Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ilya Ehrenburg

Ilya Ehrenburg, the leading Soviet propagandist of the Second World War, was a contradictory figure.

Ehrenburg was born in 1891 in Kiev to a non-religious Jewish family. In 1908 he fled Tsarist Russia because of his revolutionary activities. Although he returned to visit after the Bolshevik revolution, he continued to live abroad, including many years in Paris, and did not settle in the Soviet Union until 1941. A prolific writer, Ehrenburg was the author of almost 30 books.

Ilya Ehrenburg and Gustav Regler with Hemingway in Spain, 1937

As a Jew and a dedicated Communist, Ehrenburg was a relentless enemy of German National Socialism. During the Second World War, he was a leading member of the Soviet-sponsored Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. (At fund-raising rallies in the United States for the Soviet war effort, two leading members of the Committee displayed bars of soap allegedly manufactured by the Germans from the corpses of murdered Jews.)

The Soviet Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg in a meeting with partisans following the liberation of Vilnius in 1944.

In 1954, Ehrenburg published a novel titled The Thaw that tested limits of censorship in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. It described a corrupted and despotic factory boss (a "little Stalin"). The boss's wife could not bear to stay with him and left the despot during the spring thaw that gave her the courage, an analogy of Krushchev's 'Thaw' in the USSR.

Ehrenburg was the first legal Soviet author to mention positively a lot of names banned under Stalin, including the one of Marina Tsvetaeva. He was also active in publishing the works by Osip Mandelstam when the latter had been posthumously rehabilitated but still largely unacceptable for censorship. Ehrenburg co-edited The Black Book that contains documentary accounts by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union and Poland. Ehrenburg was also active as poet till his last days, depicting the WW II events in Europe, the Holocaust and the destinies of Russian intellectuals.

Ehrenburg died in 1967 of prostate and bladder cancer, and was interred in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow,

where his gravestone is adorned with a reproduction of his portrait drawn by his friend Pablo Picasso.

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