I Saw It: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness to the Shoah

I Saw It: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness to the Shoah

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Maxim D. Shrayer

Series: Studies in Russian and Slavic Literatures, Cultures and History
ISBN: 9781618111692 (hardcover) / 9781618113078 (paper)
Pages: 348 pp.
Publication Date: March 2013

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In this ground-breaking book, based on archival and field research and previously unknown historical evidence, Maxim D. Shrayer introduces the work of Ilya Selvinsky, the first Jewish-Russian poet to depict the Holocaust (Shoah) in the occupied Soviet territories. In January 1942, while serving as a military journalist, Selvinsky witnessed the immediate aftermath of the massacre of thousands of Jews outside the Crimean city of Kerch, and thereafter composed and published poems about it. Shrayer painstakingly reconstructs the details of the Nazi atrocities witnessed by Selvinsky, and shows that in 1943, as Stalin’s regime increasingly refused to report the annihilation of Jews in the occupied territories, Selvinsky paid a high price for his writings and actions. This book features over 60 rare photographs and illustrations and includes translations of Selvinsky’s principal Shoah poems.



Maxim D.  Shrayer (PhD Yale University) is Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish studies at Boston College. A bilingual writer and translator, Shrayer has authored and edited a number of books, among them the path-breaking critical studies The World of Nabokov’s Stories and Russian Poet/ Soviet Jew, the acclaimed literary memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, and the collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam. Shrayer’s two-volume Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. For more information, visit www.shrayer.com.

