“So what’s happened to our Jews?” the agronomist Koryako asks his neighbors, grinning slyly. “Children, old men — I haven’t glimpsed a Jew all day. It’s as if they’d never existed. And only yesterday they were all coming back from the market with 12-kilo baskets!” The Jews are indoors today because the Nazis have occupied their Ukrainian town. It is June 1942, a year into the campaign to exterminate the Soviet Union’s Jewish population. Thirty-three thousand people, nearly all Jews, have been killed at Babi Yar. Another 20,000 are dead in Berdichev, birthplace of the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman. In his short story “The Old Teacher,” published in 1943 as the mass killings were still under way and before the world comprehended their extent, Grossman draws a vivid portrait of Koryako’s unnamed town on the eve of genocide as it “lay stifling, gripped by something foul and dark. Something vile had awoken; stirred by the Nazis’ arrival, it was now reaching toward them.” Accompanying the Red Army as a war correspondent, Grossman knew the foul and dark all too well. He would eventually spend more than a thousand days at the front, composing articles and stories and gathering material for “Life and Fate,” the greatest Russian novel of the war.
more from Ken Kalfus at the NYT here.