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.