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


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.

4 Responses to “Slice of San Francisco history: Tinker, tailor, author, spy”

  1. Elena Says:

    I remember in the Hoover Archives in the 1980s, the Trotskyists held MZ responsible for the death of Trotsky’s son in a Paris hospital. Hard to know what really happened. A prominent doctor from San Francisco came to the archives to investigate the facts about MZ, certain that his friend was a good man. – E

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Here’s the story in Zipperstein’s words:

    When questioned at a Senate subcommittee hearing as to whether or not he “was given an assignment to lure [Lev Sedov, Trotsky’s son, to] . . . where Soviet agents would assassinate him,” Zborowski admitted that “At a very later time, I was given such an assignment,” but added that he failed to carry it out. Crucial to his easy access to Sedov was his capacity to remain obscure, an uncharacteristically mild, acquiescent Trotskyist. So invisible was he that when Victor Serge—a large-hearted, generous man close to the Trotskyists—speaks in his memoirs, which appeared before Zborowski was unmasked, of experiences they had together, he doesn’t bother mentioning his name.

    The story of his relationship with Sedov is chilling. For some three years, Zborowski rendered himself indispensable, and although he was suspected of being a spy, nearly everyone in this circle was accused of sedition at one time or another. There was certainly mounting evidence that some member of the inner circle was a mole. Trotsky’s papers were stolen. Then, one after another of the communists prepared to go over to Trotsky’s side was murdered: one beheaded, another shot, the body of an activist was found floating in the Seine. Ignace Reiss, who had run the network of Soviet spies in Europe and then decided to defect to the Trotskyists, was found dead, his body riddled with bullets on a Swiss road outside Lausanne. In his Senate testimony, Zborowski admitted engineering the theft of Trotsky’s papers and informing the Soviets about the whereabouts of several of these men, but denied complicity in the killings. (He insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that he hadn’t informed on Reiss.)

    Soon after these deaths, Sedov took suddenly ill. He was hospitalized and died shortly thereafter at the age of 31. There were rumors of a poisoned orange, but nothing was ever proven. It is certainly the case that Zborowski had found him a Russian-run, almost certainly Soviet-infiltrated hospital, and informed his Soviet handlers of the location while hiding it from his fellow Trotskyists.

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