Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Book review - fascinating biographical story: The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter – A Memoir

The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter – A Memoir
by Jane Lazarre
Hdbck. Pub. Duke University Press

Jane Lazarre here weaves a complex and fascinating memoir of her father, the life-long communist, Party organizer and Spanish Civil War veteran, William Lazarre/Bill Lawrence. She does it in the form of an inter-generational dialogue.

Her father came to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, to escape the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Already enthused by the ideals of communism, he joins the US Communist Party and becomes a full-time organiser.

He volunteers for Spain in December 1936, leaving New York harbour on the S.S. Normandie bound for Le Havre. Arriving in Spain, he becomes a commissar with the Lincoln Battalion. Almost a year later, in October 1937, ‘Bill Lawrence, the popular and hardworking American Political Commissar of the International Brigades base’ left Spain after months of ‘unstinting and fruitful activity’. Once back in the USA he continued working for the Spanish cause and, in early 1938, still hoping for victory, he wrote Democracy’s Stake in Spain. Here, he recounts stories of individual soldiers, most of them involving heroic deaths, sacrificing themselves to save others and he describes the profound friendships formed between men who knew nothing of each other before Spain.

The author, his daughter, visits Spain in 2013 to retrace her father’s footsteps and curious to know how modern-day Spaniards reflect on the Civil War, if at all, and what their attitudes are. For her, it is also an attempt to relive history and gain a deeper sense of what Spain meant to her father. The Spanish Civil War, she writes, ‘had its mythic place in our childhood’. 

Back in the USA, Bill Lawrence would spend time in prison as a result of his activism, and, in the fifties, he falls foul of the McCarthy witch-hunts and is threatened with deportation for refusing to testify against his comrades.

The post-war splits in the US Party and the later Khrushchev revelations cause him great heartache as well as the loss of friends. To compound his woes, his wife dies of cancer when their two daughters are quite small, leaving Bill to bring them up by himself. Jane, his elder daughter, has grown up surrounded by communists and their ideas. She has experienced the elation and comradeship, but also ostracism and a sense of being different to other children, of learning to lie to the FBI agents arriving on the doorstep looking for her father.

She writes movingly of her turbulent relationship with her father, of her rebellion during her teenage years, but also of his unstinting love for her. This book is an attempt to discover who her father really was, the significance of his life and his contribution as a communist to US society. The author also attempts to come to terms with her teenage rejection of her father, when she blamed him, unfairly, for her mother’s death. She peels away the hurt and the reveals the misunderstandings, layer by layer, exploring his life and her own relationship with him and his politics. In a meticulous, elliptical way, she builds up a fascinating interlace between the personal weft and the political warp of both their lives, and in doing so creates a fitting monument to a selfless and heroic US communist. She even visits modern-day Spain to retrace her father’s footsteps and finds  those battles of the thirties still resonating today. Into this rich fabric of his East European Jewish heritage and deeply-held communist beliefs, she introduces an Afro-American element through her marriage to a black American from the deep south and bringing up two mixed-race children. This is a memoir rich in intelligent reflection of an aspect of US political history that receives little airing. An elegantly written and moving account.

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