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Book Reviews

Agent Sonya by Ben McIntyre (Viking, £25)

“Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Perhaps their romantic relationship was already over, but for Ursula it never really ended.
Ursula returned to her dreary dinner guests. No one noticed that her heart was broken.”

Hmm. This is the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a colonel in the Red Army and one of the world’s most successful spies – Agent Sonya of the title and of the sub-title Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. It’s not an untold story, or at least some of it is not untold, not least by Kuczynski herself in her autobiography, though this is the fullest version we are likely to read. Kuczynski was a German Jewish Communist who worked in several countries – including in a bookshop in America (you really have to watch that type) and spied in most of them. She was the handler of Klaus Fuchs and Melissa Norwood (the subject of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op) and her work ensured that the Soviet Union was privy to the detail of Western plans for nuclear weapons, enabling the East and West to have Mutually Assured Destruction. She would argue that this helped create peace, or at least that it was able to defend the Soviet Union.

As the sub-title and the sub-Mills and Book opening quote suggest, this is a typical Ben McIntyre book aimed at the popular market. No bad thing, but over-writing is over-writing and we could have done with less. The story, however, fascinates and McIntyre calms down a bit.

Sonya – one of her many names – was a radio operator, a courier, an organiser and a handler. Her life was often at risk. Richard Sorge, a fellow spy mentioned earlier was tortured and hung, in Japan, and that could have been her fate too. She was, however, possibly even more at risk from her own side – on pages 138/139 there are details of friends, fellow spies, comrades “swept away in the butchery” that was Stalin’s Russia in 1937 and 1938, the period of the Great Purges that did so much to weaken the Soviet Union as the war with Germany approached. She was in the Soviet Union during this period and was only too aware of the fate of others. Despite this she kept the faith and her big successes were still to come.

In England, as Mrs Burton of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford she lived a quiet life, cycling around (taking in dead letter drops), drinking tea with her neighbours and making scones. Throughout her spying career she got away with a lot as a mother of three, because spies are never mothers of three. Yet sixteen days after the top secret “Quebec Agreement” between Churchill and Roosevelt to collaborate on building the atom bomb the Soviet Union knew, thanks to Sonia. This was before the Cold War when Britain, the Soviet Union and America were allies.

One of the particularly fascinating parts of the book is about the “Hammer” group of spies. This was a group of exiled German Communists parachuted into Germany to act as spies towards the end of the war, who would report on troop movements and provide information for bombing missions to the Americans. Their direct command was the OSS – the American intelligence organisation, the Organisation of Strategic Services – but they were under the real control of Sonya.

After Klaus Fuchs was arrested. Sonya skipped the country, moving to the German Democratic Republic. Although she had been under suspicion, nobody here knew of her real role in the UK. Or did they? McIntyre revisits whether Roger Hollis, the big cheese in the UK spy world, was really a double agent. Whatever, she escaped to a desk job in the GDR but was caught up in the Government anti-Semitic hysteria in the GDR in 1953. Astonishingly, a new career awaited as she became a successful writer – “Ruth Werner, novelist.” She’d outwitted everyone.

Available from Five Leaves here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/agent-sonya-lover-mother-soldie…/

Mazel Tov: the story of my extraordinary friendship with an Orthodox Jewish family by JS Margot, translated from Flemish by Jane Hedley-Prole (Pushkin, £12.99)

