Jewish Soviet author Ilya Ehrenburg

This video is called Ilya Ehrenburg reading Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “You Walk, Resembling Me” 1913.

By John Ellison in Britain:

A poet for all seasons

Thursday 31st August 2017

JOHN ELLISON remembers the trying times and extraordinary life of the Soviet-Jewish author Ilya Ehrenburg who died 50 years ago today

ILYA EHRENBURG — Russian poet, novelist, war correspondent, peace campaigner, autobiographer and spokesperson for humanity — was born in January 1891 and died on August 31 1967, 50 years ago today.

On hearing of his passing, his friend the painter Pablo Picasso cut telephone communication with the world, while this paper’s obituary quoted Ehrenburg’s words at the World Peace Congress in 1950: “War is not the midwife of history, it is an abortionist of the flower of humanity.”

His life demonstrated his love for humankind and its creativity in art, poetry and fiction, his love for the country of his birth, for the France which became his second home and for the Jewish people of whom he was one.

A first-hand witness of many of the world’s events and its violence for half a century, he survived many dangerous moments including some in his homeland where he picked, during the Stalin period, a lucky ticket in the bloody lottery.

Beginning with People and Life — six widely translated volumes of his memoirs — published in the 1960s, he delivered an enlightening, vivid and heartfelt account of his experiences and of the people he knew. Yet more can be learnt from Tangled Loyalties, a sympathetic and deeply researched biography by Joshua Rubenstein.

Ehrenburg was born into a middle-class Moscow-based Jewish family that had nothing exceptional about it apart from the person he was to become.

He was to recall helping to build barricades in Moscow’s streets in the closing stages of the abortive 1905 revolution and seeing blood on the snow from shot revolutionaries.

A childhood friend of Nikolai Bukharin, he was arrested for Bolshevik activity early in 1908 and after release from prison five months later was pursued again by police before escaping Russia to take up abode in Paris.

There he met Lenin, wrote poetry and before long visited Vienna where he stayed with Trotsky, whose “dogmatic pronouncements on the utilitarian essence of art” did not impress him.

Increasingly Ehrenburg put literature before politics. In Paris he made friends with Picasso, Modigliani and other artists.

Ehrenburg’s war correspondent career began quietly in late 1915, when his reports of the world war began to appear in Russian newspapers. He visited the Western front often.

In July 1917 the revolution in Russia took him home. At this point he was anti-Bolshevik, preferring Kerensky to Lenin and witnessing much hatred and violence, he felt despair. But poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Osip Mandelstam became friends. In Kiev he survived the city’s occupation by anti-Bolshevik forces and their anti-Jewish pogroms.

After a period in the south, he was interrogated in a Moscow prison by the Cheka (the Emergency Committee) for four days as a suspected counter-revolutionary. His release was secured with the help of Bukharin, now editor of Pravda. He left Russia for Europe in 1921, settling for a while in Berlin.

He wrote 19 novels, beginning with Julio Jurenito, over the next decade, satirising greed and hypocrisy in the world around him and moving ever closer to “non-party member” support for a communist future.

In Rome in June 1924, appalled by the murder by Mussolini’s fascists of socialist deputy Matteotti, he became fearful for what lay ahead for Italy.

In 1931, visits to Berlin told him that fascism was on the offensive, that its opponents were disunited and that the crisis was growing. The following year he became Paris correspondent of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia (News).

Early in 1934 he sent dispatches about the fascist attempt to reach the French parliament building and then, from Vienna, about the violent suppression of left forces there.

Ehrenburg’s first Spanish civil war dispatch was from Barcelona in September 1936. He sent around 50 by the year’s end and many more during 1937. He admired and made friends with the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

Meeting writer Ernest Hemingway — a Spanish language misunderstanding caused Hemingway to attempt to hit Ehrenburg with a whisky bottle, but friendship followed.

Back in the Soviet Union before 1938 began, he was confronted with the menacing atmosphere generated by the arrests of many acquaintances. He accepted advice to be silent. In March 1938 his childhood friend Bukharin was, among a group of others, infamously tried, condemned and shot. Ehrenburg could not eat for several days and refused to write about the trial — he had come close to being a defendant.

As long as the Soviet Union remained a bulwark against fascism, Ehrenburg was ready to tolerate much. He wrote: “No matter what happened, however agonising the doubts … one had to be silent, one had to struggle, one had to win.” One of his poems opens with the line: “Let me not think too much, cut short that voice, I pray.”

In June 1938 he was back in Spain, writing many more articles filled with poignant detail and reflecting his expectation that the Spanish war would be followed [by] another, bigger and more terrible [war].

