The Arty Semite

The Furrier, the Psychoanalyst and the Assassin

By Mikhail Krutikov

  • Print
  • Share Share

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Wiki Commons
Soviet agent Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon

As one unravels the history of the 20th century, it becomes apparent how deeply individual lives were woven into the larger fabric of world events. From the shtetls of Eastern Europe a new generation of Jewish youth emerged whose exploits shook the entire world. Now, after the members of that generation have gone, their grandchildren are left with fragments of family memories, yellowed newspapers and archival documents. But from these we can still piece together a picture of the past with its incredible adventures, its great ascents to wealth and power, and its equally dramatic defeats.

In her recent book, “The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story,” Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longstanding editor of the London Review of Books, looks at three members of her family, each of whom belonged to a completely different world: one was in business, one science, and one military intelligence and political intrigue.

The latter of these, Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon, born Nahum Isaakovich Eitingon, is a well-known figure in the history of the Soviet intelligence and security services. A top Soviet agent, his main job was organizing operations against enemies of the Soviet regime abroad.

Leonid’s career began during the Russian Civil War in the Belorussian town of Gomel, where he became head of a “special department” within the local branch of Cheka, the first Soviet state security organization. After the war he was tasked with building an underground communist network in China, and then with the kidnapping of a prominent czarist general and leader of the White Army organization in France. During the Spanish Civil War he helped secure Soviet control over the Republican Army and the elimination of all real — or imagined — threats.

The climax of Leonid Eitingon‘s career was the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, the preparation for which took several years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Later, during the Second World War, he organized attacks against highly placed German officers in occupied parts of the Soviet Union. None of this protected him, however, when his boss, the all-powerful Minister of State Security Lavrenty Beria, was liquidated in the Stalinist fashion by his former comrades following their leader’s death in 1953. For his faithful service Leonid was awarded 12 years in jail and was never rehabilitated by the Soviet leadership during his lifetime.

In the post-Soviet era several versions of Leonid Eitingon’s biography have appeared. All of these, however, are based on conjecture, since the archives of the Soviet security services remain sealed. Though Wilmer’s book doesn’t uncover much new information, it is at least more careful about drawing conclusions.

Leonid Eitingon’s main interest to Wilmer, however, is not so much his dramatic career, but his mysterious connection to her own history and the more respectable branch of the Eitingon family. One of Wilmers’s uncles was Motty Eitingon, a prominent American furrier, who built up his business in the 1920s with the help of high-placed contacts in Soviet Russia, becoming the largest importer of Russian fur in the world. A second uncle, Max Eitingon, was a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Himself a psychiatrist, he expended large amounts of money and energy building up the psychoanalytic movement, including the founding of a psychoanalytic institute in Jerusalem.

In reading this history, one wonders how close the three Eitingons were to one another. More so, one hopes for an illuminating episode in which the Soviet agent Leonid helps his nephew Motti get trade contracts in Moscow, thereby indirectly funding the psychoanalytic movement. While this theory is put forth in certain Russian books, Wilmers is not convinced. In fact, she is not even sure if Leonid was really a relative of her uncles, or if he was known to them. But the author’s doubts don’t make this book any less interesting.

Indeed, the success of this kind of part-documentary, part-memoiristic family history relies largely on the author’s own voice. The writer must have a fine literary sense in order to maintain the balance between her own understanding and the documentary evidence; between private lives and the larger historical picture. This balance, together with a clear, inviting, and somewhat ironic prose style, are the strongest aspects this book. The three Eitingons may have diverged from their common backgrounds to inhabit utterly different worlds, but they come together again through Wilmer’s gripping account.

Translated by Ezra Glinter


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Eitingons, Yiddish, Nahum Isaakovich Eitingon, Motty Eitingon, Max Eitingon, Mikhail Krutikov, London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon, Leon Trotsky, Lavrenty Beria, Forverts, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.