Cross Currents: The Search for Lisa Fitch

A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Sarah Dowse, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1991. This paper was published in the Summer 1991–92 edition of Voices.

About three years ago I decided to write the story of my great aunt Lisa. I wanted to write about her because I wanted to write about revolution, and she was said to have been a revolutionary. For most of the 1970s I had been thinking about revolution, wanting it, believing in it, and working for it. But by the time I starting working on her biography, the idea of revolution was in very bad odour indeed. In 1989, the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe began to crumble; in 1991, the year of my Harold White Fellowship at the National Library, the Soviet Union itself was being systematically dismantled. Throughout all this, the true character of the so-called socialist system was incontrovertibly exposed: the abuses of power by the dictatorship in Russia were as great as those of the tsarist regime it replaced. These revelations, combined with the thorough entrenchment of conservative ideology in the western democracies during the 1980s, make it all but impossible to talk sympathetically about socialism, let alone revolution. That term, if it is used at all, is generally applied to the overthrow of socialism, or what masqueraded as such for over seventy years.

It is commonplace now for those on the left to disown what went on in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and such a response can provoke a measure of cynicism. But it should be remembered that, since the turn of the century, a sizeable chunk of the left dissociated itself from democratic centralism, Stalinism and Soviet state capitalism. There has always been a socialist opposition, within the Soviet Union and without. One of the strongest challenges came from the second-wave feminists who had been blooded in the protest against the war in Vietnam and the anti-Stalinist, if ruthlessly male-dominated, New Left. But whatever the movement or faction, the word revolution signified a viable proposition: Utopian, determinist or gradualist, it was an expression of the possibility of radical change.

Its first use in a feminist context perhaps was in the name given to the journal produced by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton between 1898 and 1870. I can remember my boundless excitement on discovering this, that ours was not the first generation to think of a specifically feminist revolution. We were aware, of course, that our notion of a revolution diverged considerably from those formulated by more traditional socialists. The fact that a revolution meant different things to different people was a problem, but quite unlike the one we face today, when the very idea of a perfectly just and equitable society is almost lost.

My great-aunt had become a legend in our family, a person about whom great, heroic tales were woven. None of these had ever been carefully substantiated, but the very haziness that surrounded her must have been part of her appeal, a kind of aura that descends on all who have been elevated to the status of a demi-god, however minor. The apotheosis, if you will, seemed to correspond proportionately to the fading of commitment. No other family member that I knew of had ever been so single-mindedly dedicated to the cause of justice and freedom, and I suppose it was a comfort to know that at least one of us had. Here was the genuine article, no armchair revolutionary! And when that dream became badly tarnished, my desire to know the truth about this woman only increased. Why, I’m still not entirely sure. I only know that my search to discover what happened to her has forced me to look deeply at issues I’ve been wrestling with, one way or another, for most of my adult life.

So far, the few images I’ve used to express the impreciseness of my great aunt’s story have been largely aerial. Words such as ‘haziness’, ‘aura’, ‘dream’ conjure up the elusiveness of her revolutionary goal, the mythical nature of the tales that have been told about her, and my own uncertainty of purpose. A more apt metaphor, perhaps, would be water. Water, too, conveys those qualities of shapelessness and confusion. Above all, this is the story of the crossing of waters: no less than two immense oceans and two substantial seas have been crossed and re-crossed in it, and this in itself has produced the most shifting, clouding, quite dizzying effects.

Take the fundamental question of her name. Lisa Fitch, as I knew it, was my grandfather’s sister. My grandfather, Leo Fitch, was a grocer in Council Bluffs, then a small town across the Missouri from Omaha, in the heart of the American corn belt. It wasn’t until I began working on this book that I learned that he was not Leo, but Levi, or Lev, and not till I was much further into the research did I discover that his surname wasn’t Fitch, or Fichte (as some of the family claimed) but Fich. (In keeping with the water metaphor, Fich is a variant of Fisch, the German, and Yiddish, word for fish.) The name was anglicised to Fitch, not in the usual way, by immigration officials on Ellis Island, but in a mattress factory where my grandfather worked. The foreman there found it impossible to pronounce the guttural ‘ch’ and suggested that a ‘t’ be inserted. My grandfather, on his first job after landing in the Texas port of Galveston, readily complied. This was in 1910. Lisa, his senior by three years, was still in Russia. Twelve years later, however, she too left Russia, the second to do so in a family of eight. But instead of America, she went to Palestine, where her surname remained intact but she chose to use her Hebrew given name, Leah.

