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Antifascism as Political Passion in the Life of Cristina Luca

Far-left politics and radical universalism (including its Stalinist variant) seduced countless intellectuals during the twentieth century. Yet, this absorbing subject still needs to be deciphered and recalled. In a similar vein, the topic of apostasy, that is to say, the awakening to what Immanuel Kant once called “dogmatic slumber,” has generated heart-rending avowals. Let us remember the names and destinies of those involved in some of the major moral and political dramas of the past century: Panait Istrati, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Ruth Fischer, Charles Tillon, Lev Kopelev, Ernst Fischer, Milovan Djilas, and Cristina Luca, the latter of whom was also one of the most prominent figures in the Parisian Resistance.

Born Bianca Marcusohn to a middle-class assimilated Jewish family in Botoşani, a city in eastern Romania, Cristina Luca and her sister Hermina (later, Hermina Tismăneanu, mother of one of this essay’s authors) started reading French and German literature at a very early age. In an unpublished memoir that she dictated in Paris in the late 1990s, Cristina remembers the years at the all-girls “Carmen Sylva” high school in Botoşani:

“It was the nom de plume of Romania’s first queen, Elisabeth, the wife of Carol I. The school had an excellent national reputation. Teachers were selected among the very best, the discipline was severe. But it was in this high school that I had my first direct encounters with anti-Semitism… At the school, our teachers would have never made discriminatory or offensive statements — regardless of what they may have thought privately — but some girls with that family background maintained a certain distance from us.”

Both sisters adhered to an egalitarian vision of society and absorbed the ideas of Romanian socialists, first and foremost C. Dobrogeanu-Gherea’s writings. They were intensely attached to Romanian culture, which would matter later when many in the underground Romanian Communist Party (RCP), comprising militants of Hungarian and Bessarabian extraction, were not familiar with the key figures of Romanian literature. Cristina graduated magna cum laude and went to Bucharest to study medicine (as did her sister). She was already an anti-Fascist, and most of her intellectual formation was due to her friendship with, Bucharest born, Lucien Goldmann, later to be known as, the famous French sociologist of literature.

In Bucharest, Cristina became active in the Students’ Democratic Front (controlled by the RCP). Under various pseudonyms (including Brînduşa Ştefănescu) she also started writing articles focusing mainly on international politics for the left-wing anti-Fascist legal press. Though Hermina concurred, Cristina was the literary spirit who managed to describe poignantly their early moral excitement, or rather enchantment, and inebriation with Communism’s universalist pledges. In her memoir, she explains the sisters’ espousal to communism:

“Communism promised a better world for all and, thereby, the genuine liberation of the Jewish people, allowing for a complete flourishing of its potential. Communism was supposed to bring about a democratic solution to the question of nationalities. Hardly anyone can imagine what it meant for us, young high school girls and boys.”

Living in a rented room, Luca attended main events at the “Schuller.” The Jewish dormitory was located in what until 1920 had been the Italian Embassy in Bucharest. Although a male dorm, it was also a home for most Jewish students, who were rejected from other places to assemble. The Schuller would become a powerful hub for leftist political activities and was therefore the repeated target of anti-Semitic actions. Undeterred, students continued to meet at the Schuller. Mitchell Cohen, the political scientist and former coeditor of Dissent, writes in The Wager of Lucien Goldmann. Tragedy, Dialectics, and a Hidden God, (Princeton University Press, 1994), “It was in this environment that Goldmann met Jewish communists, such as [Leonte] Răutu and [Mihail] Florescu, as well as non-Jewish communists, such as Dragomirescu and Miron Constantinescu. The latter, a future Politburo member and minister of education, would author the preface for the single volume of Goldmann’s essays to appear in Communist Romania” (p. 27).

