The Last Letter from Mother to Son
A letter from Ekaterina Savelyevna Grossman, mother of the outstanding writer V.S. Grossman , author of the novel “Life and Fate”, which is one of the best literary works of the XX century. “The Last Letter of a Jewish Mother to her Son” was published in the novel as written to one of the characters Victor Shturm by his mother Anna Semenovna. This letter became a minor literary masterpiece and is one of the brightest pages of the novel “Life and Fate”.
“Vitya, I’m sure my letter will reach you, even though I’m behind the front line and the barbed wire of a Jewish ghetto. I will never receive your answer, I will be dead by then. I want you to know about my last days, as this idea makes it easier for me to pass away.
It is hard, Vitya, to truly understand people… The Germans stormed into the city on the seventh of July. The radio conveyed the news in the city garden. I was walking from an outpatient clinic after receiving patients and I stopped to listen. An announcer was reading an article about battles in Ukrainian. I heard distant gunfire, then there were people running across the garden. I went home, amazed at how I could have missed the air-raid siren. And suddenly I saw a tank and somebody shouted “the Germans have broken through!” I said: “Don’t spread panic”. I went to the Secretary of the City Council the day before to ask him about leaving. He got angry: “It’s too early to talk about that, we haven’t even made lists”… In short, these were Germans. The neighbors were going to each other all night, and the calmest of all were the little children and me. I decided that what happens to everyone will happen to me.
I was terrified at first when I realized that I would never see you again. And I wished desperately that I could look at you one more time, could kiss your forehead and your eyes. And then I thought that it was extremely fortunate, after all, that you were safe. I fell asleep towards morning, and when I woke up, I felt terrible sadness. I was in my room, in bed, but I felt like an alien in a foreign land, lost, alone. It was on this very morning that I was reminded that I was a Jew, something I had forgotten over the years of Soviet government. The Germans were driving a truck and shouting “Juden kaputt!”. And then some of my neighbors reminded me of that. The street cleaner’s wife was standing beneath my window and saying to a neighbor: “Thank God, the Jews are finished”. Where did that come from? Her son was married to a Jew, and the old woman used to visit them and tell me about her grandchildren. My neighbor, she has a six-year-old girl, Alenushka, endowed with beautiful blue eyes (I wrote to you about her once), came to me and said: “Anna Semenovna, take away your things before the evening, please, I’m moving into your room”. “Fine, then I’ll move into yours” I said. She answered: “No, you’ll move into the small room behind the kitchen”. I refused as there was neither window nor stove. I went to the clinic, and when I came back I found out that my room was broken into and my possessions thrown into the small room. The neighbor said to me: “I kept the sofa because it’s too big for the small room, anyway”. Amazingly, she graduated from a technical school and her late husband was a nice quiet man, an accountant in Uksopspilka. “You’re an outlaw” – she said in such a voice, as if it was really advantageous for her. Yet her daughter Alenushka was sitting at my place all evening and I was telling her fairy tales. That was my housewarming party and she didn’t want to go to bed, and her mother took her away in her arms.
And then, Vitenka, our hospital was reopened again and I and my fellow doctor were fired. I requested money for a month of work, but the new superintendant told me: “Let Stalin pay you for working under the Soviet regime, write him a letter to Moscow”. The orderly Marusya hugged me and moaned softly: “Oh my God, what will happen to you, what will happen to you all…” And the doctor Tkachev shook my hand. I don’t know, what is harder: gloating or pitying looks that are given to a dying mangy cat. I never thought that I would have to go through all of this.
Many people amazed me. And not only the vulgar, the angry and the illiterate. One was an old teacher, retired, 75 years old, he would always ask about you, send his regards, say about you: “He is our pride”. And those cursed days when we met he didn’t greet me, but looked away. And then I was told that he said at a meeting in the commandant’s office: “The air has cleared, and there is no smell of garlic”. Why was he doing this ?– it was he whom those words stained. And how much slander against the Jews was there at that very meeting… But, Vitenka, not everyone went to that meeting. Many refused. And, you know, in my mind since tsarist times anti-Semitism is associated with the jingoism of people from the «Union of the Archangel Michael.» And here I saw –those who claimed that Russia had been freed from the Jews were abasing themselves, they were flunky-like and pathetic, ready to sell Russia for thirty pieces of German silver. And vulgar people from the suburbs went to rob, take over flats, blankets, dresses; such people probably would kill doctors during cholera riots. And there were people who were mentally inert, who would echo anything evil, just so as not to be suspected of disagreement with the authorities.
