In May of 1965, two years before his sudden death from a heart attack, Isaac Deutscher addressed a mammoth antiwar rally in Berkeley, California. In a recording of the occasion, you can hear him say that he is going to skip the subject of Vietnam, which the previous speakers had covered so well, and talk instead about the Cold War, which provided the makers of US foreign policy with the political cover they needed to stumble into the quagmire. In the speech, Deutscher’s polished timing and slight Polish accent might make you think of a Jewish comedian, but by and large his tone is grave and his language perhaps even a bit more sonorous than necessary. He may have worried that his audience would not see the relevance of that world-historical event to which he related so many other issues: the Russian Revolution.
Born in 1907, in a small Polish village that was then part of the soon-to-vanish Austro-Hungarian Empire, Deutscher was 10 when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. He would later chronicle their story, in incredibly gripping detail, in his monumental three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, but his preparation for that work started with a sense that many of the solid things around him were at or near the point of melting into air. His Orthodox Jewish family was strictly observant, and as a child (and something of a prodigy) he was sent to study with a Hasidic rabbi. At the age of 13, Deutscher was consecrated as a rabbi himself. But as we learn from the beguiling biographical sketch that his wife and longtime collaborator, Tamara Deutscher, appends to The Non-Jewish Jew, a collection of Deutscher’s essays now republished by Verso Books, his father—a printer—also passed along his fervent, if religiously troublesome, passion for modern German writers, including the poet Heinrich Heine. If you write in Polish, Deutscher’s father repeatedly advised him, no one will understand you beyond Auschwitz. At that point, Auschwitz was merely the name of a nearby town.
In November 1918, the first week of Polish independence brought to the region where the Deutschers lived not one but three pogroms. Yet as Poland and other new nations emerged from the ruins of shattered empires after the First World War, the young Deutscher became something of a Polish patriot. At 14, he repudiated his family’s Judaism as a vestige of feudalism. At 16, he began publishing poetry in Polish that was influenced by Jewish mysticism and Polish romanticism, and he translated German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Latin verses into Polish. At 20, he joined the Polish Communist Party.
In 1931, Deutscher was sent by the party to Soviet Russia to report on the economic results of the first Five-Year Plan. He learned more about the trajectory of the revolution than the party was comfortable with him knowing. A year or so later, he was expelled for “democratic deviations,” including his refusal to treat Western social democracy as the moral equivalent of Nazism. He got a job with a Jewish newspaper in Poland and, in April 1939, was sent off to London, where he set about learning English. The move saved his life: The Nazis invaded Poland around five months later, and Deutscher never saw his parents again.