On the right hand lintel of the front doors of the houses of most Jews I know is a mezuzzah, a little tube with a particular Biblical quote in it handwritten by a professional scribe in Hebrew letters. Visiting Lithuania some years ago it was heartbreaking to see the shadows of mezuzzahs on the paintwork of old houses taken over during the Holocaust.
But it’s pretty odd really. Why is the scroll handwritten when nobody will ever read it? And why… But every religion has its idiosyncrasies which make no sense to outsiders. In the Jewish world the more Orthodox you are the more rules you follow and the more odd these appear to outsiders and even other Jews.
Into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy steps JS Margot, a 20 year old student, employed to do some home tutoring for a middle-class Belgian Orthodox Jewish family. That itself would be unusual. She had no previous connection to the Jewish world and hadn’t a clue about the life she was walking into. Surprisingly, she stayed for years and years, becoming a family friend.
Of course she gets things wrong, but this isn’t a book of humorous interludes (though there are some). She also disagrees with the family in their Zionism (not, by the way, a position at all universally held by Orthodox Jews) and finds the actions of the Israeli government and troops upsetting. She gets to understand anti-Semitism, but the most interesting part of the book is her reflections on her own life. She is a modern woman, has boyfriend trouble, true, but initially sees her modernity as better than their traditional life. Yet over the years, struggling financially and emotionally she finds herself more sympathetic to that other world especially when she is adrift in her own.
No, she does not convert, nor fall in love, and is still bemused and at times angered by what she sees. But her unlikely closeness to the family gives her an insight into a world that neither expects or wants our interest or understanding. The author is constantly discovering more. The eruv for example, “a ritual enclosure of a specific domain” – in this case, and uniquely, the domain is the the whole of Antwerp which turns that public space into a private space. Thus, on the Jewish sabbath, “certain strictly defined actions were permissible: carrying a baby, carrying shopping, pushing a pram…” because a boundary had been created, an enclosure sealed by overhead wires joining other physical boundaries. Without the eruv Orthodox Jews could not do any of these activities on their sabbath. Margot writes, bemused, “I didn’t know what to think of the eruv.” Don’t even think about the dietary rules. But she has to.
There’s a form of “orientalism” in the way the black-hatted Jewish men and their modestly-dressed wives and large families in Stamford Hill in London (or in Antwerp, the setting of this book) are seen. There’s certainly a lot of interest – Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a novel that became a film) in which an Orthodox rabbi’s married daughter has a forbidden lesbian relationship had a big circulation a few years back. Currently the book and film covering related ground is Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, which describes her journey in leaving the Satmar Hassidic group. Feldman provides a cover quote for Mazel Tov, thus linking the two books.
If there is a tendency to read books like these and feel a bit voyeuristic, Margot covers our back here as the book is as much about her as it is about the family she befriends.
Mazel Tov, by the way, means “congratulations”, a Yiddish phrase used by religious and secular Jews. Margot and her translator can be congratulated on an excellent and accessible read.
Ross Bradshaw

A Radical Romance: a memoir of love, grief and consolation by Alison Light (Fig Tree, £20)

Towards the end of this book, a memoir of the historian’s life with and love for Raphael – Ralph, Raph – Alison Light, another historian – writes of the obituaries that quickly appeared in all the broadsheets. “As well as being grateful, I was taken aback by how swiftly Raphael’s closest male friends could write about him, how readily they occupied the public space.” At that point I rested, wondering whether to write this review, as someone who neither knew Samuel directly or Light at all. What right have I to intrude on this public space, this public grief? I have not even lost a partner, so how could I understand? So if there are yawning gaps in this review, reader, forgive me. They are there on purpose.

Alison Light will be known to some readers for her books of social history and for her spell as an editor of Feminist Review. Raphael Samuel may be familiar to older readers of for the History Workshop project. Samuel was a secular Jew to whom, according to this book, Jewishness was not important, though there were shadows of his Yiddish past. He happily fried bacon in the morning before setting off for Ruskin College and the mezuzzahs on his doors were from previous residents at his house in Elder Street in East London. We would come to know this house well through the book, a five storey Huguenot house with an outside toilet and with books, papers, folders and Lever-arch files spilling out of every room, every space.

A Radical Romance is not a biography of Samuel, still less of Light – but it did make me want to know more about both people. The couple were twenty years apart in age, leaving her as a youngish widow when her husband died at 62. He had previous lovers, previous significant others and – keeping everything – there’s letters from them to Samuel. But he also kept the sort of “see you later” notes busy people would leave for their partners, addressed to Honey, to Sweetheart, sobriquets he would use in everyday life.