Acquaintances continuously come running to me with the news, all mad-eyed, as if they were delirious. A strange expression has appeared – “to rehide things”. It seems like it’s safer at the neighbor’s. Rehiding reminds me of a game. Soon the resettlement of the Jews was announced, and people were allowed to take 15 kilos of belongings. There were yellow notices on the walls of houses – “All Jews are to resettle in the Old Town district by 6 in the evening by the 15 of July, 1941. Those who don’t resettle will be executed.”
Well, Vitenka, I was ready. I took a pillow, a little laundry, a little cup that you once gave me, a spoon, a knife and two plates. Does a person need a lot? I took some medical instruments. I took your letters, the photos of my late Mum and Uncle David, and the one where you and your Dad were pictured, a volume of Pushkin, «Lettres de Mon Moulin», a volume of Maupassant where «One vie» was, a dictionary, a book by Chekhov, containing «A Boring Story» and «The Bishop». So it turned out that I filled my whole basket. How many letters I wrote to you under this roof, how many hours at night I spent crying and now I’ll tell you about my loneliness. I said my goodbye to the house, to the garden, sat under a tree for a few minutes, and said goodbye to the neighbors.
Strange how some people are made. Two neighbors started arguing in front of me over who will take the chairs, who will take the desk, but when I was saying goodbye both began to cry. I asked the Basan’kos to tell you everything in detail if you come to inquire about me after the war, and they promised. The mongrel Tobik touched me, it particularly petted me on my last evening at home. If you come back, feed it for being nice to the old Jewess.
When I was about to set out and thought how was I going to drag my basket to the Old Town, my patient Shchukin who was sullen and, as it seemed to me, a callous man suddenly came. He carried my things, gave me 300 rubles and said that he would bring me bread to the railing once a week. He works at the printers as he wasn’t sent to the front because of an eye disease. He was my patient before the war, and if I had to list people with a sympathetic and pure soul, — I would list dozens of names, except his name. You know, Vitenka, after he’d come, I felt human again, which means not only a mongrel can treat me humanely. He told me that an order was being printed in the city printing house forbidding the Jews to walk on pavements. They had to wear a yellow cloth in the shape of a six-pointed star. They have no right to use transport, bathhouses, attend outpatient clinics, go to the cinema; they must not buy butter, eggs, milk, berries, white bread, meat, all vegetables except potatoes. Shopping at the market is allowed to be done only after six o’clock in the evening (when the peasants leave the market). The Old Town is surrounded by barbed wire, and leaving is prohibited except under escorted forced labor. If a Jew is found in a Russian house – the owner will be executed, as if for sheltering a partisan. Shukin’sfather-in-law, anoldpeasant, camefromanearby village, and he saw with his own eyes that all the local Jews with bundles and suitcases were driven to a forest, from where gunshots and terrible screams were coming throughout the day. And the Germans who were staying at his house came back late at night – all drunk, and they continued drinking till morning – they were singing and sharing the brooches, therings, the bracelets among themselves in front of him. I didn’t know whether it was an arbitrary action or a harbinger of the fate awaiting us as well.
How sad was my way, dear son, to a medieval ghetto. I walked through the city where I’d been working for 20 years. First we walked along the deserted Svechnaya Street. But when we turned to Nikolskaya Street, I saw hundreds of people walking to that cursed ghetto. The street became white with bundles and pillows. The sick had to be supported by people. Paralysed Doctor Morgulis’s father was carried on a blanket. One young man was carrying an old woman in his arms, and his wife and children loaded with bundles followed him. The head of a grocery shop Gordon, a thick man with shortness of breath, walked in a coat with a fur collar, and sweat was running down his face. A young man did amaze me, he was walking without things, with his head held high, holding an open book in front of him with a haughty and calm look on his face. But how many were mad-looking, filled with horror close by. We were walking along the road and on the pavements stood people watching us. I was walking with the Morgulises for a time and I heard the sympathetic sighs of women. And Gordon in his winter coat was laughed at, although, trust me, his was terrible, not funny. I saw a lot of familiar faces. Some were slightly nodding at me saying goodbye, others were looking away. It seemed to me, there were no indifferent eyes in this crowd: there were curious, there were merciless, but several times did I see tear-filled eyes.
