The Black Book

The Black Book was a collection of first-person accounts of the Nazi extermination of Soviet Jews during the war. A detailed documentation of antisemitism, it itself became the target of antisemitism within the USSR.

This is a fantastic documentary, utilising a huge amount of contemporary footage, and the writings of the people directly involved. Rather than using a talking head format, it lets the past speak for itself throughout. It is deeply moving.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941, the Soviets were caught totally unprepared. They had placed faith in the non-aggression pact, and on a basic level, they didn’t have the money and machinery to meet the incoming forces. The blitzkrieg was swift and brutal.

Reports of Nazi crimes against Jews began coming from the provinces, and a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was formed. It involved all the most prominent Soviet Jews, including Solomon Mikhoels, the famous actor, comedian, and theatre director, and Itsik Fefer, the poet. Because they were Jews, they could appeal for help from American Jews without it being seen as Stalin turning to America for help. This saved face, while at the same time he was desperate to bring the Americans into the war.

Mikhoels did his best and more, returning with shedloads of money, enough to buy planes and tanks that were sorely needed. While in America, he held the biggest ever Soviet address to an American audience. He attracted the interest of high profile figures like Paul Robeson.

And there the idea of The Black Book was born. To make a permanent collection of the accounts of Nazi atrocities, so that it might be disseminated to inspire anti-Nazi fervour now, and be used as evidence in the prosecution of German war criminals later. The JAC enthusiastically proposed the idea, and it received approval from Stalin to be created.

The writer Ilya Ehrenburg has been a correspondent in Berlin in the years before the second war, witnessing the rise of the Nazis, and had sent reports back that their ambition for dominance would soon turn its eye to Russia. In those days both he and his work were favoured by Stalin, so him contributing to The Black Book was seen as a boon.

Another writer, one without Ilya’s stature yet, but brimfull of passion and talent, was Vasili Grossman. He was exempt from service, but volunteered for the Red Army. He rose to prominence as a battle reporter embedded with the troops during the Siege of Stalingrad. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, although he never found out how, where, or the location of her remains. Grossman was dedicated to giving the dead a voice through the Black Book.

This was not an easy endeavour, there were so few survivors. In areas where tens of thousands of Jews had resided, only a handful remained. People who had been buried alive in mass graves were the only witnesses left to the eradication of entire villages.

The Germans were trying to cover up their crimes on their retreat, destroying even the remains of their victims. Vasili saw Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukraine where the Jews of Kiev were massacred, some 100, 000 people. When the Nazis withdrew, they exhumed the corpses and cremated them so that all that remained was black ash scattered for miles around. Vasili was also there for the liberation of Treblinka, and saw horrors beyond imagining. He took a full nervous breakdown afterwards and had to be sent home to his family.

Nonetheless he resumed his work when he recovered, although never fully. His writings on it became The Hell of Treblinka, which was published as a seperate pamphlet and distributed during the Nuremberg trials as evidence for the prosecution. It was intended to be eventually included in the final published version of The Black Book.

But things seemed to have stalled in that area. For one, Stalin was resentful that Vasili’s articles on the Battle of Stalingrad had engrandised the sacrifices and bravery of ordinary soldiers and citizens, instead of Stalin as a master strategist. For another, there were too many reports for Stalin’s liking of Soviets collaborating with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews. It was okay to expose the vicious antisemitism of the enemy, but suspect to do it for their own society.

Also, the leash was off antisemitism in the USSR. The Nazis had shown what antisemites could get away with, and the native antisemitism had been allowed to be brought right to the fore of society, and normalised to such an extent. Simultaneously Stalin, now the formal front was no longer being fought, turned his attentions back to his own country, and fighting his own supposed enemies at home. It was decided that Soviet Jews were now the enemy.

Ilya was removed from his post at the Red Star, as it was deemed to have “too many” Jews. Mikhoels and Fefer were deemed to be potential traitors for having been in America, despite only going because Stalin wanted them to, in a classic Stalin move. And the Black Book, it was remembered, had been devised as an idea on the American trip, which meant it too was now tainted with suspicion.

Stalin refused to publish the Black Book, and banned any copies from the USSR. Mikhoels was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, and his body left in the street. The members of JAC were rounded, arrested, imprisoned and tortured. During this time, Paul Robeson visited from America and asked to see his good friends from the anti-fascism trip, Mikhoels and Fefer. No one could tell him that Mikhoels was already dead, and they had to pull Fefer out the KGB dungeons, and cover his injuries with makeup to make him presentable to produce for Robeson. Fefer was in such a state he couldn’t even speak, and tried to desperately make gestures to Robeson about his safety.

Eventually all but 2 of JAC’s members were put to death. Vasili survived because the soldiers of the Red Army remembered his conduct and support during the Battle of Stalingrad. But he was blacklisted and his work was suppressed for the majority of his life. Ilya managed to survive by caving to state pressure and becoming a voicepiece, seeming to validate the antisemitism coming out the Kremlin. However, he campaigned to have the Black Book released until his dying day.

So what became of the Black Book? Some copies managed to be smuggled abroad, but the book itself would not be published in Russia until 20-fucking-14. Yeah, you heard me. The Black Book got published in Russia at the same time The Lego Movie was in cinemas.

An absolutely insane story, about the unbelievable cruelty of human beings, but also the perseverance and bravery of a few. The truth will out and some manuscripts will not burn.