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.