I looked – there were two crowds, one crowd of the Jews in coats, hats, women in warm shawls, and another crowd all wearing summer clothes. There were some in light blouses, men without jackets, some in Ukrainian embroidered shirts. It seemed to me that even the sun refused to shine for the Jews walking down the street, as they were walking on a cold December night. I said goodbye to my companion in front of the gates to the ghetto and he showed me a place near the wire netting where we would meet. You know, Vitenka, what I felt when I got behind the wire? I thought I would feel horror. But, imagine, in that cattle pen I felt relieved. No, not because I have the soul of a slave. No! No! Around me were people of the same fate, and in the ghetto I didn’t have to walk on the pavement like a horse, and there were no dirty looks, and familiar people would look me in the eye and would not avoid meeting me. Everyone in this cattle pen bore the stamp that the fascists had put on us, and therefore this stamp did not burn my soul so badly. Here I felt not like powerless cattle, but like an unhappy person. This made me feel better. I settled down with my fellow therapist Sperling in a two-roomed hut. The Sperlings had two adult daughters and a son, the boy was about twelve. I cast long looks at his thin face and big sad eyes. His name is Jura, but I called him Vitya on two occasions and he corrected me: “I’m Jura, not Vitya”. How differentpeople’s characters are!
Being fifty-eight years old, Sperling is full of energy. He gotmattresses, kerosene and a cartof firewood. At night a sack of flour and half a sack of beans were carried into the house. He rejoices in every one of his achievements as a newlywed. Yesterday he hung rugs on the walls. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, we will survive” — he repeats – “most importantly, stock up food and firewood”. He told me that we should start a school in the ghetto. He even asked me to give French lessons to Yura for a bowl of soup per lesson. I agreed. Sperling’s wife, plump Fanny Borisovna sighs: «All is lost, we are lost». At the same time she keeps an eye on her eldest daughter Liuba, a kind and sweet creature, so that she didn’t give anyone a handful of beans or a slice of bread. And the youngest, mother’s favorite, Alya is a true fiend: domineering, suspicious, niggardly. She screams at her father, at her sister. Before the war she came here on a visit from Moscow and got stuck here.
My God, what poverty is all around us! If only those who speak of the wealth of the Jews, and say they always have something saved for a rainy day, could look at our Old Town. So here it came, the rainy day, as rainy as it could possibly get. After all, there are not only the resettled with 15 kilograms of luggage in the Old Town; artisans have always lived here, and the elderly, the workers and the nurses. In what terrible conditions they lived and continue to live. How they eat! You should see these dilapidated, sinking into the earth huts. Vitenka, here I see a lot of bad people – the greedy, the cowardly, the cunning, who are even ready to betray you. There is a terrible man, Epstein, who came here to us from some Polish town. He wears a badge on his sleeve and conducts searches with the Germans, takes part in interrogations, gets drunk with the Ukrainian policemen, and they sent him to houses to extort vodka, money and food. I saw him twice – he was tall, handsome, in a smart creamy suit, and even a yellow star sewn to his jacket looks like a yellow chrysanthemum.
But I also want to tell you about other things. I had never felt like a Jew. Since childhood I grew up among Russian girlfriends, I loved Pushkin and Nekrasov more than other poets, and I saw “Uncle Vanya” starring Stanislavsky, where I was crying along with the entire auditorium which was filled with the Congress of Russian Zemsky doctors. And once, Vitenka, when I was a fourteen-year-old girl, our family was going to emigrate to South America. And I told my father: «I will not leave Russia, I’d rather drown myself.» And I didn’t leave. But in these terrible days my heart is filled with motherly tenderness to the Jewish people. I’ve never known this love before. It reminds me of my love for you, dear son. I visit the sick at their homes. Dozens of people are crammed in tiny rooms: the half-blind elderly, the infants and the pregnant. I used to look for symptoms of disease in human eyes — glaucoma, cataracts. Now I can not look people in the eye like that – all I can see now is the reflection of a soul. A good soul, Vitenka! Sad and kind, grinning and doomed, defeated by violence and at the same time triumphant over violence. A strong, Vitya, soul! If only you could hear how attentively elderly men and women ask me about you. How kindly people are consoling me even though I don’t complain to them. People whose situation is more terrible than mine. I sometimes think that it is not me who attends the ill, but the good doctor treats my soul. And how touching it is when they give me a piece of bread for treatment, or an onion, or a handful of beans. Believe me, Vitenka, it isn’t payment for visits! When an older worker shakes my hand and puts two or three potatoes in my purse and says, «Well, well, Doctor, I’m asking you,» my eyes fill with tears. There is something so pure, fatherly, good in this, that words can not express.