Though committed to communism, Luca’s first doubts regarding Stalin and Stalinism arose in 1936. With tensions increasing, she and her close friend Goldmann planned to leave Romania to pursue their studies in the West. Goldmann refused to buy into the official Stalinist narrative regarding the Trotskyist-Nazi conspiracy to assassinate the Bolshevik leadership and destroy the Soviet Union and, thus, broke with the communists (though it is not clear whether he had ever formally joined the Party). Such conviction brought him to trial. Staged in front of carefully selected audiences including Western journalists and diplomats, three Moscow show trials (held on August 1936, February 1937, and March 1938) featured scripted confessions by revolutionary members meant to demonstrate how “Trotskyism” had ceased to be a legitimate movement within the Left. Although Luca made clear that the supposed confessions of colleagues including Goldmann were absurd, she never voiced her strong reservations the way, say, Milena Jesenská did. Thus, despite her doubts, and unlike Goldmann, she remained loyal to the underground RCP, which she officially joined. Luca now saw herself as a Romanian-Jewish anti-Fascist.

Yet, when the situation worsened in Romania, Luca and Goldmann decided to leave the country together. He wanted to move to Switzerland, whereas she wished to go to Paris. Previously inseparable, they parted. In Switzerland, Goldmann became a major voice of Western Marxism and decisively contributed to bringing the young Georg Lukács into international theoretical debates. Reaching her own dream destination in 1938, Luca became a student of biology at the Sorbonne, where her colleagues included Francis Cohen (future editor-in-chief of the French Communist Party magazine La Nouvelle Critique) and Jacques Monod (future Nobel Prize laureate and recipient of the Légion d’Honneur).

Once in Paris, Luca got in touch with the Romanian political emigration affiliated with the French Communist Party. In August 1939, she booked a room at the same hotel as the Bessarabian Joseph Clisci, a future Maquis fighter and hero. Then in the summer of 1941, through Boris Holban, she joined the French Resistance, at which point she assumed the nom de guerre by which she would be known — Cristina Luca. When a branch of the French Communist Party called the Organisation Spéciale merged with the Main-d’œuvre immigrée (MOI), Luca became head of the cadres service within the newly termed Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP)-MOI. As subsequent head of intelligence for the FTP-MOI, Luca’s clandestine duties included obtaining various chemical substances from the Sorbonne’s laboratories to produce Molotov cocktails and dynamite supplies, gathering information on the German military and Vichy administration, kidnapping high-level German officers, and liquidating traitors (for example, by playing a key role in exposing Joseph Davidovitch, whose collaboration with the Gestapo led to the downfall of the foreign Resistance fighters known as the Manouchian Group).

Within the armed branch of the FTP-MOI, Luca worked closely with Boris Holban (the military chief of the FTP-MOI for the Paris region), Francisc Wolf (a highly skilled military and expert in railway sabotage), Olga Bancic (one of the few women in the movement), Mihail Patriciu (expert in explosives and incendiary devices), Joseph Clisci (part of the Special Organization of the French Communist Party who carried out the first armed resistance in Paris before joining the FTP-MOI), Henriette Clisci (née Tovarowsky), and Edmund Hirsch (former combatant in the International Brigades in Spain). As head of the FTP-MOI’s intelligence-gathering unit, Luca was also involved in a series of impressive attacks on German soldiers and police officers. For instance, in September 1943, an FTP-MOI unit assassinated Julius Ritter, an important SS colonel who was sent to France to supervise the STO (Compulsory Work Service) which sent tens of thousands of French workers to Germany to support the Nazi industry.

After the war, Luca returned to Romania in March 1945 and worked briefly for the Communist Party organ Scînteia. She was also its official correspondent at the 1946 Paris Peace Conference. Perfectly bilingual and well educated, Luca was known for her keen sense of humor and sharp tongue. Such attributes were not always regarded as virtues, even within her own party. In her memoirs, Luca reflects on the attitudes of some of the Romanian communist elite: “As I have turned older, I reached the conclusion that modesty is not a virtue in itself, even when it does not conceal hypocrisy. I would rather say that it is a hindrance to the full expression of the qualities of the person who suffers of this feature of character. It seems to me that it leaves free space to scoundrels and opportunists.”

