Ever an Enigma, This Ana

Here is a meticulously researched biography of Ana Pauker, the Romanian Jew described by Time magazine in 1948 as `the most powerful woman alive'

"Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist," by Robert Levy, University of California, 406 pages, $35

The romance of communism ended long ago. For Americans born after World War II, the Cold War instilled antipathy to communism as a central component of American political identity. It confirmed the message of Arthur Koestler's 1940 novel "Darkness at Noon," which shed light on the disillusion that gripped some European and American communists beginning with the show trials of the late 1930s.

For American Jews, a series of events combined to eliminate whatever allure remained to communism. These included the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, Stalin's rampant anti-Semitism that culminated in the "Doctors' Plot" shortly before his death in 1953, the hostility to Israel of the Soviet Union beginning in the 1950s and the discrimination meted out to its own Jewish population, which was vigorously publicized by the Soviet Jewry movement. The demise of communism in the Soviet Union and the satellite nations of Eastern Europe brought the communist drama to a definitive end.

Even as the romance of communism has faded, the opening of archives in the countries of the former communist world has enabled scholars not only to provide new information about previously obscure events, but also to demonstrate how much the official propaganda and manipulation of communist regimes continues to shape historical assessments of the past and contemporary consciousness in former communist countries.

`Man on the scene'

One of the key strengths of "Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist," a meticulously documented political biography of a powerful Jewish communist leader in Romania, is its demonstration that Pauker's actual role in the years in which she wielded power as her country's foreign minister (1947-1952) was far different from the prevailing Romanian depiction of her. She is still seen as an enemy of the peasants and a hard-line Stalinist, as Stalin's "man on the scene" in Romania and the force behind political purges.

On the basis of documentary evidence, Robert Levy, who completed a doctorate in history at the University of California in 1998, convincingly argues that, though devoted to Stalin, Pauker was willing to act in opposition to the Soviet line. For example, she advocated that state collectivization of peasant lands should be implemented gradually, a position that contravened Soviet policy. In Levy's reconstruction of her role during a turbulent period, she was a force for moderation, whose purge ushered in the decades of repression that characterized communist rule in Romania.

Most potential readers of this book will not be drawn to it because of its fine analysis of Romanian communist politics. Americans are generally ignorant of the history of Eastern European countries and not particularly disturbed by their ignorance. Like myself, they will be unaware that in 1948, Pauker appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which described her as "the most powerful woman alive."

As Romania's foreign minister at the time, she chose not to occupy the position of head of the Communist Party because she recognized the potential antipathy toward her as a Jew, a woman with power and an intellectual were she to reach too high.

What we hope to understand from biographies of communist activists, and particularly those who operated at the highest levels of political leadership, is how they were able to maintain their illusions over decades, even as they confronted the realities of communist repression.

In the case of Pauker, Levy offers us much to think about as he presents the contradictions and ambiguities in her behavior, but he cannot provide insight into her thinking. Pauker left no autobiography or illuminating letters. All that is available is the record of her political activity, including her statements under interrogation, and the reminiscences of now elderly former comrades or family members who were not necessarily privy to her thoughts.

But despite the limitations of his oral history sources, Levy should be commended for conducting dozens of interviews to find information about Pauker and Romanian political infighting that might not have found its way into official documents.

Reconciled to Soviet policy

Pauker's story as a Jewish communist is unique only in the powerful role she played. Like many of her communist peers, she came from a traditional Jewish family. Indeed, she taught Hebrew and Jewish subjects as a young woman.

Levy speculates that she was drawn to communism because of its promise of social and economic justice. Communism seemed to offer Jews in Eastern Europe the best chance to overcome their otherness; they would participate as equals in the creation of a society in which ethnic and religious origins would be irrelevant and anti-Semitism unthinkable. After the Bolshevik revolution, communism represented the triumph of the left; in the 1930s it was the most potent opponent of Nazism and fascism, including the Romanian version, which had contributed to the explosion of anti-Semitism in the country.

Like many other communists, Pauker suffered for her political beliefs and activities. In the 1920s and 1930s, she was arrested, wounded and imprisoned. She made sacrifices that most mothers would be unable to accept: At the behest of the Soviet leadership, she placed two of her children in children's homes in the Soviet Union and a third with a leading communist family in France so that she could continue her political activities.

Although she was in prison in the late 1930s, Pauker knew of the Nazi-Soviet pact and of the Moscow show trials. She knew that her husband, Marcel Pauker, disappeared during the purges. (Her detractors even accused her of denouncing him to the authorities, but Levy proves that those accusations to be unfounded.)

Whatever reservations she may have had, she made her peace with these events. As "shocked" as she may have been by the Nazi-Soviet pact, as one former communist colleague told Levy, she reconciled herself to Soviet policy. She even continued to hope that her husband had survived the purges. Although her own purge was conducted with Stalin's assent, and there is evidence that an anti-Semitic show trial similar to Rudolf Slansky's in Prague was being planned, which would have resulted in Pauker's execution, she burst into tears when she heard of Stalin's death.

Ironically, it was this event - Stalin's death - that scuttled plans for her trial. Pauker's reaction suggests that the commitment to communism became so central - indeed, sacred - to activists that they dismissed the significance of any evidence that their own commitment had been betrayed. Many had dedicated their lives to the most idealistic of goals, often with the conviction that the excesses of communism were temporary necessities that would give way to a gentler style of rule.

While critical in her private life, Pauker tried never to undermine the authority of communism because of her belief in its ultimate vindication. She never took the psychologically difficult step of reconciling her fundamental beliefs with their disastrous consequences, nor of disavowing the ideology to which her life had been devoted.

In his depiction of a complex political personality, Levy shows that Jewish communist leaders such as Pauker were not necessarily rigid followers of the party line. Although a proponent of internationalism, Pauker maintained a strong Romanian identity and a residual Jewish identity. Her father and brother went further, telling a friend that Ana "continued to have a connection to Jews and Judaism in her heart."

As a communist, she had always opposed Zionism, but during her years in power, she supported the mass emigration of Jews from Romania to Israel at a time when the Soviet Union opposed it. She maintained close connections with her Orthodox family and especially with her brother, Zalman Rabinsohn, a committed Zionist who had immigrated to Israel. She also protected Zionists and representatives of Israel, ordering the release and expulsion of seven Israeli emissaries who had been arrested on charges of espionage. The trial and imprisonment of Zionists in Romania occurred only in 1953 and 1954, after Pauker herself had been removed from power.

Arguably the Jewish woman who achieved the most political power in the 20th century, Pauker remains an enigma. She was a Stalinist who dissented from Moscow's orders when she chose to, a communist universalist who manifested some sympathy for the plight of her particular community of origin. She was sufficiently shrewd to survive for years in a dangerous political environment - dismissed from the party, she died not of a purge but from breast cancer a few years after Stalin's death in 1956 - but like so many other communists, she fell victim to the system in which she had colluded.

Paula Hyman is the Lucy Moses professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University and the editor of the forthcoming "My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: The Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist Activist in Poland by Puah Rahovsky" (Indiana University).

By arrangement with the Forward.