Archive for July 18th, 2010

Slice of San Francisco history: Tinker, tailor, author, spy

Sunday, July 18th, 2010
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Colorless ... like a mouse

“Colorless … rather like a mouse” and “not conspicuous in any way … There was nothing you could grapple with, except for his insignificance.”

Such was the description of Mark Zborowski by his Trotskyite comrades, who rather underestimated him.

He went on to co-author 1952’s influential Life Is With People, a book that “resolutely enveloped the Eastern European Jewish past in nostalgic amber,” according to Steve Zipperstein, writing about him in the current issue of the Jewish Review of Books. It is also “the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other.”

Zborowski was also a Soviet spy, and the NKVD’s most valuable mole in Parisian circles in the 1930s and New York in the 1940s.  While several of his anti-Stalinist pals died sudden, violent, mysterious deaths, nothing could ever, exactly, be pinned on him.

Trotsky himself was warned that “a Jew named Mark with excellent Russian and a young family … had infiltrated his Paris headquarters and was responsible for its decimation.  Moreover, the correspondent warned, Trotsky himself was to be this spy’s next victim.  Trotsky dismissed the note as “Stalinist meddling.”

He was warned.

Trotsky was murdered in Mexico in August 1940.  The following year, Zborowski emigrated to the U.S. with his wife, and the help of his still-deceived Trotskyite friends.

“When Norman Podhoretz first heard that Zborowski was a spy he dismissed it as nonsense because at their meal Zborowski sounded like a Stalinist.  Why, he asked himself, would he express such views openly if he was a spy?” wrote Zipperstein, author of last year’s acclaimed Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing.

The making of Life Is With People, a projected funded by (of all things) the Office of Naval Research and headed by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, was punctuated by curious conversations such as this one about Jewish prostitution in shtetls:

Mark Zborowski: I vaguely remember streets reserved for Jewish prostitutes and others for non-Jewish prostitutes in Lemberg.
Ruth Landes: But Lemberg is not a shtetl.
Naomi Chaitman: Yes.
Natalie F. Joffe: In Chortkov.
Margaret Mead: How big is Chortkov?
Zborowski: Population of about 15,000.
Mead: That’s a city!
Zborowski: The shtetl can be any size, if it’s big there can be sub-groups. But there is only the Jewish community. It’s not a place, it’s a state of mind. The problem of size is so different. You can’t use words ‘smaller’ and ‘bigger.’
Joffe: It’s interesting how informants time and again talk about the shtetl.
Elizabeth Herzog: Did people living there call it a ‘shtetl’?
Zborowski: No, ‘shtot.’ But the esprit was shtetl and the organization was shtetl. It’s not size at all.

Zborowski’s story has a happy ending.  At least for him. With Margaret Mead’s support (he lied to her till the end, telling her that he was forced to work for the Soviets because they threatened his Russian relatives), he got a job as a medical anthropologist at San Francisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital, a respected private institution in the city’s Fillmore district.  He eventually co-directed its new Pain Center and authored People in Pain, which studied the nexus of medicine and culture, as it applied to patients of different ethnicities.  According to Zipperstein, “The book solidified his clinical standing despite reviews, which ranged from equivocal to awful.”

He died in 1990, at age 82, of natural causes.