As the European situation deteriorated, he reported more from Paris.

For Ehrenburg the non-aggression pact (between the Soviet Union and nazi Germany) of August 1939 was inevitable but tragic.

A patriot for both the Soviet Union and for France, he felt a traitor to the latter and became ill for eight months, recovering only after the nazis invaded.

Repatriated to Russia — after an arrest by the French authorities — publication of his articles, which had stopped abruptly in April 1939, was resumed. His anti-fascist novel The Fall of Paris was awarded the State Stalin Prize — and was published in English in 1942.

Days after the nazi invasion of his homeland on June 22 1941 Ehrenburg was signed up to write for the Red Star, the Soviet Army’s newspaper. Before the war’s end he wrote almost 450 pieces for the paper and more than another 1,500 for other papers. Many anthologies of his articles were published.

Reuters correspondent Alexander Werth said that every Red Army soldier was pulled together by Ehrenburg’s articles. When Kiev fell, he wrote, in the style that made him famous: “We will liberate Kiev. The enemy’s blood will wash the enemy’s footprints. Like the ancient Phoenix, Kiev will rise from the ashes, young and beautiful. Sorrow feeds hatred. Hatred strengthens hope.”

Ehrenburg also became a prominent member of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in which, under his direction, a team of writers worked on The Black Book — a meticulous record of the nazi murder of Soviet Jews.

In Red Star in November 1942 he wrote: “Hitler wanted to turn the Jews into a target. The Jews of Russia showed him that a target shoots.”

He met many Jewish partisans and in 1944 wrote the first poem about the massacre of Jews at Babii Yar. In it he said: “As if from every pit, I hear you calling me.”

In December 1944 he wrote in Pravda of the destruction of six million Jews: “All this began with stupid jokes, with the shouts of street kids, with signposts, and it led to Majdanek, Babii Yar, Treblinka, to ditches filled with children’s corpses.”

After arrest-risking lectures in Moscow when he expressed concerns about the behaviour of Soviet troops in Germany, Ehrenburg’s articles were refused on the eve of victory until after Germany’s surrender.

A passing attendance at the Nuremberg war crimes trials produced Ehrenburg’s comment that Goering and others were “petty criminals who have committed gigantic crimes.”

He travelled widely post-war, a cultural ambassador for the Soviet Union and simultaneously a passionate peace campaigner under the shadow of the atom bomb and the cold war.

But the publication of The Black Book was refused in 1947 and — after Stalin ordered in late 1948, the arrests of many Yiddish writers — Ehrenburg was again close to being arrested himself.

One year after Stalin’s death, in 1954, Ehrenburg’s optimistic novel The Thaw attracted condemnation from much of the Soviet literary establishment — its insightful real life criticisms of how things were under Stalin were deemed “anti-Soviet.”

In his last years came the astonishingly illuminating memoirs, volume by volume, albeit with censor-directed deletions.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he argued against the ideologically narrow basis of Soviet literature published and the criminalisation of dissident writers.

His socialism was unqualified. An extraordinary life.

12 thoughts on “Jewish Soviet author Ilya Ehrenburg

  1. Saturday 30th September 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    The republication of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s epic poem on Lenin shows why he was a great revolutionary poet, writes Andy Croft

    OF ALL the many Russian writers inspired and mobilised by the 1917 revolution, it is hard to think of anyone who typified the dynamic, experimental and highly factional literary culture of the early Soviet Union quite so vividly as the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-30).

    A controversial character and a provocative writer, Mayakovsky always enjoyed a complicated relationship with the revolution. His Futurist poetry was criticised in the Soviet press and his satirical plays attacked for being “obscure.”

    Lenin never understood Mayakovsky’s poetry, which he dismissed as “pretentious,” while Trotsky observed dryly that while “it is impossible to out-clamour war and revolution, it is easy to get hoarse in the attempt” and indeed one of Mayakovsky’s books was called At the Top of My Voice. These days Mayakovsky is usually regarded as a tortured love poet, an unstable bohemian or a dupe of the system and, in an attempt to re-establish his reputation as one the most important political poets of the 20th century, Smokestack Books has just published Mayakovsky’s formidable 3,000- line epic poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (£11.99).

    Arguably, Mayakovsky’s most signifi cant single work, it is an extraordinary record of the utopian excitement of the early years of the Soviet Union. Breathless, declamatory, rhetorical, lyrical and colloquial, it was an immediate best-seller. When in 1930 Mayakovsky read the poem to a packed Bolshoi Theatre, the event was broadcast live across the Soviet Union.

