Skeletons in the Cupboard

  • The Eitingnons
    Mary-Kay Wilmers
    Faber, 476pp, £20

Freudian analysis, Soviet communism and the garment industry: what do all of these things have in common? If your answer has something to do with central and east European Jews born at the end of the 19th century, you wouldn’t be far off. That generation formed an important part of the intellectual and mercantile elite of Europe, but not the political elite — which is partly why some of them wound up in the radical communist anti-elite instead.

In some families, various members dabbled in all of these worlds. The Eitingons were precisely that sort of family, albeit unusual in that they achieved real status in all of the professions open to them. Max Eitingon was an actual protégé of Freud, and can be seen in photographs peering out from behind the great man’s head. Motty Eitingon was a millionaire fur trader, not just rich but very, very rich, partly because of an exclusive import contract with the Soviet Union. Leonid Eitingon, meanwhile, was a notorious KGB assassin and killer. On the scene in Mexico when Trotsky was murdered, in Spain during the civil war, Leonid had a hand in some of the most notorious crimes of the 20th-century — before ending up in a Soviet prison himself.

As fate would have it, Mary-Kay Wilmers, the mild-mannered editor of the London Review of Books, is also an Eitingon on her mother’s side: Leonid, Motty and Max are all, one way or another, her great-uncles or cousins. Part of a later, luckier generation, she grew up in a world with ‘no wars, no revolutions, no civil unrest or military coups, no famines or tidal waves’. Clearly, she would have preferred something more exciting, and so delved into the lives of her relatives. Over the years, she hunted them down, piece by piece and story by story. This book — which describes both her search and what she found — is the result.

And Wilmers is very good at conjuring up the atmosphere of their world, with its periodic, earth-shattering events, its sudden runs of luck and its equally rapid falls from grace. She is particularly good at evoking the various double games her relatives were playing and the odd ways in which cash, ideas, and espionage were exchanged in Moscow, New York and Vienna in the 1920s. (‘You can do anything with the Bolsheviki if you have money’, someone says at one point). Even Max, the psychoanalyst, had a habit of going on suspiciously long vacations and leaving no traces. He has been retrospectively accused of spying for the Soviet Union, as has Motty. As for Leonid — that was his profession.

Along with the well-evoked ambience, there are some marvellous stories here too, such as the one about Leonid’s mother denouncing him in the synagogue after hearing that he had rounded up the prosperous citizens of his native city, Gomel — many Jews among them — and shot them all. Later, however, when he went off to spy in China, she had no qualms about living in his presumably well-appointed Moscow flat. There are also some excellent contrasts: Motty in front of the House Committee on Un-American activity, and Motty enthusiastically promoting his new company, Bonmouton (which, as the name implies, involved lambskin). I also liked Wilmers’ encounters with her living Moscow relatives, two of whom she brought to London — not that they fully appreciated the Euston hotel she arranged for them:

If you spent a good part of your life fantasising about Western abundance it only made you more resentful of the moral and economic rationing to which you were likely to be subjected once you were within physical reach of Bond Street or the King’s Road.

I feel more ambivalent about this book than I would like to feel. This is possibly because the story of Wilmers’ elaborate hunt for information — in Moscow, Washington, Tel Aviv— is simply less interesting than the stories of Leonid, Motty and Max, and it seriously distracts from the plot. Still, The Eitingnons is an honest book. Wilmers isn’t trying to hide any flaw or moral errors — not her own, and not anybody else’s. It took a lifetime’s effort to pull these stories out of mountains of contradictory bits of evidence. And even so, she winds up admitting that she doesn’t know everything that happened. On discovering from a Swiss undertaker that her mother had faked the date of her birth, she concludes that ‘you’re not really an Eitingon without one last trick up your sleeve.’