But I did know something of Raphael Samuel’s biography, my partner being a sometime guest at his uncle Chimen Abramsky’s Friday night meals, invited by Miriam Abramsky (they were her meals, to be exact), both of whom appear in this book. More publicly, I was entranced by the story first published in New Left Review and filled out in Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism of how, one by one, the family became communists. Twelve according to Alison Light, with The Lost World... describing how the family bookshop, once a mainstream Jewish bookshop sold taleisim (prayer shawls) at one end and and Marxist texts at the other. Being a Jewish communist was almost an ethnicity of its own.

The History Workshop books included some impressive titles, notably Jerry White’s Rothschild Buildings and Theatres of the Left, edited by Ralph Samuel and others. And their two dozen or more conferences were important – it’s hard to imagine a conference nowadays about “history from below” advertised by a poster saying “Tickets limited to 700”. This meant that everyone wanted a piece of Raphael Samuel – the house was a way-station for sophisticated scholars from around the world. Alison Light makes it clear that was not always easy for her, particularly as a younger working class woman from Portsmouth. At times she felt Spitalfields, while it was not yet so gentrified, oppressive. And the conflict between his Jewishness and her Englishness was there to be negotiated.

But now to try to address some of the yawning gap. Alison Light explains things clearly enough – how, at the huge memorial meeting someone said there were quite a few widows present. No, she wanted to say, there’s only one widow. And she talks of “widowing about”, with so much to do. Only later, at Bishopsgate Institute some twenty years later, does she go through the letters of condolence saved from public view but part of the Raphael Samuel archive. There’s letters from friends, from ex-lovers, from the man at the photocopy shop, from people who did not know her husband, from professional colleagues, from people who get her name right and wrong…. letters that had peaked at 200 a day. Reading through them she “fell into a daze, a reverie. And in that dreaming state some miracle took place, call it a romance. … Raphael was remembered. Grief turned back into love. … I saw too that what we were in other people’s eyes was also true: a happy marriage, a blessed companionship.”

Copies are available, post free, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Ross Bradshaw

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose (NYRB, £7.99)

 

Image result for love's work gillian rose

This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.

 Picking the original edition up from the shelves at home, bought in 1995, never read then forgotten, I found it moving to read as if reading in the present tense having also forgotten the detail of her life (and death) so the chapters about her fatal illness came almost as a surprise to me.
 It’s not an easy book to read – I don’t just mean those details, laid out with candour, but Rose was a philosopher and she had a habit of including technical, exclusive language and the odd phrase of mostly untranslated Latin. But it is worth carrying on.
Her book is autobiographical, but not a full autobiography. Chapters include memoirs of her friends and lovers, the very elderly Edna; her priest-lover; her bisexual lover Jim who died in the New York AIDS epidemic; the promiscuous mother-of-five Yvette, who also died of cancer. So many of her friends died. Her family life was broken too, though her teenage self found more familial love with her step-father than her estranged natural father. But it is the chapter on her illness, her realisation she would not survive a year with the details played out, the spread of the cancer, the disagreements between the consultants, the way her colostomy bag deals with body products. Did her death feel more tragic as she was fit and healthy as the cancer was growing inside her, cycling and swimming, feeling alive?
Rose was a Jewish intellectual and at one stage was called upon, with others, to advise the Polish government on what to do with Auschwitz. Save for the branch of her family that came to England some fifty of her relatives had perished in the Holocaust, yet the person who made her weep was a survivor of the Polish nobility resident only in a fraction of his old house who had scraped a living working as a translator under the Communist regime.
The book is searingly honest.
Ross Bradshaw

Revolutionary Yiddishland – a history of Jewish radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg (Verso, £16.99)

Revolutionary-yiddishland-1050stThere’s nowhere called Yiddishland, except it is everywhere, it’s a state of mind. You don’t have to be fluent in Yiddish, you don’t have to be Jewish (though both of these make life easier). And you don’t all have to be in the same state of mind as the other inhabitants, other than to value the diaspora and have an interest in the shared history of a disparate community of Yiddish speakers. 

