Illustration Karin Sunvisson.

Reviews Love, money, and murder. A remarkable family history

Mary-Kay Wilmers, The Eitingons, A Twentieth-Century Story, London: Faber & Faber, 2009, XI + 476 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 46-48, Baltic Worlds 4 2011
Published on on January 18, 2012

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[B]ut when I reach for universal terms and try to say something about the history of the twentieth century I find that instead I’ve gone back to my childhood and to the fact — once so important — that my brother and Hitler were both born on 20 April.

Most people in the today’s world were born and raised before the new millennium and can bear witness to their biographies. However, with the passage of time, the drama of the horrifying 20th century becomes more distant and professional historians claim a greater stake, so individual lives tend to merge into larger patterns. Still, in their self-presentations, most people have distinct, though distorted and doctored, private memories of this short period in the history of mankind. At the same time, a person lives not only his own life as an individual but also, consciously and subconsciously, the lives of his contemporaries and their epoch.

At the heart of the common history depicted in The Eitingons lies the October or Russian Revolution, an event of the utmost significance that perturbed friend, foe, and non-aligned (neutral, third position, or whatever the case might have been) — and in its unfolding molded the peoples, nations, and battlegrounds of a world these creatures inhabited for almost 75 years. The murder of Leo Trotsky was in many respects the 20th century’s most fateful assassination; without question far more important than the murder of Kirov, and fully comparable to the 1914 killing in Sarajevo of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand, not to mention the killings of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, or Che Guevara in the New World, despite the global tourist industry’s having made the most of the latter.

The end of the Soviet Empire and the disappearance of a (potential) world elicited a wave of histories, both individual and collective, cultural or economic, political and social. Berlin and Moscow in particular became popular destinations for researchers, journalists, pundits, travelers, and other semi-professionals searching for their pasts, and for ours. Archives and peoples contributed to the scrutiny of historical incidents as well as of “longues durées”, individual characters, human institutions, and other artifacts. For a short while, almost everything was open to inquiry, at least in the former center of the Second World. This was long before “Wikileaks” and the triumph of virtual media messages. Hence, the post-Soviet period has been very different from the 1980s and previous decades, when either détente or cold war was on the agenda. During a sojourn in Washington D.C. in the late 1980s, I happened to follow a polemic in the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books between two American ex-communists, along with several letters to these magazines, on the links among Stalin’s designated Leo Trotsky stalker in Turkey and Mexico; the cosmopolitan Jew Leonid Eitingon, of humble Belarusian origins; the Freudian psychoanalyst Max Eitingon, a member of a wealthy Russian émigré family who lived in Germany, Palestine, and the US; and the financing of Trotsky’s annihilation. “Intellectuals and Assassins: Annals of Stalin’s Killerati” was the chilling title of the literary analytical turncoat Stephen Schwartz’s opening article. Another ex-commie and eminent historian, Theodore Draper, objected that the most likely non-Soviet financier, the American multimillionaire Motty Eitingon, was a mere fellow traveler. Draper was not able to provide convincing evidence because relevant documents were still inaccessible.

When, at the age of 71, Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, made her controversial debut as an author after twenty years of research with The Eitingons: A Twentieth Century Story (a paperback edition appeared in late 2010), I was reminded of this exchange as she took the polemic as her starting point: “If you set aside Schwartz’s more lurid suggestions”, she writes, “the notion isn’t entirely far-fetched even now, and it certainly wouldn’t have seemed so if you’d been a Russian émigré living in Paris in the 1930s.” However, Draper is one of the first to be mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements “for his generosity”. The mystery is there from the beginning, as is “generosity”, and Wilmers tries to get at both in her collective maternal family biography. This is a very personal yet in certain ways disturbingly impersonal analysis of some “known unknowns”, which ends up by revealing some family secrets and giving some global events and epics a new twist.

