Boris Slutskii was born in 1919 in Slaviansk, Ukraine. He was raised in a Russian cultural environment. Slaviansk and, then Kharkov, where he soon moved with his family, were both outside of the traditional territory inhabited by Russian Jews, the Pale of Settlement, where Jewish tradition was largely maintained until World War II. In 1937 Slutskii entered Moscow's Institute of Law. Two years later he combined those studies with attendance at the Gorky Literary Institute. In 1941 he graduated from both institutes and his first poems were published.
During the War
On July 13, 1941 Slutskii was drafted into the Red Army and appointed a military lawyer. However, only two weeks later he was wounded and spent the next two months in hospital. In October of that year he returned to the front. From the fall of 1942 he was no longer involved in investigative matters and until the end of the war he served in the political administration of the 57th Army as an instructor in a department for spreading propaganda among the enemy forces. During this period he fought on the Western, Southwest, and Ukrainian Fronts. The 57th Army liberated Ukraine and then fought in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Austria.
His responsibilities in the political administration including composing leaflets for distribution among the enemy and organizing ideological radio broadcasts intended to sow doubt in or win over enemy troops. He also worked with German prisoners of war who were willing to carry out anti-Nazi propaganda in the rear of the Wehrmacht.
In 1943 he joined the Communist Party. In 1944 and 1945 he prepared several analytical reports about the economy, culture, and attitudes of the people in Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia that were used to set Soviet policy in those countries. He took part in setting up local authorities in Hungary and in the Soviet occupation zone of Austria. During the war he was awarded the Orders of the Red Star and the Patriotic War, both 1st and 2nd class. He ended the war with the rank of major.
After the War
In 1946 Slutskii was demobilized and spent a long time in hospital recovering from the results of a serious concussion. He returned to poetry in 1948 but he was not allowed to publish a single poem before 1953, the year of Stalin's death. His first collection of poems Pamiat' (Memory) appeared in 1957. During this period, one Jewish writer who participated in the war, remarked about Slutskii that "a politruk [political commissar] was still alive within him." In October 1958, at a meeting of literary figures Slutskii condemned Boris Pasternak for having published Doctor Zhivago in the West. In later years Slutskii very much regretted his act. For his words Slutskii was criticized by some other Soviet writers. In later years Slutskii wrote and published a great deal but, as Ilya Ehrenburg noted, "the war was his school, no matter what he wrote about, in his every word there was a memory of the war years" (Boris Frezinskii, Ob Il'e Erenburge (About Ilya Ehrenburg, Moscow, 2013, p. 666).
Slutskii wrote much verse and prose that had no chance of being published under the conditions of Soviet censorship. Among other things, such texts spoke about the behavior of Soviet troops in Europe, looting, Jews in the Red Army, and the Holocaust. During the period of Stalin's late antisemitism, 1947-1953, he wrote a poem that reflected the attitude of many Soviet Jews toward the widespread accusation that Jews, in contrast to Russians, did not engage in combat but spent the war unharmed in the Soviet rear. In his poem the typical Jewish name Abram (which was the name of the poet's father), was contrasted to the typical Russian Ivan:
"Jews don't plant any crops - /Jews do deals in their shops; / Jews prematurely go bald, / Jews grab more than their own./ Your Jews are conniving bastards: / He is not much good in the army: / Ivan in a trench doing battle, / Abram doing trade at the market." (Marat Grinberg, I Am To Be Read Not from left to Right, But in Jewish: From Right to Left, Boston, 2011, p. 139.)
Boris Slutskii died in 1986. His "subversive" texts, including Jewish ones were published only after the liberalization of the Soviet regime during Gorbachev's perestroika.
Boris Slutskii about Jews in the Red Army and about the Holocaust
The following excerpt presenting some of Slutskii's impressions about the war and, evidently written during his years of service in the Red Army, reflects the typical stereotype held by officers in the Red Army to the effect that Jews were not to be found on the front lines and Slutskii's reaction to that accusation:
"In the fall of 1944 I was witness to two attitudes toward the Jewish question.
The leadership [of our division] accepted the reports of the heads of the political departments. One of the heads of the political department of the division, Puzanov, a young and energetic but simple fellow reported that, with the aim of strengthening discipline, the division tribunal had condemned two deserters to death. When he read out loud the information on the questionnaires they had had to fill out, my heart skipped a beat: one of the two was without question a Galician Jew. Puzanov appealed to the military court that had revoked the sentence. The general looked at him with an official and scornful glance [and said]:
'Your sentence has been revoked by us, a military council. Have you read the last letter of the condemned person? He has been fighting since the beginning of the war and was wounded twice, and every day soldiers said to him: 'You alone of all your people have remained [on the battle-line].' 'Oh, you, politicians, said the general, 'have found one Jew on the front lines and you want to shoot him before the ranks [of his fellow soldiers]. What will the division say?'
Paradoxically, in replying to him Puzanov said that with him [among his fellow soldiers and officers] there were many outstanding Jews who fought well."
Boris Slutskii, Zapiski o voine (Notes about the War), St. Petersburg, 2000, p. 149.
Boris Slutskii's Poem about the Holocaust
The following poem by Slutskii was written in 1944 or in 1948 and was a direct reaction to the Holocaust, specifically to the murder of the most traditional segment of the Jewish population, its Yiddish speakers.
Я освобождал Украину,
I was a liberator of Ukraine,
Нет не вымер – вырезан и выжжен.
No, didn't die out – it was slaughtered and burned.
В их стихах, то сладких, то горючих,
In their poems, either sweet, or burning,