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August 24, 2017 by

The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter: An Interview with Jane Lazarre

lazarre interview imageIn a letter to his baby grandson, Bill Lazarre wrote that “unfortunately, despite the attempts by your grandpa and many others to present you with a better world, we were not very successful.” Born in 1902 amid the pogroms in Eastern Europe, Lazarre dedicated his life to working for economic equality, racial justice, workers’ rights to name just a few of his goals. He was also dedicated to his family, especially his daughters, whom he raised as a single father following his wife’s death. In this highly nuanced and sensitively written book, Jane Lazarre weaves personal memories with documentary materials—such as her father’s massive FBI file—to tell his fascinating history as a communist, a Jew, and a husband, father, and grandfather.

Soon after immigrating to the United States as a young man, Lazarre began a long career as a radical activist. He held leadership positions in the American Communist Party, fought in the Spanish Civil War, organized labor unions, and testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee where he refused to name names. He was convicted of sedition, and resisted the FBI’s efforts to recruit him as an informant. Through periods of heroism and deep despair, Bill Lazarre never abandoned his ideals or his sustained faith in the fundamental goodness of people.

His daughter Jane—a novelist (an excerpt from her novel, Inheritance, appeared in Lilith), essay writer, teacher—weaves her own story into the one she writes about him. She examines the nature of memory, grief, love, and conscience while detailing the sacrifices, humanity, and unwavering convictions of the exceptional man who shaped her.

Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough posed some questions to Lazarre about the impact she hopes her book will have and its relevance in our own politically turbulent time.

YZM: IN telling your father’s story, rather than opting for a linear chronology, you chose to move freely between time period in a more impressionistic way. Why?

JL: Memoirs often flow over time periods, like crosscurrents in tides. In this work more so than in previous books, I wrote from the most general outline, and the structure changed over the years of writing. Coming to America and my father’s trial as a young Communist in Philadelphia, The Spanish Civil War (his role there and its mythic place in our childhood), the terrible years of personal loss overlapping his loss of faith in the Communist Party. All of these involved both memory and research, and when these were not enough for me, I counted on imagination. Time frames came to me in associational rather than linear time and I followed my mind as it revealed stories I felt sure of remembering, then led to imagining what might have happened, what my father – Bill Lazarre/Bill Lawrence/Itzrael Lazarowitz – might have felt in his own mind, from his own point of view. As I moved through the times of his life, and the years of my own life as I wrote and rewrote, as life inevitably interfered with work plans, historical and personal history overlapped, as they do in our memories, or even in our dreams. A book written in linear time might have suggested I was writing a biography of my father, and this is a memoir – the story of his life intertwined with a part of the story of mine.

YZM: Did writing this book allow you to see your father—and mother, for she’s very much part of the story—in a new or different way?

JL: Through the years of writing this memoir I was also exploring my history with my father in various ways. As with most of us as we age, I had come to understand a more complex man. In the years of writing about him, moving back and forth between my memories, my newer understanding as an aging woman with grownup children, with the help of the memories of others who knew him well, including my sons – one who barely remembered him, one who never knew him, but both of whom had heard stories about him all of their lives – and with reading the actual documents of his speaking and writing contained in the book, I believe I came to understand him in a more complex way. Childhood prejudices and fears were replaced by a deeply sympathetic view of a man who, among other salient realities of his life, was my father.

I had thought about my mother – my loss of her and the childhood anger that inevitably accompanied that death, yet my ongoing love of her–for many years. I had written about her, talked about her and remembered her in a long and transforming psychoanalysis. And yet, there was, to my surprise, even more to understand. I saw her more than ever before, as the young woman who had the courage to work for a then-outlawed Communist movement, and at the same time to work as a successful businesswoman, supporting the family while her husband was a fulltime revolutionary. I saw the very young woman, younger than my own sons, dying slowly of cancer, frightened and grief-stricken to leave her young children behind. All the confusing stories about her, even the toxic legacy constructed by her mother and elder sister, found a more realistic context. I can’t ever be sure of any ultimate truth about her life, or for that matter about my own early years with her. But I believe and hope I discovered, perhaps recovered, a more empathic and questioning portrait.

