Read in Russian (Тяжелый Песок)

Rybakov is a Jewish writer who was born in Ukraine in 1911 and lived his whole live in Soviet Russia. "Heavy Sand" is a semi-fictional story of a Jewish family in a small Ukrainian town before and during World War II. The book's contents can be divided to two major parts - the first is the life of the Ivanovsky-Rakhlenko family before the war, through 3 generations. The second is the horrific story of the same town and its Jewish ghetto during Nazi occupation in 1941-1942.

Although the book is written in a auto-biographic narrative, it is not an autobiography. While Rybakov himself lived in a similar town in about the same period, the story of the family is fictional, with fragments based on his memories of families he was familiar with. The ghetto part is also semi-fictional, though I've seen in some place people claiming that it's based on their stories as recorded by Rybakov from interviews with family members.

The novel is written very well, in a readable style full of humor. The life of an average Jewish family in the first half of the century in Ukraine seems quite truth-like, and the story of the ghetto is told masterfully.

What's special about this book is that it was basically the first authorized for publishing story of the Jewish holocaust in the Soviet Union. It's also the first one that mentioned the amount of Jews murdered by the Nazis during the war - 6 million, in Soviet literature.

On the other hand, it is well felt that the book was written during the oppressive Soviet regime. Although in many places it would be quite suitable, Rybakov refrains from criticizing the Soviet regime. He doesn't explicitly blame the Ukrainian population for helping the Nazis destroy Jews (which they did), and even his story of the political trials that his (fictional) father and brother underwent manages to stay clean of any criticism. Careful reading, however, reveals that in more than one place Rybakov describes the Soviet doctrines ironically, nothing explicit but still makes one think.

A lot has been written on the holocaust and the beastly behavior of the Germans towards Jews, but most of it has been written in the West, as the Soviet Union blocked most publications of such material. In this respect, "Heavy Sand" serves as a unique testimony from the Eastern side of the iron curtain.