Remembering a Jewish Anthropologist — and a Spy
Franz Boas was the archetypal anthropologist as truth teller.
Boas’ antithesis — the anthropologist as a spy without a conscience — was Mark Zborowski. His two careers have been excavated separately by Steven J. Zipperstein and Susan Weissman. His first career in Paris before World War II was as a part-time anthropology student and a full-time Stalinist agent (code name: Etienne). After befriending Lev Sedov, Leon Trotsky’s son, Zborowski betrayed him to Soviet hitmen who murdered him in a hospital. Then Zborowski almost traveled to Mexico to join in assassinating Trotsky himself.
Zborowski’s second career, starting in 1941, was in the US as a part-time spy and a full-time anthropologist.
Zborowski was born in 1908 in Ukraine. His next stop was Uman (a Polish city, not a village shtetl) where his impoverished parents moved to escape Russia’s communist revolution. But the young Zborowski turned to communism. After failing as a medical student in Paris and going back in Poland, he was arrested and brutalized by the police before escaping from prison to return to France. This time, he was so successful as a Soviet secret agent (Stalin was said to read his dispatches personally) that he remained there until the fall of France.
During World War II, Zborowski worked in New York for the YIVO Institute and the American Jewish Committee, while maintaining his covert identity as an NKVD agent. He tracked down Victor Kravchenko, a high-profile Soviet defector. The duped Kravchenko even allowed Zborowski to edit his book I Chose Freedom (1946), with advance chapters surreptitiously dispatched to Moscow.
After becoming a US citizen with the start of the Cold War, Zborowski abandoned espionage for the pursuit of anthropology. He convinced famed anthropologist Margaret Mead that he had never been a spy. She obtained him research positions, first at Harvard and then with Columbia University’s Project on Contemporary Cultures, funded by US Naval Research, that studied six nations. Zborowski successfully lobbied to add the prewar Jewish shtetl. Mead vouchsafed that Zborowski’s work “combined the lived experience of shtetl culture and the disciplines of history and anthropology.” But Zborowski had lied about having a degree from the Sorbonne.
Zborowski was lead author of Life Is With People (1952), evoking shtetl life in what had been Russia’s Pale of Settlement. Its predecessors were nostalgic books by Maurice Samuel and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Zborowski’s book made errors that caused Jewish scholars to cringe, as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has pointed out. But its sentimentalizing of a lost Jewish world had mass appeal. We now know that Zborowski cynically gave a rosy hue to shtetl Judaism, which he had always despised. As a boy, he had thrown stones at the synagogue of the Bratslav Hasidim.
Zborowski’s celebrity ended when a high-ranking Soviet defector unmasked his past. Compelled to testify before a Senate Committee, he lied under oath. Convicted of perjury, he served two years of a four-year term. Then, at San Francisco’s Mount Zion Hospital, Zborowski reinvented himself again — this time as “a medical anthropologist.” His book People in Pain (1969), on ethnic variations in pain tolerance, argued that peasants were stoic, but Jews reacted to physical discomfort with what is colloquially called “kvetching.”
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).