By David Walls-Kaufman
A love story set in World War Two, and after.DAVID
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about how she died or where she died, bitter and surreal as the news struck me, and bare enough to make me feel cold, hollow, unclean. I’m really not sure if what I felt, or feel, for her is really what I would call love. Especially in light of what she did.
Could anything be more perverse and despicable?
We met at Columbia University before the War when we both majored in physics. I knew her from a class and we had spoken a few times and then I saw her at a jazz club and she held a cigarette aloft in the tight crowd, and we spoke over a drink, and then two drinks, over the course of hours, and even then she smoked too much. I realized all this after I made my way blearily back to my room on 112th and flopped into my lumpy bed seeing her lovely face in double vision wreathed in a dirty halo just like a movie shot.
—You’re leaving the department, she asked incredulously. Why?
—I’m listening to my father’s practicality, I said. She shrugged, wanting more. I’m realizing I really have no prospects. I don’t see myself teaching.
—You’re selling out? To the bourgeois? She bit the tip of her pinky in one of the few coquettish, girlish gestures I would ever see her do. Most everything she ever did was decidedly masculine, I see in retrospect.
—You’re beautiful when you smile. I didn’t realize you could.
She watched me with a complete lack of conviction. –A person’s politics is more important to me than looks, she said, smiling.
—I see. You’re a political racist.
She didn’t like that at all. I realized that night flopped on my face that she was beautiful, and smart, and that I felt some special closeness for her, and I maybe felt moved even more intensely because my feelings were so totally incongruous with her cold, strange supremacy. We made subsequent appointments to meet and talk in a cafe that clearly adopted Left Bank airs there on Amsterdam near Shermerhorn where she confessed, as she tipped up a coffee cup to full lips that left no lipstick stain, radicals congregated. I could tell she found it all very exciting and clandestine and that made her happy.
—Why do you like me? I asked her.
That made her smile. —I don’t know. Should we have sex?
I was startled by her boldness. Anyway, we did go back to my room for the loss of my virginity. It was surprisingly awful, and I could tell it was for her, too; and I accept total responsibility. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. And she seemed halfway hurt as if she should have known better.
—Are you a virgin? I asked her afterward, feeling angry.
She shook her head No.
—I don’t believe you, I said decisively. And I didn’t because the sex was so bad as if she had no more idea than I what to do about making it better. She was wooden in her emotions and actions, her abrupt, jerky thrustings of pelvis at me during my incomplete freshman explorations.
—No, she told me a little sharply, defensively, I had sex just last week.
—I think you’re lying to me.
I don’t know why I tried to be superior. I should have just shut up and taken my embarrassment like a man. In spite of the curt directness of this coital foible and the mutual lack of rapture she and I had sex again half a dozen times over the fall. In those subsequent skirmishes we found our stride. I don’t know why. Maybe we stopped trying, certainly she stopped poking at me, we held our kisses longer, we held each other longer, and I remember many times how we embraced one another with appreciation, and the sex, the contact, cured the loneliness and unknowing. She, I think, seemed impressed with me as if I had touched her in some way others had not. She never said so. I felt she went away a little hurt that maybe she now had some sort of deeper emotional bond or obligation with me than she had desired, though she wouldn’t fulfill it. From then on, I sensed that she considered me her intellectual equal and she was more willing to try to avoid being rude in ways that she clearly had not cared about before. Namely, derogatory comments about America, how it was such a sorry country and needed a do-over. This was a remarkable thing to hear anyone say in those days. I would look at her like she was talking a weird language. She mentioned things like racism and greed and classist genocide.
—I have no idea what you are talking about, I would say to her.
—You wouldn’t. You’re blindness makes you a cog.
—No. I don’t think you understand the fundamental definitions of some of the words you throw around. And it’s so striking because you are so arrogantly belligerent when you strike those artifices.
—You are such a boor.
—At least I know the definitions of the words I use. What system do you think is better than a democratic republic?
—A workers paradise like we’ve got in the Soviet Union. Where there is no greed or hunger, no want or poverty! Where everyone is finally getting along. She smirked at me defiantly like I was stupid.
So it was hot and cold, romance and friction. She gave me hell for leaving the physics department for finance and could not understand why I was perfectly content. In her eyes I was somehow impure.
—You’re living off the backs of the workers, she chastised me.