So many in the family of that generation seem to have undergone these nominal transformations that in the beginning my head would swim trying to keep their identities and aliases straight. An aunt I had known as Bernice was really Bella; another, Aunt Marion, was Miriam, or Manya. It was common, I’ve since learned, for Jews to adopt English names on coming to America, and to give such covers to their children in addition to the Hebrew or Yiddish ones used for ritual purposes. It seems, as well, that this practice occurred in Russia. But in Palestine, now Israel, the Hebrew names became badges of honour and pride.

This matter of names was only symptomatic, however, of larger, more perplexing conundrums. For years I had been under the impression, gained from my mother, that her father came from Odessa. I set about learning whatever I could about that fascinating city: its history, its climate, its complex sociology. My great-grandfather, Pinchas (Pavel) Fich, it was said, had been a landowner’s agent—not an uncommon occupation for a Jew. Family lore had it that he lived in a village, not a shtetl but a Christian village, and so I proceeded on the supposition that this was a village on or near the landowner’s estate, probably on the outskirts of Odessa rather than in the city itself. Another of my sources described this as ‘the district of ‘Kaninga’ or ‘Kaningka’ (it was hard to make out on the tape), so I searched without success for such a place on contemporary maps. But a year or so later my mother’s brother explained that their father came from Kiev, not Odessa, and the village I was searching for was actually a suburb of Kiev. He had the clearest memory of my grandfather telling him about how he had learned to swim in the Dneiper, the river which runs past that city. I then spent many months gathering everything I could about Kiev. So when another source came up with a village in Besserabia—on the Dneister—I was not prepared to believe him, especially when my uncle continued to insist that my grandfather was from Kiev and that he had practiced his backstroke—he could only ever swim the backstroke—in the muddy currents of the Dneiper.

A little over a decade after my grandfather left Russia for America, he was able to sponsor his parents as immigrants. With them came two of his sisters. I had thought that they had fled during the civil war that erupted after the October Revolution; now I have reason to believe it was after the Bolshevik regime had stabilised. About the same time, Lisa went to Palestine and was followed some three years later by a niece, the second daughter of her eldest sister. Two years after that the elder sister arrived with her husband and remaining three children, to set up a noodle factory in Tel Aviv.

On a recent trip to Israel, to find out what happened to Lisa (Leah) in Palestine, I met my Israeli relatives for the first time. I also gained some insight into the influence of place and time on the shaping of historical perceptions. Both branches of this family, my grandfather and those who followed him to America, and Lisa and those who went after her to Palestine, were determined to leave history behind. My grandfather hated everything Russian. He hated the anti-Semitism and, as well, what he saw of the landowners’ callous treatment of the peasants; he rarely spoke Russian and was, on the whole, most reticent about his native country. Lisa and her sister were Zionists, albeit of different complexion; they were leaving behind the persecution they had experienced, even after the Revolution, at the hands of revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries alike. But it seems that this process of obliterating the pain of the past was far more successful across the Atlantic than it was in the Levant. Within a generation, the American Fitches lost not only their name, but any firm knowledge of where in Russia their own father came from, and what had become of the rest of the family after he emigrated.

I have also come to suspect that the changes the family underwent, between the time my grandfather embarked on his solo journey to the American prairie and his oldest sister escaped with her family to Palestine, may well account for the very different pictures that have formed of the family’s fortunes in Russia; and may even explain why there are such divergent views of both Pinchas Fich’s occupation and where the family came from. It is possible—as both my uncle and my mother have it—that my great-grandfather had been a landowner’s agent; he may even have lived once in the kind of genteel grandeur my uncle has described. But he was not from Kiev. He was from Kamenka, a town in Bessarabia —near the Dneister. He was certainly an educated, Russified Jew. But by the time he fled Russia his circumstances had changed significantly. By then he had tried his own hand on the land. He and his wife and children had become tenant farmers, and lived in a small village on the Dneister, near the widest section of that river. Perhaps Pinchas Fich’s reputation as a landowner’s agent had dogged him. Perhaps he worked as an agent as he tilled his owner’s acres. In any event, as he would not have been popular, either with his peasant neighbours or with the Bolsheviks, the situation became impossible enough for him to be persuaded by my grandfather to join him in America.

