In my family, we've lived without God for a hundred years. It's had its ups and downs.
The family romance with Communism began with my great-grandfather Solomon. He was a gardener from Warsaw. In 1914 he was drafted into the Russian Army to fight in World War I. By 1917 the Russian Empire's war effort had largely ground to a halt. Unrest among soldiers on the front helped to spark the Russian Revolution. Solomon took part. Exactly how, I don't know, but by 1919 he was serving as a judge in a revolutionary soldiers' court in Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus. When he tried to return to Poland the following year, he was imprisoned for being a Communist, and freed only through the help of friends in the Red Cross.
The romance continued with Solomon's son, my grandfather Jakub. Jakub was born in 1912. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade and began working when he was 12. He was a laborer in a rubber plant and a porter in a chemical factory. With his sisters, he belonged to the Communist Youth League in Warsaw. He made friends in the party and asked to join. His friends advised him not to; they needed someone who hadn't been "burned" by the police to run the mimeograph machine.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, my grandfather was drafted into the Polish Army. He was captured by the Germans, and he escaped. He went east, to Minsk in the Soviet Union, and sent for his father and sisters. Two came, and two stayed in Warsaw.
In Minsk, Jakub drove a truck. His father worked on a farm. His brother-in-law did lighting for the opera. In 1941, the Germans moved east, into the Soviet Union. When the German Army arrived, my grandfather was transporting the wounded from the front in his truck. Again, he was captured. Again, he escaped.
His sisters fled to the east. His father was shot. Making his way through the countryside, he ran into a group of Soviet officers who had been separated from their units. Together, they got through the German lines by crossing the Dnieper River. Once on the other side, he enrolled in a school that taught guerrilla tactics to would-be partisans. After that came a parachute course. In the spring of 1942, he joined a company of 18 partisans on their way to be dropped behind German lines. Fifteen survived. After a few weeks, he was their commander. Soon, he was in charge of a second company. He kept being promoted because his commanding officers kept getting killed.
Jakub applied for Communist Party membership that winter, while still in the field. He was accepted shortly thereafter. All told, he spent over two years in the woods fighting a guerrilla war against the German Army. In that time, he won a little bit of renown. He's even mentioned in Volume 3 of the Workers' History of the Socialist Republic of Belarus (the best volume, in my opinion).
The end of the war found Jakub in a field hospital, recovering from shrapnel wounds. A short while later, he was in Berlin, then in the city of Wroclaw, in western Poland, then back in Warsaw. He returned to a ravaged country and a ruined city. Two of his sisters were dead. One died in Treblinka; the other was shot in a mass execution in 1942, after she was caught on the wrong side of the ghetto wall.
In 1945, he was working in something called the Society of Soviet-Polish Friendship. Soon thereafter, he joined the Ministry of Public Security — the secret police.
In Poland today, having worked for the secret police is a heavy thing to admit. The Ministry of Public Security played a crucial role in imposing Communist Party rule by force after the World War II. Its members jailed the opposition and silenced critics. To establish its dominance, the Communist Party fought what amounted to a low-level civil war against the vestiges of the non-Communist resistance. The Ministry of Public Security was the hard edge of Communist power in Poland. In its role as a counterintelligence organization, it also engaged in a shadow war with the C.I.A. and other Western spy agencies. And it's in this role that my grandfather's story reappears in the files.
Most of what I know about his life after his career as a partisan comes from a Communist Party personnel file, which I decided to request from the Polish Institute of National Remembrance after finding a tantalizing mention of my grandfather's postwar life in another one of the institute's publications. But the file is vague on what he was doing in those years. It simply lists the departments he was posted to: the department for fighting counterrevolution; counterintelligence; countersabotage. Now it becomes necessary to follow him through the footnotes of historians who study intelligence operations during the start of the Cold War.
In 1950, he turns up as a case officer involved in something called Operation Caesar. Operation Caesar was a false-flag operation, in which the Polish secret police rounded up members of a real, underground resistance group and persuaded them to switch sides. Then they sent them across the Iron Curtain to the West. In the guise of a real resistance movement, they received money and matériel from the C.I.A. and MI6 — over $1 million, and several hundred pounds of gold in total — then turned around and passed those on to their Polish handlers. My grandfather, it seems, was one of those handlers.
What happened next is difficult to say. He died in 1963, when my mother was 7. She didn't know him well. What memories I've heard from that time are fragments. He played tennis. He read books. He announced his engagement to my grandmother by saying to his sister, "Jadzia, I'm getting married. Let me have a shirt." In fact, the best source of information on his life is the file, which we obtained only last year. Even so, much is unsaid.
His story fits into a pattern. My grandfather belonged to a generation of Polish Jews that grew up with the revolution and put all their faith in it. If they survived long enough, they lived to see that faith betrayed.
For Polish Jews in the 1920s and '30s, joining the Communist movement represented the "most radical of all possible rebellions," in the words of the Swedish sociologist Jaff Schatz, who wrote the defining work on this generation. It was a rebellion against one's parents and the traditions of Jewish life. It also meant participating in an illegal organization, which brought with it the constant possibility of imprisonment.