—How am I doing that? I’m in another department.
She made a sharp face at my joke. Her anger was stoked by her sense that she wasn’t making a convert of me. —You’ll profit off labor!
—Yeah? And how aren’t they profiting off me?
—But you’re not doing anything!
—Investment capital is the most important part! Who puts up the money to buy the plant? Machines? Materials? Wages? Accounting?
I couldn’t understand her at all. I’d read Marx and realized in a dim, naive way that his thinking was having a deep impact on my generation, but I felt that people were missing the overriding historical fact that a middle class had emerged that totally exploded his argument that social evolution was stuck. It clearly wasn’t. It was racing forward. Yes, things could be better. But people like her seemed want to ignore that conditions were improving.
I put too little effort into explaining any of this to her because, truthfully, I hadn’t realized the broad outlines of her anger. This was in part because we only learned much later that the Soviet Union murdered and terrorized people who tried to leak the truth about what was going on. There is also some indication that the print media in the West was intent on suppressing the whole story as well. If this is true, it is hard to calculate what to say about such an effort. She was not ready to hear any challenge I made on obvious points that progress could be seen, and predicted. And I always felt bored as if I was in Sunday school when she started cranking that rotisserie of radical platitudes. Twice, after making love, she told me flat out she did not want to sleep with me any more. I was just surprised. I lay back, saying nothing, watching her stare in irritation at her unadorned fingernails, lighting a cigarette.
Our warmth toward one another abated over the course of the dreary winter. I would see her on the campus or in the company of two different men at different times that I could tell at a distance I would not approve of due to a manner they had about them that suited her. Like her, they had a conceit, and a desire to make themselves unhappy.
And then I was in the War and made my way into Officer Candidate School and got my army commission. By 1943 I was in Italy with Patton. After Italy, we were re-assigned to England in April 1944 and there I was with so many thousands of American GIs pouring out of pubs, eateries, vaudeville theaters, movie palaces and dance halls on the arms of friendly English working girls that none of us figured the Krauts couldn’t figure out we were coming. Scuttlebutt had it that the Germans were going to have a hard time figuring out where the half million of us would land.
Turns out, I went in on the second day on Sword Beach and the sand was splotched all over with dark red brown explosion patterns, and up in the dunes and splashed across rocks and grass lining the inland paths. It was a sobering sight seeing what a blitz our boys had given back to the Hitler Youth. Crews carried out the bodies on stretchers with an occasional hand or leg hanging over the edge, sometimes with a raw missing piece, while we marched in. Looking back over my shoulder, I couldn’t count the number of our ships. You just can’t otherwise grasp the push, the effort, the preparation. To me, the sight of all those ships was the high point of Western civilization. In those countless ships and LCTs on the sun-warmed buff green sea was the most enduring embodiment of nobility that the human hand will ever write.
And I remembered her just then, too, walking up backwards, sinking my boots silently into the moist, coarse sand. I thought of her petulant, angelic face that I knew then could never be made happy.
Then after the invasion I saw a lovely girl in a tam o’ shanter dodging in the sunny haze of Piccadilly Circus with rubble all around her. After we got over our amazement at seeing each other, she found out I was with command and she was studying at Oxford and we agreed to have dinner.
—I can’t tell you what I’m doing, it’s all hush hush, she told me as we ate liver sausages and dehydrated potatoes out of a box two nights later at a smoky pub right off the square. I know it’s something military.
—Do you know where you’ll go? I asked.
—No one knows. They’ve emptied out the physics departments.
—We think it’s the War Department. No one can say. She smiled. People just disappear and the rumor is that they’re somewhere out west working on a super secret bomb. Maybe the atomic bomb. She whispered excitedly.
I nodded. —Are you working for the wrong side? I couldn’t help barbing her a little, sipping what passed for coffee in London. Actually, it was closer to dishwater than the Army coffee that was half chicory.
She shrugged. —Well, Hitler has to be stopped.
—Why? He’s a Socialist.
She pulled away a strand of hair. —No; he’s a fascist.
—So’s every Socialist you know.
She tilted her head and glared at me disappointedly. —You want to go fuck? She brought up the sumptuous round lip of her off-white coffee mug and watched my reaction with juvenile hopefulness.
I chuckled admiringly. —I’m not thrown out of your crib in wartime?