Not every part of Yiddishland in the past was a happy place, Hersh Mendel, quoted in this book, remarked that he “cannot remember one single joyful hour” at heder (religious education classes). He became a revolutionary.This was the period, one of the periods, when Jews lived in abject poverty. Yaakov Greenstein recalls “a neighbour’s farm where there were eight children at home. The father went from village to village with a colleague, collecting scrap metal. They had a cart but no horse to pull it; one of them took the front, the other pushed, and they went along the roads, in this way, among the goyim, from dawn to night.” For some, the answer lay in socialism which could lead to family problems such as disapproval from religious parents annoyed because the Bund (the main Jewish socialist organisation) published its daily newspaper on Shabbos, on the Sabbath.

The revolutionary Yiddishland that people like Mendel and Greenstein joined was that of the Bund, of Poale Zion (the socialist Zionist group) and even the Communist Party where they had their own battles to survive and hold on to their Jewish culture. This is the milieu that the authors cover, the world not of industrialists or prominent figures but “the tailors, shoemakers, furriers, carpenters, tinsmiths and other Yiddish craftsmen…” internationalists who were “exploited in the wretched workshops of Warsaw, Bialystok and Vilnius.”
Revolutionary Yiddishland was first published in France in 1983 when there was a critical mass of people still alive from that period to interview. The new English-language edition keeps their memory alive, as the best parts of the book are the interviews, quotes and reminiscences of those who were the history younger people can only experience secondhand. We read of people like Pierre Sherf, wounded while taking part in the Spanish Civil War, a volunteer in the French army against the Nazis and then active in the underground Resistance with other Romanian immigrants in France. People like Hanna Levy-Haas from Sarajevo, another member of the Resistance, this time to the Italian occupation of Montenegro. As an elder, living in Israel, she became active in the women’s movement and against the war in Lebanon.
Those who were Communists had the greatest problems over the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact. Unease would be an understatement and in France the Yiddish left paper Naie presse could barely hold the Party line. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Adam Rayski said “And so, for us to become ourselves again – that is Jews, Frenchmen, anti-fascists – we needed Hitler’s aggression.” But it was not over yet with activists like Artur London arrested as part of the anti-Semitic Slansky round-up in Czechoslovakia. The fact that he survived being in Mauthausen concentration camp helping to prove his culpability. This was the revolution betrayed.
Brossat and Klingberg return to the early debates within the Jewish socialist world, including the warning of the Bund leader Henryk Erlich against the likely Bolshevik dictatorship. Erlich was later murdered by Stalin’s men. Organisations split over their attitude to the Russian Revolution leading to now long-forgotten groups like the Faraynikte and the Kombund, the latter being the group of Bundists who went over to the Communists after the Revolution, as did many members of Poale Zion. Odd to think the British descendant organisation of Poale Zion in this country is the right-wing Jewish Labour Movement.
Within Russia policy on Jews changed constantly. Yiddish schools flourished, while Yevsektsia (the Jewish section of the Communist Party) sought Jewish agricultural colonisation in the Crimea, more popular than the Birobidzhan Yiddish “homeland” and more successful economically. That Birobidzhan was designated a republic in 1936 did not stop the Jewish leadership there being decimated in the Great Purges of 37 and 38. Editors, bureaucrats, committed Communists were wiped out. Anybody with a Bundist or Poale Zion history was at particular risk. Colonisation projects were closed, newspapers were suppressed and Yiddish was replaced in most schools by Russian. Brossart and Klingberg write “by the end of the 1930s the entire ‘national’ and ‘democratic’ gains of the Jewish population had been reduced to nothing.”
Committed Jewish communists would continue to be arrested, post-war, with the closure of the of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Russia. The final spasms being the anti-Semitic Gomulka purges in Poland in 68 and 69, when the “anti-party element” David Szarfharc, expelled from the CP, said that “five minutes of a certain speech by Gomulka had done more for that [the desire to emigrate to Israel] than decades of Zionist propaganda.”
Ironically Israel became the  home for many of these revolutionaries, including Sylvie Klingberg’s own father Marcus Klingberg who, despite everything, spied for the Soviet Union. He was finally arrested in 1983 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Sylvie Klingberg became an activist in the Israeli socialist group Matzpen which was an anti-Soviet breakaway from the Israeli Communist Party. They must have had some interesting family discussions.
Ross Bradshaw
This review first appeared in Jewish Socialist, issue 70 (www.jewishsocialist.org.uk)

