My Prague Summer

Professor Paula Rabinowitz – University of Minnesota

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring and all over the city exhibits honored the uprising of citizens seeking greater social and political freedoms. It is also the 70th anniversary of the beginning of communist rule in Czechoslovakia.  Fewer commemorations to those turbulent days in February 1948 could be found, though the astounding photographs by Josef Sudek of “Ruined Prague,” from Allied bombing to the final days of Nazi rule and the Prague Uprising of 1945 were on view at the Prague City Gallery. Few, it seems, want to remember how communism triumphed or even what to call its governmental consolidation—coup, revolution, ministerial reorganization—but its aftermath sometimes appears as kitsch.

figure 1 Kiosk poster for the Museum of Communism.jpg
Figure 1: Kiosk poster advertising the Museum of Communism.

In July, I visited Prague with my colleague Alice Lovejoy, fluent in Czech, to look into the personal and party archives of the journalist André Simone, or rather Otto Katz, or perhaps Rudolph Breda—among his other pseudonyms or, in the more sensational language of espionage, his aliases. Simone was one of the eleven men hanged in 1952 after the guilty verdict in the show trial of fourteen Communist party leaders accused of conspiring with Czechoslovak Communist Party Secretary Rudolf Slánský in a “Zionist-Imperialist plot” (Miles 280) of “conspiracy against the state” (London 230). Among the last of the sensational show trials ordered by Stalin since the 1930s to consolidate his power, this trial, like the others after WWII, reflected his wrath at Tito’s split from Soviet control. It was dramatized in Costa-Gavras’s 1970 film, The Confession, starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret as Artur London and his wife Lise, whose memoir serves as the source.

Figure 2 L'aveu.jpg
Figure 2: Poster of L’Aveu (The Confession) d. Costa Gravas 1970.

I was pulling on the meager threads connecting Katz, or as his biographer Jonathan Miles calls him—“the dangerous Otto Katz” incarnating “the many lives of a soviet spy”—to the poet, editor and translator Joseph Milton Bernstein, whose stage and pen name was Joseph Milton, and who was also known to the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) as Joe Bursely or Burseley or Bursely or James Milton among others. I had hopes of finding information about their collaboration. Joseph Bernstein was my husband’s father and according to various sources was either the compiler, editor, translator or ghostwriter of Simone’s sensational 1940 book, J’Accuse!, denouncing Vichy’s Nazi collaborators.

Figure 3 J'Accuse  cover.jpg
Figure 3: Cover of André Simone, J’Accuse! (New York: Dial Press, 1940).

For some years, I have been researching materials held in various archives about my father and my father-in-law, two “Cold War Dads,” and their quite different relationships to the American postwar national security state. The more I find, the less I know, as their lives were not especially significant historically and so there is little in the records about them. Yet each was the subject of government scrutiny: my father for his top-secret security clearance in the 1960s; my father-in-law for his Communist Party membership and alleged spying in the 1940s and 1950s. Because of the nature of security apparatuses, it is difficult to gather all the information one seeks. Partial knowledge is all one can hope for. Even if you can find the documents, much is redacted, as are the hundreds of pages of my father-in-law’s FBI file.

Figure 4 Redacted FBI file on Joseph Bernstein.jpg
Figure 4: One of the hundreds of redacted pages of Joseph Bernstein’s FBI file in author’s possession.

More typically, nothing appears at all. For instance, in 2016, when I was a resident fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, my proposed study included searching the National Archives of Australia for evidence of my father’s visit there in the early 1960s. According to him, the purpose of his trip was to convince the Australian military to allow the United States access to its airfields, perhaps in Salisbury or Woomera, for tests of long-range missile defense radar.  As with almost everything else about my father, I could find no record of this unsuccessful and likely highly classified endeavor, despite the heroic effort of the archivist at Canberra. At the time, Australia’s military was still under the authority of the UK, which is where my father was headed after a few nights of heavy drinking with his Australian hosts. (Before I left for Sydney, my father’s advice: “Never drink with an Australian; you’ll end up under the table.”).

