Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951
In every big city in the world in the course of each year many people disappear: they leave their homes one day on business or pleasure, and do not return. Such disappearances are reported to the police by those interested. Sometimes the missing person is found; sometimes all further trace of him or her is lost for ever. It may be a case of lost memory; or of suicide, accidental death, even murder – where the corpse, if found, is too decomposed or too badly mutilated to be identifiable. Perhaps the person concerned has succeeded in beginning a new life under an assumed name in a place remote from former haunts. So every year from among the swarming millions of our ant-hill cities some few drop out of the world that knew them, vanish, are never seen again by relatives or friends. The search for them is eventually abandoned as hopeless; they remain only as names in the records, with the legend – Unable to Trace, and as memories in the minds of those near and dear to them.
There is a case of this nature that belongs to our story. One morning towards the end of May or the beginning of June 1937 – the exact date is unknown – a woman named Juliet Stuart Poyntz left her room in the Women’s Association Clubhouse at 353 West 57th Street, New York City, in the USA. She did not pack a bag; she took nothing with her; her room was undisturbed, in its normal state, just as if she had gone round the corner to buy a packet of cigarettes or a newspaper. She left no note behind. She called up no friend to say that she was going away on a trip. She simply walked out of the building and never came back. And to this day not the slightest material clue as to where she went and what became of her has been unearthed.
Although there were absolutely no material clues to account for her strange disappearance, there were other clues.
Miss Poyntz was no young girl up from the country seeking Life with a capital L, alone and unfriended in the Big City. On the contrary, she was a mature woman with a large circle of friends and a considerable standing in the Communist Party world and among those on its fringes. For close on twenty years she had been a staunch supporter of the Stalin line. A school-teacher by profession, she had a strong personality, was an able and forceful speaker, and had played a leading role in the early years of her Communist Party membership. Then in the year 1934 she suddenly ceased to be publicly associated with that party.
But this retirement from active, open political life did not mean that she had deserted her old friends. On the contrary, those in the upper strata of Communist politics had good reason to believe that she was still serving the cause; in a quiet way, unostentatiously; but not the less effectively. Others who observed the Communist Party from the outside, knew a great deal about its methods and knew what to infer from the facts, also came to the same conclusion. For had not Juliet Poyntz been seen in Moscow in 1936 – that is, two years after her ostensible withdrawal from Stalinist politics – in company with the notorious GPU agent George Mink.
So she was still associated with the Stalinists up to a year before her disappearance, if not later. And associated, not as an ordinary member of the Communist Party of the USA, but in a very particular way. She was connected in some way with the GPU.
Exactly how close was this connection? Was George Mink simply a friend, or did she share some of his darker secrets?
Carlo Tresca, the well-known American anarchist orator and publicist, openly charged that the disappearance of Juliet Poyntz was the work of the GPU. He challenged the Stalinists:
I publicly charged that a Russian, secret police agent made off with Miss Poyntz. She has not appeared since, nor has the Communist Party cited a single fact to cast doubt on my charge. Moreover, her attorney has belatedly conceded that my charge is not impossible. It is more than that, it is true... We are on the trail of people who know important relevant facts. One is an American agent of the GPU, who, before being sent from Moscow to Barcelona, where he played a role in the murder of my dear comrade Professor Camillo Berneri, sterling anti-Fascist and anarchist philosopher and educator, spent a term in a Danish prison after being convicted as a Russian spy. His name is George Mink. He is a New York ‘party functionary’. His past is a matter of public record.
To those who had knowledge of Mink’s activities, her continued association with him after she had ceased publicly to appear as a spokesman of the Communist Party, spoke volumes. In order to make this aspect of the affair clear to the reader it is here necessary to say something about Mink. His career will also be found interesting and instructive on its own account.