The Eitingons opens with family gossip and letters before moving on to the Soviet archives of the 1990s, first focusing on Moscow, where the descendants of the infamous killerati still live, then moving on to Minsk. In between, we are told a fascinating story that begins in the historical shtetls close to Lukashenko’s Mogilev on the border between contemporary Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, continues in Austria-Hungary and Russia, extends simultaneously eastward and westward in Mexico as well as in Harbin (“the Chicago of the East”) and Constantinople, and also in Leipzig and Łódź (where the author’s mother was born), Madrid and Paris of the 1920s and ’30s. It is the ups and downs of revolution, popular fronts and world communism, the Chinese and Spanish civil wars, Stalin and the Communist International, the capitalist fur trade from Siberia to New York and its glamorous family life, spiced with European psychoanalysis in Berlin and Vienna. The story ends in the 1990s and the new millennium’s first decade among family members in Moscow and to some extent Geneva and London. That the Moscow Eitingons are her family is still an open question for Wilmers herself, as well as for her new acquaintances, which adds to the entertainment and uncertainty throughout the book. Its structure supports her enterprise: theoretically well aware of space, time, languages, and the factuality of objective reality, it disdains straightforward account-giving in favor of at least three parallel chronologies, framed by the author’s relationship with her mother, beginning with adolescence and ending “At the Undertaker’s” long after the main characters have passed on. It is also rhythmical: its five sections, covering more than 440 pages, run smoothly on the whole, like essays by the most frequent contributors to her London paper, interrupted at times by chapters that are closer to that paper’s forthright  book reviews or regular diary. The Eitingons is the work of an editor-cum-researcher, though there are a few places where Wilmers would have benefitted from a second opinion (for instance, the sentence “My family did some ugly things but I understand why they did them”, however crucial it may be, occurs twice, on page 421 and again on page 441).

In the early 20th century, as European markets declined in importance, the first-class furs that Siberian hunters had been supplying for hundreds of years were mostly shipped across the Atlantic. Trade was free apart from a brief US embargo after 1948. Although no family or company archives seem to exist, the available historical records make it possible to outline the history of Russian-Soviet fur trade and the role of Jewish people within this business. The research literature is comprehensive; sources were available before 1989 and many of them have been re-examined firsthand. Wilmers has done her homework; the bibliography runs to nine pages. Moreover, she does not hesitate to include family anecdotes from late 19th century Eastern Europe — her ancestors were the “Rothschilds of Leipzig”. It is this mix of high and low that makes the book such a vivid encounter with the living past. The pre-revolutionary origins of the family relationships are set out quite clearly, at least on the future Western male side, while the Eitingons of the future East are more elusive, though pictures of Leonid with siblings, father, and grandfather are reproduced. Having made the best of the archives, Wilmers has recourse to Leonid’s descendants’ memories from the early 1920s, the published autobiography of a Soviet KGB general who was Leonid’s long-standing superior and protector, and a Brazilian aunt who recalled a story about a poor, young orphan, cousin or second cousin (“brother” in Russian), who once lived in the house of the rich aunt and on leaving forgot to take the revolutionary pamphlets which he had hidden under his bed. But Wilmers does not rest content with the fact that Leonid and Max came from roughly the same village in old Pale, and may have shared an apartment in Moscow for a short while some years after the revolution. The records clearly show that two male members of the wealthy Eitingon family were arrested in 1918 in Moscow but were soon released after having raised a substantial sum of money. Meanwhile, the female Eitingons who lived in Moscow during the upheavals were “playing cards”. The men tried to carry on their business and hold on to what they treasured most: personal contacts. One of the two, on learning of an impending second arrest that would call for an even larger sum, left for Stockholm and crossed Sweden to sail on the SS Stockholm from Göteborg to New York. However, no anecdotes or rumors from Sweden have survived, and, presumably, we will never know whether the fugitive met the “Rothschilds of Gothenburg”. Otherwise, documents and tales go hand in hand in Wilmers’s narrative, which mentions Raoul Wallenberg once, and notes that Sweden was the origin of one of Leonid’s many forged passports.

The family’s fur traders and their complicated relationship with both American and Soviet authorities before the Second World War are colorfully depicted. They are Mary-Kay Wilmers’s intimate kin, in particular her great-uncle, the charming moneymaker Motty Eitingon (1885—1956) and his global entourage. She has her own childhood memories of this giant, and is not impressed. For three decades, Motty was the world’s leading fur trader, living on a grand scale with a correspondingly outgoing social life. Wilmers is circumspect about his dealings with the Bolsheviks and the FBI; her account is mainly based on the latter’s files. It seems that he may have financed the early Communist Party of the Soviet Union — and thereby also the instigator of world revolution, the Comintern — particularly in 1926 when the young Soviet regime awarded him, now an American citizen, a contract that for a decade or two gave him a monopoly in the fur trade. He had a considerable number of companies — mostly run by relatives — at critical locations around the world, above all in the Northern hemisphere, not unlike the Rothschilds or the Sassoons. Well-oiled top-level contacts characterized this early global oligarch, and he needed them to cope with market forces, in particular during the Great Depression. The FBI, which this book implies was rather amateurish compared to its principal rival, continued to haunt him but finally concluded that he “is not pro-Soviet but is a shrewd businessman who posed a pro-Soviet front to gain a choice position with the Russians in order to acquire Russian furs and make a fortune”. At the same time, he was an extraordinarily generous family patriarch, and was also able to buy off striking American trade unions led by another Russian émigré, the red Ben Gold from Bessarabia. On one occasion, however, it was the other branch of American unionism, the ferociously anti-communist AFL, that took Motty Eitingon to the FBI, but Eitingon had cleared the deal with Herbert Hoover. He was a constant gambler and continued in the same vein until his various enterprises lost contact with prospective consumers. That brings us to the McCarthy hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