They were all Zionists, as it turns out—Pinchas and Rachel, his wife, and most of their children. The decision to go on the land was to prepare them as chalutzim, pioneers in the stony hills of Eretz Israel, not for a landless exile in the lush Nebraskan cornfields. Their daughter, Lisa, was the most dedicated, the most radical. Then, as now, there were numerous shades of Zionism, but the Zionism that sprang from the revolutionary ferment in Russia at the turn of the century was emphatically socialist, and strains of it were Marxist, as orthodox as those of the Russian Jewry who eschewed Zionism altogether and threw in their lot with the Jewish workers (the Bund) or the emphatically secular Social Democrats. But, as Maxim Ghilan has written, ‘In this atmosphere of Jewish involvement in the conspiracies of Slav upheaval, and later in the Bolshevik revolution, it was not surprising that the more freedom-loving among them should fuse Marxism and Zionism’. Lisa was certainly one of these.

After arriving in Palestine, she became a member of the G’dud Ha’Avodah, or Worker’s Battalion. This was a group of about 600 young pioneers (although Lisa was in her late thirties) who set about constructing roads. Its aims were to establish Jewish agricultural settlements, communal living and a strictly egalitarian way of life. As a result of a number of pressures, not the least of which was the infiltration of members of the Palestinian Communist Party (Lisa was a member), in 1925 the G’dud split into fiercely opposed factions. The Left faction, led by a man named Mendel (Menachem) Elkind, sought assistance from the Soviet Union, since they had broken so thoroughly with the Zionists that they could expect none whatever from the Histadrut, the powerful trade union which organised the Jewish workers (excluding the Arabs) and more or less controlled their employment. On his two trips to Russia, Elkind was informed of the Soviet plans to settle Jews in the Crimea. There is little doubt that Elkind had been manipulated; the Soviets had become implacably anti-Zionist, and saw no sweeter victory than to draw disaffected chalutzim back to the ‘Motherland of the Worker’. But seeing no other choice for himself or his faction, he left Palestine in 1927 and a little over a year later most of them had followed. The most active of his supporters, including my great-aunt Lisa, were jailed and then deported; the others left voluntarily. They set up a kibbutz called Vojo Nova in the northern, steppe region of the Crimea. Vojo Nova, significantly, is Esperanto, not Hebrew, for ‘ New Way ’.

All this came together in my last week in Israel. Through a chain of serendipitous incidents, I tapped into that network of old Palestinian communists who had gone back to Russia, survived Stalin’s purges, the barren fields in the northern Crimea, and exile again to Siberia, to return on this last aliyah in their deeply sober old age. Relations between the Zionists and the Soviet Union had deteriorated to such an extent by the 1930s that the family in Palestine lost all contact with Lisa; it was assumed that she died in the purges. A number of the Vojo Nova kibbutzniks had been liquidated in 1937 and 1938; Stalin suspected them because they were Jews from Palestine and, if that weren’t enough, because he believed they were Trotskyists. My mother had claimed that Lisa had been an associate of Trotsky’s. I have not been able to find any real evidence of this, but the early Palestinian communists were believed to have been in contact with him.

Some of those who survived the purges remained in Vojo Nova only to be killed by the Nazis when they took hold of the Crimea in World War 2. This was the view of Lisa’s fate from across the Atlantic. Her sisters Bernice (Bella) and Marion (Miriam) continued corresponding with her throughout the 1930s, until the outbreak of the war. These letters have disappeared, but they are said to have indicated that Lisa was still active in the party, and that in the course of her duties she moved quite a lot around the Soviet Union. Her peregrinations, of course, could have meant something entirely different. In any case, with the war came silence, and now it was the Americans’ turn to assume the worst. But then, in 1946 or 1947, a letter arrived from Lisa. It was uncharacteristically restrained. She inquired about the family, told them that she had made a recent visit to their childhood home, and asked that they send her photographs, which was done. There was no reply. Stalin, it seemed, had finally caught up with her.

