Arnon Grunberg



On Deutscher – Gonzalo Pozo in LRB:

“Isaac Deutscher , later the biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, was in the Warsaw flat of his closest friend, the political journalist Bernard Singer, early in October 1938 when the Wehrmacht’s entry into the Sudetenland was reported on the radio. ‘There were the roaring, beastly voices of the Nazi leaders, the goosestepping and the drum-beating, all as loud, as close as if the whole thing happened on the street outside our windows.’ Deutscher turned anxiously to Singer: ‘Do you realise that in a year from now the swastika will be hoisted over Warsaw Castle?’ Singer said he was crazy, but Deutscher, by his own account, doubled down: ‘No, I have not gone mad ...Neither you nor I have any chance of surviving. And if Hitler is not here, then Stalin will be ruling this part of the world, and under Stalin we have no chance of saving our lives either.’ The following April he arrived in London. He never returned to Poland.”


“He did not know – though it wouldn’t have surprised him – that the Polish authorities were one step ahead. On 12 January 1939, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent a letter to its embassy in London under the heading ‘Tajnie’ (secret). The letter issued a reminder that a formal application would have to be made to place Deutscher’s ‘activities on English territory under observation’. A memo from the Polish Ministry of the Interior summarised his ‘significant’ part in the then illegal Communist Party of Poland and mentioned his earlier arrest for Communist activities (which can be dated to December 1932).”


“The Deutscher archive at the Amsterdam International Institute of Social History comprises thousands of telegrams, drafts, letters, notes, bills and manuscripts. Deutscher, whose biography of Trotsky is 1500 pages long, left very little introspective or autobiographical material other than this transcript, listed in the archive catalogue as ‘Isaac’s attempt to write a memoir’. It didn’t arrive in Amsterdam until 2014, after the death of the Deutschers’ only son, Martin. It is structured as a diary and consists of an introduction (‘my spoken birthday letter’) for Tamara – ‘I did not sleep this night at all ... I was completely unprotected against the onrush of all the memories and ghosts of half a century that assailed me on the night of my sixtieth birthday’ – and three long entries (3 and 4 April and 10 May 1967) typed on thirty or so A5 pages. That spring he was a visiting lecturer at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, and a jury member in the first round of the International War Crimes Tribunal, convened by Bertrand Russell to examine the US intervention in Vietnam. The first two entries look back to his first months in London and his experience in the Polish army in exile; the last is devoted to the proceedings of the Russell Tribunal in Stockholm and records his ‘unpleasant conflicts and squabbles’ with several of the tribunal’s members, notably Sartre and Beauvoir (they ‘are undoubtedly able, strong-minded people, but also arbitrary, dry and narrow. He is small, wiry and ugly; she has the unpleasant face of a despotic prioress of a Catholic nunnery’).”


“In Paris, reservists had been ‘mobilised discreetly’ to avoid mass panic, and houses and hotels were covered with posters explaining how to proceed in an evacuation, but ‘the inhabitants of Paris try not to pay too much attention to all this – they already saw these accessories in September,’ during the Munich Crisis. Refugees from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Spain and elsewhere had flocked to the city, but as they didn’t have residence or work permits, were now trying to evade the police. ‘In this capital of democracy, art and culture,’ Deutscher wrote, ‘thousands of people loiter ... envious of the dogs of Paris.’ The Daladier government issued a decree on the mobilisation of all foreigners between the ages of 18 and 48 for military and civil service in case of war. Deutscher reported a conversation in which a German refugee asked an ‘ordinary’ Frenchman: ‘We are obliged to die for France, but when will we be allowed to live here?”


“On 9 August 1939 Deutscher published a piece on the last parliamentary sitting before the summer recess – a piece full of anger and premonition – and then left for the Côte d’Azur, where Singer and his family were on holiday. They travelled back together as far as Paris, which they reached on 1 September, just as the Luftwaffe began to bomb Warsaw. ‘Paris presented an infernal spectacle: the nervosity, the panic of the population was indescribable ... a taxi driver who heard that we spoke Polish among ourselves, exclaimed: “C’est à cause de vous, Polonais, que nous avons la guerre maintenant,” and he just refused to take us further.’ Deutscher left France ‘on the last civilian boat’ and returned to London just in time to hear Chamberlain’s broadcast declaration of war. ‘I trusted that England would survive the onslaught of the Third Reich, a view in which I was shaken after I had arrived and saw the state of complete unpreparedness.”


