Accessibility links

East European Perspectives: July 11, 2001

11 July 2001, Volume 3, Number 13
The next issue of "RFE/RL East European Perspectives" will be published on 8 August.

Stalinism With A Human Face?

Part 3: No 'Nice Jewish Girl'

By Michael Shafir

But, as Robert Levy shows in his biography of Ana Pauker here under review (Levy, 2001), Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej himself was no less suspicious of what the Soviets had in store for him in those early years. In Pauker's presence, Stalin asked him in Moscow in February 1947 "whether there was any truth to the rumors reaching him that there exists a current in the RCP that wants only Romanians to be in the party; that is, in concrete terms, that Ana Pauker and [Vasile] Luca, not being of Romanian nationality, should not hold leadership positions in the party." Dej denied it, but after Pauker returned to Bucharest and he stayed behind (as he told a Politburo meeting in 1961), he felt that "I was under surveillance there." He was summoned to Stalin again and asked what reasons he had not to bring up the case of Pauker and Luca. Confronting him with the evidence that in the fall of 1945 Dej had discussed their case with Andrei Vyshinski (who was enraged about Pauker's recruiting of Iron Guardists into the PCR), Dej was forced to acknowledge the details, but presented as excuse for his silence the fact that "I did not want to hide behind anyone" and that those had mainly been Vyshinski's own views. Whereupon the dictator maliciously laughed and shot back: "And what if Comrade Vyshinski was testing you?" Stalin then nonetheless proceeded to reminisce about his own struggle with Trotsky, obviously dropping anti-Semitic hints, for, as Dej told the Politburo, he "was convinced that I wanted her out because she's a Jew." Finally Stalin ended the encounter with the advice "And if they stand in your way, get rid of them!" (pp. 80-81). Levy rightly concludes that, the advice offered notwithstanding, at that point Stalin was both still testing Dej and "unwilling to give him a free hand to monopolize power. He much preferred to divide and rule by encouraging factional he did in the other 'fraternal' parties" (p. 81).

By 1948-49, however, Dej was cunningly adopting Cominformist anti-Titoist postures precisely at a time when Pauker's home policies were more and more clearly inclining towards the continuation of "domesticism." In private family circles, she was even regretting her earlier hard-line postures, and in close party debates she went as far as opposing the construction of the Stalin-inspired Danube-Black Sea canal which would be transformed into one of the most infamous landmarks in the history of the Romanian Gulag (pp. 88-89). Dej, who had started gathering "evidence" against Pauker's "deviation," managed to secure Stalin's blessing for her purge at a meeting with the Soviet leader in Moscow in August 1951, at which he was accompanied by Politburo member Iosif Chisinevschi (p. 199). So much, one is tempted to add, for the so-called evidence on the "home-communists" cum ethnic Romanian versus the "Muscovite" ethnic non-Romanian faction. For Chisinevschi, once a Pauker protege, was a Bessarabian Jew whose command of Romanian was comparable with Luca's, only the accent was Russian rather than Hungarian. By then, however, Stalin had become obsessed with the idea that "international Zionism" was launching a war against the Soviet Union and that, moreover, Jewish women were an important instrument in this war -- witness the arrest of Pauker friend Polina Zhemchuzhina -- Vyacheslav Molotov's wife (p. 199).

In February 1952, Luca was for the first time accused at a CC plenary of pro-peasant "right-wing deviation." Pauker, whose policies Luca had been actually implementing, can hardly be viewed as that day's "hero." In one of the many instances which Levy calls "duplicity," she formally criticized Luca, though privately she told him during the meeting "I am not going to let them throw you out" (p. 201). As in the initial stages of the Lucretiu Patrascanu case, she attempted to "minimize damages," agreeing to have Luca dismissed as finance minister but urging her colleagues to retain him in the Politburo. Under interrogation, she would later admit that she had done so because she realized that "Luca's unmasking would lead to my unmasking" (p. 201). Stalinist jargon aside, she was in all likelihood speaking the truth, for one would have been either naive, or inexperienced, or a fool to believe otherwise, and Pauker was neither. Luca would eventually die in prison in 1963, after apparently becoming insane because he was denied medical treatment for the syphilis from which he suffered (pp. 209-10). Preparations, with the direct participation of Soviet advisers and with materials being sent to Moscow and back were well under way for the purge to be extended, but by now Stalin was personally losing patience. Accompanied by Chisinevschi, Miron Constantinescu and Gheorghe Apostol, in April 1952 Dej was received by an angry Stalin. As Apostol, a close Dej ally, would reminisce in an interview with the BBC in 1988 (but broadcast only after the change of regime in 1990), Stalin turned to Dej asking him: "Dej, how many times did I tell you to get rid of Ana Pauker, and you did not understand me?...If I were in your place, I would have shot her in the head a long time ago...I was convinced that only proletarian blood flowed through your veins, but [I now see] it's petit-bourgeois blood" (p. 203).

