Van Heijenoort Remembered

Against the Current, No. 12-13, January-April 1988

Alexander Buchman

WE LIVE IN AN AGE so frequently characterized by violent death that one tends to dismiss as inconsequential the premature truncation of any life. One such case is the tragic death of Jean van Heijenoort who last year was shot by his estranged wife, Ana Maria, in Mexico City.

Socialist, philosopher, logician, linguist, and teacher, van Heijenoort had during the past twenty years won international repute as a mathematician of exceptional talent. An avowed Marxist from early student days, he was a lifelong opponent of Stalinism.

During the seven years of his close collaboration with Leon Trotsky he functioned as translator, organizer, administrator, and personal secretary, and frequently served also as an armed guard against elements intent on silencing Trotsky forever. No less than his fluency in French, Russian, German, English, and Spanish, his political intransigence and personal devotion found him ideally equipped for all these roles.

Those who knew Jean van Heijenoort, Leon and Natalia Trotsky not least, treasured him, prized his integrity, his acumen, the immaculate precision and scope of his research and scholarly enterprise.

Jean van Heijenoort was born to a French mother and a father of Dutch descent on July 25, 1912, in Creil, France, a metal-working and manufacturing center on the river Oise. Creil is southeast of Beauvais and thirty miles north of Paris in an area that throughout his childhood endured the devastation wrought by World War I. His mother worked as a maid. His father, an artisan at the Fichet lock factory, died when Jean was two years old.

After completing his basic schooling in Creil, Jean was enrolled at the nearby College de Clermont d’Oise. There he became a youth member of the French Left Opposition’s Ligue Communiste, an organization essentially in sympathy with Trotsky’s political program. Migrating to Paris in 1932, young van Heijenoort embarked on the study of higher mathematics at the prestigious Lycee St.-Louis. He met other youthful members of the Ligue Communiste and soon became a member of the Paris chapter.

Of his period he wrote:

“Since the age of fifteen I had considered myself a communist, first with a Rousseauist and utopian tinge, then, in the midst of the great depression, with a more directly political and activist attitude. As of the spring of 1932 I was considered a member of the Ligue Communist, the French Trotskyite group … I was the first member … who had not passed through the Communist Party or the Young Communist League; all those whom I met there had been expelled from an official Communist organization.”

The Nomad’s Secretary

In 1929, after banishment from the Soviet Union, Trotsky was obliged to lead a nomadic existence, settling in temporary havens. Among these one of the more sheltered and congenial was the island of Prinkipo, some twenty miles from Istanbul in the Sea of Mamora, where he arrived in January 1932.

In June of the same year Raymond Molinier, one of the leaders of the Ligue Communiste, proposed that van Heijenoort become Trotsky’s secretary. “I arrived in Prinkipo, Turkey, on October 20, 1932,” wrote van Heijenoort. “I was 20 years old, having just ended nine years of confinement in French schools, and I was in total revolt against society.”

Except for a brief trip to France as escort to Trotsky’s grandson Sieva Volkov, van Heijenoort remained in Prinkipo until the departure for France of the entire Trotsky entourage on July 17, 1933, following the granting of visas by the Daladier government. Trotsky and his wife Natalia landed by launch at Cassis near Marseilles on July 24; van Heijenoort, Rudolph Klement and the Americans Max Shachtman and Sara Jacobs dis­ embarked at Marseilles.

By prearrangement with Raymond Molinier and French authorities Trotsky and Natalia motored to a secluded villa at Saint-Palais in the Basse-Pyrenees. Van Heijenoort left Marseilles immediately for Lyons in order to outwit the GPU [Soviet secret police, predecessor of KGB] and journalists, a skill at which he had already become adept.

Soon thereafter he joined Trotsky in Saint-Palais and remained there from July to October of 1933, when he returned to Paris. He resumed his duties with Trotsky at Barbizon, a little town between Paris and Fountainbleau, from November 1933 to April 1934.

The year 1934 brought Trotsky’s nominal expulsion from France by the Doumergue government, but since no other country was willing to offer him refuge, the authorities chose to look the other way as he wandered from Chamonix, Grenoble, and La Tranche to Lyons, Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, and Domene, where he managed to stay from July 1934 to June 1935. In some of these refuges van Heijenoort was a frequent visitor; in others he and Trotsky shared living quarters. During the stay at Domene, van Heijenoort translated into French Trotsky’s Whither France?

Trotsky’s continuing presence in France now having become something of a cause celebre, his situation steadily deteriorated; long precarious, it was fast becoming untenable. When at last Norway offered him refuge, he was accompanied there by van Heijenoort, who soon thereafter returned to Paris.

In Paris van Heijenoort found employment with an insurance company where in June of 1936 he helped organize a workers’ strike. August 1936 not only brought to a disillusioned world the shocking news of the first Moscow Trial, it also confirmed Stalin’s determination to pursue and harass Trotsky to the fullest extent possible.

Van Heijenoort hastened to Norway. Three days later, under pressure from the Soviets, Norway expelled him, and Denmark denied him even a brief stay. He returned once more to Paris. In the Soviet Union, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and fourteen others had just been ordered executed. It was in the wake of this bloodbath that the official French Communist Party newspaper said that van Heijenoort was a murderer and had blood on his hands.

