Red Star Over Romania

Red Star Over Romania


When, at 13, my rebellious move toward the left coincided with the emerging cold war, a teasing Bronx cousin took to calling me “Ana Pauker.” Some boys in my school in the heart of Flatbush also picked up on the “Ana Pauker” routine. Pauker, a Jewish woman who’d become the chief party theoretician in Communist Romania and the sole female leader in the Soviet bloc, was in the news quite a bit in the late 1940s. On the cover of Time, in a spread in Life, the image of Romania’s Iron Lady was stout and unsmiling, a monolith with a face of stone, dowdy clothes and unkempt hair. The Pauker taunt wasn’t a caveat about Stalinism. It was a nasty dig about a girl’s looks when she starts to spout unpopular opinions.

By the time I reached college I’d forgotten Romania’s Iron Lady. So had the rest of the world. Purged under Stalin’s orders early in the 1950s, Pauker had been arrested and imprisoned. She spent her last years as a shunned person in Bucharest with her daughter’s family, dying after a long battle with cancer in 1960.

Three years after her barely noted demise, my own career had progressed to researcher for Newsweek, with volunteer work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality on the side. To my horror, a senior editor who considered himself a wit resurrected the “Ana Pauker” routine. This time I was terrified that the taunt really was about Stalinism or–same thing in those days–about unmasking a red, but Pauker had been out of the news for so long that few of my colleagues caught the joke. The wit concocted a fresh salute, “Mother Bloor of the Eleventh Floor,” which was tolerably funny because it didn’t quite rhyme.

All this is by way of saying that I am personally grateful to Robert Levy for writing a thoughtful, meticulous biography of the real Ana Pauker that fills the gaps in a mystery that haunted my early radical journey. More important, he reassesses her role in Eastern bloc history and provides answers to many questions about Romania’s special conditions in the immediate aftermath of World War II that I had never thought to frame. Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist explores the impossible contradictions inherent in being an urbane, atheistic assimilationist, and a woman, in a fiercely nationalistic, predominantly peasant, deeply paranoid satellite state. Without gliding over Pauker’s serious delusions, desperate compromises and calculating moves, Levy pulls off a surprising feat by offering a credible defense for many of her actions. Comrade Ana, as she was called in party circles, is still being demonized in post-Ceausescu Romania as the malevolent force behind the worst atrocities of the Stalinist era. It’s nice to learn, on the basis of Levy’s evidence, that she tried her best to stem the tide.

So how did the favorite grandchild of a learned village rabbi in rural Moldavia manage her “galloping climb”–the phrase is Levy’s–to pre-eminent female apparatchik of Eastern Europe? Born in 1893, Ana Rabinsohn was the elder daughter of an Orthodox shoket, a ritual meat slaughterer, who settled in Bucharest with his wife and family. The girl was precocious. Encouraged by her mother, a food peddler, Ana broke the sex barrier to attend a boys’ heder. After that, the best her impoverished parents could do was to enroll her in a Jewish vocational school, where she picked up the trade of tailoring and mastered enough Hebrew to teach it to others. When Ana was 17 a fellow teacher who became her lover brought her into a socialist workers’ club. Soon after, she met the ardent socialist Marcel Pauker, her future husband, and followed him to Switzerland with the dream of becoming a doctor. Forced to abandon her medical studies when their money ran out, a pregnant Ana came home with Marcel, who refused to accept help from his prosperous family. The baby died at eight months from dysentery. Imprisoned three times by the monarchist government during Communist sweeps in the 1920s, Ana had a second baby and was pregnant again when the couple made their way to Moscow and were admitted to the prestigious Lenin School for revolutionary training. Ana’s recommendation came from the famous German Communist Klara Zetkin (the woman, I wish to add, whose Reminiscences With Lenin squelched feminism in Marxist orthodoxy), but it was Marcel who appeared to be the rising red star in the family Pauker.

The union apparently fizzled in the Soviet capital. Marcel fathered a child with a Bessarabian woman, while Ana’s new baby girl resulted from an affair with a French Comintern organizer close to Maurice Thorez. The infant was stowed in Paris with Thorez’s estranged wife while Ana finished the Lenin School’s three-year program with honors, winning a number of high Soviet patrons. Sent to Bucharest by the Comintern in 1935 to confer with the outlawed, severely factionalized Romanian Communist Party, she was arrested on the street while leaving a meeting and was shot in both legs during the scuffle. At the conclusion of her publicized trial she was given a ten-year sentence.