When Pauker was first confronted with personal accusations at a Politburo meeting in May 1952, Dej was already alluding that she might have acted as a spy for Israel, rhetorically asking her how matters discussed at closed Politburo meetings with the participation of only 10 people would soon after emerge in a newspaper in Israel: "How can you not be suspicious?" he wondered, the more so as (he claimed) this had not been a singular instance. "There were decisions made at the CC, for example, regarding Jewish emigration. How did the Jewish population know about that, when it was decided at a level so high up?" (p. 205). When the CC convened on the following day, among the "questions" asked there was "by what authority" had "Comrade Ana" given orders to free a group of seven detained Zionists and "for whom did she do so." Had she, perhaps, promised their liberation to "the representative of the State of Israel?" (p. 206).

Under interrogation after her arrest, she was told that her investigators had evidence proving "that I am a spy. I was accused of being Truman's agent, and that I was resisting because I wanted Truman to erect a monument for me." Refusing to confess, she was subjected to "a mild" form of torture, but to no avail (p. 214). Dej, acting no doubt hand in hand with the Soviet advisers, was out to prove precisely what he had hinted at the above-mentioned May Politburo plenary meeting, namely that Pauker had divulged state secrets to the U.S., with "international Zionism" acting as Washington's main agent. The main "proof" rested in Pauker's links with and protection of, her brother, Zalman Rabinsohn, who was arrested on the same day as she was, namely 18 February 1953.

Pauker had definitely not "spied" for Israel, let alone the U.S. Yet, as Levy shows, the accusations of the investigation commission concerning her positions on Israel and Zionism were not altogether imaginary, the more so as they figured in her party-indictment even after plans for the show trial had been abandoned. His portrait of "Pauker as a Jew" and of "Pauker as a Jewish communist" makes fascinating reading. The latter, it turns out, cannot be in any way severed from the former.

That she grew up in a violently anti-Semitic environment is, of course, no great discovery. Her father, a deeply religious Jew who had moved to Bucharest where he made his living as a ritual butcher ("shoychet") and served as a synagogue functionary, reminisced in 1949, in an interview with a Western journalist, that in 1906 Ana, at that time aged 12, fled an anti-Semitic disturbance in Bucharest, arriving home sobbing and refusing to move from bed for almost a week. Thereafter, Hersh Zvi Kaufman Rabinsohn told the journalist, "she refused to speak Yiddish, which was the tongue our entire household spoke;" perhaps, he added with obvious bitterness, "It is then that I should have sat 'Shiva' for her" (p. 28). Sitting "Shiva" is the Jewish mourning ritual for relatives of the dead, but at closer introspection the old Rabinsohn had little reason to believe his daughter was "dead as a Jew," unless, of course, one speaks of Jewish orthodoxy. In 1918 she joined defense units protecting Jews against pogroms (p. 31) and after joining the "revolutionary movement" -- before the PCR was established -- Ana Rabinsohn worked as a Hebrew and Jewish studies teacher, being, as her sister Bella would recall, "the most beloved professor the school ever had up till then" (p. 34). (Many years later, the author of this review was a high school pupil in Romania. At that time Russian was an obligatory discipline, hated by most pupils because of its association with communism. Yet the tall, thin woman who taught us Russian at the "Gheorghe Lazar" lyceum in Bucharest was one of the most popular pedagogues. Her name was Tatiana Bratescu and she was Ana Pauker's daughter). Ana Pauker's career as a teacher, however, did not last long: she was fired for refusing, for ideological reasons, to continue to instruct her students in religion and for teaching them revolutionary songs. Such incidents easily speak for Pauker's belonging to that category of Jewish communists who had cast off any semblance of Jewish identity. Yet Levy brings ample evidence to refute the simplistic taxonomy of "non-Jewish [communist] Jews" and "genuine Jews."

