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Remembering Adam Rayski (whom I never knew)

March 21, 2008
Adam Rayski

Adam Rayski

On the plane home to Denver from Brussels by way of Washington DC, I was struck by an article in Le Monde (March 20) about the death of Adam Rayski. I had never heard of the man till reading his obituary. Several things stood out.

0 1. He was born in Bialystok (now in E. Poland), just a few miles away from Grodno (now in Byelorus) from where all my grand parents immigrated.

o 2. His picture – that of a dapper, shortish man in a suit and fashionable hat, reminded me of Meyer Lansky (who also hailed from Grodno, who at least in his life style – fine dresser, picky, extremely good with numbers and from a dirt poor Jewish background) reminds me of my father, Herb Prince. Indeed Rayski, Lansky and Prensky (that was the original name before it was legally bastardized to Prince) could easily have been triplets they look so much alike.

o 3. But although they might have looked and dressed alike, there the resemblance ends. Rayski was a leader in both the French and Polish Communist Parties. I’m told my father’s venture into left politics was limited to a weekend at a summer camp in those formidable mountains, the Catskills, where, unsure of marxist etiquette, he asked someone to `please pass the salt comrade’. He never used the word again. I don’t fault him for that, but I wish he hadn’t changed the family name.

As for Lansky, he was, most of his life what I would call a `left-liberal gangster’, working especially well with Italians and Blacks, paid his staff well, didn’t mind – if the book Little Man is accurate – paying some taxes, and believed in `the American Dream’ although granted, he took an original path to get there. But then what he was doing then, mostly gambling, is now legal, so he could be called something of a cultural pioneer although I admit that is overstating the case. And true he never forgave Fidel Castro for nationalizing his biggest financial venture, a casino in Havana…but still, politically, he was no rightwnger.

There is little doubt that Rayski used the term on a daily basis, first with utter sincerity, later with more than a dose of cynicism. He served in the Polish post war government until 1956 before being victimized by the anti-semitic purges which plagued the Polish Communist Party in the fifties and sixties.

In death, Rayski will be in good company. He was buried in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris where lie the remains of Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand side by side, Jimmy Hendricks and Richard Wright, a whole group of prominent French Communists, many victims of Nazi oppression and a fair number of communards, who as members of the Paris Commune, were lined up against the wall of the cemetery and shot to death in the summer of 1871 for daring to show that the working people of Paris could run the city as well as their more bourgeois counterparts. The bullet marks are still there 137 years later.

Rayski’s political career was especially interesting.

His was a full life of commitment to others and political radicalism. A true believer and from all appearances, one hell of an organizer. One indication of his talents is the fact that Le Monde chose to write his obituary. It began with his work in the Polish Communist Party in Bialystok early on. Forced into exile in Paris in 1932, he decides on a career as a journalist. Fluent in Polish, Russian, French and German (not uncommon for Jews from Bialystok – my material grandmother spoke seven langauges fluently) he continued his political career within the French Communist Party where he becomes a leader of what was referred to as `the Jewish Section’ (that part of the party that worked among the Jewish working class elements in France). He was instrumental in creating a communist Yiddish journal Naie Presse (the new press) and wrote regularly for L’Humanite, mass circulation newspaper of the French CP, still published and still read by several hundred thousand people every day (although its circulation used to be in the millions).

He followed the French CP line in support of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (several of my uncles quit the American CP over that) but once the Nazis invaded the USSR in June 1941, he became active in the resistance movement where he helped direct the clandestine press. Actually, his anti-Nazi activism started prior to that date. Arrested and imprisoned during the Nazi invasion of France, he managed to escape from a POW transit camp in Nantes and make his way back to Paris. There, Rayski helped protect French Jews against Nazi raids and was a leader in the FTP-MOI, a largely Jewish partisan group that engaged in armed struggle against the Nazis. Hunted by the Vichey police, he left Paris in July 1943 for France’s south (not yet occupied by the Nazis). There he helped create what is referred to in French as the CRIF (Conseil representatif des israelites de France). After the war for a while he became, like many leftists of his day (and Lansky and my father) an active supporter of the Zionist movement.

As a result of his left politics he was forced to leave France in 1949. Thanks to the help of Jacques Duclos (one of the larger figures in the history of the French CP – who Le Monde described as `the KGB’s man in the French CP – perhaps an overstatement although he was ardently pro-Soviet), Rayski is able to wrangle a position in the young Polish post war government where he becomes – if i read the translation correctly – national press secretary. He would have been in that position during what are referred to as the Slansky show trials of the early 1950s that was the first of a series of Stalinist directed purges of Jews (and Polish nationalists) from the leadership of the Polish CP. I tried to see what role if any Rayski played in these sorry events but as yet have not found anything, but for someone whose Jewish identity was rather important to him – and whose every brain cell oozed with political sensitivity, he could not have been oblivious to these trends.

He, in turn, would be purged from the Polish CP during the anti-semitic campaign of 1956 which saw the wholesale amputation of Polish Jews from many positions of leadership of that party. Demoted, he is re-assigned to Paris to develop a publishing company there, suspected of being little more than a front for Polish intelligence. For this he was brought to trial and sentenced to seven years of prison in June 1961, but due to the intervention of many allies from his days in the French Resistance, the sentence is commuted after two years. After this, he seems to have dropped out of Communist politics, although he remained active the rest of his life in causes for social justice.