Maxim D. Shrayer is responsible for some of the best work in the area of Russian Jewish studies. . . . This book is . . . a pioneering and though-provoking text. . . . Shrayer performs a meticulous reconstruction, with breadth and passion, blending scholarship with a personal attachment to the theme. . . . Using diaries, newspapers, unpublished archival material, field research and immanent reading of literary texts, Shrayer creates a full picture of Soviet cultural life.
— Bruno Gomide, University of Sao Paolo, Cadernos de Língua e Literatura Hebraica, n 12 (2015)
Through the example of Ilya Selvinsky, Maxim Shrayer has made an important contribution to our understanding of the workings of Soviet literary life at the intersection of poetry and policy. . . . In recovering Selvinsky’s story, Shrayer has himself served as a witness to a hidden past.
— Katharine Hodgson, The Times Literary Supplement (April 18th 2014)
Maxim D. Shrayer’s impassioned, eloquent, and rich study of Ilya Selvinsky’s war-time poems contributes to [the] new history of Holocaust poetry and significantly broadens it. . . . Is [Selvinsky] the case of trauma, fear, or deeply held convictions? What is the relationship between Soviet and Jewish identities?” Shrayer’s meticulously researched and beautifully argued book urges the reader to ponder these complicated questions, thus deepening the field of both Holocaust and Soviet literary studies.
— Marat Grinberg (Reed College), in the Slavic and East European Journal, 58.3 (Fall 2014)
What does it mean to bear witness to the Shoah? What does it mean to bear witness to the genocide of Jews in the Soviet Union? These two questions are at the center of Maxim Shrayer’s illuminating study of the Jewish-Russian poet Ilya Selvinsky’s work and biography that combines literary analysis with historical and biographical research. Shrayer excels in his response to questions that have occupied . . . scholars of Soviet-Jewish history and of the Nazi genocide in German-occupied Soviet territories. The crux for the latter achievement is a detailed reconstruction of the effects that the poet’s account of the genocide had on the larger public and on his own life and career. . . . The book is valuable to broad audiences interested in the history of the Holocaust, the history of Soviet Russian-Jewish literature, and the literature of the Holocaust. As the first study of a Soviet-Jewish poet’s career who publicly spoke about the Holocaust, the book is an important contribution to recent efforts to scrutinize how the Shoah was represented and perceived in the Soviet Union.
— Anika Walke, Washington University in St. Louis, in The Russian Review, January 2014 (Vol. 73, No. 1)
Shrayer (Boston College) is the author of several highly-praised books about Russia, the USSR, and Jewish Soviet literature; this new book is equally praiseworthy. Its subject is perhaps unfamiliar to most Holocaust scholars—and for that reason alone, this study is welcome. Selvinsky (1899–68), a Soviet Jew, was a devoted Marxist, an intellectual, and a well-regarded poet. He spent much of WWII as a soldier on the front lines, serving as a reporter and in combat. Selvinksy was a witness to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen massacre of as many as 7,000 Jews in a ditch in Kerch in the Crimea, and wrote two famous poems about the 1941 event: ‘Kerch’ and ‘I Saw It.’ Shrayer offers readers a comprehensive, thoughtful introduction to Selvinsky’s biography, an astute account of Stalinist Russia’s wavering attitude toward Jews, and careful analysis of several of Selvinksy’s poems. This volume is greatly enhanced by 64 illustrations—photographs of the site of the massacre (then and now) and of Selvinsky and his literary circle, and maps and other documents—as well as the texts, in Russian and English, of the two Kerch poems. The bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research Shrayer conducted, in archives and on site.
— E. R. Baer, Gustavus Adolphus College, in CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, November 2013
. . . a valuable contribution to the field of Soviet Jewish studies. Shrayer presents an important Soviet poet who until recently remained virtually unknown in the west . . . the brilliant translations of Sel’vinskii’s poems will make a perfect addition to relevant course reading lists.
— Marina Aptekman, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in the Slavic Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Fall 2014)
A sophisticated literary analysis of Ilya Selvinsky’s texts, Maxim D. Shrayer’s book demonstrates a deep knowledge of the history of the Holocaust in the USSR. It is the first study of poet’s career in the context of Shoah memorization. Shrayer’s book must be published in Russian translation.
— Ilya Altman, Russian Holocaust Center, Russian State University for the Humanities
In I Saw It, Maxim D. Shrayer meticulously and unflinchingly chronicles the Nazi massacre of Jews in Kerch, Crimea, and its reflection in Ilya Selvinsky’s extraordinarily powerful poems. Selvinsky, a convinced communist generally willing to compromise, suffered considerably for his stubborn attempts to bring the Shoah to the attention of the Soviet reading public. Shrayer brings together social, political, historical, and poetic questions, producing a memorable book that will fascinate a broad range of readers.
— Michael Wachtel, Princeton University
Maxim D. Shrayer’s searing account of the struggles of a famous Soviet-Jewish poet and military officer, Ilya Selvinsky, is among the most original and illuminating studies of the Holocaust as experienced by a generation of Soviet intellectuals who witnessed the atrocities and were at the forefront of Stalin’s propaganda war against Nazism. Shrayer’s research on Selvinsky is impressive and stunning. Scholars and students alike will appreciate Shrayer’s presentation of Selvinsky’s moving poetry, revealing diary entries, and rare family photographs—all of this rich material Shrayer contextualizes in a deep historical and literary analysis of this era’s fanatical idealism and genocide. Standing at the edge of a mass grave of Jewish victims in his native region of Crimea at Kerch, Selvinsky followed his conscience by writing the poem “I Saw It” to testify and express his outrage and grief. In this penetrating book of Selvinsky’s struggles, Shrayer pays a double tribute—to a shattered idealist and patriot who captured the soul of his people in his poetry, and to the victims of the Shoah whose voices, like those of a generation of Soviet Jewish intellectual witnesses, were muted by postwar Soviet censors who suppressed the Holocaust.
— Wendy Lower, Claremont McKenna College
Comprehensive, meticulously researched, erudite, and up-to-date, with sober assessments and insightful interpretive comments, Maxim D. Shrayer’s study of Ilya Selvinsky closes gaps both in the history of Soviet Russian literature and in the history of the literature of the Holocaust.
— Leona Toker, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Soviet Jews, serving on the Eastern front, were the first to document the German war against the Jews. The most memorable response was, indeed, the first: a Russian-language poem so immediate, so personal and so graphic, that even Stalin and his henchmen could not suppress the poem, nor, try as they did, the courageous poet who authored it. This is the remarkable story, never before told, of the Jewish-Russian poet Ilya Selvinsky, who despite all odds first taught his fellow Jews and Russians how to mourn their incalculable losses.
— David G. Roskies, Jewish Theological Seminary, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
I Saw It is a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of how Soviet Jewish writers and the regime in general responded to the Nazi massacres of Jews in German-occupied Soviet territory. As a soldier, poet, and journalist, Ilya Selvinsky was often on the front line, struggling to comprehend the enormity of the destruction and suffering around him. Based on painstaking and comprehensive research, Maxim D. Shrayer does a superb job of conveying the challenges of being a Soviet patriot and a Jew in the face of Hitler’s onslaught.
— Joshua Rubenstein, author of Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg
[Shrayer] has drawn a complex, tragic portrait of a remarkably talented person, who misunderstood the nature of the Soviet power by believing that he belonged to the Soviet family. . . . Selvinsky never achieved the recognition that he deserved during his lifetime. Now, however, thanks to the thorough research and fine work of Maxim Shrayer—who also translated and published the full texts of Selvinsky’s poems—Selvinsky’s work is now firmly established within the canon of Holocaust literature.
— Anna Shternsis, Jewish Quarterly (Autumn/Winter 2013)
Ilya Selvinsky was a Soviet Jewish poet writer who wrote explicitly about the Holocaust at a time when most Soviet writers avoided the subject. Though Selvinsky was in and out of political trouble, his undeniable talent and Stalin’s grudging admiration allowed him to survive. Maxim D. Shrayer tells his story vividly, comprehensively and convincingly. Unlike many literary studies, this deeply researched book is accessible, gripping and free of jargon. We learn not only about Selvinsky and other wartime writers, but also about Soviet policy toward the Holocaust and how it changed; the tense relations between the Party-State and writers; and the complexities of Jewish identities in the USSR.
— Zvi Gitelman, University of Michigan
This beautifully close reading of a major Soviet poet restores for us an important vision of the Holocaust.
— Timothy Snyder, Yale University

Table of Contents


Chapter One: Selvinsky on the Shoah by Bullet
1. Selvinsky before the War: Poetics and Politics
2. The Nazi Invasion and the Frontlines
3. Jewish Poems in Praise of the Soviet Dictator?
4. The Massacre at Kerch: History, Witnessing, Memory
5. “I Saw It!”
6. Revisi(ti)ng the Memories: “Kerch” and “The Trial in Krasnodar”

Chapter Two: The Price of Bearing Witness to the Shoah
1. Selvinsky’s Troubles of 1943-1944
2. In the Moscow Exile
3. (Re)reading Stalin

Chapter Three: The Victory and Beyond
1. Selvinsky and Jewish-Russian Shoah Poetry in 1944-1945
2. Kandava/Kandau
3. Selvinsky during zhdanovshchina and the Anticosmopolitan Campaign
4. The Ashes and Bones of Crimea

Chapter Four: Selvinsky’s Legacy and Soviet Shoah Poetry
1. The Anxiety of Noninfluence: Ozerov, Slutsky, Samoilov
2. Selvinsky Agonistes

Appendix: Two Shoah Poems by Ilya Selvinsky:
Russian originals and English translations

1. “Я это видел!”—“I Saw It”
2. “Керчь”— “Kerch”

Works Cited