Several crucial events took place in the outside world while Ana organized the political cadres in Dumbraveni women’s prison in Transylvania: the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and the infamous Moscow show trials, in which nearly all of the Bolshevik old guard were charged with high treason. Through party documents smuggled into Dumbraveni via a food parcel, Ana also learned that Marcel Pauker had been purged in Moscow for Trotskyist tendencies and oppositionist crimes. Ana swallowed these developments without asking questions. It was dangerous to ask questions; questions implied one was a “wavering element” who lacked the mettle to sacrifice bourgeois personal concerns for the revolution. Her denial was so total that until her last years she refused to believe that Marcel had been shot soon after his purge.

By not protesting the fate of her husband, Comrade Ana had proved her mettle. Her Moscow patrons secured her release from prison shortly before the Nazi invasion in 1941 by trading her for a minor Romanian leader they had conveniently detained. She spent most of the remainder of the war in the Soviet Union directing a “Free Romania” radio station and visiting liberated Romanian towns on Germany’s receding Eastern Front. She flew home to Bucharest after Romania’s battered collaborationist monarchy surrendered to the Red Army in 1944. At 51, Ana Rabinsohn Pauker was given a directive by Moscow to assume command of Occupied Romania’s transition to a Communist regime.

It was Ana, not her Soviet mentors, who worried that her glaring drawbacks–woman, Jew, intellectual–might pose a leadership problem for the ethnic Romanian peasants and workers about to taste the new social order. She proposed that she share the power with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a Communist railway worker who’d been in prison for eleven years. Comrade Ana and Comrade Dej would be at ideological loggerheads for most of the next decade, until Gheorghiu-Dej got his orders from Stalin to arrange Ana’s fall.

I’m going to take a deep breath here and say that I wish Levy had applied more narrative skills to this published version of the doctoral dissertation that engaged him for twenty years. Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist is an academic treatise. Levy’s strong suits are his exhaustive readings of archival records pried from their reluctant sources–transcripts of party meetings, prison interrogations, self-criticisms, confessions–and a motherlode of original interviews with Pauker’s daughters, her son-in-law, her former deputy secretary and others, although where he conducted these interviews, and under what circumstances, Levy does not say.

Still, Ana Pauker is a rip-roaring story that deserves a wider audience than what I imagine to be a small, intense, squabbling group of exiled Romanian scholars. Lots of Americans are knowledgeable about Soviet history, but what do we know about postwar Romania? Probably as much as we know about Bulgaria. I’m not kidding when I say that I found Levy’s chapter on the forced collectivization of the peasantry a whiz of a read, not because it echoes a painful story in other Communist countries with which I’m better acquainted, such as Russia, China and Vietnam, but because it is the first account I’ve seen that reveals an excruciating struggle inside the party. By quoting from transcripts of Romanian Politburo meetings, edgy debates full of scorn and bite, Levy shows that Pauker and what was to be called her faction argued against the craziness of herding the stubborn, individualistic peasants into huge state farms before the state could even offer them tractors to lighten their load. Furthermore, she tried to stall the measures by countermanding many of Gheorghiu-Dej’s decrees.

Pauker’s “peasantist” tendencies (a right-wing deviation in Communist jargon) were the start of her troubles with Stalin. As it happens, she was sidelined in Moscow while getting treatment for her first bout with breast cancer during the initial roundups, beatings, killings and land expropriations, but even if her vaunted powers of persuasion had been at full strength it’s unlikely that she could have stopped the madness. Yet the woman who “couldn’t even tell the difference between the wheat and the sickle,” as she was later mocked by Nicolae Ceausescu, her former subaltern, had been correct all along.

Of course, the general populace had no inkling that Ana had opposed forced collectivization, criticized the party’s emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of manufacturing and housing, warned against the deployment of forced kulak labor on an ill-conceived, grandiose Stalinist project that was ultimately abandoned, the Danube-Black Sea Canal. Under the devilish principle of so-called democratic centralism, inner-party struggles were not made public. The articulate woman who could be so passionate in party debates and rationalize the party line afterward in rousing speeches, never wrote any books or essays to attempt to explain her ideas. As far as disaffected Romanians could tell, Ana was stamped from the classic Soviet mold. Levy reports that a typical joke went something like this:

Passer-by: “Comrade Ana, why are you carrying an umbrella? The sun is shining gloriously in Bucharest today.”
Ana: “Haven’t you heard the Soviet radio? It’s raining in Moscow!”