While Motty Eitingon may or may not have provided funds for V. I. Lenin, another family member certainly did so for Sigmund Freud. This is the even more extravagant but much more secretive Max Eitingon (1881—1943), son of the first fur tycoon Chaim (“the Rothschild of Leipzig” who financed the construction of the city’s first orthodox synagogue), whose daughter married her and Max’s second cousin Motty (he later divorced her). All Max had to do “was to shake the money tree and watch the moidores come down”, Wilmer writes boldly. To her, he is a more distant relative, one of an older generation of the author’s intimates and well remembered for his charming manners. He had a taste for secular Yiddish culture, from the classics to modern music. He had a bad stammer, and his interests differed from those of the rest of the male tribe. He spent the first decade of the new century in Zürich as a medical student devoted to psychiatry, first with Jung, then as a confidant of Freud, which made Jung jealous. Max Eitingon underwent the first ever training analysis (by Freud) and later organized free analytical sessions in Berlin until the Nazis closed his practice. He was remembered by those of his clients who survived Kristallnacht and the subsequent hell. After a meeting with Max’s father, Freud wrote to Max that Chaim looked “very healthy and rejuvenated, and monosyllabic and impatient as, I assume, is in his nature”. In 1926, Max became president of the International Psychoanalytic Association; he was also a respected administrator, financier, and member of the Freudian clan. In the interwar period, he traveled extensively, for example to Moscow and Paris, where he became involved in a court hearing about the murder of a Russian émigré general. This was in 1937, and another Eitingon was now in charge of numerous special operations in nearby Spain. It is no coincidence that Max was of special interest to Schwartz, who, like so many others, came to despise the divan and its practitioners and associate it with darkness at noon. Moreover, Max had been impoverished by the Depression and he and his wife settled for Palestine. Much more than Motty, whom the FBI cleared, Max is still seen as a culprit by others besides the deceased Schwartz. Did Max, when his family fortune failed, support the Freudians from clandestine resources funneled from Red headquarters? Were they basically useful idiots? Wilmers, with her background in modernist high culture, has a weakness for the (psycho-)analytic, which quick-wittedly leads her to refute such accusations and defend Max, “wielding her pen like an ice pick”, as one critic put it. Max is her newfound intimate kin. While Motty was a fabulous, though rather simple, capitalist, Max was the ultimate man of world. The Freudian slip belongs to the 20th century’s historical drama, and to this very day, guilt by association is in the interests of many involved here. To her credit, this avenue is not chosen by Wilmers.

Instead, Mary-Kay Wilmers’s sensitivity is put to the test when it comes to Leonid Eitingon (1899—1981) and his family, related to her either rather distantly or not at all (most likely the former). For Leonid, who was without question Jewish, and came from poor circumstances, the October revolution and its aftermath proved to be the chance of a lifetime, or the beginning and end of a career. He joined the Checka as a trainee in Minsk, partly changed his name to Naum Aleksandrovich, and after a few years settled in Moscow for future global adventures with the GPU/NKVD/OGPU/NKGB/MGB. After a brief start with Anna Shulman in Minsk, he established the rest of his family in Moscow, with two, three, or perhaps four “wives” (he had children with Anna and two others). Towards the end of the book one gets the impression of a rather close-knit union of four children and one stepdaughter from Harbin living in his flat in Moscow, altogether three women and two men. Things had been written about this dangerously bad guy of the old days before Wilmers uncovered new material from archives and confronted his descendants with it. Through Leonid, the drama of the “short twentieth century” is re-enacted, from Lenin’s funeral to Leonid’s rehabilitation in the aftermath of Gorbachev’s dissolution of the empire. Leonid is also given a key role in the memoirs of his KGB superior, General Sudoplatov, published after the end of the Soviet Union (in English by 1994). Moreover, Leonid Eitingon got his own Russian biographer in 2003, a decade after his posthumous rehabilitation. Leonid was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1941 and Stalin publicly declared that “as long as I live not a hair of his head shall be touched”. Nevertheless, at the end of the tyrant’s life Leonid was first a victim of the Doctors’ Plot and then, after a brief interlude in freedom in 1953, spent another twelve years in prison in Vladimir as a “Beria man”. Back in Moscow, he spent the rest of his life fighting for his rehabilitation — in vain. The new material about Leonid adds a lot to the overall story, but less to the family connections, which remain dubious, though not impossible. These three Eitingon life stories are intertwined to such a degree that Schwartz’s suspicions might have been confirmed in the early 1990s once the archives had been opened. Wilmers does her best to establish the remarkable connections but most of the links still seem uncertain. Maybe another trawl in the KGB archives will provide the necessary evidence. Were Max and/or Motty more or less directly involved in, or at least aware of, Leonid’s secret operations, or are the bonds that tie much more layered? At least until the archives tell us more, the second option seems the most plausible.

