The Black Book

Ehrenburg and Grossman during a visit at the front near Kiev in order to collect evidence of German war crimes in 1944.

Ehrenburg (front left) and Grossman (front right) during a visit at the front near Kiev in order to collect evidence of German war crimes, 1944. © US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Irena Ehrenburg

Ehrenburg and Grossman during a visit at the front near Kiev in order to collect evidence of German war crimes in 1944.

BBC World Service

On 22 June, 1941, Nazi troops swept over the Soviet border at the launch of Operation Barbarossa.  No-one was prepared for what followed, which included bombing, arson and merciless attacks on civilians.  But not all civilians were treated in the same way.  Ethnic Russians might survive or escape, but ethnic Jewish Soviets faced almost certain death.  Hitler’s campaign of slaughter, later infamous as the Final Solution, began on Soviet soil.  There, long before the exterminations at Auschwitz, almost two million Jewish civilians – many of them women, the elderly, or small children – were shot, clubbed, suffocated or buried alive.

They did not die without lament.  Even as the murders were happening, witnesses began to write to Ilya Ehrenburg, the novelist turned war-writer that they all trusted most.  The letters poured in by the day; thousands of them.  It was Ehrenburg’s intention to edit them as a book, a literary memorial to all that was being lost.  Indeed, he and a small group of fellow-writers succeeded in preparing a manuscript and submitting it for print.  But Stalin had the book suppressed.  The post-war world was not one where the stories suited him.

The Black Book wasn’t published until the 1980s, which is why its story, the story of the Holocaust by bullet, has been neglected in our overall narrative of the Holocaust (and, indeed, of the war itself).  This documentary reconstructs what happened, from the earliest murders in Ukraine through shocked discovery, eye-witnessing and censorship and on into the present day.

The programme aired on the BBC World Service on Saturday 21 January 2023 at 19:06 local time and on Sunday 22 January 2023 at 12.06 local time and was produced for the BBC by Mark Burman. It is available on BBC Sounds.

Stalingrad - Destiny of a Novel

War time photograph of Vasily Grossman

Cover of book Stalingrad by Vasily GrossmanStalingrad - translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

Vasily Grossman’s novel, Stalingrad, was published in English in 2019 to universal acclaim.  Written in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War, the book brings life to the decisive campaign season at the end of 1942.  Conceived as a Soviet War and Peace, it combines the grand narrative of war with intimate stories of family life, of human survival, courage, devotion and loss.  In 1949, as Grossman was completing the manuscript, he rightly hoped he had produced the book that the Soviet people, struggling with harrowing memories and all-too vivid recent loss, were known to crave.  But he would never see this first version in print.  Instead, he had to fight his editors for months and years against a darkening backdrop of anti-semitism, fear, alcoholism and slavish obedience to authority.

In Radio Four’s Book of the Week, Catherine Merridale explores this story.  Vasily Grossman kept a diary of the manuscript’s long journey to print and this, as well as moving extracts from the writer’s war journalism, is read throughout by Anton Lesser.   The series aired between 2 and 6 December 2019 and was produced for the BBC by Mark Burman.

Schedule of Broadcasts

1/5 To Comrade Stalin

2/5 The Black Book

3/5 The Progress of a Manuscript

4/5 ‘Pull Yourself Together-Do Not Worry’

5/5 In a Crooked Mirror

Mon 2 Dec 2019 9.45 am BBC Radio 4 FM

Tue 3 Dec 2019 9.45am BBC Radio 4 FM

Wed 4 Dec 2019 9.45am BBC Radio 4 FM

Thu 5 Dec 2019 9.45am BBC Radio 4 FM

Fri 6 Dec 2019 9.45am BBC Radio 4 FM