In Other Words


The son of a Red Army intelligence officer sent to die in a Siberian gulag discovers his father's KGB file, and a cottage industry of children-of-spies memoirs.

Historical photos courtesy of Peter Buck Feller
Historical photos courtesy of Peter Buck Feller

Ten years ago, on a blustery March morning, I found myself in front of Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison, the dreaded home of the KGB, where thousands of political prisoners were jailed, interrogated, and tortured. I had come to find the file of my father, a man I did not know — a man who, when he was arrested in the hellish days of Joseph Stalin’s purges, was not even half the age I am now.

The dark central stairwell in the Lubyanka annex where I was directed was barely illuminated; a sole light bulb hung above the second-floor landing that housed the reading room. There, I was handed his file under the watchful eyes of a couple of dour officials behind an all-glass wall. My Russian guide, Lada, nervously translated the contents, while I stared at my father’s mug shot taken at the Butyrskaya Prison, built in the time of Catherine the Great and still the largest in Moscow. He looked haggard and soulful.

The file revealed that my father, Wilhelm Schwarzfeller, a German national, had been an agent for Red Army intelligence in the 1930s before being arrested in Moscow in January 1938 during Stalin’s Great Terror. I was just a baby, born only six months before in Los Angeles, and too young to have any memory of him. He had been sentenced to an eight-year term in Vorkuta, one of Stalin’s Gulag prisons north of the Arctic Circle, where he starved to death in 1943. My mother and I left Moscow during the German invasion and returned to America, where I grew up without a father. My mother, born in Ukraine but a naturalized U.S. citizen, deflected or simply ignored my questions about him — and for good reason.

As a boy in the late 1940s and 1950s, I was imbued with America’s collective anxiety about the "Red Menace" that so occupied the waking hours of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Legions of Soviet spies, it was thought, lurked everywhere. But it came as a shock when I learned from the Lubyanka file what I had long suspected — that my father was one of those spies. Soon thereafter, and with a sigh of great relief, I learned that he never spied against the United States. Instead, his principal mission was to spy for the Soviets against Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Stalin was greatly concerned about the intentions of the increasingly militaristic Japan toward the Soviet Union. Would Manchuria, abutting its Siberian border, become the launching point for a Japanese invasion? After all, Japan had thrashed the tsar’s military in 1905, becoming the first Asian country to best any of the Western powers. My father, I learned, had been stationed in Mukden (now Shenyang), posing as a Canadian businessman.

I knew none of this, however, until that morning in the Lubyanka; I had spent most of my life thinking of my father as a distant figure, a ghost. Since then, though, I’ve found that I was not alone in finally deciding to unwind my family’s hushed secrets, in my refusal to keep them buried in a sort of personal Cold War vault. I’ve spent the last few years working to re-create and write of my father’s journey and secret life — and while doing so, I’ve encountered many other spy kids along the way who also decided to investigate the mysteries of their missing dads. The children-of-spies memoir, it turns out, is a virtual cottage industry these days. Consider just this recent sampling: John Richardson’s My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir (2005), Lucinda Franks’s My Father’s Secret War: A Memoir (2007), Jimmy Burns’s Papa Spy: Love, Faith, and Betrayal in Wartime Spain (2009), Sara Mansfield Taber’s Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter (2012), Scott Johnson’s The Wolf and the Watchman: A CIA Childhood (2012), and Carl Colby’s soon-to-be-released The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.

For those of us who grew up reading le Carré or Clancy or Fleming, there’s more than a bit of swashbuckling in these books. At times, there’s even an odd but palpable nostalgia for the Cold War cloak-and-dagger, good-vs.-evil spy game, and yet something tuned to another, different generation: After all, baby boomers like to talk about their feelings. What’s common in these books is a tension in the children: What’s most important — country, family, love, honor? And it stretches across borders, from Britain to Spain to Australia. Did my father — a German working for the Soviet Union, while pretending to be Canadian and living in Manchuria — think about giving up the business when I was born in America? Did he realize that his death was something we might have to live with, that deception can be corrosive? There are lies your country asks you to tell and those that ruin the life of a kid.

SPY LITERATURE HOLDS a special fascination for readers. It’s the thrill of being let in on a secret, the sense of sharing an adrenaline-pumping adventure, and the allure that the earthshaking global events we watch on TV are shaped (or perhaps prevented) by a few men and women operating covertly. But the narratives by children of spies add another dimension altogether. They overlay the story of their fathers’ — yes, most of them are men — exploits with the inchoate anguish of feeling excluded from an essential part of family life. These memoirs read half like hero worship and half like the product of 15 years of asking, "Daddy, what did you do at work today?" and getting a lie for an answer.

