Pauker: The other “Iron Lady”

Romania’s Iron Lady has made very little headway in the history books despite her significant role as the unofficial head of the Romanian Communist party, and effectively the nation, between 1947 and 1952. The first woman in history to hold the highest position in a state, as foreign minister and unofficial party leader, her face was triumphantly pasted on a 1948 issue of Time magazine, which called her not only a rigid woman, but a Stalinist.

However, her rise to power did not miss the rhetoric and the violence of a socialist transition, nor was her rule particularly dominated by either overwhelming evil or good. In fact, she was very much in the grey zone, in her attempt to stabilize the transition from an autocratic fascist government to a socialist one. In other words, although she was a harsh Stalinist, she did do some good, and was by no means solely the monster that she was painted by the Western media.

Levy’s famous biography of Pauker is an elusive explanation of one of the most complex women to have ever graced modern politics. It argues that despite the negative rhetoric against Pauker, she was a woman that was both vicious but also ironically humane in some situations. In fact her precarious personality, although unpredictable and duplicitous, was by no means mutually exclusive. This only serves to show how evil and good, although social fabrications, can exist alongside each other.

Born in Cadesti, Romania in a Jewish Orthodox family, Hannah Robinsohn, as she went by in those days, grew up in a traditional Ashkenazi household. With her grandfather, a rabbi, and her father the haham/shohet of the village it is obvious how she probably received a fairly standard Jewish education for a girl. However, one thing is sure, from a young age she learned Hebrew and became highly competent in it. In fact, she knew it so well that she thought Hebrew at a Jewish School in Bucharest.

Ana PaukerPauker 

In her young days she was not particularly interested in Socialism, nor Zionism for that matter, not until her own brother Zalman Robinsohn took interest in both at least. In 1915 she joined the Social Democratic Party in Romania, and later Bolshevik- styled organization modeled after the 1917 Revolutionary bodies in Russia. Her interest, however, was not purely a practical one as she like most secular Jews in Eastern Europe were well versed in Marxist dialectics.

In search for better prospects she moved to France where she became heavily involved in the Communist movement of the early 20”s. Yet she also found love in the streets of Paris. How cliché, right? She married the communist activist Marcel Pauker, probably drawn together for their love of Marx.

Anna and Marcel were heavily involved in left-wing activities, a great deal of which led to arrests, exiles around Western Europe, until both returned to Romania in 1922. After numerous children, and more political activities deemed as illegal by the Kingdom of Romania, she and her husband were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, like thousands of Communists in Europe she managed to evade prison by finding exile in Moscow- a place where a great deal of her Stalinist ideals would become concrete.

In Moscow, where she lived for 8 years she became more educated through Comintern universities, in Marxist and Communist dialectics. However, I suspect that it was also during this period that her famous love and loyalty for Moscow most likely developed. In 1934, after having been exposed to years of Soviet education, she was given a political role in the Romanian Communist Party which she filled fruitfully until her second arrest in 1941 during Romania’s fascist grip. Again, the Soviet Union saved her by compromising with a prisoner exchange. It is easy to see why she was so invested in the Soviet cause.

After her return to Moscow in 1941, Stalin’s purges were already slowly dwindling away since the 1930’s Show Trials where thousands were murdered and imprisoned. Now here is the kicker which has made everyone think of Pauker as the “cold-hearted” lady of the East. Her husband was convicted of being a Western spy  and killed by the pro-Stalinist factions in 1938, a time when she herself denounced her own husband. Something which cemented her loyalty to Stalin himself. Maybe this played a role in her becoming the leader of the Romanian exiles in the USSR?

Whatever the case, Pauker established herself as a hard-line woman early on, capable of organizing herself and others politically, all the while holding true to the Stalinist principles that Moscow preached since the late 20’s. Some such as Andrea Tuzu, a writer for a leading history magazine in Romania has even called Pauker:

Stalin with a dress

Whether this is a valid interpretation or not, I am not sure, however we can be sure of one thing: her loyalty to Stalin in the immediate post Second World War era played a substantial role in her rise to power.

