Anna Semyonovna’s Last Letter
(80) from Life and Fate (1958) by Vassily Grossman
- Operation Barbarossa reaches the small town in which Viktor's mother lives in the Ukraine on July 7th 1941.
- Anna Semyonovna's 1st reaction on learning that she is about
- "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."
- The Anti-Semitism of her neighbors can now be expressed openly:
- "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 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."
- Anti-Semitism is not restricted to the far right; no,
people fall over themselves to collaborate with the Germans so they can get in on the robbery. The woman next door is already throwing her
out and moving into her room. 'You're outside the law!' She is dismissed from the surgery where she has worked for years.
- The Einsatzgruppen's decree that all Jews must move to the Old Town (and rumors from the village of Chudnov).
- Anna must leave the home she has
lived in her whole life.
- To her surprise, Schukin, 'a
gloomy and-- so I had always thought- rather callous man', promises to come to
the fence and give her what he can, and Anna starts to feel human again.
- The surreal procession to the Ghetto: the people are wearing winter clothes on a hot summer day.
- In the ghetto, Anna is forced to live in a cattlepen, but she feels relief to be free from the gaze of her village neighbors. She settles in two rooms with Dr. Sperling and his kind family, hard times brings out terrible people too: Epstein and the ghetto police.
- Anna muses about the irony of her situation. She had never thought of herself as a Jew but instead as a Russian. The assimilated Jew had forgotten that she was a Jew.
Now she must die for being a Jew. But now, she feels a maternal tenderness
towards the Jewish people. She now no longer sees people as an eye doctor
- "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,
- Eventually, Anna decides she can no longer stay with the Sperlings who insist that
they will survive this awful pogrom, like they have survived so many before. She
prefers to be with people who have lost hope. She wonders at the capacity for denial that many of the people display. Even though hope is completely irrational,
- "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." ...“if there’s a downpour, most people
try to hide, but they have their own particular ways of sheltering from the
- Anna carries on with her normal existence: 'visiting my patients,
giving lessons, darning my clothes, doing my washing, preparing for winter,
sewing a lining into my winter coat'. . 'nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto'
- Despite the doomed situation she and the others are in,
the Jews maintain their essential humanity. They go about their
lives as normally as they can. The children do their homework. It is “the
life-instinct itself, blindly rebelling against the terrible fact that we must
perish without a trace…” (89)
- At night, though, her fears break out and she cries
out to Viktor for comfort. She dreams of her own mother. She even dreams of Sasha Shaposhnikov, the boy at House 9-1. A Russian soldier slips into the ghetto and Anna treats him. She hopes to escape.
- But the young men have been taken away to ‘dig for
potatoes’. Everyone knows what that means: they are digging a mass grave at Romanovka. The imminence of death terrifies
all, yet the last day goes on as any other.
- Anna thinks about the children whose lives will be lost and
of the culture, the civilization that is being wiped out before finishing her
letter and handing it to her friend through the hole in the ghetto wall.