Eva Kollisch’s Girl in Movement

Against the Current, No. 108, January/February 2004

Lillian Pollak

Girl in Movement
by Eva Kollisch
Vermont, Glad Day, 2000, 262 pages, $16.95 paperback.

MEMOIRS BY WOMEN, such as Girl Interrupted and Life Inside, describing the author’s unique experiences in her youth, have recently become popular.

Eva Kollisch’s book — Girl in Movement — another in this genre, recounts the problems of her     “coming-of-age” period, but purports, as well, to describe four years she spent in a revolutionary movement, the Workers Party.

The book begins with a pretty, lively, young Eva, recently arrived from Hitler’s Austria, reaching out to the new world and seeking her own identity.

During the 1941 Christmas she encounters two young people, Carla and Joe DeLeo; from then on her life is changed. Joe introduces her to a Trotskyist organization and Kollisch tells us how she had “a strong yearning to be part of something bigger” than herself. (32)

She attends Workers Party functions, meets Max Shachtman, its chairman, frequents the Waldorf Cafeteria on 14th Street — chief gathering place for poor radicals — and dates Walter, a dedicated Trotskyist.

After finishing high school she moves from Staten Island to Manhattan to live with Carla, takes a job in a belt factory, is fired and finally joins the party.

Her accounts are colorful; selling the newspaper, Labor Action, visiting a doctor for a diaphragm, marrying Walter, attempting to recruit members for the party, working in a Detroit factory, waitressing, hitch hiking and finally being tried by the party for delinquency.

Kollisch’s writing is open and charming, varied enough to sustain a steady interest. In her delineation of older people, her tender feelings for female friends (with a hint of homosexuality) prevail with empathy and warmth. She has a good sense of humor, which is sly and at times broad. For example, she says, regarding Walter, her boyfriend, “When he finally gave me his penis to hold,
he handed it to me like an assignment.” (88)

Occasionally there are passages that sound so simplistic they are rather hard to believe. In an endeavor to describe what a 16-year-old thinks about a family friend’s view that war would end when people refused to participate, she writes “I had a vision of all the people in the world sitting down or lying down until the war ended. The children on their way to school, the men in the trenches.”

Some phases appear overblown, for example, when she says of Walter, her mentor and lover, that “He had come to break through my petty-bourgeois defenses and to touch me with the magic wand of historical relevance.” (67)

Threads of sarcasm and irony run throughout the book. Here and there a sense that, open and enthusiastic as she presents herself to be, she isn’t entirely committed to the revolutionary movement. Upon hearing a speaker’s rhetoric, she tells us that she was “transported, as if in a hot air balloon” above “my puny self-interest.” (82) The simile, “hot-air balloon” resonates in the text.

Political Struggles

At the end of the book she describes her feelings about the movement to a friend as “the beauty of our vision, by the simplicity and purity of our lives” (238) yet she hasn’t conveyed that in her descriptions of experiences within the party. It’s unclear and I think she is unclear, even now, about what she did feel.

Although members of the party were sincere and dedicated, they were simply ordinary human beings with personal problems they brought to the movement. There wasn’t an overload of simplicity and purity, they weren’t saints. They were living in the real world, a capitalist world.

When it comes to describing Max Shachtman, chairman of the Workers Party, Kollisch pulls out all the stops. Her descriptions bring him to life: Tartar eyes, black curly hair, high cheekbones, bulging forehead, pounding the table, biting “into his words like raw meat” (34), declaiming theory, telling anecdotes, parables and Jewish jokes. All accurate but far from a complete picture; there was much more to this man.

In Alan Wald’s book, The New York Intellectuals, he relates that Shachtman was a fantastic polemicist, knew several languages and possessed a deep knowledge of Marxist history.

“On the platform he was a devastating speaker and debater, over the years demolishing opponents ranging from Earl Browder to Alexander Kerensky. His voice was rather high-pitched, sometimes rising to a screech, but ordinarily of resonant timbre. Many remembered his passionate, resounding orations, which often lasted for hours. For some, Shachtman’s extraordinary speaking style recalled a Beethoven symphony: he began slowly, building in soft whispers, and then burst forth, with powerful resonance, filling the room with a spine-tingling crescendo.” (173)

No one wanted to miss Max Shachtman when he took the platform, even those who disliked him. It was a performance, usually a great one.

Kollisch fails to discuss the role of Stalinism, which is a serious lack in the book. “After I joined the Movement, I too saw in Stalinists and their fellow-travellers the betrayers of the Socialist dream. But was it all as simple as that?” (24) she asks at one point but does not pursue it.

Most readers today know little, if anything, about the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, perhaps a little more about Stalin. If Kollisch wanted to inform us about the movement, even as background to her coming-of-age story, more needs to be explained.

With a page or two of history the reader would have gained a much better idea of the ideological differences between the Communists and Trotskyists. She does include a chapter in which a Stalinist teacher conducts a debate on the “No Strike” pledge — the position that unions and the CP took during World War II.

Although the chapter mentions a few issues, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the slave labor camps, it isn’t enough. A few facts such as Trotsky being the head of the Red Army, Lenin and Trotsky as the leaders of the Russian Revolution, the CP’s terrible errors in Spain and Germany, the phony trials in the USSR, executions of leading Bolsheviks, Stalin being “the gravedigger of the Revolution” should have been presented, thus validating the “Movement” of the book’s title. Stalin’s supporters were regularly beating up Trotskyists on the streets of New York yet Kollisch does not make much of this reality.

Leaving the Party

Eva resigns from the party at the end of the war, like many of her comrades. “The world revolution hadn’t come”; “news of the concentration camps had become known in horrifying detail.” (254) She had also outgrown her need for the radical movement – “no longer an actor on the world stage; I had become an ordinary person.” (258)

She believed she had not been living “in the real world, the work of people in the park, playing with their children, going to work . . . . she hadn’t thought about the most elementary things.” (255)

Toward her former comrades, though, she assures us, she will always have warm, nostalgic feelings, the same feelings that are evoked by people who have been in a struggle together, particularly an idealistic one.

Girl in Movement is an easy read, enjoyable for former leftists, fun to identify with. However, the omission of actual names of party members — with the exception of Max Shachtman — and her decision to amalgam people who embody characteristic voices and gestures give her story a feeling of unreality.

Inadequate as I found the book, I feel that we need memoirs like this one. How else will the young know anything about the past? Not too many read history books these days.

Working to make a better world, however misguided and fruitless it may seem in retrospect, to many was an exciting, enriching experience. For Kollisch it was a mixed bag but, all the same, she was glad she lived it.

ATC 108, January-February 2004