Before such reflections were possible, between 1946 and 1947 Luca was a director within the Ministry of Information and collaborated closely with Grigore Preoteasa (who would later become Romania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs). She was then sent to Belgrade as a press officer and cultural advisor. During her stay, she befriended Milovan Djilas, vice president of Josip Tito’s Politburo and future Yugoslav dissident. After Tito’s break with Stalin, Luca returned to Romania and was appointed head of the press and culture department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (under Ana Pauker’s direct command). In 1949, she married Mihail Boico (born Rosner), a former colonel, then major general, who was commander of the Romanian border troops. There was little time for celebration, as Luca’s allegiances would again be tested.

Created in September 1947, the Cominform (the Information Bureau of the Communist and Worker’s parties) codified its hardline resolutions in November 1949, thereby excommunicating Tito and his supporters. Having lived the anti-Yugoslav campaign and the Communist show-trials as a personal trauma, Luca refused to speak against Tito and never accepted the Cominform Resolutions. She was soon placed under constant investigation by the RCP’s Control Commission. Only Pauker’s sympathy and trust kept Luca out of trouble, though not for long. Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, leader of the National Stalinists, would soon disband the Pauker-Luca group in response to Stalin’s warning that the RCP must not be transformed from a “social and class party into a race party.” Pauker had rejected Gheorghiu-Dej’s crude anti-Semitism, but without an official relation, she could offer Luca no protection. In 1952, Luca was “dispatched” to a peripheral position at the Grigore Antipa Natural History Museum. There, her disenchantment grew gradually, irresistibly, and irrevocably.

Aware of Stalin’s crimes including the Stalinist persecutions of many of her friends in East-Central Europe, Luca felt morally cheated. Nevertheless, even Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” (February 25, 1956) did not fully shatter her underlying beliefs. As she notes in her memoir, “Regardless of what has happened in the name of communism and Marxism, I am still convinced that the latter offered me a lot — in itself and also because of the hopes it aroused in me.” Her idealization of the Soviet experiment and of Leninism in general had completely dissipated, but her passions had not. Thus, after the Twentieth Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress in 1956, Luca decided to shun open political engagements and focused on her scientific and historical interests instead. In the 1960s, she worked as an editor for Scientific Publishing House, then taught Marxism at a Bucharest technical university. She wrote introductions to several books, including Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg’s “Life of Gracchus Babeuf.” She also published a few articles about her saga with the French Resistance, while never providing any form of endorsement for Nicolae Ceausescu’s dynastic communism.

In private conversations with Tania and Gheorghe Brătescu (Ana Pauker’s daughter and her husband) with her sister and other family members (including one of the authors of this article) with Party veteran Ilka Melinescu, and art historian Radu Bogdan, Luca expressed her disgust with the increasingly nationalist line of the Ceaușescu regime. For her, the Romanian communist dictatorship had become a Fascist regime: autarchic, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and anti-intellectual. Although she remained an internationalist to the end of her life, in the late 1970s she began to attend conferences and other events at the Jewish Community in Bucharest in direct defiance of the regime’s xenophobic stances. In 1987, she visited her children, Andrei and Olga, in Paris, and decided not to return to Romania. Luca would live her final decade in Paris, delivering conference papers and dictating her recollections.

Until her death on April 16, 2002, Cristina Luca was a Marxist intellectual who remained faithful to her anti-Fascist commitment. Ultimately, she was an emotional socialist, fueled by the spirit of a movement, not its doctrine. She never espoused Stalinism with zealot enthusiasm, the way other intellectuals did. For her, communism was an illusion that had once been a ray of hope over an ocean of darkness. Such thinking may best be explained as an entirely new kind of attitude held many European citizens who embraced the cause of the Left throughout uniquely intense interwar ideological conflicts. Theirs was a rediscovery of a cosmopolitan possibility denied by what they perceived as bourgeois ethnic limitations. They recognized human injustice, violence, and inequality were vexing issues in need of address. In response, as Rosa Luxembourg noted, they chose themselves as left-wing radicals because they thought socialism was the true and most efficient response to barbarism.

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This article is part of a book in progress titled Two Sisters in Dark Times: Communism, Anti-Fascism, and Jewish Identities in the Twentieth Century. The authors acknowledge their gratitude to Romania historian Mihai Burcea for his assistance in documenting this text, including Bianca Marcusohn’s 1936 photo from the Siguranta (Romania’s interwar secret police) archives.

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