Russian-Jewish Author, Isaac Babel is Born, 1894
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
On This Day in Jewish History: July 13, 1894
On this date in 1894, the great Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel was born in Odessa. The master of the tightly packed, emotionally explosive short story, his enigmatic life and tragic death at the hands of a Stalin purge, made him one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century literature. Babel was raised in a middle-class family but became a devoted adherent of the Communist revolution that overthrew the Czar. He had a gift for languages and spoke fluent French in addition to his more native languages of Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. Writing by the age of 20, one of his earliest stories was published in the literary magazine edited by esteemed writer Maxim Gorky. It was a mentorship that Babel would never forget.
Babel worked as a journalist and then kept a diary of his experiences riding with the Russian military in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. This would become the foundation for his celebrated collection The Red Cavalry, a book that would contain some of his most acclaimed autobiographical stories. Babel’s other most celebrated work is Odessa Tales, stories published in 1923 and 1924 and then as a collection in 1931. In these stories, Babel paints a remarkable portrait of his hometown, at the center of which is the great Jewish gangster Benya Krik. Babel was also a dramatist and collaborated with the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein on Bezhin Meadow in 1937.
In 1919, Babel married Yevgenia Gronfein, whom he had met at school in Kyiv, but she grew increasingly unhappy with Soviet life and emigrated to Paris. While Babel visited her there, during which time his daughter Nathalie Babel Brown was born, he ultimately could not leave the Soviet Union for good. Nathalie Babel Brown would become one of the most distinguished scholars of her father’s work. Babel’s son, Emmanuil Babel, was born to one of Babel’s lovers, Tamara Kashrina, but Babel did not stay with Tamara. After failing to reconcile with Yevgenia, Babel began his last long-term relationship, this with Antonia Pirozhkova with whom he would have a daughter, Lydia Babel. Much of what we know of Babel’s last days before his arrest come from the memoirs of Pirozhkova.
That arrest came in May 1939. Charged with crimes against the state, Babel never saw freedom again. Soviet culture under Stalin erased Babel from schools and his work from publication. After being subjected to brutality in prison, Babel gave a false confession, one that he would later recant. Babel’s bogus trial was held on January 16, 1940 at which he was declared guilty. Eleven days later was executed by firing squad. It was long hoped that Babel’s writings, unpublished at the time of his arrest, would be found in KGB files. These include his translation from Yiddish to Russian of Sholem Aleichem. These manuscripts were never found and are believed to have been destroyed. And yet, since the re-publication of his work after the death of Stalin, Babel’s critical reputation has only acquired greater luster. His work has been published in English in various editions since the 1960s, and the Complete Works, edited by his daughter Nathalie, were published in 2002.