As a relative latecomer to the Axis machine, Romania had not complied with Hitler’s demands to eliminate its Jews. (The reasons appear to have been practical rather than sympathetic; the Iron Guard, its home-grown brownshirts, had been more than eager to do the job.) In consequence, at the end of the war there were more Jews in Romania than anywhere else in Eastern Europe, with the exception of the Soviet Union. Levy cites a figure of 353,000, roughly half the prewar population. By 1947 most of them wanted to leave.

The “Jewish Question” was exceedingly vexing for Romania’s Communist Party, whose flip-flops on emigration reflected worries about a brain drain and the loss of skilled workers counterposed to a layering of anti-Semitism that amounted to “good riddance.” Obviously the Jewish Question was particularly sensitive for Ana, who fully believed that assimilation and socialism, her chosen path, would solve all the world’s problems, including the barely discussed “Woman Question.” But Pauker could not turn a blind eye to the need for God and Orthodoxy that infused so many Romanian Jews, including her own kin. Her sister Bella had followed her into the Communist Party, but her brother Zalman, sticking to his Orthodox ways, had leaped at the chance to immigrate to Palestine with his wife and children at the earliest opportunity, in 1944. Three years later Ana pulled her considerable strings to secure an exit visa and safe passage for her Orthodox father.

Brother Zalman was to play a curious role in Ana’s life. In 1949, a year after the birth of the State of Israel, Zalman returned to Romania, ostensibly for a family visit but perhaps as a secret emissary to the powerful red commissar David Ben-Gurion had slyly dubbed “The Empress.” Israel’s manifest interest in opening a back-channel to Pauker was twofold: to secure exit visas for all Romanian Jews wishing to immigrate to the Jewish homeland, and to halt the impending trials of Zionist agitators who were kicking up a fuss inside the country. A third possible interest, as deduced by the conspiracy-minded Communists, was that Zalman would be advantageously situated to glean state secrets. Whatever influence Zalman had on his sister while he lived in her house, demanding kosher food, making do with a tin of sardines, wearing his yarmulke at the table, his presence, Levy writes, would be crucial to the purge and arrest of Ana Pauker and her faction.

Stalin’s increasingly anti-Semitic paranoia has been exhaustively reported. Citing the scholar Arkady Vaksberg, Levy suggests that the despot acquired a special phobia about Jewish women, convinced that gossiping Jewish wives of a number of major Soviet figures had brought details of his personal life, such as his wife’s suicide, to the West’s attention. Women in general had begun to annoy him. He no longer saw the use in keeping one or two in positions of power to impress the imperialist camp. In any event, Pauker’s opposition to some of his favorite schemes was enough to do her in.

In April 1951, while Gheorghiu-Dej was in Moscow for an ideological tuneup, he was awakened at 2 in the morning and summoned to the Kremlin for one of Stalin’s famous middle-of-the-night dinners. During the repast, the despot allegedly wailed, “Dej, how many times did I tell you to get rid of Ana Pauker, and you didn’t understand me? If I were in your place, I would have shot her in the head a long time ago.” A member of the entourage recalls that at least one person in the Dej faction cried on the plane all the way home.

Ana was not shot in the head, nor did she undergo the humiliations of a craven show trial like Rudolf Slansky in Prague, where a whole generation of Jewish Communists stood accused of an International Zionist Conspiracy. Providence, in the form of Stalin’s death in 1953 from natural causes, intervened.

Levy rings in the usual experts–Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Solzhenitsyn et al.–in an attempt to explain why Pauker did not wake up screaming as she witnessed her youthful dream of idealistic communism turn into a nightmare. Perhaps the truest clue can be found in a willful statement made by the California Communist Dorothy Healy, whose allegiance to the American CP outlasted the loyalty of most of her disillusioned comrades: “I’m not going to let those bastards have the party.”

After a period of disorientation when she was stripped of her power, Pauker regained her crusty defiance, conceding nothing, refusing to grovel. It hurt that none of her old comrades from the ministries had the courage to pay her a visit, but she understood the danger, and the rules. Her family reports that she secretly expected a miraculous reversal, a full vindication, perhaps even another chance. The good ideology would triumph, decent folk would assert themselves, things would “get better.”

Instead, as Levy writes, the fall of Ana Pauker was a significant step in the process that fated Romania to the ultimate horrors of the Ceausescu regime.

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