George Mink began his ‘political’ life in 1926, when he joined the Communist Party of the USA. Originally a taxi-driver in Philadelphia, he became a trade-union organiser for the Stalin-controlled Marine Workers Union. He, of course, knew very little about ships – his opponents suggested that he did not know the bow from the stern – but he knew a good deal about the shady side of life, was not bothered with any moral scruples, and was apparently an able organiser. His rise was rapid. In 1927 he was writing confidential reports to his chief in Moscow, Lozovsky, one-time head of the now defunct Profintern (Red International of Labour Unions), to whom Mink, incidentally, claimed relationship by marriage. As organiser of the first International Clubs of the American seaboard Mink was successful enough to earn the reward of a trip to Moscow in 1928. It must have been then that he first entered directly into the service of the Foreign Section of the GPU. From 1930 onwards he travelled widely and Hamburg, Berlin, Moscow saw him more often than New York. Jan Valtin  relates in his book (Out of the Night, Heinemann, 1941, pp 276 et seq) that he first met Mink in the waiting-room of Dimitrov’s establishment, the Führer Verlag, in Berlin, 1931. He describes him at that time as a short, strongly-built, dapper young man, with a small cruel mouth, greenish-brown eyes and irregular teeth. Valtin tells how, as a result of the unmasking of three GPU couriers early in 1932 (these men were stewards on the Hamburg-America liner Milwaukee) the member of the Hamburg apparat who was responsible for the safe passage of the espionage material discovered on the couriers resigned from the Communist Party. His resignation was not accepted; he knew too much. Instead he was asked to go to the Soviet Union. He refused. On 22 May this man, Hans Wissenger by name, was found shot dead in his apartment in the Muehlenstrasse.
Valtin names George Mink and a certain Hugo Marx as among those assigned to the job of dealing with Wissenger. But no one was ever apprehended for this crime.
On one occasion, however, Mink was arrested, charged and sentenced. This was in 1935 in Copenhagen, where he was tried together with another American, Nicholas Sherman, and condemned to eighteen months’ imprisonment for espionage on behalf of a foreign power (New York Times, 31 July 1935). After serving his sentence Mink returned to Moscow, from where he was sent to Barcelona; the presence in Spain during the Civil War of such agents as Mink obviously was one of the major reasons for the Soviet confidence described in another chapter. Under the name of Alfred Herz he was at that time publicly charged by the anarchists as the organiser of the murder of Camillo Berneri and his friend Barbieri. Having successfully fulfilled his mission in Spain, he is next reported, some time in April 1938, as on his way to Mexico. He was suspected of also playing a leading role in organising the assassination of Trotsky, but if he was in Mexico at the time he managed to keep completely under cover.
This, then, was the sinister figure mentioned by Tresca in connection with the disappearance of Poyntz; this was the kind of man with whom she had been seen in Moscow. Small wonder that she herself should have been regarded as one who knew some of the secrets of GPU activities abroad, that she was herself caught up in the net.
Louis Francis Budenz, up to 1945 a leading member of the Central Committee of the United States Communist Party, says in his book (This Is My Story, McGraw-Hill Book Co Inc, New York, 1947, p 263) that he was informed by a member of the Political Committee that Poyntz had been liquidated by the GPU. Benjamin Gitlow, another former leading US Communist and one-time Executive Committee member of the Comintern, asserts more precisely that she was lured into a car in Central Park, driven north, and murdered. Her body, he alleges, was buried in woods near the Roosevelt estate in Duchess county. Gitlow also characterises Poyntz as ‘a disillusioned GPU agent’ (see I Confess, Dutton & Co Inc, NY, 1940).
Whatever the true facts of her ultimate fate, there is every indication that she was in some way or another mixed up with the Foreign Section of the GPU. In particular it was whispered that her disappearance was connected with the equally mysterious Robinson – Reubens affair.