Whenever some mention of either father appears in a book or on the Internet, it is invariably an elusive paragraph lodged within a much larger document or study. As Neal Ascherson observed: “Silence was at the heart of the cold war…That strange time was about things not happening. It was about what you could not say…or where not to go.” So, my project often sends me elsewhere—and that elsewhere is a vast territory encompassing secrets unsaid and spying not happening, thus inevitably, as with so much political intrigue, I landed briefly in Prague. [See “super-spy” Karel Koecher (traded for Anatoly Shcharansky/Natan Sharansky in 1986); Dick Cheney falsely claiming 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi spy in Prague (December 9, 2001); Michael Cohen claiming he did not meet a Russian on behalf of Donald Trump in Prague during summer 2016; among many spy movies and novels, e.g., Lawrence Block, The Cancelled Czech (2009)].  I was looking for something not yet seen.

In March 2018, sixteen boxes of film, audiotape and documents of the Slánský trial were discovered in an abandoned factory outside of Prague, ironically in the same location where Reinhardt Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and a prime architect of the Jewish Holocaust, had his headquarters before his assassination in 1942. The materials are thought to have been hidden there by the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, long after Slánský and the others, including Otto Katz/André Simone, who was both the last to be arrested and exonerated in 1985, were rehabilitated by the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The audio recording has been restored with the aim of eventually broadcasting the more than 60hours of the trial.

Figure 5 Audiotapes of the Slansky trial
Figure 5: A box of audio tapes from the Slánský trial, recently found outside Prague.

Originally, as depicted in Costa-Gavras’s film, parts of the sensational trial—the staged and memorized “confessions” by the accused—aired on Czechoslovak radio. The footage appears to have been destined to serve as material for a “documentary” made by the Soviets of the trial. The film first landed in the Czech National Film Archive for preservation and storage.

Figure 6 Slansky trial film.jpg
Figure 6: An image on display of the recently found film reels from the Slánský trial.

I had hoped to view some of the footage during my visit, but it had immediately been claimed by the National Archives. The film is now off limits even to Michal Bregant, the chief film archivist of the Czech Republic. Things not happening, still.

To get back to the archive in Prague: Would Joseph Bernstein’s name appear among Simone’s papers? Wearing the white gloves given to me by the staff, I skimmed hundreds of pages. According to Miles’s account—gleaned from a number of books by Harvey Klehr, Ron Radosh and Stephen Koch—“happily, there was a freelance journalist and writer available [to turn the idea of J’Accuse! into book form], a Yale graduate named Joseph Bernstein, who, according to Katz, helped ‘organize the newspaper information’, enabling swift delivery to the publisher [Dial Press]. Lillian Hellman may have introduced Bernstein, Maxim Lieber might have done so, but Katz could also have made contact with him directly through the Russian intelligence network, for Bernstein was a Soviet agent” (236).

Miles’s assertion echoes Bernstein’s FBI file as well as the VENONA cables archived by the CIA and interpreted by various scholars of espionage. It also rephrases the letter Katz/Simone wrote on December 3, 1952, the day of his death, to Czechoslovak president Klement Gottwald renouncing his false confession as being a Trotskyist spy, son of a man known to be a member of “Jewish organizations” and a “salesman” hawking his articles like a hack—all three charges implying his decadence and cosmopolitanism. In this final plea, like those by the other condemned men, he asserts that he has been a loyal communist and that his 1940 book, which he calls by its subtitle Those Who Betrayed France, is not the “imperialist propaganda” his “case officer” attests (despite obviously being unread). Simone further elaborates that the sources for this work were not the “secret military service” on which he supposedly spied. Rather, they came from “the capitalist press.” He asserts “that Joseph Bernstein, member of the CP USA, helped me organize the newspaper information.” But, he goes on, even though his case officer said this could easily be checked, when Katz/Simone “suggested that he verify my statement concerning Bernstein, he didn’t even respond” (Kaplan 278). Silence was at the heart of the cold war.

