The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story

Verso Books  2012


Most forays into family history uncover a skeleton or two, but Wilmers’s excavations make haunted houses look tame. As she delved into the history of her parents and grandparents, Wilmers uncovered a remarkable cast of characters: a staggeringly wealthy Russian-American fur trader, an intimate of Sigmund Freud, and a highly placed KGB assassin, among others. Their stories were submerged in tangles of obfuscation—name changes, aliases, faux marriages, politically expedient cover stories, and outright lies. Leonid Eitingon probably arranged the assassination of Trotsky, working his way up to such a responsibility by successfully murdering other enemies of Stalin. Max Eitingon, one of the co-founders and bankrollers of the psychoanalytic movement, probably plotted the abduction of a key Russian general in Paris in 1937. Motty Eitingon, the wealthy fur trader, entertained so many leftists at his New York estate that the FBI kept tabs on his travels and bugged his phones. Working for decades on this family history, Wilmers still ends up with more questions than answers. Wisely, she refrains from passing judgment on her subjects, at least explicitly. When Leonid turns a blind eye to the massacre of fellow Jews, she just reports the details as she uncovers them, although when he arranges the killing of some Nazi-butcher, one senses her unwritten approval. Readers looking for the ‘straight story’ on any of her subjects may find her perambulations frustrating, but a family tree full of deceivers requires a certain patience for rambling. Bibliography, family tree, index, maps, photographs.

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