lonely.
What can I say about people? They amaze me as much by their good qualities as by their bad qualities. They are all so different, even though they must undergo the same fate. But then if there's a downpour and most people try to hide, that doesn't mean that they're all the same. People even have their own particular ways of sheltering from rain.
Doctor Sperling is certain that the persecution of the Jews will only last as long as the war. There aren't many people like him, and I've noticed that the more optimistic people are, the more petty and egotistic they tend to be. If someone comes in when we're eating, Alya and Fanny Borisovna hide away the food as quick as they can.
The Sperlings treat me well-- especially as I eat little and provide more than I consume. But I've decided to leave. I don't like them. I'm trying to find some little corner for myself. The more sorrow there is in a man, the less hope he has of survival- the better, the kinder, the more generous he becomes.
The poorest people, the tailors and tinsmiths, the ones without hope, are so much nobler, more generous and more intelligent than the people who've somehow managed to lay by a few provisions. The young schoolmistresses; Spilberg, the eccentric old teacher and chess-player; the timid women who work in the library; Reyvich, the engineer, who's more helpless than a child, yet dreams of arming the ghetto with hand-made grenades- - what wonderful, impractical, dear, sad, good people they all are!
People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It's impossible to say whether that's wise or foolish- it's just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukrainian police drive up and recruit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two or three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about.
There's a girl from Poland next door. She says that there the killing goes on continually. The Jews are being massacred; there are only a few ghettoes-- Warsaw, Lodz and Radom- where there are any left alive. When I thought about all this, it seemed quite clear that we've been gathered here not to be preserved-- like the bison in the Bialowiezska forest-- but to be slaughtered. Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine-- I still go on seeing patients and saying, 'Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.' I'm taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year.
I give Yura French lessons and get quite upset at his bad pronunciation.
Meanwhile the Germans burst into people's houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.
That's how it is-- life goes on. Not long ago we even had a wedding ... And there are always dozens of rumors. First a neighbor declares that our troops have taken the offensive and the Germans are fleeing. Then there is a rumor that the Soviet government and Churchill have presented the Germans with an ultimatum-- and that Hitler's ordered that no more Jews are to be killed. Then we are informed that Jews are to be exchanged for German prisoners-of-war.
It seems that 'nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto'. The world is full of events and all these events have the same meaning and the same purpose- - the salvation of the Jews. What a wealth of hope!
And the source of all these hopes is one and the same-- the life-instinct itself, blindly rebelling against the terrible fact that we must all perish without trace. I look round myself and simply can't believe it: can we really, all of us, already be condemned, about to be executed? The hairdressers, the cobblers, the tailors, the doctors, the stove-repairers are still working. A little maternity home has even been opened-- or rather, the semblance of one. People do their washing, linen dries on the line, meals are prepared, the children have been going to school since the first of September, the mothers question the teachers about their children's marks.
Old Spilberg is having some books bound. Alya Sperling does physical training every morning, puts her hair in paper-curlers every evening and quarrels with her father about two lengths of material that she wants for summer dresses.
And I'm busy myself from morning till night-- visiting my patients, giving lessons, darning my clothes, doing my washing, preparing for winter, sewing a lining into my winter coat. I hear stories about the terrible punishments Jews have suffered: one woman I know, a lawyer's wife, bought a duck egg for her child and was beaten till she lost consciousness; a boy, the son of Sirota the chemist, was shot in the shoulder for crawling beneath the wire after a ball that had rolled away. And then rumors, rumors, rumors ...
What I say now isn't a rumor, however. Today the Germans came and took eighty young men to work in the fields, supposedly to dig potatoes. Some people were glad, imagining the men would be able to bring a few potatoes home for their relatives. But I knew all too well what the Germans meant by potatoes.
Night is a special time in the ghetto, Vitya. You know, my dearest, how I always taught you to tell the truth-- a son must always tell the truth to his mother. But then so must a mother tell the truth to her son. Don't imagine, Vityenka, that your mother's a strong woman. I'm weak. l'm afraid of pain and I'm terrified to sit down in the dentist's chair. As a child I was afraid of darkness and thunder. As an old woman I've been afraid of illness and loneliness; I've been afraid that if I fall ill, I won't be able to go back to work again; that I'll become a burden to you and that you'll make me feel it. I've been afraid of the war. Now, Vitya, I'm seized at night by a horror that makes my heart grow numb. I'm about to die. I want to call out to you for help.
When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me. I'm not always strong in spirit, Vitya-- I can be weak too. I often think about suicide, but something holds me back- - some weakness, or strength, or irrational hope.
But enough of that. I have dreams every night. I often see my mother and talk to her. Last night I dreamed of Sasha Shaposhnikov during our years in Paris. But I haven't once dreamed of you-- though I think of you often, even at moments of the most terrible distress. In the morning I wake up and look at the ceiling, then I remember that the Germans are on our land and that I'm a leper- and it's as though I haven't woken up at all, but have just fallen asleep and begun to dream.
A few minutes go by and I hear Alya quarrelling with Lyuba over whose turn it is to go to the well. Then I hear people talking about how, during the night, the Germans smashed in the skull of some old man on the next street.