Be that as it may, the book contains another story that is of special importance for the overall account: the female members of the family who throughout the book provide the oral information and thereby add several mini-biographies-cum-chronologies to the plot. Those who are still with us are introduced as part of the present yet with a past in a different era. The central figure is of course the author herself, whose presence in the book has amused journalistic reviewers and annoyed more traditional narrators. On her mother’s side, Mary-Kay is the granddaughter of the wealthy Eitingons of the 1920s and 30s, while her father’s side represents impeccable Anglo-German-Jewish wealth (solid, prosperous business, no gamblers, fluent in French). Until he passed away in 1980, she declares that she adored her rational father and his orderly family while the Eitingons with their heavy accent could be rather embarrassing for a young American girl growing up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Thus, most of her childhood was spent with her mother’s family in New York, where Motty and his second wife babysat for her younger brother. Fortunately, she escaped to Europe as her father advanced in his multinational firm. At 18, she went to Oxford to learn Russian and in the late 1950s from there to Moscow with a university group under a college don. The story could have remained untold as the future author went into publishing in London — Faber, the Times Literary Supplement and The Listener — and did not use her Russian until the early 1990s, when she started to meet a recently settled Belorussian woman in order to recapture the second or third family language by exchanging (female) life-histories with an unrelated migrant from the diseased Second World.

At that time, Leonid, Max, and Motty were all long gone. So were most of the elders apart from a few women with rather faded memories from Leipzig, Łódź, or Moscow. It is her cousins and second cousins who are acknowledged as informants, four out of six named Eitingon (three Russians), those married into, or out of, the family to distinguish them from other interviewees. It is the two Moscow Eitingons, who together with the rest of the family in the capital took on the burden of rehabilitating Leonid when he had passed away, who stand out and remind us of the complicated nature of the present past to which most persons now living belong. A special place in the book is accorded Zoya Zarubina, Leonid’s stepdaughter whom he brought back from Harbin to Moscow together with his second wife Olga (Naumova, Zoya’s mother from her first marriage to Vasily Zarubin, a Chekist like his wife and her second husband). Zoya is portrayed as the author’s “Eastern” equivalent, who lived through the Sputnik/Gagarin years, the best decade for children of the elite (though for them the 1990s probably meant other and in many cases even better opportunities) as well as for ordinary Soviets. Zoya and the author met in the early 1990s and continued to talk over the years, though Zoya’s tale first appeared in 1999 in an interview book with an American journalist. Once a low-ranking member of the Special Forces, she had to leave when her stepfather was imprisoned. She survived in relative freedom, trained academically in foreign languages and maintained her network. She was a schoolmate of Alexander Shelepin, head of the KGB during the late Khrushchev and early Brezhnev era, and remained in close touch with the party hierarchy during and after her stepfather’s incarceration. In Soviet parlance, she is a woman of steel, the real survivor of a cruel system, also after its collapse, no bitterbitch.

