Over the last few days, as air raid sirens have sounded over Ukraine, I have been reminded of “The Last Letter” in Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate. Life and Fate is one of the major literary works of Grossman, a mid-century Jewish Soviet writer and journalist whose novels have been compared to those of Tolstoy. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine and trained as an engineer, Grossman was a war correspondent for the Red Army prior to becoming a novelist, writing first-hand accounts of the major battles of World War II, as well as some of the first reports on the atrocities of the concentration camps. The fate of Grossman’s literary legacy is a story unto itself, with the publication, translation, and dissemination of his works at times championed, at times suppressed, depending on the proclivities of the Soviet regime. Life and Fate, though written in 1959, was not published until 1980, sixteen years after Grossman’s passing, after photographs of the manuscript were secretly smuggled abroad by Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
“The Last Letter,” sometimes called “The Last Letter from Mother to Son,” is the eighteenth chapter of Life and Fate. Set in the Berdichev Ghetto in 1941, the letter contains the final testimony of a woman, Anna, to her son Victor Shtrum, whom she addresses as Vitye or the diminutive Vityenka. The letter, written with the hope of its being smuggled out before the liquidation of the ghetto, reveals the writer’s last days before her death. The letter describes everything from the air raid sirens to the arrival of the Germans, to Anna’s observations about daily life in the ghetto. And while the letter itself is fiction, the context that gave rise to it is not. Not only is Grossman’s protagonist Victor Shtrum understood to be a self-portrait of the author himself, but we know that Grossman’s own mother, Yekaterina, was murdered by the Nazis together with so many other Ukrainian Jews in September of 1941. The letter, considered a literary masterpiece on its own, has been dramatized as a film and as play – presently being performed on the Paris stage.
Reading “The Last Letter,” is not easy – an imagined journey into the darkest days of the human experience. Grossman describes the betrayals his mother experienced as she was given over to the Germans by her lifetime neighbors, the very people beside whom she had lived and loved her whole life. How they argued – in her very presence – over who would take her chairs, desks, and other possessions once the Germans were through with her. She describes the sad journey of the Jewish community through their hometown and into the ghetto, as well as the courageous efforts of the Jews to maintain the last threads of their dignity even as death neared.
But what I found to be most moving of all was not any one act described in the letter, whether heroic or hate filled, but the fact of the letter itself. The thought of Grossman, by way of his fiction, putting to paper his own mother’s final days, imagining her final reflections, giving voice to what she would have said to her son if given the opportunity to slip a letter out just before her death. For all its anguish, the letter is not only about death, but life. A mother recalling her son’s first books, his first letter, his first day of school. A mother’s confessions to her son that she was only human, full of the same mistakes, jealousies, indulgences, and regrets that characterize every human life. To read “The Last Letter” is to consider the combination of guilt and perhaps gratitude that Grossman lived with for the rest of his life, knowing that he survived what his mother did not. “Always be happy with those you love,” the mother writes to her son, “those around you, those who have been closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.”
Grossman went back to Berdichev after the war in hopes of learning of his mother’s last days, but regardless of what he learned, the question of what his mother was actually thinking was a project of his own imagination. “How can I finish this letter?” The mother – the son – writes. “Where can I find the strength, my son? Are there words capable of expressing my love for you? I kiss you, your eyes, your forehead, your hair. Remember that your mother’s love is always with you, in grief and in happiness, no one has the strength to destroy it.” Not the actual words of Grossman’s mother, but Grossman’s journey into the imagined blessings of mother to son – that is the power and poignancy of “The Last Letter.”
The memories of those whom we recall at Yizkor are memories that we carry with us not just at Yizkor, but every day of the year and every day of our lives. Today we hold on to the memories: memories of our loved ones, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. We think of them now . . . we think of them always.
But I think the “ask” of Yizkor is more than just memory. We do not need a Yizkor service to remember. The calling of the day – the recalling of this day, rather – is to enter into dialogue with our loved ones, an imagined dialogue as Grossman had with his mother. “Death,” goes the saying, “ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” Were we to engage in the exercise of giving voice to our loved ones, what is it they would say to us? What would they want us to hear? Every Yizkor service is powerful, but on Shemini Atzeret, this penultimate day of the festival season, the tug of memory is especially strong. As in the famous parable of the king who asks his children to linger a bit longer before returning home, so this festival day calls on us to linger, to be in dialogue with the memories of our loved ones just a little more. In a few short hours, we will begin the year anew; the distractions of daily life await. But right now, we open our hearts to the words we imagine our loved ones would share.
I imagine, as Grossman did with his mother, that those whom we recall today might begin with an admission of humanity, perhaps even a confession of missteps. It is hard, sometimes impossible, for a person midstride in life to acknowledge human frailty, to admit to the ego, envy, pride, and all the other human foibles that make people . . . people. It is one of the many ironies of the human condition that the very shortcomings we see so clearly and quickly in others, we fail to admit in ourselves. On this day when we remember our loved ones, perhaps we should remember that they, no different than we, were only human and that they would, if they could, admit to their humanity in a way they never did while living. Perhaps they would tell us when they could have been better, asking that we overlook their missteps. And perhaps as we hear those imagined words, we ourselves are called on to consider whether we are willing to grant them posthumous forgiveness.
Maybe, were we to imagine the words of our loved ones to us today, they might offer us counsel as to what defines a life well lived. Perhaps our loved ones would confess regret, reflecting on those times that they could have ordered their priorities differently than they did. That now, with the clarity wrought by their own mortality, they would choose to spend their time differently, to treat family, tradition, and community with an urgency that many do not, until it all begins to slip away. We imagine the different choices our loved ones might make if given the opportunity to do so, an exercise that we quickly realize is a projection of our own selves – more about us than our loved ones. Why do we imagine what they would do differently? Perhaps because, with Yizkor’s reminder of the shared fate that awaits us all, we wonder what we should be doing differently in our own lives, but for some reason are not. To imagine a loved one’s last testimony is to imagine their joys but also their regrets – regrets that define our own sense of a life well lived. In researching Grossman, I discovered that not only did he document his mother’s imagined last words, but he also drafted letters to his deceased mother. Yizkor is our opportunity to draft not only the posthumous letters of our loved ones, but also the letters of our own lives – while we still have the time to fulfill them.
After all, as we know full well, as much as Yizkor is about death, it is really about life. The lives of those whom we loved, the lives that we ourselves live, and most importantly, how the lives of our loved ones inform our lives. The final sentence of “The Last Letter” is instructive: “Vityenka . . . This is the last line of your mother’s last letter to you. Live, live, live for ever . . . Mama.”
The last wish, the dying wish, of a mother, of any parent, of any person, in any circumstance to the living: Live, live, live forever. In these final, fleeting, festival days, in this moment that we arrive with the memories of our loved ones in our hearts, we take up their charge to live, live, live – to live lives of meaning and purpose, to insist on making the most of our precarious and precious time on earth. We imagine their letters to us, we imagine our letters to them. We pray that the words we draft bring peace between us and them, that they inspire us in our own lives, and that in so doing, their memories be for an eternal blessing.