A girl I knew came round, a student at the teachers' training college for technical subjects, and called me out on a visit. She turned out to be hiding a lieutenant who'd been wounded in the shoulder and burnt in one eye. A sweet, haggard, young man with a thick Volga accent. He'd slipped through the wire at night and found shelter in the ghetto. His eye wasn't seriously injured at all and I was able to check the suppuration. He talked a lot about different battles and how our army had been put to flight. He quite depressed me. He wants to recuperate and then slip through the German front line. Several young men intend to go with him, one of them an ex-student of mine. Oh Vityenka, if only I could go with them too. It was such a joy to me to be able to help that young man- I felt as though I too were taking part in the war against Fascism. People had brought him some bread, beans and potatoes, and one old woman had knitted him a pair of woollen socks.
The whole day has been full of drama. Yesterday Alya managed, through a Russian friend of hers, to get hold of the passport of a young Russian girl who'd died in hospital. Tonight she's going to leave. And we heard today, from a peasant we know who was driving past the ghetto fence, that the Jews who were sent to dig potatoes are digging deep ditches four versts from the town, near the airfield, on the road to Romanovka. Remember that name, Vitya-- that's where you'll find the mass grave where your mother is buried.
Even Sperling understood. He's been pale all day, his lips are trembling and he keeps asking confusedly: 'Is there any hope that specialists will be spared?' In fact I have heard that in some places the best tailors, cobblers and doctors have been left alive.
All the same, this very evening, Sperling summoned the old man who repairs stoves and had a secret cupboard built into the wall for flour and salt. And Yura and I have been reading Lettres demon moulin. Do you remember how we used to read out loud my favorite story, 'Les Vieux', how we'd look at each other and burst out laughing, how each of us would have tears in our eyes? And after that I set Yura his lessons for the day after tomorrow. But what an ache I felt as I looked at my student's sad little face, as I watched his fingers note down in his exercise-book the numbers of the paragraphs of grammar I had just set. And what a lot of children like that there are! Children with wonderful eyes and dark curly hair - probably future scientists, physicists, professors of medicine, musicians, even poets ...
I watch them running to school in the morning, with a quite un-childlike seriousness, and wide, tragic eyes. Though sometimes they do begin laughing and fighting and romping about; then, rather than feeling happier, I am seized with horror.
They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren't going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose necks- - this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear forever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won't be here, we will have vanished-- just as the Aztecs once vanished.
The peasant who brought us the news about the mass graves said that his wife had been crying at night. She'd been lamenting: 'They sew, and they make shoes, and they curry leather, and they mend watches, and they sell medicines in the chemist's. What will we do when they've all been killed?'
And how clearly I saw someone walk past our ruined houses and say: 'Once some Jews used to live here. Do you remember? An old stove-repairer called Borukh. On Saturday evenings his old wife sat on the bench and the children played round about.' And someone else said: 'And there was a doctor who used to sit there, beneath that old pear-tree- - I can't remember her surname but I once went to her to have my eyes treated. After she'd finished work she used to bring out a wickerwork chair and sit there with a book. Yes, Vitya, that's how it will be. As though some terrible breath has passed over people's faces and everyone knows that the end is approaching.
Vityenka, I want to tell you ...no, it's not that.
Vityenka, I'm finishing this letter and taking it to the ghetto fence to hand to my friend. It's not easy to break off. It's my last conversation with you. Once I send it off, I will have left you forever and you will never know of my last hours. This is our final parting. What can I say to you in farewell, in eternal farewell? These last days, as during my whole life, you have been my joy. I've remembered you at night, the clothes you wore as a boy, your first books. I've remembered your first letter, your first day at school. I've remembered everything, everything from the first days of your life to the last news that I heard from you, the telegram I received on the 30th of June. I've closed my eyes and imagined that you were shielding me, my dearest, from the horror that is approaching. And then I've remembered what is happening here and felt glad that you were apart from me-- and that this terrible fate will pass you by!
Vitya, I've always been lonely. I've wept in anguish through lonely nights. My consolation was the thought of how I would tell you one day about my life. Tell you why your father and I separated, why I have lived on my own for so many years. And I've often thought how surprised my Vitya would be to learn how his mother made mistakes, raved, grew jealous, made others jealous, was just what young people always are. But my fate is to end my life alone, never having shared it with you. Sometimes I've thought that I ought not to live far away from you, that I love you too much, that love gives me the right to be with you in my old age. And at other times I've thought that I ought not to live together with you, that I love you too much.
Well, en fin … Always be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.
I can hear women weeping on the street, and policemen swearing; as I look at these pages, they seem to protect me from a terrible world that is filled with suffering.
How can I finish this letter? Where can I find the strength, my son? Are there words capable of expressing my love for you? I kiss you, your eyes, your forehead, your hair.
Remember that your mother's love is always with you, in grief and in happiness, no one has the strength to destroy it.
Vityenka ...This is the last line of your mother's last letter to you. Live, live, live forever ...Mama.