To the members of my grandfather's generation, Communism was a way to be modern and a way to escape the shtetl. It was a way to fight anti-Semitism and oppose fascism, both in Poland and worldwide. And perhaps most important, it was way to build the future and be a part of something larger than themselves. Being a Communist was a life of total commitment, persecution and permanent insecurity. But becoming a Communist also meant an intense sense of participation in the movement of history and in the revolutionary upheaval of the world. That upheaval would come soon enough — just not in the way they expected.
The participation of Jews in the Polish Communist movement eventually crystallized into a widespread stereotype. The term for it is Zydokomuna, Polish for Judeo-Communism. Usually, the word is meant as a slur, a way of equating Jews with terror and foreign usurpation. The historian André Gerrits describes it as "a xenophobic assertion, a myth, a delusion." And indeed, it doesn't stand up to closer historical scrutiny. Numerically, Communists were a tiny proportion of the larger Jewish community. Within the Polish Communist movement, Jews were a significant and overrepresented, minority — but still a minority. It remains a pillar of anti-Semitic discourse in Poland to this day.
On the whole, Zydokomuna — the equation of Communism with Judaism — is a delusion and, in common usage, a slur. But for my family at least, it carries a kernel of truth. My grandfather (both of them, actually) belonged to a generation caught between fascism and communism with very little room to maneuver between the two. Before the war, joining the Communist Party meant rebellion. During it, it meant survival.
But there was another dimension to my grandfather's life beside the one described in his party file. In 1963, one of his fellow partisans from Belarus recorded him on his deathbed in a Warsaw hospital speaking about his wartime service.
There, he narrates his autobiographical statement in his Communist Party file, which emphasizes his class background and political work. This time, his testimony centers on one episode from a long war: the night of Jan. 21, 1943. His unit was in the Belarussian village of Novy Svyerzhan, the site of a German work camp for imprisoned Jews. Jakub and his unit decided to storm it under the cover of darkness. They used a soldier disguised as a peasant on a horse as a decoy to approach the camp gates. Then they attacked with machine guns and grenades. After they set the lumber yard ablaze, the surviving Germans ran away. Two hundred Jewish slave workers ran for freedom.
What does it mean to fight on the right side of the war, but the wrong side of history?
Depending on whom you ask today, my grandfather's story is that of a partisan, a traitor, a hero or a spy. The revolution asked a terrible amount of those who served it. Those who resisted paid a similarly awful price. It left in its wake countless lives, like my grandfather's, that cannot be compassed by a single line.
Your story reminded me of my own grandparents who grew up in Russia, organized armed resistance against attacks on the Jewish community by the Czar's cossacks, and eventually come to America. Here they worked in clothing sweat shops, joined the Communist Party, founded unions and fought against fascism. What communism represented to your grandfather is exactly what it represented to mine. It was a generational experience for European Jews.
From my perspective (born in Poland, emigrated to the US at age 16 in 1970) the communism was considered to be an existential threat by most Poles. Nevertheless, a percentage of Poles (gentiles and Jews) embraced communism in the early 20th century out of a conviction that a dramatic social change was needed. This was a brutal period for Poland: not a country for the prior 150 years, territories ravaged by WW I, resurrected from nothing during depression, etc. Unfortunately, these ideological individuals essentially perished during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge in the 1930s and then the Party itself was abolished by the Comintern in 1938. During WWII Stalin cynically used the pretense of the former Polish communism to help in takeover of Poland. In the post-WWarII Poland there were no communists as far as the ideology is concerned. There were either pragmatic opportunists willingly participating in the repressive regime (today's Poland has a very negative view of them), or they were people trying to provide for a family by going with the flow (some question that attitude as well). To me this means that Jacob's Grandfather simply made human choices as a regular person and not necessarily as a Jew, just like all of us do throughout our lives. And that's why the term "żydokomuna" is so ugly – it is easier to claim that "they" (the Jews) were the communists instead of confronting that "we" (the Poles as in gentiles, Jews, …) were the same ideologist, opportunists, or conformists.
My mother, a Russian Jew who came to American as a teenager met my father a Chinese from Beijing who came to America as a student met when both became members of the Communist Party. My father needing to leave NYC being chased by the FBI went to Moscow and my mother shortly followed. In 1938, my father was arrested and spent 18 years in Siberia as a political prisoner while my mother returned to Cleveland, Ohio where I was born. There are so many stories of those who joined Idealistically the Communist Party in the late 1920's and early 1930's who suffered much during their lifetime.
There's a lesson here for those who criticized T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Charles Dickens, Richard Wagner, and many others who expressed some of the generic anti-Semitism of their era. They too led productive lives and are worth remembering more for their gifts to the world rather than for expressing the suburban prejudices in their time and place in history. Like your grandfather, they too lived lives that cannot be encompassed by a single line.