July 22nd, 2005

Paul Robeson (Part III–conclusion)–a mind can be an impossible thing to change

Now, for the source of the Itzhak Feffer story. It was Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson, Jr.

I could not locate the original account, but the story itself can be found at a number of websites. My guess is that it first appeared in one of the biographies Robeson’s son wrote about his father.

Here is the son’s version of the tale, complete with a few more details than Horowitz included :

Though he had been cleaned up and dressed in a suit, Feffer’s fingernails had been torn out….Though he couldn’t speak openly, Robeson later told his son that the poet indicated by gestures and a few handwritten words that Mikhoels had been murdered on the orders of Stalin and that the other Jewish prisoners were being prepared for the same fate. After the two friends said goodbye, Feffer was taken back to the Lubyanka and would never be seen alive again. …However, when Robeson returned home he condemned as anti-Soviet propaganda reports that Feffer and other Jews had been killed. Not once did Robeson denounce Feffer’s murder. Later on Robeson confided in his son Paul Robeson Jr. the details of his meeting with Feffer. He made his son vow not to make the story public until well after his death, “because he had promised himself that he would never publicly criticize the USSR.”

Robeson Jr., by the way, is an interesting figure himself. He is dedicated to rehabilitating his father’s image and legacy, so his version of the story is certainly meant to be a sympathetic one. He is sympathetic to his father in other ways as well, being a Communist Party member. Here’s Junior speaking on that subject:

[My father] wasn’t the communist in the family, I was,” he says. “He never joined any party. He, being a great artist, didn’t do that. He thought it would destroy his effectiveness. I, being a generation younger and not an artist, felt that the way to be effective was through an organization.

So, the failure to join the party was a self-serving strategy on the part of the senior Robeson, rather than an ideological hesitation. In 1952, Robeson Sr. was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize by the Soviets, in appreciation of his support. If you have the stomach for it, you can read in its entirety here his fulsome tribute to Stalin on the death of the great leader shortly thereafter. A telling excerpt from it gives some insight into the education and the formative years of Paul Jr.:

[Stalin] was clearly a man who seemed to embrace all. So kindly – I can never forget that warm feeling of kindliness and also a feeling of sureness. Here was one who was wise and good – the world and especially the socialist world was fortunate indeed to have his daily guidance. I lifted high my son Pauli to wave to this world leader, and his leader. For Paul, Jr. had entered school in Moscow, in the land of the Soviets.

Robeson did some monstrous things in the cause of Communism, but he probably was able to successfully salve his conscience–at least for a while–about the Feffer incident by a bit of artistic defiance. At some point (accounts differ as to whether this was around the time of the Feffer incident, or in a 1952 visit) Robeson did make a gesture towards Jewish solidarity while in the Soviet Union–not that this helped his friend Feffer any:

In a concert broadcast live across the Soviet Union, Robeson subtly defied Stalin’s campaign against “Jewish cosmopolitanism” by ending his set with a song sung in Yiddish, Dos Partizanenlied (also known as Song of the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion), an act that was interpreted by many Jews listening to the broadcast as a sign of solidarity and sympathy. The Yiddish song was cut from rebroadcasts of the concert….

A side issue–although an interesting one–is the complicated role Jews played in Robeson’s life. Not only was Feffer Jewish, but Robeson’s son married a Jewish woman, as previously mentioned in Part II. And when I was researching the elder Robeson’s life, I noticed that the full maiden name of his wife (that’s Paul Junior’s mother) was Eslanda Cardozo Goode.

Cardozo? The same as the famous Jewish Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo? Research leads to more research–a veritable garden of the forking paths–and here is some information on Eslanda. It turns out that Robeson’s wife’s grandfather Isaac Cardozo was indeed Jewish, and a member of the prominent Cardozo family. See here for some information on Isaac’s father and brothers, and their role in the Revolutionary War.

But back to Robeson himself. As previously stated, Robeson’s later years, after his 1961 Moscow collapse, were ones of depression and illness. He died in 1976.

What a sad and terrible tale. Outraged at the injustices he had suffered, he ended up perpetuating and defending injustices himself in the name of a cause whose deeply evil nature he could not acknowledge. It is highly possible, and even likely, that his knowledge of his own complicity caused his breakdowns, although I have no way of knowing for certain (his son, of course, thinks the CIA poisoned him).

Clearly, once Robeson had cast his lot with Communism he felt there was no turning back, no matter what horrors were committed in its name. In this he was not alone.

What is it that ultimately distinguishes those such as Robeson, who refuse to abandon the cause even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, from others who are able to renounce the cause in which they once believed? We cannot know for sure. But my guess would be that it depends partly on how deeply they need to believe (the deeper the need, the more difficult to face reality), and how much they have already compromised their own integrity in the service of that cause.

For some, perhaps the implications of having to face their own guilt are simply too great. It’s almost as though they reach a point of no return, where to admit that the betrayals they committed in the service of that cause (such as Robeson’s betrayal of Feffer) would be to face their own terrible and unbearable heart of darkness. How many people can freely accept a guilt so vast, if there is a way out through denial? Sometimes, of course, as with Robeson, even that denial is incomplete, and in the end they are not fully able to escape the consequences of their own guilt, whether they ever actually acknowledge it or not.

Remember, Feffer himself had been both a loyal Communist and a Jew. Just as much of the appeal of Communism to Robeson was its promise to deliver him what he so passionately desired, a color-blind world–so, likewise, many of the early Communists came from the ranks of secular Jews who believed and hoped with all their hearts that Communism would deliver them from the anti-Semitism from which they had suffered all their lives.

Feffer and the other Jews learned the truth too late, and they were destroyed. Robeson closed his eyes, but in the end I think the truth destroyed him in a different way.

6 Responses to “Paul Robeson (Part III–conclusion)–a mind can be an impossible thing to change”

  1. bohica99 Says:

    Tragic and a bit depressing Neo when one thinks about all the Robesons out there.

  2. N. O'Brain Says:

    I drive by Robeson’s residence in Phila. every day. They have a historical location marker outside the row house in West Philly.

    57th (???) and Walnut, just for the record.

  3. camojack Says:

    At 5:54 PM, neo-neocon said…
    Oh, he’s “interesting” all right, as in “may you live in interesting times.”

    Ah yes, the ancient Chinese curse.

    I’m also reminded of an old Bill Cosby routine; when asked what he thought of an ugly baby, he responded that said baby was “interesting looking”…

  4. Bookworm Says:

    I read all three parts of your series with great interest. I’ve long known the general story of Robeson’s life, but I’ve never before heard about his willingness to betray a friend over Communism. How utterly poisonous the wrong belief system can be. Also amazing that his son, in attempting to portray him positively, would tell that terrible story about him. I rather wonder what it says about the son’s value systems, aside from the obvious problems about him set out in your post and in m.g.’s comment.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Oh, he’s “interesting” all right, as in “may you live in interesting times.”

  6. m.g. Says:

    Hmm. Not sure I’d characterize Paul Robeson Jr. as “interesting.” From Leave a Reply

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