At the beginning of December 1937, a man, ostensibly an American citizen, registered at the National Hotel under the name of Robinson was reported by his wife as missing. The Soviet authorities told her at first that he had been taken to hospital. But someone had made a mistake somewhere and they did not know which hospital. And then Mrs Robinson herself disappeared. Since these two people were travelling on American passports and were therefore presumably bona-fide American citizens, the US authorities made enquiries about them. The Soviet authorities then denied all knowledge of their whereabouts. But about six weeks afterwards a statement was issued to the effect that the Robinsons had been arrested for espionage. It seemed that both their passports were false. The ‘Robinsons’ were in fact Adolph Arnold and Ruth Maria Reubens, normally resident in the US, and well known as Communist Party supporters. The Soviet authorities, however, must have known about these passports long before the Reubens sailed for the USSR. For they had been obtained with the connivance of persons well established as ‘fellow-travellers’. A Fifth Avenue photographer named Ossip Garber was arrested in the US at the end of March 1938, and charged with being a member of a conspiratorial ring which aided in obtaining these passports made out to Mr and Mrs Donald Robinson. Garber’s status as a ‘fellow-traveller’ was well known in political circles. These passports were delivered, in accordance with the request of the applicants, to an organisation called the Drama Travel League, and they were signed for by a Miss Helen Ravitch, who was the manageress of this set-up. Miss Ravitch, it transpired, was the wife of Dr S Bernstein, who happened to be the doctor who attended, as occasion required, on none other than William Z Foster, the man who ousted Earl Browder from leadership of the United States Communist Party in 1945. Together with Garber, Arthur Sharfin, member of Section 15 of the Bronx District of the Communist Party, was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for this and other passport frauds.
After two months’ detention in Moscow, Mrs Reubens was at last seen by representatives of the United States Embassy. The interview took place, however, in the presence of GPU men. Mrs Reubens told the US officials that she did not desire any assistance from them. The GPU men present would not allow any questions relating to the circumstances of her arrest or to the past activities of herself or her husband. Mr Reubens, who it appears could not lay claim to American citizenship, was not seen, either at that time or subsequently. It is still not known what became of him. Mrs Reubens was eventually released, but, although she was an American citizen, she was not allowed, or perhaps she did not wish, to leave the USSR.
The truth about the Robinson – Reubens’ case has never been discovered. But all the available facts show this man and woman to have been closely connected with the Communist Party; all their relatives were in fact under the impression that they were members. Mr Reubens had no known occupation but appeared to be always well in funds. The false passports were obtained for the couple by people established as linked directly or indirectly with the United States Communist Party. It is therefore clear that they went to the USSR on false passports with the full knowledge and agreement of the GPU. It is possible that an espionage trial in Moscow, aimed against America, was contemplated. Some months before the couple were arrested there appeared press reports that the Soviet authorities were checking all tourists’ ships from the US for the purpose of barring from entry into the Soviet Union of all persons by the name of Robinson. If such a trial was contemplated the subsequent exposure in the USA of the manner in which the passports were obtained obviously prevented the Soviet authorities from staging it. But whatever the exact details behind this event, the fact remains that the Reubens were victims of the ‘clean-up’ carried out by the GPU on an international scale.
Carlo Tresca, who claimed with others that the Reubens’ case was connected with Poyntz’s disappearance, was himself to come to a violent end. In the dim-out of 1943, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street, he was struck down and killed by ‘a person or persons unknown’. The former top-ranking United States Communist Gitlow, whose assertions regarding Poyntz’s fate have already been cited, says that ‘there was open talk in Communist circles that Tresca would pay with his life for his treachery’. Vittorio Vidali, who was active in Spain under the name of Kontralas and who is now leader of the Communist forces in Trieste, was held and questioned by the police about this murder but released for lack of evidence. It can hardly be doubted that Tresca’s assassination was a political act, but there seems little likelihood that the man or men directly responsible will ever be brought to book, although as late as January 1949, the Tresca Memorial Committee in New York, of which Norman Thomas is Chairman, was still appealing for any information, however fragmentary, that might lead to a solution of the crime.
The disappearance of Juliet Stuart Poyntz, the Reubens’ affair, and the assassination of Tresca may or may not have been directly connected one with another. In Tresca’s case we may wonder at the fact that once again an outspoken opponent of Stalin comes to a violent end, but we may admit the possibility, mooted in some quarters, that he met his death at the hands of Fascist extremists. It must be borne in mind that the Italian Fascists had a strong antipathy to Tresca, who was an outspoken and influential opponent of Mussolini. The known facts in the Reubens’ case permit the strong suspicion that these two were GPU agents suspected for some reason of disloyalty to their masters. And the same applies to Poyntz. Whether the cases had any direct connection with one another remains an open question. But the Poyntz’ case has a special bearing upon another matter – the Soviet espionage system.