I do not want to console you that I lived easily through this time. You should wonder how my heart did not explode in pain. But don’t torment yourself with a thought that I was starving, for all this time I have never been hungry. And something else – I’ve never felt lonely. What shall I tell you about the people, Vitya? People strike me as good and bad. They are extremely different, though all are undergoing the same fate. But, imagine if during a thunderstorm the majority tries to hide from the rain, it does not mean that all people are the same. And everyone is hiding from the rain in their own way… Doctor Sperling is sure that the persecution of the Jews is only a temporary, wartime episode. There is quite a few people like him, and I see that the more optimistic people are, the more petty and selfish they are. If someone comes during a meal, Alya and Fanny Borisovna immediately hide the food. The Sperlings are good to me, especially because I eat little and bring more products than I consume. But I decided to leave them as they repel me. I’m looking for a place of my own.
The sadder a man is and the less he hopes to survive, the more generous, kind and good he is. The poor, the tinkers, the taylors, all doomed to death, are much nobler, gentler and wiser than those who have managed to stock up some food. Young teachers, a strange old teacher and chess player Spielberg, quiet librarians,an engineer Reyvich who is as helpless as a child, but who wants to equip the ghetto with homemade grenades — what wonderful, impractical, nice, sad and kind people they are.
Here I see that hope is hardly ever related to the mind, it is meaningless, I think it is raised by instinct. People, Vitya,liveas ifthey have yearsahead of them. I can’t understand whether it is silly or wise , it’s just the way it is. And Iobeythis law. Two women have come from town now and they tell me the same thing my friend told me. The Germans kill all the Jews in the county, they don’t spare the children or the elderly. Germans and policemen come by cars and take a few dozen men for work in the fields, where they dig ditches, and then after two or three days the Germans drive the Jewish population to these ditches and shoot everyone. Everywhere in the villages around our city appear these Jewish burial mounds. In a house next door lives a girl from Poland. She says that there are always murders, the Jews are all being massacred, and there are only a few ghettos – in Warsaw, Lodz, Radom – where the Jews still live. And when I thought it over, it became quite clear to me that we are gathered here not to be saved like it was with bison in the Bialowieza Forest, but to be slaughtered. According to the plan, it will be our turn in a week or two. But, imagine, knowing this, I continue to treat the ill and say, «If you regularly wash the eye with the medication, then after two or three weeks you will recover.» I am treating an old man, whom it will be possible to remove a cataract in half a year or in a year. I give Jura French lessons and get upset about his mispronunciations. At the same time the Germans burst into the ghetto and rob, guards shoot children from behind the barbed wire for fun, and all the new people confirm that our fate can be decided any day. That’s how it happens — people continue to live. There’s even been a wedding recently.