    “Never have I wanted to be understood so much as in this poem,” said Mayakovsky, anticipating his critics in the opening lines: “I know,/your critics’ll/grip their whipsticks,/your poets/will go/hysteric:/‘Call that poetry?/ Sheer publicists./No feeling,/no nothing —/just bare rhetoric!’/ Sure,/‘Capitalism’ rings/not so very elegant;/‘Nightingale’/has a far more delicate sound./ Yet I’ll go back to it/ whenever relevant./Let stanzas/ like fighting slogans resound!”

    At the same time, the poem warned that Lenin should not become an icon: “I shudder lest Lenin/be falsified/by tinsel beauty,” he wrote, or that a poetic halo “should hide/ Lenin’s real, huge,/human forehead./I’m anxious lest rituals,/ mausoleums/and processions,/the honeyed incense/of homage and publicity/should/obscure/Lenin’s essential/simplicity… We’re burying/the earthliest/of beings/that ever came/to play/an earthly part.”

    Written immediately after Lenin’s death in 1924, the poem sets the story of Lenin’s life against the history of capitalism and the trajectory of the revolution from the early days of the street-fighting in October: “The Smolny throbs/in a buzz of excitement./Grenades/hang on seamen/like partridges./Bayonets zigzag/like fl ashes of lightning./ Below stand/machine-gunners/ belted with cartridges” to the years of civil war and foreign intervention: “Let the Soviets/take over government power!/Bread to the starving!/Land to the farmers!/ Peace to the peoples/and their warring armies! … From near/ unto far it went rolling,/mounting/from a whisper to a roar:/ Peace to cottages poor and lowly,/war on palaces,/war, war,/war!”/We fought/in all factories, humble and famous,/ shook ’em out of cities like peas,/while outside/ the October wildfire/left flaming manors / for landmarks / marking/its triumphant stride. /The land —/once a mat for wholesale floggings —/ was suddenly seized/by a calloused hand —/with rivulets,/ hillocks/and other belongings/and held tight —/the long-dreamed-of,/ blood-soaked land.”

    The work ends on the day of Lenin’s funeral in Moscow: “Earth,/lie low/and, motionless, freeze./Silence./The end of the greatest of fighters./Cannon fired… I stand,/half-frozen,/with/ bated breath./In the gleaming of banners/before me arises/darkling,/the globe,/as still as death./ And on it —/this coffin/mourned by mankind…”

    Smokestack’s edition is based on Dorian Rottenberg’s translation published by Progress Publishers in 1967. Out of print in English for over 30 years, Rosy Carrick’s new bilingual edition of the poem should help to introduce Mayakovsky’s poetry and his revolutionary political commitment to a new generation of British readers.

    Rosy Carrick is reading from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin at Art Out of Revolution on October 21 at 7pm, Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 and on November, 3 at 5.15pm at the Liberating Arts Festival, Roborough Studio, 3 Prince of Wales Road, Exeter and on November 7 at the Cowley Club, 12 London Road, Brighton.


  2. 75 years ago: Soviet troops capture Majdanek concentration camp

    On July 24, 1944, Soviet troops captured the Majdanek concentration camp on the outskirts of the Polish city of Lublin. It was the first Nazi death camp to be seized almost intact by Soviet or Allied forces, providing proof of the Third Reich’s war crimes that would be cited extensively at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

    The seizure of the camp took place amid major Soviet advances during Operation Bagration, an offensive aimed at expelling the German occupiers from Poland. Because of the rapid movement of the Red Army, the SS officers who operated the camp did not have time to destroy evidence of their atrocities, as they had elsewhere. Soviet troops found thousands of surviving prisoners, along with proof of mass killings, including partially intact crematoria.

    Majdanek was established in October, 1941. It was initially planned to serve as a mass detention center for tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war, as well as Jewish workers and opponents of the Nazi occupation. Prisoners were forced to build the facility.

    In 1942, Majdanek was integrated into Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan for the mass extermination of Poland’s Jewish population. Initially, it served as a storage center for property and valuables stolen from the victims of the genocide.

    In March 1942, however, the camp was repurposed as a killing center. Gas chambers were built. Prisoners were also murdered by firing squads. During Operation “Harvest Festival,” a mass killing spree, tens of thousands were murdered at the camp. On November 3, 1943, the bloodiest day at the camp, an estimated 18,400 Jewish prisoners were killed.

    Recent estimates of the total number of killings at the camp stand at around 78,000, with almost 60,000 of those being Jewish.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.