In its maintenance of a Military Intelligence Service in all parts of the world the Soviet Union is not unique among the nations. But the Soviet organisation for the collection of all information relevant to military matters – and how wide is the scope of such material! – has a peculiarity that fundamentally distinguishes it from the corresponding services of all other countries. Testifying before the Dies Committee on 11 October 1939, the late Walter Krivitsky asserted:
Soviet Military Intelligence has approximately the same functions as the same services of other countries. Its most unique feature is that it can enlist and recruit members of the Communist Parties in countries in which it operates. The leaders of the Communist Party in every country consider it their duty to aid Soviet Military Intelligence in their work.
Although at the time this statement was made it appeared to many to be highly exaggerated, today no unbiased observer, however sceptical he may once have been, can question its truth. The Report of the Royal Commission set up by the Canadian Government to investigate Communist espionage activities in that country proved Krivitsky’s charges to the hilt. What particularly concerns us in this connection is, firstly, the way in which members of a Communist Party are drawn into this espionage network, often without their being really conscious of the role they are induced to play, by professional agents who either belong to the party leadership or act through it with its conscious aid; and, secondly, the fact that in the eyes of the Soviet authorities the Communist Party in every country is regarded as no more or less than an appendage of the Russian state apparatus. In this report is to be found irrefutable evidence confirming the accusations made by such former top-ranking Communists as Ruth Fischer, Gitlow, Budenz, Krivitsky, Valtin, etc, that the functions of the GPU include ‘checking and reporting to the Russians on members of the Communist Party’ (see Report of the Royal Commission, Ottawa, 1947, p 24). This checking and reporting is, of course, not done simply for the purpose of being able to select, train and instruct those likely to make good spies. The broader political activities of the party, especially its activities ostensibly on behalf of the workers’ economic demands in any given industry, and especially its capacity to foster strikes calculated to serve the interests of Russian foreign policy at any given time – this side of the matter must not be overlooked. And a profound knowledge of the individual members of the organisation is invaluable when it comes to a question of whom to favour for promotion in the hierarchy; whom to select as delegate to this or that body; whom to promote as candidate for an official position in this or that trade union or cooperative, and so on. On the surface this is left to the national leaderships, but the close surveillance of this leadership by the centre in Moscow, the fact that in the final analysis it is appointed by Moscow, usually ensures selection in accordance with the wishes of Moscow. And if errors do occur, they are very soon rectified.
The testimony of Igor Gouzenko fully bears out this assertion that Communist Party activities throughout the world are directed and controlled by the Soviet Government. Ostensibly a ‘civilian employee’ of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Gouzenko was in fact a cypher clerk on the staff of the Military Attaché, Colonel Zabotin, who in turn was in reality chief of the Soviet Military Intelligence Service in Canada. Gouzenko deserted his post and revealed some of the secrets of this service to the Canadian authorities. Testifying before the above-mentioned Royal Commission, Gouzenko stated that he had reason to believe that Goussarov, who held the official position of Second Secretary to the Soviet Embassy and had at one time been assistant to Malenkov, head of the Foreign Section of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union:
... had the task of transmitting political directives from his superiors in Moscow to the leaders of the Canadian Communist movement. These directives would include not only general political lines to be taken up in Communist propaganda, but also instructions on techniques of operation. Examples of the latter would be instructions to create or to get control of functional organisation such as the Canadian Association of Scientific Workers; to occupy important positions in labour unions; when necessary for special purposes, to instruct certain Canadian secret Communists to take up temporarily an anti-Communist line; to get members into controlling positions in the executive of the youth movements, international friendship councils, etc, which would be important from a propaganda point of view. (Op cit, p 28)
The Commission commented on this aspect of the matter:
We must report that we have no corroboration, in any of the Russian documents placed before us, for this part of Gouzenko’s testimony...
