Gone, and Forever

"Zosha: From the Jezreel Valley to the Red Orchestra" by Yehudit Kafri, Keter Press, 468 pages.

It was late at night when I finished reading the last pages of "Zosha." And for a long time afterward, I kept pondering the strong and enigmatic character of this daughter of a well-to-do family in Kalisz, Poland and the agonizing path she trod, out of choice and determination, until the final stop in German captivity, where she withstood tortures that are beyond my powers to describe and did not give up any information. This is what the Gestapo chief Mueller writes to his superior, Himmler: "The suicide of the young Jewess prevented us from succeeding in our mission." That mission was to topple the Soviet spy network, the "Red Orchestra," which operated in Western Europe during World War II. Zosha Posnanska was the only encipherer in the radio cell, which for months was the only active cell in the network.

Zosha Posnanska was born in 1906, and at the age of 13, she joined Hashomer Hatzair in Kalisz, not long after the Zionist youth movement was founded there. In 1925, she came to Mandatory Palestine with her group, which merged with another group at the kibbutz camp in Afula and eventually founded Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek. She left the kibbutz group over ideological differences, and joined the Communist Party. From this point on, she carried out every task given her by the party, first in Eretz Israel and later in France and Belgium. The impetus for her joining the communists came partly from Leopold Trepper, the man who would play a key role in her brief and turbulent life and, on the eve of World War II, recruit her for the Red Orchestra.

Everything in the book is fascinating and full of riddles: Zosha's personality; the choices she made along the way; her ability to tolerate years upon years of living in real poverty; and above all, her embracing of her destiny - her willingness to be pushed to life's margins, to keep up a double existence, to sacrifice her young life and her passion for children. And all for the sake of that grand idea of communism - of the New Man and the New World; an idea that, perhaps fortunately, as the author writes, the book's heroine predeceased.

Prodigious research

One of the most powerful and significant chapters in the book is the one detailing the conversation between Zosha and Leopold Trepper, the future commander of the Red Orchestra, who, at the end of 1936, is on his way from Moscow to Paris on an espionage mission. These are the days of the great purges in the Soviet Union, and Hitler has been in power in Germany for four years. Concentration camps have already been built. The Nuremberg Laws have been passed. The Wehrmacht has already invaded the Rhineland. And even though Zosha understands from Trepper's candid and harsh words that the Soviet Union, harbinger of the worldwide revolution, has become a murderous dictatorship, they both choose to serve Soviet military intelligence in the fight against the greater evil - Hitler.

The prodigious research, the collection and integration of information, that has gone into the book is extremely impressive, even awe-inspiring. The author brings to life the young Jewish woman from Kalisz, vividly etching this complex and contradiction-laden figure who loved many and was loved by many, and who faithfully adhered - at any cost, even unto death - to a single, very far-off, almost abstract thing: an idea.

This is the story of one woman, but it is also the story of a time and of a whole generation of young Jews who rebelled against the world as it was. Because without at all diminishing the powerful impression left by the author's construction of the biography of Zosha and the stories of all the characters who intersect with her life and influence her and the path she takes, the book also describes many other beginnings: the history of the early days of Hashomer Hatzair in Kalisz; and the influx of the magshimim (the early Zionist pioneers) to Eretz Israel, to the Jezreel Valley, to Hadera and to the first settlement points of the Jewish Yishuv (pre-state community). And at the same time, we see the ideological and moral contradictions, such as the dispossession and exploitation of local Arabs, which arose to torment many of these people after they had immigrated; contradictions that propelled a few of them toward a mirage that seemed to offer greater moral and ideological harmony than they'd found in the kibbutz or in Zionism, only to consume them in its fire, either sooner or later.

As a work of history strewn with fascinating psychological insights, the book would be sufficient to merit our gratitude. But at the heart of the book also lies the personality of the author herself, the loving daughter of Fishek, one of the story's heroes, who was brought up in - one could even say is the progeny of - the Hashomer Hatzair movement, the Kibbutz Artzi movement and the kibbutz's communal childrearing system, from which she bears memories, regrets and scars - some of which she has written about elsewhere.