The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney and Small Pieces: a book of lamentations by Joanne Limburg

I’m hesitant to offer a review of two memoirs by people I know but these books, which I’ve read over the summer, are so very good that I want to recommend them to all.

There’s a book by George Perec called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’) in which he observes, makes lists and otherwise attempts an exhaustive account of one small corner of Paris. Of course, it’s not exhaustive; apart from anything else the place is in motion and continually changing – even the present moment cannot be captured.

There’s a sense in which both Graham Caveney’s The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness  (Picador, £14.99) and Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations (Little, Brown, £14.99)  are similarly attempts at what is termed in French an épuisement in that they are both attempts to understand distressing and traumatic events by investigating them in a multitude of aspects. One of the ways they do this by placing them in the broader settings of life before and after. But both also acknowledge that the subjects they address will never be fully understood or accommodated; what has happened has to be borne and managed, and the attempt to understand will continue long after the books are written and published.

The two traumatic events – the death by suicide of Joanne Limburg’s brilliant younger brother and the sexual abuse perpetrated on the teenage Graham Caveney by his charismatic headmaster – are very different. However both lead to a consideration of the effect of trauma on family relationships, social position and relationship to religion (Joanne was raised in the Jewish faith while Graham’s family background is Catholic). Both also occupy a kind of outsider status. In Joanne’s book this is most clearly articulated in her encounter with the mostly kind and well-meaning Americans in the place she calls Plainsville where her brother and his Japanese wife settled. Graham explores the distance between working-class Accrington with its loving but limited home life and his desire for something beyond, suggested by the works of Beckett and Kafka, by music, by the visits to the theatre and abroad which his headmaster, a Catholic priest, holds out as tempting treats. and both cannot help at times asking the question we all ask ourselves after grief and trauma: “Was it something I did or said? Was it all my fault?” However much logic tells us this is not the case, it is usual to be burdened at times, solipsistically, with a sense of guilt.

But there’s more than this that the books have in common. Both are also structured adventurously – and perhaps this is essential when the experience at the centre of each will never cease to have its effects. While both memoirs have a sense of direction, they are compelled to move backwards and forwards in time – something which any writer knows is hard to achieve while maintaining the momentum of the book. Yet both are written in such a way that I read them avidly. In Joanne Limburg’s book, this meant I had to move through a series of vessels rather than chapters. In the tradition of the Kabbalah there were ten aspects of of the divine contained in vessels which almost immediately fractured, scattering the contents through the universe and mixing them up with the material world with its evils and suffering. And each of the vessels in Joanne’s book includes fragments of the divine – of goodness, of love – as well as the anguish of loss and the difficulty of accommodating a mourning self in a changed world.

Graham’s book is even more urgent with almost every section headed ‘Next’. It articulates the question which may be implicit in Joanne’s book: what would I have been if this had not happened? That, of course, is the unknowable. It is plain that Graham has suffered damage from the assaults he experienced and that his pathway has been different as a result of his singling out by the headmaster. The results are not even entirely regretted since the headmaster offered, in place of sweets or temporary goodies, the treat of a knowledge of culture which cannot be entirely dismissed or rejected – although Graham’s choice to specialise in American literature was conceived as a rejection of what the headmaster stood for.