That evidence is partly anecdotal, but for that reason all the more captivating. When her mother died after the war, she let those members of the Jewish community assisting in the burial cut her coat with scissors, according to the Jewish tradition for mourning. At her side her daughter, Tatiana, wondered why they were doing so and "she explained very kindly that there is a law and it must be respected." According to her daughter, Pauker "respected traditional Jewish customs for her parents' sake, out of respect for her parents and the lives they led. But she did not respect those customs herself" (p. 181). In 1946, when visited by her father on a Sabbath, she assured him that the hot coffee that was being served had not infringed on laws forbidding the use of fire on the Jewish rest day. To demonstrate that, she took him to the kitchen showing him the electric percolator on which the coffee had been prepared and explained that, since no one has had to strike a match, the law had not been infringed on. But the old man, from whom Pauker might well have inherited a strong-willed personality (he created an uproar in Bucharest in 1938 when, at the age of 75, he beat up a gang of anti-Semitic youth), stormed out of the house, calling the percolator "a wicked machine." As Levy comments, the "thought of one of the world's most prominent communists fervishly trying to convince her father that she did not break the Sabbath may seem incongruous" but is corroborated by other, similar evidence. During the war, the old Rabinsohn had been practically an outcast of the Jewish community on account of his daughter. Synagogues would not let him join prayers, out of fear of being accused by the Ion Antonescu regime of having communist connections. There was, however, one exception -- a rabbi from the Moldavian town of Buhusi. When Pauker's brother Zalman returned to Romania from Israel in 1949 at a time of severe food shortages, Pauker asked him to take a package of "Tu B'shvat" (a Jewish holiday commemorating the harvest) to the "Buhusher Rebbe" -- "as a gift from Ana Pauker" (pp. 181-182).

The late Romanian Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen -- by no means an admirer of Pauker's -- in his memoirs goes as far as to consider Pauker to have been a "Marrano" -- that is to say, a "secret Jew," or a "Jew at heart," like the Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity but were still practicing Judaism surreptitiously. The Holocaust seems to also have influenced Pauker's revived interest in the fate of her kin. Attempting to lure her brother Zalman to return to Romania from Palestine where he had emigrated in 1944, and in a reference to the Holocaust, she wrote him: "After all that has happened, how many of us are left?" Once more, for a prominent post-war communist leader to use the "us" when writing about the Holocaust was certainly remarkable. Furthermore, Levy accounts, after reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and recommending it to her family, the then foreign minister attended a stage version with Tatiana and openly cried during the performance, astonishing some in the audience and triggering the news to quickly spread among Jewish circles in Bucharest (p. 178).

As long as the Soviets were supporting the Zionist movement because of Stalin's rather naive hope that the Jewish state would become a bastion in the struggle against "British imperialism," these postures were, though uncommon for a high-ranking communist Jew, not dangerous for her career. On the contrary, if need be they could be combined without creating any acute "cognitive dissonance." In December 1947, Romania's then foreign minister sternly rebuffed a U.S. protest against Romania's having allowed two ships loaded with immigrants to leave for Palestine, in defiance of the British blockade. The departure of the Jews, Pauker told the American ambassador, was a Romanian "internal affair" and there could be nothing illegal about allowing people to return to "what they considered their homeland." Unknown to either the U.S., or to the Soviets or to her colleagues in the party leadership, was the fact that "Ana Pauker was actually talking about her own father." A few months earlier, in August 1947, the old Rabinsohn told his daughter he had decided to emigrate to the then-Palestine. Pauker contacted a Zionist leader she had known since her Hebrew teaching days and asked him to secretly arrange Hersh Rabinsohn's departure. Her close confidant, Ana Toma, escorted Rabinsohn to the Black Sea port of Constanta and assured his safe passage under an assumed name, as the husband of a woman he had never met before and from whom he parted company upon disembarking at destination. Until his death in 1951, her father received from her monthly support via a Romanian firm in Israel (p. 182).

Pauker might have facilitated her father's emigration, but she also did everything she could to convince her brother Zalman to return to Romania and, once that purpose was achieved, she would not let him leave again, apparently deaf to his pleas and the family problems she was causing to her brother. There is a simple explanation for that: communist leaders with relatives abroad -- unless these were very aged people -- were simply viewed with suspicion. Levy recounts the amazing incident of the first meeting of the two, which turned into a clash of ideologies. Nothing short of providing the full citation (taken from the Zalman's interrogation after his arrest as a "Zionist spy," for which he had to spend two-and-a half-years in prison before being expelled to Israel) can fully render this clash, and, above all, the limitations within which Pauker's "Jewish communist identity" was functioning:

My sister met me in the hall of her house, and, after inquiring how my trip was, asked me: "Well, have you come home? Where you've lived all your life, and where your mother and sister are buried?" And "where there's a new way of life?" I replied that I didn't understand; there's going to be a new life there as well, that is, in Israel. She asked me why, if I'm aware of this new way of life, won't I live where she does. I asked her: Why don't Jews have a right to a country and a life of their own just like any other people? She asked me, if I really have sympathy for Communism, why I am not a Communist? I told her that it's an important issue for me, about which I need to clear something up. Can I be a Communist and religious? -- adding that I don't accept that religion hinders the class conflict in any way. I see religion as something superior, not as superstition, but as something above science, and that religion has a precept that Communism only strives for: "You should love your neighbor as you love yourself." The first of the Ten Commandments says: "I am God, your God who took you out of Egypt and out of slavery." Thus the first commandment is against slavery. You tell me that religion is a deception that blinds the masses, but the prophets said that a time will come when the people will turn the swords into ploughshares. I read in a newspaper in Israel what a Soviet scholar said about using atomic energy for peaceful purposes. What the Soviet scholar said was said two thousand years ago by the prophets.

