What the Children of American Jewish Communists Needed, and What They Owe

The children of Jewish Communists needed a therapeutic process to work through the effects of growing up in a political cult. They didn’t get it.

A May Day float in 1930. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images.

A May Day float in 1930. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images.

Feb. 2 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Sometime in the 1970s a social worker in the Montreal Jewish community suggested organizing a counseling group for the second generation—children of Holocaust survivors who might benefit from working through their common trauma. There was much sympathy for this effort. All of us knew children of survivors with high levels of anxiety—the young woman who awoke from her sleep to her mother’s screaming; another whose mother sat in perpetual depression; the children whose father justified his ruthlessness in business as his life’s lesson from his time in the ghetto.

Though aftereffects of the war were very severe, I was not immediately persuaded by the social worker’s recommendation. Among the people I knew, having parents who had survived the war in Europe or even having themselves been born in a DP camp was not necessarily a defining condition of life or a useful focus for treatment. Alcoholics or prisoners may benefit from collective therapy because they share the same condition, but it was the Germans who had forced Jews into their Holocaust, and isolating that event in the lives of their children risked perpetuating and aggravating the damage rather than relieving it. I thought that the Jewish community could help those who sought professional help without reinforcing their identity as the Shoah’s second-generation victims.

Meanwhile, however, I pointed out that another second generation of Jews could benefit from group rehab. The children of Jewish Communists whose parents had freely chosen their path rather than having it forced on them badly needed a therapeutic process to work through the effects of growing up in a political cult that set them against their land of citizenship and against Judaism—all in the name of ideals that had led to mass murder. Children of Communists had either to reject the cause to which their parents had devoted their lives, or else perpetuate a system of lying—a choice itself adverse to mental health. Those parents who had faced up to the consequences of their actions eased the burden for their children, but I had in mind those whose parents had not.

Such counseling never happened. The very reasons this cohort needed intervention made intervention taboo. Communists were no more eager to air Stalin’s crimes after his death than they could have done during his reign. Whereas Hitler’s Jewish victims bore no guilt for his atrocities, Stalin’s Jewish helpers assuredly did. Soviet citizens under totalitarian rule could be excused for complicity (unless they had personally committed acts of terror), but North American Jews who promoted Soviet aims had voluntarily served a murderous regime. That they had served with conviction, idealism, and loyalty made their actions even harder to condone.

To be sure, Jews would face certain risks in airing this subject. One who dared to do so in 1921, at the start of Bolshevik rule, was Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Yakov Mazeh, who warned that “the Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronshteyns pay the bills.” Leon Trotsky, born Bronshteyn, headed the Red Army and was one of the most prominent leaders of the ruling Communist junta. As against the Soviet pledge to eliminate anti-Semitism by transcending all religious, national, and ethnic distinctions, the rabbi expected older anti-Jewish patterns to prevail. Leon may have tried to conceal his Jewish ancestry by adopting a Russian name, but the Jewish people would be blamed for the crimes of its renegade children.

The rabbi was proved correct. Although Jews like Trotsky were no different from revolutionary Armenians, Ukrainians, Christians, and others who served the regime by working to eliminate the distinctiveness of their own ethnic or religious minorities, the preexisting conditions of anti-Semitism never stopped singling out the Jews for blame. In 2021, a century after Mazeh’s warning, the United Nations General Assembly approved fourteen resolutions demonizing the Jewish state of Israel, as opposed to one each condemning Iran and North Korea. Should Jews have invited more censure than they unjustly received by airing wrongs in which they were actually implicated? If Jews started airing the wrongs in which they were actually implicated, a second-generation Jew might have argued, it would only invite more censure than they were already unjustly receiving.

The second generation might also have cited the overreach of Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee as a reason to avoid self-incrimination. HUAC created a blacklist of individuals, including Jews in creative fields of arts and teaching. The ensuing Red Scare damaged many lives, turned some institutions unfairly punitive, and stands accused of having become a mirror image of the repressive regime it claimed to oppose.

The execution for treason of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg raised similar concerns. Some believe the Jewish judge in that trial prejudiced the proceedings and imposed an excessive sentence because, as a Jew, he feared being accused of favoritism and wanted to prove his loyalty to America. Wouldn’t dredging up questions of Jewish loyalty to Communism revive the larger matter of Jewish national priorities, including dual loyalty to Israel?

Finally, why retroactively censure those who believed that they were obeying the prophetic emphasis of Judaism on justice by fighting for causes like the falsely accused Scottsboro boys, joining the anti-fascist Lincoln brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and supporting the Popular Front against Nazism in the 1930s? Shall people be held responsible for what they did not know? If the New York Times reported there was no famine in the Ukraine, surely no one could have seen through the Communist cloak of lies. And no one doubts that many genuinely brave and good people gave their lives to the Soviet cause.

Therein lies the problem. Far from warranting suppression, these concerns show how self-scrutiny could have helped in the post-war years when the full extent of Soviet evil was coming to light. The disparity between Communism’s stated aims and actuality induced intolerable moral, let alone cognitive dissonance. Unlike Hitler’s war against the Jews, Communism corrupted the Soviet Jews from within, hollowed out their identity, and made many of them accomplices of a kind in their own destruction. In America, it turned party members against the political system that had given them—and millions of their fellow citizens—unprecedented individual rights and freedoms, unparalleled opportunity and justice. Granted, there was still discrimination in America, unfairness, and worst of all, the legacy of black slavery, but by the 1960s the Civil Rights movement turned into hard law the promise of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Jews closest to Soviet tyranny were in the best position to protect the best in America: politically, those red-diaper babies could have been among the most important whistle-blowers of all time.

