My friend the spy, Part IV

My Friend the Spy is a Great Whatsit serial. It is a true story (save for the author’s pseudonym), told in weekly installations. Part I. Part II. Part III.

From the previous episode: “Oh! That reminds me!” he said. “There’s another writer that’s coming to talk to me on Wednesday. Another writer – imagine that! You’ve got competition already! Ha!” He was clearly pleased, though I was not. “Why don’t you come, too, and then I won’t have to repeat myself! Just come here at noon on Wednesday.”…

When I arrived at Joel’s apartment on Wednesday, I was let in by an exquisitely beautiful woman with a mane of black hair and yellow eyes. Though it’s a terrible literary cliché to suggest a person’s eyes are a color other than blue, brown or something in between, this is not in fact an exaggeration. I had never seen eyes that color on anyone but a cat, nor have I since. She led me into the living room, where Joel sat on the couch next to a portly man with wavy hair and a sweaty forehead.

“Thank you, Albina!” Joel crowed, waving at the woman who’d shown me in. When she was just out of earshot, he whispered. “She’s really in love with me, but doesn’t want anyone to know.” I nodded, smiling. “Really,” he said, “She can hardly hold herself back. That’s why she treats me so badly.” He shook his head sadly, rubbing his bald head for a moment before snapping back to the business at hand.

“Oh,” he said, when he’d collected himself, “this is the other writer I was telling you about.” Joel introduced me – I no longer remember the man’s name, but he wrote for the most popular tabloid in Russia – and then continued with the story he’d obviously already commenced telling.

Over the course of the next two hours, I learned the basics of Joel’s story. His father and mother were Russian Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms at the turn of the century, and Joel had been born and raised in Brooklyn. In the 1930s and ‘40s, while studying engineering at City College of New York, he’d become good friends with his classmate Julius Rosenberg and Julius’s wife, Ethel. “I wasn’t a spy,” Joel announced – though many others would dispute that claim, as I’d soon learn – “ but I was in the Communist party, and I lost several jobs because of it.”

Joel worked at various defense industry jobs throughout the 1940s, living for a while in a Greenwich Village apartment on Morton Street with another Communist friend named Al Sarant. He then went to Paris, to study music. He was living there in 1950 when suddenly – just days before the Rosenbergs were arrested and tried for espionage – he disappeared. No one, not his family, friends, or even his fiancée Vivian, knew what happened to him. He simply vanished.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the West, Joel made his way to Prague, where he took on a new identity: From 1950 onward, Joel Barr ceased to exist. He became Iosef Veniaminovich Berg, ostensibly of South Africa. “I took the name Joseph Berg because I thought it was clever,” he says, beaming. “Get it? Joseph Berg… Joe Berg… Joburg.” His “alias” was a play on Johannesburg, the capital of South Africa.

Somehow, though Joel always spoke Czech and Russian with a thick Brooklyn accent, almost no one in Russia ever realized he was actually American. Even the woman he married, a Czech named Vera, had no idea for decades.

For 40 years, Joel Barr / Joe Berg worked to build communism, first in Prague, then in Leningrad. He toiled on defense projects, using the knowledge he’d gained from working in the American defense industry to further Soviet bloc’s military capabilities. He and Vera started a family, eventually having four children who would grow up as Czech citizens, having no idea their father was actually American.

Then, in 1953, a government official ordered him to travel to Moscow, with directions to go to a certain hotel room at a pre-arranged time. “I was scared to death,” Joel said, “I didn’t know if they were going to arrest me, or kill me, or what.” He was an American working in a militarily sensitive field, and the Cold War was in full swing. Was he suspected of being a spy? “I walked up to that hotel room, and I’ll tell you, my heart was in my mouth,” he told us.

But when Joel opened the door, he found a familiar face: Al Sarant, his roommate from Morton Street. The two men stared at each other, astonished, before grabbing each other in a hug. “How did you get here?” Joel asked. And Al told a story even more incredible than Joel’s.