Ana did not agree with me, and she told me that you can't be both a Communist and religious. (p. 186).

Once the Soviets had changed policies vis-a-vis the Jewish state, postures such as those displayed by Pauker in the very early years of communist rule became considerably more dangerous. It is one of the many merits of Levy's book not to in any way idealize those positions either before or after the change of the Soviet line. He challenges the "conventional wisdom" that it was precisely the "Muscovites" high-ranking Jewish Communists who opposed mass Jewish emigration, while the "home Communists," as long as Moscow approved of it, were encouraging it in the hope of ridding the party of "Jewish predominance" and the country as a whole of "unassimilated" or "unproductive" Jews (pp. 166-167). While Dej and his supporters were opposing emigration because they feared a "brain drain," Levy shows, Pauker and her supporters, while never openly supporting emigration, were trying to enlarge criteria secretly placed on emigration that limited it to the elderly, the unskilled or the uneducated. When anti-Zionism became official policy, Pauker "conspicuously refrained from condemning Jewish emigration" and, at a Politburo meeting in October 1948 "she reminded the others that Jews had been an oppressed population in Romania and read them Lenin's observation on the need for treating such oppressed people 'with particular sensitivity.'" It was on Lenin's thesis on Jewish "Bundists and exclusivists" that she would consistently attempt to justify her positions, namely to dialectically combine propaganda against emigration with permission to emigrate for those who are not persuaded (p. 168). When in December 1948 the Politburo approved a resolution condemning "Zionism in all its forms [as] a nationalist, reactionary political movement of the Jewish bourgeoisie," Pauker opposed the resolution and unsuccessfully argued against making it public (p. 169).

A rather tragicomic episode has Pauker trying in 1948-1949 to nonetheless make emigration possible -- though limited to communist emigrants who, it was probably genuinely hoped, would promote the "mission" of class welfare in Israel. The "Red Alya," as this episode was dubbed in Israel, ended in a debacle, with a huge majority of the "missionaries" announcing they were renouncing their communist allegiance upon arrival to Israel. When, on the other hand, Israel reportedly offered to pay Romania a large sum of money in exchange for mass emigration, the country's leadership refused the deal with indignation, saying it would be tantamount to "slave trade." Future PCR leader Nicolae Ceausescu would know better in the 1960s, when Jews and ethnic Germans became one of Romania's most lucrative exports.

In an unprecedented incident of open protest, Zionist activists took to the street in February 1949, following which Zionist organizations were outlawed and a few emissaries dispatched by Israel were arrested and charged with espionage. The fate of Pauker's brother Zalman became linked to these developments, for by now his sister's opposition to his return to Israel intertwined with Israeli moves to determine him to stay in Romania and use whatever influence he had on his sister. The "Empress' brother", as Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion dubbed him, would thus become a rather reluctant instrument in the hands of forces whose motivations he hardly understood. To what extent was he capable of influencing Pauker must remain an open question. There is, however, no doubt that Pauker did as much as she could to, if not change, than at least make the best out of the circumstances. For a brief period she was even successful, with tens of thousands of Jews being granted permission to emigrate in 1950, though hardly as many as the 220,000 who applied for permission within two weeks in spring that year (p. 173). The saga would abruptly end in 1952, with Pauker's ouster from power, new applications being accepted only in 1958 and, after a further three-year interruption, in 1961. Just as with the Patrascanu's case, there had been no show trials against the Zionists as long as Pauker was still in power. But once she was ousted, interrogators told those arrested in preparation for the trials: "You don't have Aunt Ana to protect you anymore" (p. 192).

Levy's book at no point turns into an attempt to rehabilitate Ana Pauker. Time and time again he mentions her "duplicity" and, what is more, her "self-delusions -- that the constant twists and turns of party policy were somehow based on scientific method; that uprooting the social structure would somehow alter human nature; that the cheers and accolades somehow reflected the Romanian people's true feelings; or that Marcel Pauker had somehow survived Stalin's bloodletting." What is even more aggravating, Pauker had consistently "used her vast persuasive talents to trick a weary and dubious populace on the merits of that 'beloved leader and teacher,' the glorious Comrade Stalin." Whatever her merits in her attempts to implement what I called "Stalinism with a human face," the endeavor was doomed to miserably fail and Levy is undoubtedly right in concluding that "like all party leaders of that time, Ana Pauker cannot escape moral responsibility -- and condemnation -- either for her continual complicity with Stalinism or for her pivotal role in imposing communism on a helpless, though resistant, Romania" (pp. 232-233).


Levy, R., Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2001.