In 1985, just as Gorbachev was coming to power in the USSR, Rayski published a critique of his experience with Communism entitled `Nos Illusions Perdues” in which he criticizes the Communist governments as dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. It seems getting purged triggered a change of heart. I’d like to read it. He does not give the impression of being one of those run-of-the-mill turncoats who left the Communist left to embrace one of the garden varieties of conservatism.

He was a good man, a Jew who started from Bialoystok, like my grandfathers. And he was my kind of Jew…like Curiel, Memmi and Serfati. I’m going to read more of his stuff and write more about him in the future.

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For a British obit on Raysky, click here

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Below is the article from Le Monde…if you look closely you’ll see the English translation (i’ll highlight the English) after the french text. Some of it is a bit stilted, but the main ideas come through

Mort d’Adam Rayski, figure de la résistance juive et cofondateur du Crif Death of Adam Rayski, figure of the Jewish resistance movement and co-founder of Crif
12.03.08 | 17h56 12.03.08 | 17h56

Résistant d’origine juive polonaise Adam Rayski, ancien dirigeant de la section française de la MOI (Main d’oeuvre immigrée), est mort mardi à son domicile parisien à l’âge de 95 ans, ont annoncé mercredi le Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) et son fils l’historien Benoît Rayski. Resistant Jewish Polish Rayski Adam, the former leader of the French section of the MOI (Manpower immigrant), died Tuesday at his home in Paris at the age of 95, announced Wednesday the Council representative institutions Jewish France (CRIF) and son historian Benedict Rayski.

Il était le dernier survivant des fondateurs du Crif, créé en 1943 par les responsables de la communauté juive, en pleine période d’Occupation. He was the last surviving founders of Crif, which was established in 1943 by the leaders of the Jewish community, in the midst of Occupation.

Né à Byalistok en Pologne, engagé très jeune dans les rangs du parti communiste clandestin, il émigra en France dans les années 30, où il devint rédacteur en chef d’un quotidien communiste en langue yiddish. Born in Poland in Bialyistok, committed very early in the ranks of the clandestine Communist Party, he emigrated to France in the 30’s, where he became editor of a communist newspaper in Yiddish language.

Il était arrivé en 1932 à Paris et avait entrepris des études de journalisme à la Sorbonne. He had arrived in 1932 in Paris and had begun studying journalism at the Sorbonne. En 1934 il entre au quotidien yiddish “la presse nouvelle” avant de rejoindre la rédaction de l’Humanité. In 1934 he joined the daily Yiddish “new media” before joining the drafting of Humanity.

Basé à Paris sous l’Occupation, il fut nommé responsable politique de la section juive du PCF et fut l’un des dirigeants des “Francs-tireurs et partisans – Main-d’Oeuvre immigrée” (FTP-MOI), la section immigrée des FTP, mouvement armée de la résistance communiste à l’Occupation nazie en France. Based in Paris under the Occupation, he was appointed political leader of the Jewish section of the PCF and was one of the leaders of the “Francs-tireurs and supporters – Main d’Oeuvre-immigrant” (FTP ME), section immigrant of FTP, movement of armed resistance to the Nazi occupation in France.

En 1943, il participe à la fondation du Crif dont la première mission fut de porter assistance aux Juifs en leur fournissant des faux papiers ou en les aidant à quitter la France occupée. In 1943, he participated in the founding of Crif whose first mission was to provide assistance to Jews by providing them with false documents or by helping them to leave occupied France.

Décoré de la médaille de la Résistance et de la croix de Guerre pour ses actes de résistance, il rentra après la guerre en Pologne où il devint responsable d’éditions de la presse communiste. Awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the War Cross for his acts of resistance, he returned after the war in Poland, he became head of editions of the Communist press.

Revenu en France en 1957, il rompit avec le Parti communiste polonais et se consacra dès lors à l’histoire de la résistance juive en France. Returning to  France in 1957, he broke with the Polish Communist Party and therefore devoted himself to the history of the Jewish resistance movement in France.

Il est l’auteur de plusieurs ouvrages dont “Nos illusions perdues” (1985 – Balland) sur le communisme et l’engagement politique, “Le sang de l’étranger – les immigrés de la MOI dans la Résistance” (1989 – Fayard) et “le choix des Juifs sous Vichy – Entre soumission et résistance” (1992 – La Découverte). He is the author of several books, including “Our lost illusions” (1985 – Balland) over communism and political commitment, “The blood from abroad – immigrants from the MOI in the Resistance” (1989 – Fayard) and the choice of Jews under Vichy – Between submission and resistance “(1992 – Discovery). Il a également écrit avec d’autres historiens “Qui savait quoi?” He also wrote with other historians’ Who knew what? ” (La Découverte). (Discovery).

Il a continué jusqu’à la fin de sa vie à militer pour les droits de l’homme. He continued until the end of his life to campaigning for human rights.

Ses obsèques auront lieu jeudi à 14H00 au cimetière du Père Lachaise, indique le Crif. His funeral will be held Thursday at 14:00 at Père Lachaise cemetery, said the Crif.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rayski permalink
    January 29, 2013 2:40 pm

    Dear Sir,
    I am Annie Rayski, Adam Rayski’s wife.
    I just saw now your beautiful article about him ! Five years later…
    It will be an “hommage” made by the Mairie de Paris on March 11th (he wrote a few booklets ordered by the Mayor Bertrand Delanoë for college students).
    I remember the name “Prince” in the french jewish Community (between 1986 and 2006)
    Best regards
    Paris, 01/23/2013

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