The Strange Life of Ilya Ehrenburg

Mark Weber

Ilya Ehrenburg, the leading Soviet propagandist of the Second World War, was a contradictory figure. A recent article in the weekly Canadian Jewish News sheds new light on the life of this "man of a thousand masks." [1] 

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. The central figure of one novel, The Stormy Life of Lazik Roitschwantz, is a pathetic "luftmensch," a recurring character in Jewish literature who seems to live "from the air" without visible means of support.

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.)

Ehrenburg is perhaps most infamous for his viciously anti-German wartime propaganda. In the words of the Canadian Jewish News: "As the leading Soviet journalist during World War II, Ehrenburg's writings against the German invaders were circulated among millions of Soviet soldiers." His articles appeared regularly in Pravda, Izvestia, the Soviet military daily Krasnaya Zvezda ("Red Star"), and in numerous leaflets distributed to troops at the front.

In one leaflet headlined "Kill," Ehrenburg incited Soviet soldiers to treat Germans as sub-human. The final paragraph concludes: [2]

“The Germans are not human beings. From now on the word German means to use the most terrible oath. From now on the word German strikes us to the quick. We shall not speak any more. We shall not get excited. We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day ... If you cannot kill your German with a bullet, kill him with your bayonet. If there is calm on your part of the front, or if you are waiting for the fighting, kill a German in the meantime. If you leave a German alive, the German will hang a Russian and rape a Russian woman. If you kill one German, kill another -- there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses. Do not count days, do not count kilometers. Count only the number of Germans killed by you. Kill the German -- that is your grandmother's request. Kill the German -- that is your child's prayer. Kill the German -- that is your motherland's loud request. Do not miss. Do not let through. Kill.”

Ehrenburg's incendiary writings certainly contributed in no small measure to the orgy of murder and rape by Soviet soldiers against German civilians.

Until his death in 1967, "his support for the Soviet state, and for Stalin, never wavered," the Canadian Jewish News notes. His loyalty and service were acknowledged in 1952 when he received the Stalin Prize. In keeping with official Soviet policy, he publicly criticized Israel and Zionism.

The Canadian Jewish News further writes:

“ … The recent disclosure that Ehrenburg arranged to transfer his private archives to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem library and archive, while still alive, comes as a stunning revelation. The reason this information has come to light only now is that Ehrenburg agreed to transfer his archive on condition that the transfer, and his will, remain secret for 20 years after his death. On Dec. 11 [1987], with the 20-year period expired, Israel's daily Maariv related Ehrenburg's story…”

The collection includes material about the important wartime Jewish partisan movement. Among the documents in the collection is one concerning a pogrom in Malalchovka, a village near Moscow, which took place in 1959.

This new revelation about one of the most influential figures of the Stalinist regime shows that, whatever he may have said for public consumption, Ehrenburg never privately disavowed Zionism or forgot his ancestry.
 

Notes

1. Rose Kleiner, "Archives to throw new light on Ehrenburg," Canadian Jewish News (Toronto), March 17, 1988, p. 9.

2. Alfred de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam (London: Roudedge & Kegan Paul, 2nd edition, 1979), pp. 6546, 201; Erich Kern (ed.), Verheimlichte Dokumente (Munich: FZ- Verlag, 1988), pp. 260-61, 353-55.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1988-89 (Vol. 8, No. 4), pages 507-509.