My People

Isaac Babel

Zhitomir, 5 June 1920. Jews beside a large house, including a yeshivah-bokher in glasses. An old man with a yellow beard. I want to stay, but the men from signals are winding the wires in. Naturally, since the headquarters has gone. I decide to stop with Duvid the Disciple. The soldiers try to dissuade me, but the Jews ask me to stay ... I wash ... Bliss ... Large numbers of Jewish girls. They sit around me. The household is alarmed; the Disciple says: ‘First the Poles looted us, then these came with their whoops and noise, took away all my wife’s belongings.’ A girl: ‘You’re a Jew, aren’t you? We’re in trouble, we’re going to be looted, don’t go to bed.’ Night. The lantern by the window. A Hebrew grammar-book. My soul aches. Zuckerman the assistant with his rifle ... Soldiers in the yard.

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These extracts are from a diary written when Babel was serving with Budyonny’s Cossack army. He was 26. In a cashbook ruled with red squares, a book he had taken from his father’s office, the writer jotted down observations which were to from the basis of his Red Cavalry stories. For years after Babel’s imprisonment by the Soviet authorities (he was shot in a Moscow prison in 1940), this diary was kept, at some risk to herself, by a woman in Kiev. She delivered it to Ily Ehrenburg, a supporter of Babel’s rehabilitiation, who, in 1954 handed it over to the writer’s widow. A professor at the University of Budapest, Agnes Gereben, has transcribed a large part of the diary – Soviet law did not allow it to be copied in full – and published a Hungarian translation, with a historical and literary commentary. The extracts which appear here, translated by Antoni Marianski, are based on Dr Gereben’s transcription.