Letters to the Editor
Rubenstein, Joshua, Bloom, Cecil, Midstream
I would like to respond to many errors of fact and judgment in Mr. Cecil Bloom's article "Ilya Ehrenburg: Eternal Chameleon" which appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of Midstream. It happens that in recent years a great deal of scholarship has been published about Ilya Ehrenburg, in Russia, Israel, Europe, and the United States. But none of this is reflected in Mr. Bloom's article.
In Russia, for example, a new edition of Ehrenburg's memoirs was published in 1990, with substantial sections restored that had been removed by official censors in the 1960s when the memoirs first appeared; the text is also accompanied by a lengthy commentary. There is also appearing a new, eight-volume collected works that is making long neglected works of Ehrenburg newly available to his Russian readers; these volumes too carry substantial commentaries that help to fill in details about his career. In Europe, two biographies were published in France, and, though each was based on limited research, they both reflected a serious attempt to deal with Ehrenburg's career.
I published a full-scale biography in 1996. I worked on this book for 13 years. My research included many hours of interviews in Moscow with his late daughter Irina; months in official archives; and interviews with nearly one hundred people in Russia, Israel, Europe, and the United States. My book, Tangled Loyalties, The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg, was published in 1996 and then reissued in paperback in 1999. Mr. Bloom is welcome to advance a critical view of Ehrenburg's career, but his article is marred by so many factual errors and unsubstantiated accusations that they call into question his good faith as an observer of history. His article fails to incorporate any of the new information that is now available about Ehrenburg.
He claims, for example, that Ehrenburg "was sent to Paris" when he left Soviet Russia after the Revolution "in 1922." Ehrenburg, in fact, left in May of 1921. He was able to secure a passport for himself and his wife with the help of his childhood friend Nikolai Bukharin. He was not sent by anyone, but may well have been the first private citizen to hold a Soviet passport. They arrived in Paris but were soon expelled by French police on the suspicion that Ehrenburg was some kind of Soviet agent. (He had been denounced by someone in the emigre community.) Ehrenburg went to Belgium where, in 28 days, he wrote his first novel, The Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples. His desire to write a novel and to live outside of Soviet Russia were the real reasons for his leaving the country.
From there, Mr. Bloom makes a host of claims about Ehrenburg's career that do not hold up to scrutiny. In particular, Mr. Bloom, in trying to impugn Ehrenburg's loyalties as a Jew, claims that he avoided referring to Jews in his war novels or in thousands of war-time articles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ehrenburg wrote three novels about World War II and its aftermath: The Fall of Paris (1941), The Storm (1947), and The Ninth Wave (1951). In The Storm, Ehrenburg explicitly describes the massacre at Babi Yar. One of his central characters, Major Osip Alpert, fights all the way to Berlin. Then in The Ninth Wave, he visits the mass grave of his relatives at Babi Yar and is soon abused by an antisemitic neighbor. "Why don't you go to Palestine?" the man tells Osip with disdain. "Now you've got a state of your own." Appearing in 1951, at a moment of terrifying, official antisemitism, this passage was the only literary depiction of popular antisemitism to appear in a Soviet novel.
Throughout the war, Ehrenburg also wrote frequently about Jews and their fate, contrary to what Mr. Bloom claims. Writing in Red Star on 1 November 1942, Ehrenburg described the heroic exploits of Jewish soldiers. In 1944, Ehrenburg paid a tribute to the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever in Pravda (29 April 1944) in which he described Sutzkever's role in the Vilna ghetto and his partisan activity. …