The Season of the Dead (Le Temps Des Morts)

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THE SEASON OF THE DEAD (Le Temps des morts)

Novella by Pierre Gascar, 1953

Pierre Gascar's novella Le Temps des morts (The Season of the Dead ) was appended to a collection of short stories entitled Les Bêtes that appeared in French in 1953 and in English translation in 1956 as Beasts and Men. By adding a longer text to the collection of short stories, Gascar's publisher succeeded in having the work considered for the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, normally awarded only to novels. The strategy was successful, and Gascar received the prize for that year. In 1998 a new, strictly autobiographical version of The Season of the Dead, subtitled The Russian Dream, was published posthumously. The title therefore refers to two separate works: one a piece of fiction, the other a memoir, written about 45 years apart.

The Season of the Dead of 1953 is a fictionalized account of Gascar's experience in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in the town of Rawa-Ruska in the province of Galicia, then a part of occupied Poland and now in Ukraine. The town is called Brodno in the novella. Because of a chronic shortage of water, the mortality rate among the prisoners was high. The camp commander assigned a group of prisoners the task of building and maintaining a cemetery outside the camp, where the dead prisoners were buried with military honors. Every evening the prisoners dug one fresh grave to be ready for the next casualty.

The relative independence enjoyed by the prisoners on cemetery detail, combined with the humanity and even friendliness of the German soldiers, allows the narrator, Pierre (based on Gascar himself), to enter into contact with the locals. He flirts from a distance with a peasant girl named Maria and befriends a Jew named Isaac Lebovitch, who toils in a nearby sawmill. From the time of their first arrival in town, the French prisoners notice the Jews wearing white armbands with a blue Star of David, many of whom were pressed into slave labor by the Germans. As time goes by and the extermination process intensifies, the prisoners hear from the rail yard the cries of victims in transit inside the cattle cars. Finally, the Germans round up the Jews of Brodno and send them to the death camps or murder them on the spot.

The French prisoners believe that they are only passive witnesses, until they discover that someone has been hiding at night in the grave they dig every evening before returning to camp. Pierre corresponds with the fugitive by leaving a note in the fresh grave and finding an answer in the morning. He learns that it is Isaac Lebovitch who hides in the grave at night and stays in the trees during the day. In his messages Isaac begs Pierre to help him escape, as if Pierre himself were not a prisoner. Finally the workmen arrive one morning to find that Isaac's hiding place has been discovered, and they never find his trace again.

Gascar decided years later, during a long correspondence with a Ukrainian woman who sent him pictures of contemporary Rawa-Ruska and of the graveyard he had helped build, to rewrite The Season of the Dead as nonfiction. He believed that the original suffered from being too poetic and remote from the facts. Many of the events and descriptions in the later version are similar, although there is no longer an Isaac Lebovitch character. On the other hand, Gascar places more emphasis in his memoir upon his discovery in the forest of an abandoned Jewish cemetery, which the commander wants the workers to raid in order to use the tombstones for their own graveyard. Gascar speculates that the German officer, by encouraging this desecration, was trying to get the prisoners to share some of the guilt for the persecution of the Jews. At one point, seeing that the commander makes the local Jews engage in an enormous amount of busy work during the peak period of deportation, Gascar wonders if he is not trying to protect them from the death camps by inventing things for them to do, such as building a monumental stone entrance for the prisoner-of-war cemetery. He realizes that such is not the case, however, when he discovers one day that all of the Jews in the town have disappeared.

In their own way both versions of Gascar's story are valuable documents. The latter, nonfictional version, without the dramatic element of the Jew hiding inside a grave to escape deportation, is a more literal, detailed, and reflective account of what Gascar witnessed. It is also less memorable and less tightly structured, containing the author's thoughts on the Soviet Union, reminiscences from the more distant past, and his experience of the liberation, all accompanied by his own extensive analysis. By purging his account of its poetic and narrative qualities, however, he makes up in historical accuracy what he loses in rhetorical power.

—M. Martin Guiney