Today in Yiddishkayt… July 13
Birthday of Isaak Babel, Journalist & Author
Isaak Babel was born on July 13, 1894 in the Moldavanka section of Odessa. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to the Black Sea port of Nikolaev, 90 miles away. Babel’s father was a successful businessman and the family lived a relatively comfortable life. Babel studied violin, German, French, and Talmud at the Nicholas I Commercial Institute and graduated from Kiev University in 1915.
After graduating Babel moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied literature and began his writing career. His first works were published in 1916 in Letopis, a monthly edited by Maksim Gorky. Babel’s satires attracted the attention of the government and in 1917 he was charged with writing pornography. Babel participated briefly in the war on the Romanian front, but he was discharged after an injury. He then joined the staff of Gorky’s newspaper Novaya Zhizn, and during the Revolution, worked as a clerk for the Commissariat of Education as well as the CheKa, the Soviet Secret Police.
In 1919, Babel married Eugenia Gronfein and joined the Ukrainian State Publishing House. He was assigned as a journalist to Field Marshall Budyonny’s First Cavalry army, which led an unsuccessful Polish campaign to spread the Communist revolution outside Russia. While in Odessa, Babel began to write a series of stories set in Moldavanka, where he was born. They depicted the Jewish underworld, the middlemen, small merchants, brokers, whores, tough Jewish gangsters, saloon keepers, rabbis, and entrepreneurs, both before and after the October Revolution. Many of the stories feature the fictional mob boss, Benia Krik, who remains one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature. These stories were later used as the basis for Babel’s play Sunset, which centers on Benia Krik’s self appointed mission to right the wrongs of Moldavanka.
Here is a clip from the 1926 silent film, Benia Krik:
In 1923 Babel moved to Moscow and started to publish the Red Cavalry (Конармия), a collection of short stories such as “Crossing the River Zbrucz” and “My First Goose”. The stories are narrated by the pacifist Jewish officer, Liutov, who is assigned to a regiment of traditionally anti-Semitic Cossacs. The work has been translated into more than 20 languages, gaining Babel international fame. Between the years 1925 and 1930 he wrote a series of fictionalized accounts of his childhood and young adulthood. In the loosely autobiographical “Story of My Dovecote” he described the fate of a murdered grandfather. In the mid-1930s, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life due to increasing Stalinist persecution. He continued to work on film scripts, including Eisenstein’s banned Bezhin Meadow, as well as a new book. Babel also gave a speech about Soviet people and culture at the International Congress of Writers in Paris in 1935. His play Mariya, which depicted political corruption, prosecution of the innocent, and black marketeering within Soviet society, received mixed reviews and was ultimately withdrawn from a Moscow theater. His autobiographical short story “Di Grasso” (1937) was the last work to be published in Babel’s lifetime.
Babel was arrested by the N.K.V.D., a precursor of the K.G.B, in May 1939 at his cottage in Peredelkino, the writers’ colony. The secret police confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from his Moscow apatment. Under interrogation and probable torture at Lubyanka, Babel confessed a long association with Trotskyites and engaging in anti-soviet activity, including being recruited into a spy network by Ilya Ehrenburg and supplying André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation. His trial was held in Buturka Prison and on January 27, 1940, he was shot on Stalin’s orders for espionage. His body was dumped in a communal grave. The Soviet officials informed Babel’s widow that her husband died on March 17, 1941 in a prison camp in Siberia. Babel’s charges were posthumously cleared in 1954.