A Man, Mother, or a Piece of Meat?

What is identity? According to Merriam Webster (n.d.), it is “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” (def. 1a). In the modern world, there is often some fuss about what one could be determined as. This is because identity has become something increasingly fluid and complex, with people being able to refer to a particular race, religion, or sexual orientation. Others may identify with their political beliefs, profession or family role. Vassily Grossman’s In the Town of Berdichev and The Hell of Treblinka examine the complicated and often contradictory ways in which identity can be shaped by various factors, including those that are not subject to an individual. This essay will explore how a man’s identity changes according to the community, physical environment and his condition, sometimes to the point where one is not considered as a human being at all. 

To start, the root for any personal belonging derives from indoctrination, or rather continuous presence in the local society. With no one to tell who and what he is, a child will not learn such a social construct and will differ from the ordinary adults in the future. Though, the matter here is not the question of establishing certain personality traits, but rather determining how much an individual’s identity is shaped by the community. Grossman’s works provide powerful examples of this phenomenon. In In the Town of Berdichev, Claudia Vavilova is a Red Army commissar who is billeted with a Jewish family during the final months of her pregnancy. As commissar of the First Battalion, she is expected to be tough, disciplined, and committed to the cause of the Revolution. Being raised in the Soviet Union, she is supposed to act not any other way. In the times of the USSR, there were no strict work-related gender roles, just comrades contributing to the commune. Of course, while the hard labor was assigned to men because of their physical advantage, women completed fewer tough activities – there is no denial in that. However, the motto of Communism proclaimed, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Marx, 1966, p. 3). So, in the sense of helping out the congregation, males and females were treated and brought up the same. Consequently, the military women in this case did not relate to the traditional role of being a mother, at least during their service. As Kozyrev tells himself, “She hardly seems like a woman at all. Always with her Mauser, always in leather trousers. She’s led the battalion into the attack any number of times” (Grossman, 2011, p. 17). It indicates that women in the Red Army were not seen as primarily mothers or caregivers, but as comrades and soldiers that had to be there during the war. In The Hell of Treblinka, the influence of the community is depicted in a horrific manner, as it touches the matter of Jews and their genocide. Grossman describes the horrors of the Nazi death camp where an estimated 800,000 people were murdered. But way before they got to the Treblinka-1 and Treblinka-2, the innocent had already been perceived as unwelcome outcasts. Just being of a different origin makes these people, in the eyes of Nazi, not worthy of anything. Comparing it to the modern world, it is noted as not only dehumanizing labeling but also systemic oppression and discrimination that is related to any age and gender. Jewish children were not aware of what was wrong with them or their parents. Yet, they could feel and see the biased attitude towards themselves. Adults, on the other hand, took it as given and, with some attempts to resist, submitted to the tyrannical power. Among people of their own, Jews considered each other as fellow countrymen. Unfortunately, this stance was not shared within the non-Jewish society. Albeit, nothing about the humans’ essence had changed. This way, everything boils down to a certain conclusion: the perception of an individual depends on the social circle he is presented in. 

Continuing the discussion of the environment, the physical factor of identity shift must be mentioned as well. Here it is implied as the surroundings’ conditions: the house of Magazaniks and work/death camps of Treblinka. While both writings describe the events of war time, the state, therefore the public roles, of the people completely differ. On the battlefield, the most important thing is to win no matter what. The second Vavilova arrives and settles inside the house, she is not a troop unit anymore. From now on, it is her shelter, where the former Commissar is now meant to be protected, not to attack opponents. Overall, it is not similar to the cases where soldiers take a small break or change their base locations: “But the child had obstinately gone on growing, making it hard for her to move, making it hard for her to ride. She had felt nauseous. She had vomited. She had felt dragged down, dragged toward the earth” (Grossman, 2011, p. 20). Claudia is no longer fit for the army, at least for some time. And while In the Town of Berdichev the change in status is somewhat temporary and safe, the conditions in any of the Treblinka camps are none other than gruesome. As it is said in the text, “Nothing in this camp was adapted for life; everything was adapted for death” (Grossman, 2011, p. 128). Blank fields, three-meter long wire fence, absence of food and water, killing gas chambers – everything screamed «danger». Naive Jews who went there thinking they would start a new life were terribly mistaken. Upon arrival, any possible freedom of speech and action was taken away. Even in the work camps, the environment was in no way charming, leading to an exploitation of human beings. When one is provided with little to no adequate working conditions, he is not considered as a legal worker, he is a bondman. 