In Wilmers’s narrative, she is the fourth main character of this collective plot, the author herself being number five or six. Other characters include her mother as well as the two Galia Eitingons in Moscow, to say nothing of the author’s Western aunts and cousins, who appear frequently as soon as Max or Motty is in the limelight. Missing (apart from the younger Galia) are those who grew up in the 1970s, with their own memories of the Cold War and the late Soviet era. There is an invisible divide here. Nevertheless, women occupy a special position in this collective family biography: the second sex and the longest of all revolutions are essential parts of this microscopic yet grand narrative of the previous century. Their presence also makes possible an East-West comparison of female emancipation and gender equality; the class societies themselves as well as male domination and sexual emancipation/liberation come into view — the broader spectrum of human existence during this period. Moreover, life in the upper echelons of New York, female life in particular, was very different from what emerged during the last decades of the Soviet Union. While female Eitingons in the West went from an untroubled homebound existence to a rather comfortable outward living (for instance they never spoke of money because it was always there), their Moscow relatives experienced fundamental anxiety and, in First or Second World terms, relative impoverishment, despite belonging to the nomenklatura. Still, it is striking that Leonid’s relatives held on to a four-room apartment in central Moscow throughout his prison years. Not that the enlightened rules were fully implemented during the short Soviet siècle — not at all. Nevertheless, the everyday life of women improved in some ways in the latter part of the Soviet era, reflecting the formal goals of the early revolutionary period. Domestic violence, for instance, was kept at bay, as were alcoholism, hooliganism, and unemployment. Prostitution was restricted though buying sex was never banned. Human gains were achieved during the Soviet epoch and Putin, Medvedev and their successors will have a long way to go before the civilizing process is back on track. Wilmers harbors no illusions about Soviet life, but has the capacity to be measured and is not overwhelmed by loyalty to her Western environment.

Furthermore, the book has a lot to say about Jewish life — orthodox and secular, liberal and socialist — before, during, and after the mass extermination in Central and Eastern European. This was the Jewish century, when the sons and daughters of this tribe ended up either in the camps, the kibbutz, or the US as the three male characters of this story neatly demonstrate. In the book, there are also oceans of love and affection — brotherly, childish, familial, fatherly, parental, and sisterly — that would make any sociologist of emotions green with envy. Loyalty is close by. Whatever there is of Freud, hatred is suppressed to the last drop. Then there is, of course, a lot of calculation and cold-bloodedness. Composure. Deceit. Desire. The libido in all its guises is in no sense confined to the sons and daughters of Sarah and Abraham, but it is they who occupy the stage from the first page to the last (though the book is not explicit about the Jewishness of Zoya). The 20th century fate of the Jewish people pervades the book, the many who left few signs after their extermination, and the few — by no means all of them wealthy — who managed to escape. Leonid’s centrality entails frequent mention of Jewish communists: most of those who ultimately fled were caught by either side, most often their own, with known ends. The everyday practices and rituals of Jewish life are also a recurrent theme. For instance, the secular Freud remarked that there was something truly Jewish about present-giving when Max Eitingon did him a favor or sent another package of Dostoyevsky. The gifts and reciprocities are part of a larger picture of suffering, affection, and ambitions. In particular, Wilmers touches on the affluent Jewish afterlife in America and Israel-Palestine in ways that do not always conform to what is currently deemed cultivated. She is never mealy-mouthed.

For the academic specialist, whether historian or social scientist, The Eitingons is a troubling book. The puzzle is there, but its pieces do not always fit together. It is unquestionably analytical; full of pertinent questions but few definite answers; well-read in contemporary business, intellectual and military-political history. Nevertheless, any synthesis is so far fictitious. A close (or syntopical, in Mortimer Adler’s terminology) reading reveals an understanding of the past as well as the present world as uncultivated, yet nevertheless entailing a differentiated though sequential, never linear, civilizing process full of action and human experience, aspirations, emotions and expectations. The author can be seen as a female John Scotson (in Outsiders) taking part in an investigation of human relationships under the direction of Norbert Elias. Or, she is both Scotson and Elias, writing side by side, the participating observer and the distant analyst. The Eitingons is definitely written for a readership wider than the traditional academy, for an educated lay public as well as a young generation with little or no personal experience and knowledge of the world before and behind the Berlin Wall. It takes nothing for granted and makes few concessions to the lazy bookworm. It is uncompromising in its search for the ways of the real world, the truth (if that word still is acceptable), where deception, inhibition and suspicion belong to the rules of the game. Her fascinating account puts some male members of the clan at center-stage but in the end, the women also stand out, though more could have been said about them. The Eitingons is non-fiction turned into fiction and back again, postmodern oral history at its best. And much more than that: it is love, money and, most frequently, murder during the cardinal dramas of the 20th century. ≈


Norbert Elias (with John L. Scotson), Outsiders, London 1996.
Inez Cope Jefferey, Inside Russia: The Life and Times of Zoya Zarubina, Austin, Texas, 1999.
Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness: A Soviet Spymaster, London 1994.
Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, Princeton 2005.

Mary-Kay Wilmers, The Eitingons, A Twentieth-Century Story, London: Faber & Faber, 2009, XI + 476 pages