At first sight we would find it difficult to credit that the leaders of any Canadian political party would take instructions, regarding the political activities which they directed, from agents of a foreign power. However, it would be still more difficult for us to believe that men such as Sam Carr and Fred Rose, who have been shown to have acted for years as key members of an espionage network headed by agents of a foreign power and directed against Canada, would not also be prepared to accept, from agents of that same power, political instructions regarding the organisation which they direct.
(Note: Sam Carr was Organising Secretary for the Canadian Communist Party; Fred Rose was a member of the Canadian Parliament.)
If any additional proof is needed of the complete subservience of the Communist Parties to the dictates of the Russian Government, it is sufficient to point to the complete right-about-turn made when Russia was attacked by Germany. This one-hundred-and-eighty degree change in policy was made without the calling of any conferences for discussion by the membership; the order was simply issued from headquarters and those who disagreed were expelled. Thus the national leadership acts towards its rank-and-file in exactly the same way in which Moscow acts towards it.
The time has long passed when such arbitrary reversals of policy could arouse any opposition from the rank-and-file, who have learned to take orders like good soldiers. My party right or wrong is, of course, no special coinage of the Communists alone, but they have made it an unwritten principle held to with greater consistency and steadfastness than any other political body, perhaps with the exception of the totalitarian parties of Germany, Italy and Japan. This unquestioning obedience is indispensable to the role now played by these parties as outposts of the Soviet Government in enemy territory, and makes possible the use of their members, as the above-mentioned Commission revealed in some detail, for espionage. And espionage on behalf of the Soviet Government constitutes not the least important part of the activities of these parties in all countries.
The close interweaving of the apparently normal activities of a political organisation with undercover work on behalf of a foreign power makes it impossible to draw a line between them. Political directives issued from the Kremlin have only one object – that of strengthening the Soviet Union in relation to the other world powers. Under the pretence of requiring information in order to be able to formulate policy correctly, the Communist leadership in every country outside Russia’s sphere of influence demands information from those of its members who are strategically placed to obtain it – those, that is, who work in government offices, scientific institutions, arms factories and so forth. The cross-examination of one of the Canadian Stalinists implicated in the spy-ring exposed by Gouzenko throws light on the manner in which this information is gleaned. Asked if Fred Rose was the first to suggest that she could contribute to the promotion of the Soviet Government’s interest by passing on information she gained in the course of her work in the High Commissioner’s office, this person replied: ‘He didn’t say “Soviet Government.” He said the Canadian Communist Party.’ And she went on to explain that Rose told her ‘the party would be very glad to have some information in order that their policy could be formulated’ (op cit, p 229).
The minor figures involved in this particular spy centre were all more or less the dupes of the leadership, who alone appear to have been consciously acting on behalf of the Soviet Intelligence Service. It is quite certain that nearly all, if not all, of these dupes were motivated by a vaguely conceived ideal; they felt they were working for a ‘cause’; they seemed in no way to have appreciated that they were being used in the deadly game of power politics. On the other hand, they did not show up well under cross-examination and the fact that some of them even received payment for the information they handed over, gave emphasis to their lack of principle.
No better exposure of the true role of the Communist Parties could be asked for than the fact that both Rose and Carr appeared before the public as the standard-bearers of the Canadian Party while they were all the time secretly acting as agents employed in the Soviet espionage network. Similar examples of this double role can be seen in the cases of Glading and Springhall in England; both of these men were prominent members of the Communist Party at the time they were sentenced to terms of imprisonment for espionage. When arrested, Springhall was the London District Organiser of the party. A similar state of affairs undoubtedly exists in all countries.
We are now in a position to appreciate better the mystery of Juliet Poyntz. Here is a woman recognised by all her associates as an outstanding personality; a woman who, if not brilliant, had at least considerable talent; one who was ambitious, who wanted to cut a figure in the party. For nearly twenty years she is faithful. In 1934 she drops active politics but is known to remain intimately associated with the notorious GPU agent – she is even seen with him in Moscow. Then there are rumours that she is beginning to doubt. Then – the lady vanishes.
1. Originally of German nationality, his real name was Herman Krebs. He died of pneumonia on 1 January 1951, aged 45.