There are dozens of rumours going around. A neighbour, breathless with joy, reports that our troops have started to advance and the Germans are fleeing. Then suddenly a rumor spreads that the Soviet government and Churchill have presented the Germans with an ultimatum, and Hitler has ordered not to kill Jews. Then it is reported that the Jews will be exchanged for German prisoners of war. It appears that there is nowhere so much hope, as in the ghetto. The world is full of events, and their meaning, the reason behind them all is always the same — saving the Jews. What great hopes these are! And there is only one source of these hopes — the life instinct, without any logic resisting the terrible inevitability of us all perishing without a trace. And I look around and I can not believe my eyes: is it possible that we are all condemned prisoners awaiting execution? Barbers, shoemakers, tailors, doctors, potters – everyone continues working. There is even a small maternity hospital now, or rather, something of the kind. Linen is being dried, the washing is being done, lunch is being prepared, the children go to school on the 1st of September, and their mothers ask the teachers about the grades. Old Spielberg has given a few books to be published. Alia Sperling does exercise in the mornings and wraps her hair round curlers before going to bed, she also quarrels with her father and demands two pieces of summer cloth. I am also busy from morning till evening – I go to the sick, give lessons, darn, wash, prepare for the winter, sew cotton wool to my autumn coat. I listen to the stories about the punishments which were inflicted on the Jews. One of my friends, a wife of a legal adviser, was beaten unconscious because she had bought a duck egg for her child. A boy, the son of a pharmacist Orphans has been shot on the shoulder when he tried to crawl under the wire and get a ball which had rolled away. And then again, rumors, rumors, rumors. And here is something which is not a rumor. Today, the Germans have driven eighty young men to work, ostensibly to dig potatoes, and some people were happy that they would be able to bring some potatoes to their families. But I knew what kind of potatoes it was about.
Night in the ghetto is a special time, Vitya. You know, my friend, I had always told you to tell me the truth, for a son should always tell his mother the truth. But a mother also should tell her son the truth. Do not think Vitenka that your mother is a strong person. I am weak. I’m afraid of pain and I quake when sitting in the dentist’s chair. As a child I was afraid of thunder, afraid of the dark. As an old woman, I used to be afraid of illness, of loneliness, I feared that once I had fallen ill I would not be able to work, that I would become a burden to you, and that you would let me feel it. I was afraid of war. Now at night, Vitya, I am seized by terror, from which my heart freezes. Death is waiting for me. I want to call you for help. As a child you would run to me, seeking protection. And now in a moment of weakness I want to hide my head in your lap, so that you, smart and strong, would shield and defend it. I do not possess the strength of character, Victor, as I am weak. I often think about suicide, and I don’t know if it is weakness, strength, or vain hope that stops me. But enough. I fall asleep and have dreams. I often see my late mother and talk to her. Tonight I saw Sasha Shaposhnikova in a dream, from the time when we both lived in Paris. But I have never seen you in a dream, although I always think about you, even in the moments of extreme agitation. I wake up, and suddenly I see this ceiling and remember that there are the Germans in our land and that I am leprous, and it seems to me that I haven’t woken up, but on the contrary, have fallen asleep and now I am dreaming. But after a few minutes, I hear Alya arguing with Lyuba over whose turn it is to go to the well and I hear people saying that Germans have broken an old man’s head in a nearby street that night. A friend came to me, she was a student in a pedagogical institute, and asked me to go to a sick man. It turned out that she had hidden a lieutenant who had been wounded on the shoulder and who had a scorched eye. He was a nice exhausted young man whose pronunciation betrayed his Volgian origins. He made his way at night through the wire and found a shelter in the ghetto. His eye was injured only slightly so I was able to stop the abscess. He talked a lot about the battles, about the flight of our troops, which made me very sad. He wanted to have some rest and then go across the front line. A few young men would go with him, one of whom used to be my student. Oh, Vitenka, if only I could go with them! I was so glad helping this man, I thought, that I was involved in the war against fascism. People brought him potatoes, bread, beans, and some elderly lady knitted him woolen socks.
Today has been filled with drama. Yesterday Alya got a passport of a young Russian girl, who died in a hospital, through her Russian friend. This night Alya will be gone. And today we have learned from a familiar peasant, who was passing along the fence of the ghetto, that the Jews who were sent to dig potatoes, dug deep trenches four miles from the city, near the airport, on the way to Romanovka. Remember, Victor, this name, because there you will find a mass grave, where your mother will lie. Even Sperling understood everything, he’s been pale the whole day, his lips trembling, perplexedly asks me: «Is there any hope that the experts will be left alive?» Indeed, they say that in some towns the best tailors, shoemakers and doctors were not executed. Yet in the evening Sperling called an old stove-maker and he made a hiding-place for flour and salt in the wall. And in the same evening I read «Lettres de mon Moulin» with Jura. Do you remember how we read aloud my favourite story «Les vieux» and we looked at each other and laughed and we both had tears in our eyes ? Then I gave Yura an assignment for the day after tomorrow. It was necessary. But what a sinking feeling I had when I looked at the sad face of my pupil, at his fingers as he wrote in his notebook the numbers of grammar paragraphs given to him. And how many such children there are: with wonderful eyes, dark curly hair, some of them are, probably, future scientists, physicists, professors of medicine, musicians, and maybe poets. I watch as they run to school in the mornings, unchildishly serious, with wide tragic eyes. And sometimes they start messing around, fight, laugh, and this doesn’t make you feel better, but horror-struck. They say, that the children are our future, but what can be said about these children? They won’tbecome musicians, shoemakers,dressmakers. And tonight I clearly imagined that all this noisy world of bearded anxious daddies, grouchy grandmothers, creators of honey cakes, goose necks, this world of wedding customs, sayings and Saturday’s holidays will disappear forever. And after the war life will bustle again, and we will not. We will disappear as the Aztecs disappeared.