Pauker returned to Romania, intermittently as the Soviet troops were liberating parts of the country and as Antonescu’s fascist forces were being rounded up after being defeated in humiliating battles. She entered the country triumphantly herself, only to be given the post of the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party(PCR) from where she would begin her climb to success.

By 1947 she became Romania’s foreign minister, the first woman in history to hold such a position, from where she gained  international fame. However, once she became head of the party and unofficially the main person in power. She began to implement Stalinist style communism in a rather repressive manner.

Pauker although is historically known to have been a repressive force over Romania and its populace was shown to have a “moderated stance” as Robert Levy, the Pauker historian, argues both in his book and numerous articles. In fact, although she had instituted mass recruitment programs, she also denied the institution of Stalinist collectivization policies as she argued that Romania was not yet prepared for such mass-scale agricultural production.

PCREmblem of the Romanian Communist Party(PCR)

Her most important -positive- accomplishment however was the organization of the aliyah of 100,000 Jews from Romania during her leadership, despite the fact that Stalin was firmly against the state of Israel. Furthermore, Ana Pauker also denied Stalin’s request of the suppression of Zionist activities in Romania, and the imprisonment of Jews on a mass scale. Finally, Pauker had found a point of contention, where she did not agree with Stalin on, ironically, her own heritage and ethnicity.

In fact, Robert Levy argues that

Ana Pauker rejected Marxism-Leninism’s class-based approach to the “Jewish Question”

only because the complexity of Jewish culture and acculturation amid the European nations could not be resolved just thorough the equalization of class. In a way she was right as evidenced by Stalin’s persistent antisemitism and the repression of Jews in Eastern Bloc countries.

In essence, Pauker showed a great deal of resilience during her leadership despite Stalin’s growing shadow across Eastern Europe. She did indeed invoke a great deal of policies which led to the imprisonment of thousands and even deaths all in her and the party’s consolidation of power. Her goal of spreading communism of course had turned bloody, ugly, and even gruesome. Perhaps why she was and is still called one of the most vicious women in history.

The most controversial point in Romania’s Communist history however was the building of the Danube-Black Sea canal which used thousands of political prisoners in labor camps. The project, which was itself proposed by Stalin, went into effect in 1950 under Pauker. The extent of her involvement, or whether it was her idea to use political prisoners in the construction of the canal is still disputed.

Whatever the case may be Stalin still had extended his long and sinister arm to Bucharest and it’s politics only to deregulate Pauker’s leadership who, despite her elementary allegiance to Moscow, was continually becoming a dissident of Stalinist policies. Stalin used his puppet Gheorghe-Dej, a high official in the party lines, to invoke a campaign of the assassination of Pauker’s character and in fact did so until he managed to remove her from power.

In 1953 Pauker was imprisoned and put through a series of brutal interrogations conducted by the Romanian secret police, with the help of the Soviets. However, with a stroke of luck Stalin’s death in the same year had somehow led to her release only to be put on house arrest for the rest of her life. In 1960, Pauker died, in the home she was imprisoned in.

Despite the fact that she was a powerful woman, and her legacy and sheer determination cannot be overlooked, it is also quite difficult to look past the fact that she was a fierce dictator of a seemingly totalitarian regime. Although she was an individual who had done both some good, some bad she was part of the non-real despotic forces, who used Communism as a means to achieve their end-goals of ultimate power over the Romanian populace. Whether Pauker’s goals to achieve a true Marxist state were feasible or not, I cannot say, however it is obvious that she was doing everything in her power to form a quasi-Marxist dictatorship. This at the expense of her personal life, and more importantly her children who were placed in Soviet foster homes, so she could devote her entire time to her political career.The point is that like all human beings, Pauker was most likely somewhere in the grey area.

Further Reading:

Robert Levy. “Ana Pauker: Biography”. accessed at Link

Robert Levy. Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist. (University of California Press:2001)

Andrea Tuzu. “Stalin Cu Fusta”. accessed at: Link

About the Author
I am a historian that concentrates on many different aspects of material history, but also Jewish history as a whole.
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