YZM: What do you hope your sons will gain from reading this story?

JL: My sons are both in their forties now. They have read and reread this book. One is an actor and writer, the only grandson my father knew of the four he would have. The other is a social justice activist and a novelist. They both believe deeply in the importance of story-telling, and both are inspired by family history – both their Jewish and their African American sides. I wrote this book in part for them, for my niece and nephew and for my granddaughter, as well as for close family members and lifelong friends. I wanted them to know at least one version of the story of how Itzrael Lazarovitz became Bill Lazarre. I want them to have a record, a base or a version from which to write or imagine their own versions of family history and the history of the times in which their mother came of age – a legacy.

YZM: What do you think your parents would make of it?

JL: My mother died when I was so young, I have been imagining her for most of my life. I have written about her in various ways over the years, in both fiction and memoir and, in recent years, in poetry. I did not really know her, so I can’t say what she might have thought of this, or any of my books. I do know she loved to read to us, and I know she loved visual art, so I hope she would appreciate my devotion to remembering – or reinventing – her story. I know she was a woman who valued beautiful objects, rooms, clothes, accessories, so I want to think she would have found my language beautiful. I know she was a passionate believer in socialism and in the ideals that so defined her husband’s life, so I hope she would have respected my desire to represent those ideals in this work.

My father—a different story. He died when I was in my late twenties [and] already married to my husband, an African-American man whose history and perspective changed the way I, and I think my father too, saw the world. I was already the mother of my older son, his first grandchild. He knew I wanted to be a writer, and he’d read my first, never-published novel. When he read it, he sent it to a close family friend, a writer, and asked him: Is she the real McCoy? The friend, a man I was close to as well, responded that, yes, he thought I was. After that, my father gave me a thousand dollars so I could quit my job as a secretary to a professor at Yale, where my husband was attending law school.

This was 1968/9. I could write for a year between this gift and my husband’s scholarships and loans. So, I believe my father, a lover of language, a writer of essays and letters, a brilliant teacher of the novels we read together, the Marxist texts he taught to many, not to mention his carefully worded lessons of everyday life, would have been proud of my work over the years. I think he would have argued that preserving stories, however they may differ in different memories [or] even contradict each other as we all know family stories do, is essential. He lived his life embedded in history. And he knew from both successful efforts and deep disappointments that history is made of stories, and stories are framed by the storyteller. Without stories, we would lack both knowledge of ourselves and of the world. Having said all this, I am sure my father would have found aspects of this book to criticize. We disagreed about many things, and those disagreements are part of this story, especially my involvement in psychoanalysis. I hope he would have welcomed my effort to learn all this book had taught me about his history More than anyone, I wish he could read what I have written, for it is created out of love and respect for him, despite our quarrels filled with gratitude for his love.

YZM: How do you see your father’s political struggles in terms of today’s political climate?

JL: We are living in frightening abnormal political times in this nation. I respond to these questions two days after the white supremacist demonstration/riot in Charlottesville, Virginia – where at least one person was killed, where people shouted racist epithets under Nazi symbols. I write these words two days after Donald Trump refused to name this terrorist action what it was, to denounce in uncertain terms the bigotry and white supremacy that was the motivation of the crowd that became a mob. We live in a time of great political cowardice, and some heroism, a time when a racist administration in Washington is bringing shame and fear to us as Americans as well as to people around the world. It is no accident that many articles and essays have begun to appear comparing this time to McCarthyism. It is important to begin to re-evaluate, to write and teach and revise our knowledge of the history of radical political thought [and] of the times of radical resistance to tyranny. My book is a portrait of a man who held to his ideals despite persecution and disillusionment, even despite the risk to his family whom he loved above all. We live in a time now of dangerous authoritarianism, of open, excused bigotry generated not only by fascist extremists but by some of our established political institutions. But this is also in a time of resistance. I hope mine can be one more voice to resist.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.