—You are the sort of man I should marry. Though that’ll never happen. She folded her arms with finality and, after a beat, started laughing at me and the abrupt way she had left me jilted at the altar.
I relished her bodacious, crazy incongruity. I did care for her, unpredictable and half-crazy as she was. She smiled at me with that golden warmth of hers, more girlish and fun than I had ever seen her. Maybe she could be happy, after all. Had anything changed? Was it the War? Was it the spirit of adventure now that she was off to join a mysterious team of top physicists gathered for tinkering somewhere in the Wild West? Was it that she thought me not half bad any longer? There was something precious, tender and sincere about her that I loved, but that got submerged in that uncompromising cruelty that was also there always finding vent in her chronic political malcontent.
We walked through the rubbled streets in the bright haze of a northern latitude evening until we spotted an arched doorway gutted by blast from what must have been a thousand pounder. Every step was coated in ash down a cellar stair leading from street level under the house. A thatch of pulverized timber blocked the way just beyond the nook behind the exterior wall. We watched out for the home guard at the far corner in his flat Brodie helmet and over-baggy uniform, and when he turned out of sight we ducked down into the gloom. Under the crosshatch of beams, in the cool fragrant from overturned earth and that peculiar odor of stone-fractured-by-bomb, we adjusted our clothing up and down. We tenderly went at it far more appreciatively than in the old days. After, we even kissed sweetly a long while, me holding her chin, as if we were turning over in our minds whether we actually should marry.
When she trotted off with her little fists tucked deep in the pockets of her worn green serge jacket, she plucked one hand out to wave a little frantic goodbye to me. —Goodbye, Eliot. I love you in my own way. I smiled and held my hand up in eternal salute to her, fondly taking in her colorless silhouette in a tam with a pom cutting the bright yellow haze of the late sunset in a city denuded by bombs.
And that was it; there was no more of her or about her.
Turns out, she had gone West to work with a regiment composed of the top physicists from the United States and England led by Bob Oppenheimer whom I had met before the War. The Los Alamos team defied gravity building the bomb that ended the war in the Pacific and that saved a quarter million American lives. And she had been there, one of just a handful of women in the program, indeed recruited from Oxford, along with Fuchs, like her, an ardent Communist. The Soviets wanted two separate information streams on the bomb to confirm they weren’t being intentionally misled by the Americans. They had cultivated Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, both at the Los Alamos site, and those men knew they were working for Stalin.
It all seems so incredible and preposterous to me that people like them could actually lose sight of what America represented for civilization and what the Soviet Union actually did. But she did make that mistake, and so did Fuchs and Hall and so many others around that time. They did it, most said, because of the Great Depression and the economic hardship it caused. But when it ended—why didn’t they wake up with the others who had also been fooled?
She was approached by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who took their orders from the head of the KGB in America. She was asked to pick up the Ted Hall bomb documents, and she eagerly agreed. She even told Ted Hall that she hoped her participation in giving Stalin the bomb would injure the United States. She had been told by the KGB officer who ran the New York office, Leonid Kvasnikov, that if it appeared FBI agents had picked up her trail or that of Ted Hall, she was to usher Hall and herself straightaway to New York to be smuggled into the Soviet Union via France where they would be handed a new life and be treated as heroes of the revolution. She arrived in Santa Fe in the guise of a tuberculosis patient seeking relief in the desert air. After several aborted attempts to meet Hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico, Ted Hall having been told to look for a girl with a rolled magazine in her pocket, Hall was finally able to get away from Los Alamos with his painstakingly detailed drawings and notes that she then stashed in the bottom of a box of Kleenex. Once she had the drawings, she went to the train station and found the place flooded with Army police and FBI agents specifically there to search everyone for bomb materials. She was cold enough to actually hand the Kleenex box to the FBI agent that stopped her as she searched her purse for her train tickets and identification. She was quite proud of her little gambit with the Kleenex boxy and how she turned to get on her departing train and left it for the agent to call out to her to hand back her box of tissues, the only thing he had not searched.
