Uncanny Echoes of Babel

The following are from survivor accounts in the Vishnevets Yiskor book. They sound uncannily like the characters and narrators in Isaac Babel’s wonderful, terrible tales (in the incomparable Walter Morrison translation). Many of the worst, and the best, of these finely compressed little stories are set in benighted, bloody little towns like Vishnevets.   

My grandmother fondly recalled the Red Army men who were billeted at her family’s home in Vishnevets.  I think she said they were Cossacks, who were generally White and not Red, and rarely friends of the Jews. Babel’s Cossacks fought for the Revolution, and eventually came to tolerate the Jewish Babel, though occasionally raping or killing Jews here and there.

This doomed pregnant woman’s plea is right out of Babel, who may well have been in Vishnevets with the Red Cavalry at some point during the Revolution.  
“Vasye,” she said. “Look, Vasinke, look at my condition. I’ve never harmed you. Have mercy on me and my baby, have mercy, Vasinke.”  
(Vasye did not have mercy)
And this grimly poetic narration, right out of Babel, by a nameless survivor: 
One day I stood by the window looking through a crack and saw a young man around the age of 17 returning from work. He left the group, approached the fence, and threw a package over into the ghetto.

A Ukrainian saw it and grabbed the youth – the boy. And the boy didn’t realize that he had seen him. I knew the Ukrainian; he was a reptile but not one of the worst. I called him.

He came to me, and I said to him, “Vaske, what are your intentions?”

And he said to me, “He’s done something that deserves punishment by death.”

I asked him to give him a fine. Punish him with money and let him go, strongly warn him, and in this way, he would satisfy his “conscience” as keeper of the law. But he held on his own and explained to me in a beautiful way:

 “You have to understand, he doesn’t have any money. If I punish him with a fine, he’ll have difficulty paying it. Why should I enforce something that will make his life more difficult and cause him trouble with the Germans? It’s better for me to kill him. It’ll be a lot better for him.


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