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  • Ilinca Stroe

Ana Pauker, the Iron Lady of Romanian Communism

“Stout, with unruly short greying hair, sharp blue eyes beneath the low eyebrows and a fascinating smile . . ., she made everyone feel that they were dealing with a true personality. I always felt when I was around her that she was like a boa constrictor which had just been fed, so it wasn’t going to eat you up on the spot! . . . My subsequent meetings with her showed me the cold and dehumanised brilliance thanks to which she had reached the powerful position she held now.” Princess Ileana, the daughter of the Unifying Monarchs Ferdinand and Marie, couldn’t have been more different than Ana Pauker, the high-ranking communist official she so skilfully described. And yet not even the Princess can suppress a hint of horrified admiration for the sharp-minded, sharp-eyed and cold-hearted communist: she mentions her power to fascinate, she finds her respectful about their religious differences and she calls her an excellent speaker in the service, alas, of evil. [1]

Indeed, Ana Pauker isn’t the kind of personality that can be looked at in black and white. Orchestrating the Moscow-led machinations that were to topple King Michael’s reign and put an end to democracy in Romania, she reached the peak of her power in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s: on 20 September 1948, Time Magazine declared her “the most powerful woman alive” (she was the first female minister of foreign affairs in the world), but also “the world’s most ruthless woman”. During those years, the communist repression of the Romanian bourgeoisie, monarchists and old-regime politicians was at its fiercest, with fake trials, abusive arrests and imprisonment, beatings and systematic torture sweeping out any opposition to the Soviet-led bulldozing of free Romania. Ana Pauker was then considered Stalin’s perfectly subservient agent in the country [2] – so much so that she had been dubbed “Stalin in skirt” and “Stalin’s apostle”. Yet 1953 sees her arrested and investigated, and it is precisely Stalin’s death in March that year that saves her from a framed-up trial; instead, she was placed under house arrest until 1954 and then lived in oblivion off small translations, an “ostracised pariah” [3], until she died of breast cancer relapse in 1960.

So, having reached the high-ranking communist status testified by Time Magazine in 1948, how did her downfall happen only five years later? The answer resides in her genes... and in Stalin’s communists’ unleashed anti-Semitism. For Ana Pauker was born Hannah Rabinsohn in 1893 in the Moldavian village of Codăeşti, the daughter of Hersh, a Rabbi’s son, ritual slaughterer (shohet) and synagogue clerk, and of Sarah, herself the descendant of a sofer (Torah scribe). She attended the “Zion Brotherhood” primary school, where she was the first in her class for four consecutive years. She dropped out and started working in a tailor’s workshop, after which she took up a teaching job that she held from 1910 to 1917, when she was dismissed because she had taught her students revolutionary songs. [4]

By that time, the influence of her fellow teacher Heinrich Sternberg, who had initiated Ana into the ideology of socialism, and with whom they say she was also romantically involved, had taken roots in the young woman’s mind. So starting from 1918 Ana dedicated herself to illegal operations such as distributing manifestoes and delivering conspirative messages in the service of the Romanian Bolsheviks, at that time a rather minor underground movement. She was arrested several times (as she was to tell Princess Ileana later, her total time in jail amounted to nine years overall), but the most important such incident occurred in 1935, when she was sentenced to ten years in prison. After she had served six years of that term, in May 1941 she was released in an exchange of prisoners and sent to Soviet Moscow, where she was welcomed at the railway station by high-ranking communists like Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria herself: Ana Pauker had, through her long-term commitment to the communist cause, become a trusted, prominent representative of Romanian communism.

During her stay in Moscow, she therefore went up the ranks of the Comintern (the Third Communist International) as the leader of the Romanian communists in the USSR, and reached the position of member and instructor in the Comintern Executive Committee. In 1944, when the political situation was ripe for Soviet intervention in Romania, Ana was ordered to return there and take the reins of power in her country. “Comrade, I am a woman, I wasn’t in the country during the war, I was in prison and have no idea how things are over there. Ten years have passed and it’s hard to do this. I am a woman, Jewish and intellectual,” she told the Comintern Secretary General in response to the order. In the end, they agreed for Ana to share leadership with a few Romanian male communists of more proletarian origins (e.g. Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej), and so her role as the Romanian communist Party’s mastermind started.

Her “fanatical subservience” to Moscow and Stalin’s directives was legendary, never disputed. Indeed, such was her servilism that an anecdote mentioned by her biographer Robert Levy recounts how one clear-sky summer day she walked down the streets of Bucharest holding up an umbrella. Asked why she was carrying the umbrella while it wasn’t raining, she reportedly replied, “Haven’t you listened to the Soviet radio station? It’s raining in Moscow.” On another more tragic situation, while she was in prison she was given the news that her husband Marcel Pauker had been considered a Trotskyite and executed in Moscow (1938). As a fellow inmate testified, Ana subsequently spent three days in total isolation, after which she came out and commented, “I’ve been racking my brains to find something, some sign that may have made me see that [Marcel] was an enemy of the people. . . . But I wasn’t aware of anything and no matter how much I look into my soul and memory, I can’t find anything that could prove that.” But, she added, “I do not contest the party’s decision; the party knows better than I do.” [5] It was as if the sharp-witted intellectual woman had submitted her will totally to the omnipotent, omniscient Party even in the case of her own husband’s assassination by the Party.

But, as her biographer maintains, Ana the communist leader did start to slightly disobey the orders from Moscow, after all. As Agriculture Secretary, she resisted the Soviet advisers on collectivisation, halting it in its tracks and refusing to establish collective farms. She also opposed the frame-up of the ex-Minister of Justice Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu and the prosecution of the Romanian veterans of the Spanish Civil Wars as “imperialist spies”. Finally, she was in favour of the Romanian Zionist movement, supporting the mass emigration of Romanian Jews to Israel after the Soviets had disputed the state of Israel in 1948. [6] Because of all that, in 1952 her downfall started: as Stalin decided to purge the Party of Jewish-origin leaders, he reportedly rebuked Romanian communist leader Gheorghiu-Dej, “How many times have I told you to get rid of Ana Pauker and you didn’t get it? . . . If I’d been you, I would’ve shot her in the head long ago.” A short while later, Ana was dismissed from office, stripped of her party position and, in February 1953, arrested. The charges? “Right-wing deviationism”, “anti-party activity” and “cosmopolitanism”: she was found to have created “a small-bourgeois reconciliatory atmosphere at the Ministry of External Affairs, especially because of the women’s group there” [7]. It was her political execution.

And so the Jewish intellectual woman considered a “monster” responsible for Stalinist terror in post-monarchical Romania [8] stepped down from the high horses of Romania’s communist history: a victim of her own venerated hero, Stalin. In the end, as her perceptive biographer notes, “The Ana Pauker I discovered is a highly enigmatic figure who was characterized more by contradictions than dogmatism” [9] – impossible to judge in black and white.

Notes & Sources

[1] Ileana, Principesă de România, Arhiducesă de Austria. Trăiesc din nou. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2010. Print. Pages 289, 292.

[5] Ibidem.

[9] Ibidem.

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