Al, who’d also been friends with the Rosenbergs, had fled New York not long after Joel did, leaving behind his wife and children. Not only had he fled, but he’d managed to convince his neighbor’s wife Carol, with whom he’d been having an affair, to come with him. She left her husband and young children behind, promising Al she’d go with him as far as Mexico City. But once they’d snuck across the border, Al managed to talk into coming with him behind the Iron Curtain. Now Carol, who spoke no Russian, would take the new identity “Anna Petrovna,” while Al would become “Philip Staros.”

Joel was elated to be reunited with his old buddy Al, and they quickly applied for permission to run an engineering lab together in Leningrad. The request was granted, and Al and Joel became heads of the U.S.S.R.’s first microelectronics lab. The two men were treated like rock stars – they were received personally by Nikita Khrushchev, paid ten times the wages of their Russian counterparts, and given expansive apartments and black Volga sedans. Initially, they worked for the Soviet defense ministry, designing anti-aircraft weaponry that was eventually used against U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

As Joel unfolds his story, I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. Here’s a man who left behind everything – family, friends, belongings – in order to build communism. Now, in 1996, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and the system he fought to build is seen as little more than a historical anomaly and a failure. At age 80, Joel is an anonymous, elderly pensioner in an economically crippled country. Yet, despite the fact that everything he fought for has collapsed, and his own life is materially more difficult than it has been in decades, he is amazingly resilient. In our hours spent together, I look for a hint of bitterness, but instead I find mostly corny jokes and wacky theories.

Joel has, I discover, a few obsessions: making money, living forever, and starting political parties. Often, he tries to figure out ways to do all three at once. One idea he hopes to sell is the “Minifab”: a miniature electronics lab designed for the manufacture of custom-made computer chips. Joel is fixated on getting “backers” for this project; in his world, the “big score” is always tantalizingly around the corner. Over time, he describes for me his other ideas, including “Project 3000 AD, the Encyclopedia of the Future,” the “Marriage Bureau for Intellectuals,” and “Musex: The Musical Experience,” which aims to enhance music lovers’ sex lives through ten pieces of particularly stirring classical music.

The more I learn, the more I wonder: who is my new friend Joel Barr? Is he a genius, as some engineers who worked with him suggest, or simply a kook? Does he really believe half the things he’s saying to me? Was he a spy? Was he even truly a communist, given how eagerly he’s now embracing a capitalist perspective? I am amazed at Joel’s ability to remake himself, and charmed by his high spirits and cheerful irreverence. But who is he, really?

Next week: Ted Koppel enters the mix (at last!)

4 responses to “My friend the spy, Part IV”

  1. MarleyFan says:

    Glad you are back Lisa. So I am wondering why did Joel make you promise not to write about him, and then invite you and another writer over? How could he (and Al) have not been in cahoots with the Rosenburgs, and then help build weapons system for the USSR which could be used against his former friends and family (in the US)? And if they weren’t spying while in the US, why would Russia not think they were sent to spy for the U.S.? And, why in the world pick the psuedonym Parrish? Full of questions! Why were the two men brought together? My parents said that when I was a kid, my favorite line was “how did you know?”. I future episodes will explain…

  2. PB says:

    I am facinated by the relationship between adaptation and reinvention to revive, even preserve your self and maintaining some crucial integrity, a kind of core self, I ‘yam who I ‘yam. Frank L. Wright was an interesting balance of the two. So was Eleanor Roosevelt. I am interested in your spy friend, what if we find out that there is no thread between the lives and mutations, maybe he is many selves, like serial monogamy, a new self for each new life. hmmmm, keep it coming. PS, I like Parrish, it has a communal ring to it.

  3. MarleyFan says:

    Maybe PB’s on the right track. Maybe Joel has Multiple Personality Disorder, and didn’t know it. Doesn’t the GW have a psychologist/psychiatrist who could help us diagnose?

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