As implied in the passage:

We know about work in the quarry; we know how those who failed to fulfill their work quota were thrown over the edge of a cliff into an abyss below. We know about the daily food ration: 170 to 200 grams of bread and half a liter of some slop that passed for soup. We know about the deaths from starvation, about the hunger-swollen wretches who were taken outside the camp in wheelbarrows and shot. (Grossman, 2011, p. 126)

This quote shows the absolute worst standards those people were given, everything against their will. Whether they were talented craftsmen or miserable peasantry (though there was no difference for the fascists), they were all treated as subhuman. The settings of both Treblinka camps were nothing but the perfect place for various manipulation. In relation to the Magazanik house in “Berdichev”, it is a fabricated microcosm of pure evil. In any case, it is clear how physical surroundings have a direct impact on the way one is recognized. 

The last but not the least factor of an identity change is the current personal condition. Wherever a man is raised, his identity is still fluid and can change depending on the circumstances he finds himself in. Vavilova’s main issue was directly related to her pregnancy, as everything she had done before did not outweigh the new course of her life. Had been the Red Army commissar at another place and time, she would have still retarded because of her position. The issue is that a mother cannot be a soldier at the same time: whatever a woman is up to become, she has got to give up the other, as she will not be let raise the children and serve. In the finale of the work, Claudia leaves the Magazanik house and runs out towards the cadets. It could be argued that her overall image served as a strong female whose motherhood is just a result of her reproductive duty. Here, a woman is not considered as a sacred mother giving life to a whole human being, but just a person who continues the race of the nation — a nearly perfect representative of the Marxist/Leninist movement. A woman who is confined to the home and traditional roles cannot be a true socialist. Looking at the opening scene for the story, the sad picture pops up: pregnancy is a burden that the main character has gotten herself. When her comrade is writing an application for maternity leave from military service, he records it as “for reasons of health [po bolezni]”, then adds and deletes the word “female [po zhenskoi]” (Grossman, 2011, p. 18). Thus, pregnancy is not only stigmatized as a sickness; its feminine nature makes it absurd to put in a report as well. The ways in which pregnancy and motherhood were dishonored are a reminder of the restrictive and limiting ways in which women’s identities can be defined. In the case of the Jews genocide in Treblinka, it is a carefully planned dehumanizing process. The initiation starts with depriving civilians of their homes, clothes, and possessions. They are forced to work as slaves and bear unspeakable atrocities. It can be argued that when one has no capital on his hands, he still carries the ethnic or other cultural legacy. Yet, the initial goal of such a horrific place like Treblinka-2 was to take away everything from the clueless, remove their sole existence. As was noted by Grossman (2011), “Documents were just thrown on the ground, since no one had any use for the documents of the living dead who, within an hour, would be lying crushed in a pit” (p. 142). With their personal data being thrown away, the prisoners were reduced to nothing more than insignificant numbers. The most humiliating moment of such torment was marching through “The Road of No Return” where people had to walk 120 meters of shame naked, followed by fascists’ gruff orders. Then, they were herded into the gas chambers and murdered as pigs for slaughter. So, the ones brought to injuries, literal bareness and final extermination were not even simply victims of the Holocaust but just disposable. Though, Grossman highlights the sheer bravery and magnificence of human nature by telling the efforts to rescue the near: elderly’s parting words, parents covering children, and people fighting off the SS men with no advantage. In total destruction, even though the human spirit remains, the Jews’ identity was horribly transformed because of the deprivation of everything they had. In sum, the identification concept is heavily influenced by one’s position at the moment. 

In conclusion, an identity is an extremely volatile notion that is altered by various factors, both internal and external. It starts with the community that instills public norms according to their subjective estimation. The next impacting element is physical conditions, whether warm homes or concentration camps. Though it is not as essential for individual characterization overall, it can play a role in shaping someone’s image. Finally, the given state is what makes the rest up, as it might reduce the previous experience to zero. On the whole, Grossman’s works were one of the first to openly depict the horrors of Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union. He also inspired a new generation of Soviet writers to depart from the social realism genre in literature and promote a more honest narration of events. So, In the Town of Berdichev and The Hell of Treblinka had a great influence on Soviet literature and society in general. This way, through the analysis of these works, the importance of identity protection is underlined. 


Grossman, V., Chandler, R., Chandler, E., & Mukovnikova, O. (2011). “In the Town of Berdichev”, “The Hell of Treblinka”. In The road: Short fiction and articles (pp. 17–174). essay, Quercus. 

Marx, C. (1966). Part I. In Critique of the Gotha Programme. essay, Progress Publishers. 

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Identity definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved January 15, 2024, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/identity