The peasant who brought the news of the preparation of graves, said that his wife had spent the whole night crying and wailing: “They sew, and make shoes, and make leather and repair watches, and sell drugs at the pharmacy… What will it be like when all of them are killed?” And I imagined it very clearly how somebody walking by the ruins will say: “Do you remember, there once lived the Jews? There was this stove-maker Boruch. His old lady used to sit on the bench and the children would play beside her on Saturday evenings”. And another will say: “And over there under that old pear tree used to sit a doctor, I forget her name. She had once treated my eyes, after work she would always bring out a wicker chair and sit with a book.” That’s how it will be, Vitya. It was as if a terrible gust passed over the faces and everyone felt that our time is near.
Vitenka, I want to tell you … no, not that, not that. Vitenka I’m finishing my letter now, and I’ll take it to the fence of the ghetto and give it to my friend. This letter is not easy to break off, it is my last conversation with you, and by sending the letter, I will finally leave you, and you will never know about my last hours. This is our very last parting. What can I tell you, saying goodbye before eternal separation? These days, as well as my whole life, you have been my joy. At night, I would remember you, your children’s clothes, your first book, I would remember your first letter, your first day at school. I remembered everything, everything from the first days of your life to the latest news from you which was the telegram received on June 30. I would close my eyes, and it would seem to me that you, my friend, had shielded me from the horror drawing near. And when I thought of what was happening around me, I was glad that you were not with me — let you be spared this terrible fate.
Vitya, I have always been lonely. At sleepless nights I cried with anguish. And no one knew this. My consolation was the thought that I would tell you about my life. I would tell you why your dad and I separated, why I have lived alone all these long years. And I’ve often thought: how would Vitya be surprised to learn that his mother made mistakes , was furious, jealous, made others jealous, that she was the same as all the young. But my destiny is to end my life alone, without sharing everything with you. Sometimes it seemed to me that I should not live apart from you, because I loved you too much. I thought that love gave me the right to be with you when I ‘d be old. Sometimes it seemed to me that I should not live with you, because I loved you too much.
Well, finally… Be always happy with the ones you love, the ones around you, who have become closer to you than the mother. Forgive me. From the street I can hear women crying, policemen swearing, and I look at these pages, and it seems to me that I am protected from the terrible world full of suffering. How can I finish my letter? Where to get the strength, son? Are there human words that can express my love for you?
I kiss you, your eyes, your forehead, your hair. Remember that in good times and in bad times mother’s love is always with you and no one can kill it.
Vitenka… Here’s the last line of mother’s last letter to you. Live, live, live forever…
Ekaterina Savelievna Vitis was shot in Romanovka on September 15, 1941 together with other Jews, during one of the Nazi operations destroying the Jewish population. Critically ill with bone tuberculosis, she walked to the mass grave on crutches. Until the end of his life the writer Vasily Grossman wrote letters to his late mother.
Vasily Grossman’s novel «Life and Fate» is considered by many as “the «War and Peace» of the Twentieth century”, both because of the direct influence of Tolstoy’s novel, and its own significance. The central idea of the novel is that manifestations of humanity, taking place in a totalitarian society, despite the pressure of such a society, are of supreme value.
 Vasilij Semenovich Grossman (real name — Joseph Solomonovich Grossman (1905-1964)) — Russian writer and journalist, war correspondent.
Translation into English by Olga I