My Israeli relatives expressed great bewilderment and surprise when I passed this scrap of information on to them. After Lisa’s deportation, they had heard nothing from her; and they knew that if they tried to establish contact their efforts would have jeopardised her safety. A dense fog had dropped between the Mandate and the Soviets, thickened by suspicion on all sides, but that might not have been the only problem. It is impossible for me to say with certainty what her break with Zionism meant to the family, how much their ideological differences counted in the end. My guess is that they weighed very heavily; not enough to override familial affection and loyalty, but clearly the source of much anxiety and tension. Before she was deported, Lisa was with her sister and brother-in-law as they tried to make a go of their factory. This was at a time when she could find no other work—as a communist she had been expelled from the Histadrut. It was 1927, a time of economic crisis, and there was barely enough to eat. Her sister and brother-in-law were employers, even though they probably couldn’t afford to pay wages. Lisa had come on the third aliyah, she was part of that wave of Jewish idealists determined to create a socialist society; her sister and her husband came on the fourth, or ‘business’ aliyah, made up of the Jewish bourgeois who had no further place in communist Russia. It doesn’t take much to imagine the conflicts that would have seethed in such a situation. The one surviving niece who knew Lisa when she was alive, and had been the butt of her unreasonable strictness, had very mixed feelings. ‘She didn’t like children at all’ she told me, although a woman whose two children had been in Lisa’s care in the kibbutz where she worked as a nursery school teacher couldn’t praise her highly enough. ‘She was an idealist,’ my cousin conceded, ‘and, as I see it now, a feminist ... She wasn’t happy with Zionism as it was, here ... the reality. You know: there are theories and there is reality, which is not quite the same’.

My cousin said that the family had heard from a Zionist who went to Palestine after Lisa had gone back to Russia. According to this report, she came to be hated there, for expecting so much from everybody; she ‘told someone off’ and was sent to Siberia. It wasn’t clear when this was supposed to have happened, but my cousin was adamant that Lisa could not have survived until 1947.

A great deal, then, hinges on that letter, which we are hoping to find among the papers of a New York cousin who died at the end of last year. His widow has come to the last box. In the meantime, leads are pouring in from other quarters. Just before I left Israel, a woman rang to say that a man, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims to have been the last Jew from Palestine to see Lisa. This was in 1931, in a big electrical factory in Moscow—Electro-Zavod. Lisa, he said, was a simple worker, but very active in the ‘cultural section’. She worked with a friend called Sala Abramsky, who was sent twice to a gulag and died only three months ago. The man, who had known Lisa in Palestine, met her a few times in Moscow and said she was active in the party. My mother had gained the impression that she had held some important position in the party. If this was so, it raises tough questions as to the price she might have paid for her survival, questions which only further research and my own imagination can answer.

I have tussled with most of the demons that plague the would-be biographer: the grind, and the labyrinthine tug of the research; the puzzle of what my own role should be in the final narrative ; and, above all, the niggling fear that I may uncover something that I really couldn’t stand about her. I have accepted the likelihood that my subject could be unbearably earnest, possibly a prig, even an exasperating bore. I nonetheless continue to admire her, for her principles and her courage, and more and more I feel for what must have been her terrible loneliness. But what if, to survive as long as she might have survived, she committed some awful betrayal, the exercise of some questionable party loyalty over more personal and, ultimately, more universal claims? I am not at all sure how I could handle this. So as for that all-important ratio between fact and imagination, I am leaving my options open. The gaps and blind spots in the story may well be filled by the documents, should I find them, and the archival evidence I am seeking will give weight to the narrative; but as my subject’s character emerges, like a photograph slowly sharpening in the pan of watery chemicals, I have come to realise that it is my sensibility as a novelist that will be crucial, that it will take more than facts, but that peculiar type of empathetic imagination to do proper justice to her.

And my own ideas on revolution? Now, after studying her years of hope and disillusion?

As it happens, I do have a photograph of her, one that a New York cousin found and sent to me early in 1990. A head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman in an open-necked collarless shirt and with close-cropped hair. A hint of a smile plays over her lips, but overall it is an austere, serene, rather beautiful face. She is not looking straight at the camera; her eyes are focussed somewhere past the viewer’s right shoulder, and one eyebrow is gently raised. Gazing at this picture, I think I still have something of her vision: that we will—indeed must—find a way for every living person to have a decent life on this planet, and more than ever I am convinced that naked capitalism will not provide this. But perhaps even Lisa Fitch would agree that it is dangerous to put too much trust in systems; that there can be no substitute for a free and critical human spirit. Who knows, maybe she knew this all along.