Under mounting Soviet pressure, Norway expelled Trotsky. Welcomed to Mexico by President Cardenas, he first found refuge in Diego Rivera’s Avenida Landres “blue house” in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. He was joined there just one hour later by van Heijenoort, who had arrived from France via New York City by boat, rail, and plane. It was January 1937.

The second Moscow Trial, that of Radek, Piatakov, Muralov and others was underway. Van Heijenoort played a principal role in translating Trotsky’s rebuttal of the “confession,” as well as in the daily liaison with the media. He was also instrumental in the organization and success of the Dewey Commission hearings in Coyoacan, April 10-17, 1937, in the Avenida Landres house.

But serious political differences between Trotsky and Rivera had matured and they were no longer on speaking terms. Van Heijenoort located a house for Trotsky and his associates on Coyoacan’s Avenida Viena. He arranged for its renovation and designed and installed a sophisticated electrical alarm system. Soon thereafter he left for New York City.

Attempts on Trotsky’s Life

Van Heijenoort was in New York City when the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros organized a band of Communist Party members, at least one GPU agent, and other hangers-on, who entered the Avenida Viena refuge through a ruse, fired many shots, but were unsuccessful in their attempt to assassinate Trotsky. They did however make off with Sheldon Harte, one of the American armed guards, whose body was found in a lime-pit a few days later. Van Heijenoort offered to return to Coyoacan but was advised to remain in New York City.

Ten months after van Heijenoort’s departure from Coyoacan Trotsky was dead. Wrote van Heijenoort:

“In August 1940 I was in Baltimore teaching French. On the morning of the 21st as I was taking a walk, I passed a pile of New York Times newspapers stacked on the sidewalk and happened to glance down at the headlines. There it was, in the middle of the front page: ‘Trotsky, Wounded by “Friend” in Home, is Believed Dying.’ I wandered the streets for a while, then waited for the news on the radio. A voice announced: ‘Leon Trotsky died today in Mexico City.’ Darkness set in.”

In 1939 van Heijenoort received a doctorate from New York University. During World War II he was active — part of the time as international secretary — in the Secretariat of the Fourth International.

He was a frequent participant in internal discussions of the Socialist Workers Party. Under cover of various pseudonyms — among them Daniel Logan, Marc Loris, Ann Vincent and Jean Vannier — he made many significant contributions to the theoretical journal of the Fourth International. Abandoning these activities in 1946, he left the Trotskyist movement in 1948. (See Jean Vannier, “A Century Balance Sheet,” Partisan Review, March 1948.)

Mathematician, Philosopher, Historian In 1950 he became a member of the department of mathematics at New York University; from 1965 to 1977 he was professor of philosophy and history of logic at Brandeis University where later, upon retirement, he became professor emeritus of philosophy.

Although van Heijenoort left the Trotskyist movement, his interest in its history never waned. When Harvard University’s Houghton library acquired its vast assemblage of Trotsky’s papers, writings, and correspondence, it was van Heijenoort who was entrusted with the prodigious task of identifying, collating, arranging, and classifying the Trotsky archives.

This huge body of documentation­ consisting of some 22,000 documents ranging from 1929 to 1940, in several languages-has since 1980 been an indispensable source for scholars and researchers worldwide. More than this, until his death van Heijenoort generously assisted individuals and institutions seeking information and data concerning the Trotskyist era.

In1982 he became associated with Stanford University’s department of mathematics not only as a visiting scholar but also as editor of the logician Kurt Godel’s collected works, the first volume of which has been published.

At the Hoover Institution at Stanford he collaborated with Professor Pierre Braue of the University of Grenoble in arranging and editing correspondence, recently unearthed, between Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov. Amidst all this activity he would find time to visit his son Jean in Paris, his daughter Laure in Santa Fe, his friends in Mexico City. Death ended a planned visit to Japan.

His years with Trotsky he deftly and evocatively chronicled in a unique volume entitled With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacan. Its publisher, Harvard University Press, also published his translation of related material: Leon and Natalia Trotsky: Correspondence. In the field of mathematics his published works include From Frege to Goedel — A Source Book in Mathematical Logic, published in 1937 (Harvard University Press), Selected Essays, and a volume which he edited, Jacques Herbrand: Ecrits Logiques.

Best evaluated in his own words is van Heijenoort’s political orientation following Trotsky’s assassination:

“For seven years following Trotsky’s death I remained active in the Trotskyite movement. By 1948 the Marxist-Leninist ideas about the role of the proletariat and its political capacity seemed more and more to disagree with reality. This was also the time when the full extent of Stalin’s universe of concentration camps became known, at least to those who did not wish to close their eyes or stop their ears. Under the impact of this revelation, I began to re-examine the past, and I came to ask myself whether the Bolsheviks, by establishing an irreversible police rule and obliterating all public opinion, had not prepared the soil on which the huge and poisonous mushroom of Stalinism had grown. I pondered my doubts, and for several years the study of mathematics was all that allowed me to preserve my inner equilibrium. Bolshevik ideology was, for me, in ruins. I had to build another life.”

A tribute to Jean van Heijenoort must mention — quoting a friend-“… his humanity, kindness, culture, his heart.

One should add, his honesty, his quiet modesty, his sense of humor, above all, his probity in regard to both himself and others. Those of us fortunate enough to have known him will long cherish his memory. Others will be rewarded by the fruits of his scholarship and by his role in history.

January-April 1988, ATC 12-13

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