Precious little attention has been given to the filial cost of espionage. Taber’s book title, Born Under an Assumed Name, captures the essential predicament. After she was born in 1954 in Japan, her birth certificate was registered under a made-up surname to avoid blowing her father’s cover as a diplomat — though he was a U.S. intelligence officer whose secret mission was to debrief individuals who had escaped from communist China and to recruit agents to operate there. Her father’s life in the shadows and the veil of secrecy forced on her, she writes, dominated her adolescence and led her to write her memoir decades later. "Now and then, I sipped tiny tastes of my father’s clandestine activities — they were like the little sips of scorching Chinese tea my father shared with me from his glass," Taber writes, "but I didn’t know that I was sipping."

As 17th-century British poet John Dryden observed, "[S]ecrets are edged tools/And must be kept from children and from fools." It’s not just children, however, who suffer from the lies that result. Throughout these new spy-children memoirs runs a deep, persistent sense not just of trying to understand one’s father, but also of speaking for one’s mother — the unwitting or unwilling accomplice to the deception. Johnson’s The Wolf and the Watchman attributes his parents’ divorce at least in part to such strain. In my own case, the stress on my mother, Frieda, long after my father had disappeared in the Soviet Union, resulted in mental illness during the McCarthy era. But the real source of her terror remained a mystery to me even after I went to Moscow and discovered my father’s secret past. Spying in the family, it turns out, generates many riddles.

According to the Lubyanka file, after my father’s arrest he spent 13 months in Butyrskaya Prison, where he was subjected to nine interrogations, one of them lasting all night. Finally he was tried by a military troika and sent to the notorious Gulag. When informed of his sentence, my mother resolved to stay in Moscow until his release. But Adolf Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. She had no choice but to flee. The problem was that she had been traveling under a false Canadian passport, and the U.S. State Department was hesitant to issue a replacement for the U.S. passport she claimed to have lost. Based on proof that I had been born in Los Angeles and was, therefore, a citizen, a special passport was issued. I was 4 years old.

The rest of the details came only last year when my long-standing Freedom of Information Act request turned up my mother’s FBI file. Hoover’s G-men, I discovered, had conducted a 13-year espionage investigation of her, stemming from the passport incident. Sadly, my mother died in 2007 at age 97, and I was never able to share the file with her. Throughout my childhood the life she could not tell me about lingered like a malevolent mystery over our small family. She could not keep a job. She was constantly looking over her shoulder, conscious of the investigation. I understand this now, and I realize that the stress of constant surveillance, mail interceptions, and surreptitious searches of our one-room apartment when we were out were more than her sensitive temperament could take. Undoubtedly, she was afraid of being charged as a spy and for using a false passport. My guess is that she was intent on protecting not only herself, but also my father — whose fate she did not know — and me, her only child. No wonder she descended into madness for a time.

THE SENSE OF a mystery slowly unraveling, of one secret leading to still more, is a common thread throughout these books; having a spy for a father, however loving, is about eventually acknowledging that you do not know the truth about your parents. And never far from the surface is the sense that a government sanctioned this betrayal — that somehow your own private life had become a matter of high politics.

In Richardson’s My Father the Spy, for example, we learn that during the Cold War his father, John Sr., was a "high-ranking" member of the CIA who had previously operated in stealth in Vienna’s Soviet zone. Later, he served as CIA station chief in Saigon before he was recalled as a scapegoat for Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge when U.S. policy was in disarray. "His bitterness," Richardson wrote of his father, "was the mystery of my childhood." At the far end of this continuum is An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, by Robert Meeropol, one of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies for the Soviet Union. In a passionate defense of his parents, he relives the childhood trauma of being shunned because of his parents’ notoriety. Perhaps reconciling the tugs of loyalty to parents versus country, he asserts, "I believe that my parents acted patriotically." While my father’s espionage was focused on Japan, not the United States, I hear echoes of Meeropol’s plea in my mother’s anguish.

Oddly enough, it’s a recent book about a treasonous father that speaks most closely to me. Wibke Bruhns’s My Father’s Country: The Story of a German Family tells of her father, an army officer during World War II, who was executed in 1944 — when she was 6 years old — for his role in the plot to kill Hitler. "I never knew him, and as a result he didn’t affect me. I never missed him," she writes of her childhood. As an adult, she had great trouble coming to grips with her family’s support of National Socialism; ultimately, though, his participation in the failed assassination plot made her come to see her father as a hero for renouncing Hitler. She ruefully speaks to her dead father: "I would have liked to laugh with you."

Looking at my father’s haunting mug shot, I find it hard to think of laughing with him. My gut reaction, when I first learned of his treatment in prison and the Gulag, was hatred for his oppressors. But where can I direct my anger? Stalin is long dead, as are his brutish henchmen; the Soviet system is no more. It’s a memory of a time and a politics long ago. Yet when I look at his picture, he’s so young that I can’t help but feel oddly protective — as if he were my own son. It pains me that he died, of starvation and cold, unremarked, only to be buried in the wastelands of the Russian tundra. So I write to reclaim him from the Gulag, to piece his life back together from a few dusty files at the Lubyanka — to give him the funeral he never had.

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