He had struggled against fascism as a dedicated communist for most of his life—in the German underground, in Spain, in the French underground—and served as a journalist for Party organs in Mexico, France, the US, Czechoslovakia; but Otto Katz was executed by the Czechoslovak communist government working with Soviet interrogators hours after he wrote this letter in his cell. A copy of the book he wrote with Joseph Bernstein’s help sits on a shelf among my father-in-law’s other books. I found nothing more about him in the Katz/Simone archive, which consisted mostly of journalism from Katz’s time in Mexico during the 1930s, a radio play celebrating Comrade Stalin and the minutes of Communist Party meetings held posthumously to decide if he should be rehabilitated.

Figure 9 Simone id cards.jpg
Figure 7: Otto Katz’s identification cards and press passes. Czech National Archives.
Figure 10 Simone Daily Worker press pass.jpg
Figure 10: Otto Katz’s identification and press passes, including from the CPUSA’s Daily Worker. Czech National Archives.
Figure 11 Cover Simone radio play, J.V. STALIN
Figure 11: Hand-made cover of Katz’s radio play, J. V. Stalin. Czech National Archives.

 

I found the letter he penned to his wife at the same time, but not the letter mentioning Bernstein cited by Miles. Was it there, but I didn’t see it; or had it, like so much of Cold War history, disappeared? As “super-spy” Karel Koecher remarked to Benjamin Cunningham: “The world is really fucked up and intelligence services have a lot to do with it.”

 


Works Cited

Neal Ascherson, “The Real-Life Spies of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” The Guardian (10 September, 2001). https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/sep/11/neal-ascherson-cold-war-spies

Joseph Milton Bernstein. FBI File.

Central Intelligence Agency. “Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957,” Part II Selected Venona Messages. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/venona-soviet-espionage-and-the-american-response-1939-1957/part2.htm

Benjamin Cunningham, “How a Czech ‘super-spy’ infiltrated the CIA,” The Guardian (30 June 2016).  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/30/how-a-czech-super-spy-infiltrated-cia-karel-koecher

John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Chris Johnstone, “Restoring Rediscovered Film of Czechoslovak Communist Show Trial to Take Years,” Radio Praha (22 March, 2018). https://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/restoring-rediscovered-film-of-czechoslovak-communist-show-trial-to-take-years

____, “Czech Radio Saves Audio Material from Communist Era Slánský Show Trial,” Radio Praha. (25 May, 2018). https://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-radio-saves-audio-material-from-communist-era-slansky-show-trial

Karel Kaplan, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary. Trans. Karel Kovanda. London: I.B. Tauris Press/ Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990.

Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh, The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Artur London, The Confession. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1970.

Stephen Koch, Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Jonathan Miles, The Dangerous Otto Katz: The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010.

André Simone/Otto Katz Files. Fond Simone, André. Kart. 6. Sign. 26. Czech Republic National Archive.

André Simone, J’Accuse! (New York: Dial Press, 1940).

Josef Sudek, The Topography of Ruins. Exhibition, Prague City Gallery, 2018.

Robert Tait, “Czechs Discover Hidden Film Record of Stalin’s Anti-Semitic Show Trial,” The Observer (8 April, 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/08/rudolf-slansky-czechoslovakia-show-trial?CMP=share_btn_link

 

 

Illustrations:

Figure 1: Kiosk poster advertising the Museum of Communism. Credit: Paula Rabinowitz

Figure 2: Poster of L’Aveu (The Confession) d. Costa-Gavras, 1970.

Figure 3: Cover of  André Simone, J’Accuse! (New York: Dial Press, 1940)

Figure 4: One of the hundreds of redacted pages of Joseph Bernstein’s FBI file in author’s possession. Credit: Paula Rabinowitz.

Figure 5: A box of audio tapes from the Slánský trial recently found outside Prague. Credit: Praha, Czech Radio.

Figure 6: A box of film reels from the Slánský trial recently found outside Prague. Credit: Praha, Czech Radio.

Figures 9 & 10:  Otto Katz’s identification cards and press passes, including from the CPUSA’s Daily Worker. André Simone File, Czech National Archives, Prague (Fond Simone, André, Kart. 6, Sign. 26, Národní Archv, Praha).

Figure 11: Hand-made Cover of Katz’s radio play, J. V. Stalin. André Simone File, Czech National Archives, Prague  (Fond Simone, André, Kart. 6, Sign. 26, Národní Archv, Praha).

 

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