As prime Soviet targets, Jews had a strong stake in exposing Soviet wrongs. Many did. Applied Marxism, which aimed to supersede nations and nation-states through an internationalized proletariat, went beyond all previous anti-Jewish movements in eliminating both the Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood. Some modern Jews had tried to evade the tribal aspect of Jewish religious civilization by denying their nationhood (the early Reform movement) while others fully embraced the restoration of Jewish nationhood (Zionism). Bolshevism struck simultaneously at both parts of the Jewish amalgam and permitted the use of Yiddish—the Jewish vernacular—only as the vehicle of Sovietization. American Jews who served the Soviet cause, when they willy-nilly turned their language and culture, the repositories of Judaism, into anti-Jewish weaponry, were thus greater dupes than their counterparts in other ethnic-religious minorities. Communism made American Jews the only minority whose leftists lobbied against the interests of their own threatened people.

The Soviets who overthrew the anti-Semitic tsarist regime claimed to be the only force that could protect the Jews from their enemies. But when the mufti of Jerusalem organized local Muslims to drive the Jews from Palestine, the Soviets hailed the Arab pogroms as the start of a Communist revolution and accused Jews of imperialism for wanting to reclaim their homeland. To wean their own Soviet Jews from Zionism, they designated Birobidzhan, an outpost on the Manchurian border, as the alternative to Zion and forged the vocabulary of anti-Zionism that excites the left to this day. American Jews in the Soviet orbit not only failed to help shore up the Jewish homeland for the refugees from Hitler but helped to transpose anti-Semitism (against Jews in dispersion) into anti-Zionism (against Jews in their land).

The second generation knew this, and more. They knew the Rosenbergs had spied against America, and knew that in refusing to confess their crime, they had chosen loyalty to Stalin over staying alive for the sake of their children. They knew good Communists were expected to use their martyrdom to foment distrust of America and American justice. They knew that, because all directives came from Moscow, it was forbidden to reveal their source, making conspiracy their way of life.

This was true for all Communists, but Stalin’s animus against the Jews deformed them more acutely than others. When Jewish leftists protested American injustice, they incidentally were deflecting attention from the Soviet persecution and murder of its Jewish intelligentsia, including Solomon Mikhoels and Itsik Feffer who had been sent to America during the war to gain American sympathy and arms. The Soviets relentlessly incited Arab aggression against Israel in 1967 and 1973. Without the Soviet bloc, the Arabs could not have passed the 1975 United Nations resolution charging that Zionism was racism. A Jewish Communists Anonymous could have aired the truth about all this mendacity, freed mind and conscience, and helped to “repair the world.”

Not least, individual Jews were best positioned to expose the Soviet role in fomenting the racism it professed to oppose. The Soviets saw in Jews and African-Americans the two American minorities that could best pit Communism against capitalist America, the former because of their alleged influence, the latter because they were the most genuinely aggrieved. Soviet agents cultivated the two groups separately and encouraged their cooperation—including their intermarriage as the highest enactment of the interracial ideal.  Jews fell for it and did everything to support Black Americans who were invited to treat Jews as the class enemy. The same was true of Jewish Communists in Israel who promoted Arab-Jewish friendship in the face of escalating Arab violence. Jews were the willing scapegoats of Communism, singing kumbaya as they joined their attackers, inventing the slogans to demonize their own people—all in the name of ideals that had calcified into totalitarian policing.

Blame America, shame America, condemn America—the more miserably the Soviets failed in governing their regime, the more ingeniously their American cadres were required to pump up the ideological war against the land of the free. McCarthyism—perhaps the most short-lived witch-hunt in history—became an excuse for self-pity instead of self-accountability. Hollywood Jews who should have been making films like Mr. Jones to expose the engineered famine in Ukraine and its cover-up by the New York Times preferred to sentimentalize Barbra Streisand’s Communist character in The Way We Were. Members of the Communist party in movies like The Front or Trumbo are portrayed as knowing as little about Soviet atrocities as the Germans claimed to have known about Dachau.

I realize that politics must be resolved politically, not therapeutically, yet because Communism in America was ontologically conspiratorial, and required Orwellian inversion on the part of Jews in particular, it could not function through the kind of compromise common to regular democratic politics. It is by now too late to undo all the rot that the Soviet-controlled Communists and their biological and ideological progeny pumped into American and Jewish culture and politics, traces of which have by now filtered into large swaths of the ideological left, and even into the Democratic party. Totalitarian intolerance of competing ideas; vicious anti-Zionism; politicized racism; bureaucratic halts to initiative; hatred of freedom—what the Bolsheviks imposed by force, their American handlers brought about through persuasion. It is too late to undo that harm, but not yet too late for the rest of us to ensure that we keep the Republic.

Here is hope: the lake my family frequents in the Adirondacks was once polluted and has now been restored to crystal clarity. The political environment is no less amenable to correction. That effort will hopefully come not just from those of us who identify the problem, but from the legatees of those who helped to contaminate the water.

More about: American Jews, Communism, Politics & Current Affairs