Inner undercurrent

Fishek's great love for Zosha and her great love for him is the inner, personal undercurrent flowing throughout the book, and is well illustrated by the passage that relates the story of the author's visit to Davcho Biezwinski - Fishek and Zosha's friend from the early youth movement days in Kalisz (who was also desperately in love with Zosha after she returned to the city for a period of time) - and of the album that Fishek received from Zosha and Davcho on the eve of his conscription into the Polish army, and which he kept for nearly 60 years until his death.

When the author comes to see Davcho in Warsaw after all the years that have passed, he tells her that in the 1980s, four decades after Zosha's death, he paid a visit to Fishek on Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh. Fishek took out the album that he'd received as a gift from the two of them and read from it two poems that he'd written to Zosha. "And when I heard him reading the poems that night, I felt that he was still waiting for Zosha. That he was still missing Zosha, that his relationship with her was still alive," says Davcho.

And I haven't mentioned the wonderful pages depicting the one and only encounter between Fishek and Zosha in Palestine, when he was a new immigrant fresh off the boat and she was already a communist on her way to Paris, with her boyfriend Shmulik who had already been expelled from the country, when she was about to leave the country, never to return. The whole passage encapsulates that innocent, idealistic and cruel world, which is also gone forever. The words that Fishek wrote 50 years later about that night the two of them were together is practically the whole story: "The night passed with talking and silences. Of course, both of us cried the whole night. She said, `In terms of ideas, I'm with him, but my emotions are with you. I'm ready to get back together with you, but don't go to the kibbutz.' And I said, `If not for the kibbutz, I wouldn't have come to Eretz Israel.'"

And another brief and telling passage: Here the author describes her conversation with the French writer Gilles Perrault, author of the book, "The Red Orchestra," in which she expressed her astonishment at the woefully irresponsible set-up at the house in Brussels where Zosha did the enciphering work and also lived, and from which the wireless transmissions of the Red Orchestra were sent to the Red Army's intelligence center in Moscow. And she says to Perrault, "It was so dangerous! Why did they house them in the same place as the transmitter?" and refuses to believe that "these people were simply sacrificed," as he tells her. But then he adds: "You've said that Trepper wasn't the kind of person who would sacrifice Zosha Posnanska. What you must understand is that these people, such as Sophia Posnanska, agreed to be sacrificed."

It takes your breath away. It fills you with admiration for the inner strength of Zosha and the few others like her. It fills you with anger, when you think about the behavior of her direct commander, Kent, who was also the deputy commander of the Red Orchestra and the commander of her Belgian section and lived a life of luxury, not caring what might happen to his people who fell into German hands. He is still living today, enjoying his ripe old age in St. Petersburg.

The book is a very complicated piece of work, since it is written on a number of levels at once. The author weaves her own treks in the characters' footsteps into the story - how she goes to Fishek's home in Kalisz and suddenly wants to cry; her meeting with the elderly Davcho in Warsaw; her sojourns to the dunes in North Tel Aviv, to the Jezreel Valley, to the streets of Paris, Toulouse, Brussels; her conversations with people; descriptions of places; the landscapes.

This is a thought-provoking, painful book that raises many questions. These idealistic people really seem to have had something in them that was not human - as if their brief, irreplaceable lives were no more than "grease for the wheels of the revolution." But at the same time, Zosha is depicted as someone who loved life. She is a complex, intriguing, difficult and tragic figure. This book ought to be around for many years to come, because it is a significant record of people and a time that are gone for good; of a unique phenomenon in the modern world, when people genuinely believed that they were on the brink of a new world, on the brink of paradise. Jews and non-Jews wanted to touch heaven, wanted to touch the holy fire - and were burned.

Would that this book finds many young readers in our own time, which is light-years away from those bitter and beautiful early days out of which we all grew, out of which Israel grew.