Klaus Fuchs had waited weeks for the chance to leave the Los Alamos camp and that chance finally came when his Los Alamos friends planned a party after the Japanese surrender and needed someone to ride down the mountain for the booze. Fuchs volunteered and drove off into the desert and drew up his renderings and then got them to Harry Gold who got them to New York City where Kvasnikov compared the two sets of documents. She handed her parcel of drawings to Anatoly Yatzkov who spirited them to the fourth floor of the Russian embassy in New York where about forty members of the KGB worked to oversee the vast conspiracy that was actually in place to convince the American intelligentsia of the superior virtues of Socialism. All of it—that only Socialism can solve poverty, that America is racist and a hindrance to enlightenment—that was all the program of the New York KGB office. Kvasnikov quickly saw that the two sets of documents were nearly identical, and therefore probably real. And so, Joseph Stalin, with his black teeth, who laughed in the face of the crippled Roosevelt in his wheelchair, who murdered 30 million to Hitler’s 6 million, got the bomb he had been screaming for for over a year. Delivered by American and British citizens who idolized him, as did the rest of the Socialist world. Including the New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, who was a Communist and painted such a loyal, rosy picture about 1930s Soviet life that he won the Pulitzer for it. Stalin celebrated his bomb victory by launching yet another wave of terrorist purges to “protect the security of the Soviet state”. This time, only fifty thousand died. And this was after Stalin wiped out his army’s officer corp, to whom he had lied and promised an end to Soviet Socialism when the army showed no will to fight until the Wehrmacht stood three miles from Moscow. That lie turned the tide of Soviet fortunes.
I wonder at the blindspot in the Socialist Fascist mind. Reading about the rest of her life was only more surreal. In 1949, when the Soviets blew up their bomb, American intelligence knew the Soviets could only have built a bomb that quickly with inside help. The FBI went back and carefully combed through the old encrypted Western Union records collected through the war from the Soviet embassy in New York, and secretly cracked the code, and this time they were far more careful screening decoders to make sure Communists had not infiltrated this office too. These messages exposed all the key players and how they smuggled the bomb plans. Ted Hall, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and then the Left wing conspiracy to raise cane internationally to destroy the evidence and the case against them, specifically the Rosenbergs, just like in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial when Communists grabbed for evidence right on the judge’s desk under his very nose even as they screamed “Where is the evidence? Where is the evidence?” . . . And I remember her arrogance to me about her political pedigree. I shake my head. You might think you have the power to persuade people to be civilized and decent, to see good and evil clearly, but I can tell you, there she was in my life, and we spoke at length about these things, and I can assure you she looked at me with diamond clarity that the good was aligned with her and that she was a dedicated humanitarian.
She got word about the Rosenbergs and she and another Communist, named Johnson, escaped to the Soviet Union via France in 1950. And they were hailed as heroes of world “liberation”. They were paraded before the Kremlin under the grateful scrutiny of the politburo above the hundreds of thousands of hungry, shabby people ordered to assemble and cheer for the newsreels. The KGB records state that Johnson and she were both given positions in the nuclear research department on the outskirts of Kiev and she was awarded a Pension of the People in the amount equivalent to $45 a month, which I know was less than she had to work with at Columbia. In 1953, she suffered an injury from an explosion and the burns probably hurt her looks and after the injury she was more hostile, which now we know goes hand in glove with any brain injury. If she was no longer so fetching, then she was no longer so charming, and probably she fell out of favor, which meant she was less protected if yet another wave of “exposures” of “wreckers” and “limiters” came about. Solzhenitsyn has many lines that deal with this absurd and cruel fall from grace: “Famous revolutionaries, theoreticians, and prophets, . . . before their own inglorious destruction, welcomed the roar of the crowd, not guessing that their own time [of punishment] stood on the threshold, that soon their own names would be dragged down in that roar of “Scum!” “Filth!” Doubtless, she would have tried to trade sex for protection and food enough to survive on, but if she was uninteresting to the guards then she would have had no chance to survive.
The records of the Mitrokhin Archives say that she died of “lung failure” in the camps in 1957. These came out much later, and so her family had no word and no trace of her after her arrest in 1953. I had corroboration of this ironical ending from a meeting I was able to obtain with a secretary of Gorbachov who of course recalled the grim details of the trial of her “betrayal” in Pravda.
Who killed more, the one or the other? How does the heart and mind turn on this ideological pivot with dark and near perfect conviction? It makes no sense to me, this special treachery of human gifts.
I remember her smile, in those quick moments in a smoky bar or in a taxi when she was briefly so happy to be alive.
—You’re stealing from the workers! she scolded me.
I see nothing more I could have done.