“He sent his first piece to the New Statesman, receiving a ‘reprinted note’ many days later, politely thanking him for his efforts. He then sent the same text (on the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland) to the Economist, which accepted it. ‘I thought I had solved in the main my financial problems, but I did not ... The Economist paid very wretched fees’: his first payment didn’t cover the amount he had borrowed to work on the article. But he continued writing. The Economist’s deputy editor, Donald Tyerman, asked him to come to the office for a chat: ‘I was afraid that if he saw that I could not understand the spoken language and speak it, he would not believe that I was really the author of the articles and would treat me as an imposter,’ so he turned down the invitation. Years later Tyerman said he had intended to offer Deutscher a job. Deutscher ‘felt it would be wrong ... to draw the refugee’s zapomoga[allowance] from the embassy which had represented the Piłsudskist regime’, but ‘was so poor that I could not afford the stamp on the envelopes in which I put my articles, so I walked all the way, from Turnpike Lane in Wood Green, where I lived, to Fleet Street to drop the envelope into the letterbox.’”


“By autumn 1940, after overcoming ‘the after-effects of my nervous breakdown’, he decided to heed the call to enlist in the Polish army in exile. Some of the Jewish-Polish youths ‘whom I had lectured from time to time’ reacted with ‘indignation’: they could not understand why a Jew would want to be involved in the Polish forces, ‘where antisemitism was rampant’. He maintained, however, that the prime duty of any Polish citizen was to join the fight against Hitler. ‘Never renouncing my Jewish origin, I nevertheless felt not a Jew, nationally, but a Pole.’ On 2 November 1940, the day after he joined up, Deutscher attended the first meeting of the Union of Polish Journalists in Exile, according to a brief typed note by Tamara appended to the memoir and dated 15 September 1967: ‘Let me relive,’ she writes. ‘How did we meet?’ Tamara Frimer was a journalist and secretary of the union. Her job was to take down the attendees’ names and to compile news of the other journalists dispersed around Europe. ‘There was one latecomer: Isaac Deutscher.’ She received him with an ‘unfriendly growl: couldn’t you have come a bit earlier?’ ‘Isaac used to say,’ she goes on, ‘that this sentence, though not the growl, became one of the three motifs in our life in common.’”


“Deutscher had reported the antisemitism of the Polish army to Szmul Zygielbojm, the only representative of the Bund (a Jewish socialist political organisation) on the National Council, which advised the Polish government in exile. ‘I received from Zyg. the “Bund’s report” on the situation in the Ghettoes,’ Deutscher wrote in a notebook on 24 June 1942. ‘Fantastical numbers: 700,000 Jews lost in executions. I raised doubts about the report’s authenticity.’ His own father, stepmother, half-brother and half-sister had been trapped in the Krakow Ghetto since 1940. All of them would disappear at some point between the summer of 1942 and the ghetto’s liquidation in March 1943. Zygielbojm’s wife and 16-year-old son were among the victims in the Warsaw Ghetto that May. On 11 May, Deutscher spent the evening at Zygielbojm’s flat on Porchester Square and the pair debated how best to raise awareness of what was happening to Poland’s Jews: perhaps Zygielbojm should resign, or stage a hunger strike. They parted without reaching a decision. That night Zygielbojm killed himself with an overdose of sodium amytal. He left a long note addressed to the Polish government in exile: ‘By my death I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.’ Deutscher and others like him remain virtually unknown in Poland. The existence of a certain degree of Polish antisemitism during the war and in the army in exile is now admitted, but the revolutionary tradition to which Deutscher belonged has been written out of Poland’s historical memory. It was persecuted by the Sanacja regime in Warsaw and by Stalin before the war, and it was banished from the record in the Polish People’s Republic. Under Poland’s current rulers, the right-wing Law and Justice Party, the erasure continues.”

Read the article here.

A beautiful piece on Trotsky’s and Stalin’s biographer.

With a delightful characterization of Sartre and De Beauvoir, “He is small, wiry and ugly.”

And there is the big questions: “We are obliged to die for France but when will we be allowed to live here?”

The main question of all asylum seekers and refugees: when can we live here?

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