Elena Mihailovna Sherman was a Russian-Jewish writer who died in her mid thirties and left a fascinating if albeit brief collection of poetry. You will piece together why such a remarkable poetess dies at such a young age.
I discovered Elena in Young Jewish Poets Who Fell as Soviet Soldiers in the Second World War by Rina Lapidus. A book which translated some of her work in English and is analysed by Lapidus herself who naturally writes her own opinion of what she thinks of Sherman’s work, stating that there was a feminist slant to it however, such a slant would be watered down in her later poetry. The reason being will later be explained (it was a man, it’s always a man..).
I won’t go in too much detail about her upbringing as it is explained better others. After college she did a couple of clerical jobs and became a journalists eventually writing for articles for the Soviet army. At some point Elena became a teacher where she eventually met and fell in love with a young student of hers 10 years her junior called Valery Marchikhin
Valery would would have in fact be the biggest influence in her later poetry and her love for him is what appears to be her drive, although we know that she wrote to him a lot and wrote about him in her poetry, I am not too sure on how close they’re relationship was. Elena would eventually give up on Valery when she suspected her love was unrequited. This would lead to her most famous poem called The Last Poem. To put in bluntly this poem is Elena giving up her love for Valery and facing the perceived fact that they will never be together. It has been said that Elena confronts the fact that she will die soon. The politics and world events of her time would put support to that idea. I however, agree with Rina Lapidus in suggesting that Elena was probably writing about an end to one period of her life as she moves on from thinking about Valery. Valery died in 1941 during the second world war fighting for the Red Army and chances are Elena was not aware of this fact. Not long after in 1942 Elena would also sadly pass away under extremely tragic circumstances.
As described by Rina Lapidus from witness that saw it, Elena when working for the Soviet army paper Molot and travelling with colleagues to the province of Rostov her home province (near the border with Ukraine) the Nazis had seized the area and captured Elena among others, the Nazis also ascertained she was Jewish. As she was in her home province they found her parents also. They forced Elena to dig graves for her parents and then they shot them. The next day they asked her to dig another grave after which they took the shovel from her and beat her with it repeatedly murdering her in the process. Heaven only knows the fear and pain she was suffering before and during that awful event which happened to many more at the time. Were it not for a witness who saved the remains of what work Elena had left in her personal affects we may well have lost a significant fragment of Elena’s contribution to the cultural richness of the world.
Although Elena was alive during the Soviet era under the rule of Stalin and was present and fell victim to the horrors of the Second World War, Elena herself was very much her own person, an individual with her own thoughts and ideas and was definitely not part of a clique. She was emotional and passionate. When she loved she wrote with such passion, when she did not like anything she definitely made it clear. The only downside I can think of is that I do not know the first language of Elena to really appreciate the impact of her words and just have to make the most of a traslation.
If you can find a copy of Young Jewish Poets Who Fell as Soviet Soldiers in the Second World War by Rina Lapidus (my copy is on my Kindle) give it read, it writes about Elena and other Jewish writers also. We are lucky to have some knowledge of Elena of her works and her life and there many other publications out there about her. It does make you think though in times of such great tragedy where many lives were lost, there are so much that we lose. The lives of others, their talents, their contributions to enrich the culture of our world and it is important that we do not forget not just who they were but what they were. Writers, lovers, best friends and those who cared for their family, friends and neighbours. A million deaths is not a statistic, it’s a loss of something that we have to take years and years to get back.
I feel better for knowing that Elena Shirman existed. Knowing that someone wrote with the passion with how I thought about people I have loved and cared for in my own past. Thank you Elena.