Despite the clear focus of each memoir, both build the sense of a wider world. In Small Pieces there are pictures of family life with all its complexities as well as meditations on the author’s relation both to her Jewish identity and the Jewish religion. She comes from a family of tough women, sometimes overset by events beyond their control, and the memories she recounts of her childhood show the kind of relationship between older sister and younger brother that is founded on familial closeness and love. At times it called to mind my relationship with my own younger brother, who I love dearly – there are the same childhood squabbles and jostling for power and love as well as alternating times of communication and times when conversation is less frequent (my brother also lives in North America). While the references to Judaism were largely unfamiliar to me, I read them – as I often read – for greater knowledge and understanding, and also because they were integral to the story being told.

In some ways, Graham’s story seemed closer to my own life, although my working-class parents in London were consumers of culture and my mother in particular was avid to devour the culture of which she felt deprived after leaving school at thirteen to work in a factory. His lists of the tastes of childhood set me to conjure up the tastes I recalled from that time. I also shared his sense of the need to protect my parents – in my case from an acutely unhappy boarding-school experience having been sent away from home on a scholarship at 9-years-old. I knew this involved sacrifices made by my parents, that they were happy and proud of some of my achievements, and that they couldn’t understand why their happy child had such difficult teenage years. And, like Graham, I don’t know how much was the separation from my parents and how much the normal pains of adolescence. But I also know that I was lucky not to endure the appalling betrayal he endured of being abused by someone in a position of power. Of course he couldn’t have told someone at the time. Who could he have told? Who would have believed a working-class teenager’s word rather than that of a headmaster and a priest? Later, when the climate of public opinion and knowledge had changed Graham was able to report the abuse to the church. His position as the author of two books probably gave him credibility and the headmaster admitted what he had done.

These books don’t have happy endings – what could those be? Yet they don’t have entirely unhappy endings either. Life is a movement forward in which we learn to live with seemingly impossible loss and trauma. Both Joanna and Graham are part of our world and have written books from which we can learn, if only by being aware of the grief of others and bringing our own intelligence and experience of life to bear on the problems that caused it. Both books reach towards understanding. They invite the reader to play a part in that important work.

 Kathleen Bell
Copies of Small Pieces and signed copies of The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness are available post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 01158373097

The Liberation of the Camps: the end of the Holocaust and its aftermath by Dan Stone (Yale, £20)

Surprisingly, there have been few books for the general reader on what happened at, and what happened after, liberation of the concentration and work camps at the end of World War Two.

Liberation was not the end of the story. Thus one report mentions that German Jews who survived the war in hiding said that “little has changed since the Russians entered Berlin, except the food is even shorter”. These people, obviously, were not from the camps, but chaos was common – and lasted a long time. Even Belsen – operating as a Displaced Persons camp – had a few hundred inhabitants in 1950, who were transferred to a further camp in 1951. Stone writes of the irony that these unlikely places would “become the setting for the revival of Jewish life and culture”. At Belsen, “1,438 marriages had taken place and some 500 circumcision ceremonies” in the first two years after liberation. The author comments “It was not what the Nazis had intended”.

Anti-Semitism towards the victims did not end in 1945 either. In 1952 customs police raided the Föhrenwald DP camp – looking for black market goods – shouting slogans about gas chambers. The residents fought back, driving the police out.

Care of the survivors was patchy, with a bewildering array or organisations involved but the big issue of “what next?” arose. For Britain the concern was Palestine. President Truman suggested allowing 100,000 DPs to enter Palestine, while stalling on allowing Jews into America. There was an active Zionist movement in the camps but the author holds back from judging whether the impulse to move to Palestine was born of an inner drive or outside forces. Many DPs emigrated to Canada, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.

This is an important book which adds to our knowledge.

Ross Bradshaw