My friend the spy, Part V

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. Part IV.

From the previous episode: 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?

By now, a few months after we first met, Joel has decided that he wants me to write his book – that I should be his “Boswellova,” as he puts it in Russian. As it turns out, I’m not the first journalist to dig into the question of who Joel Barr truly is. After nearly four decades of being hidden behind the Iron Curtain, Joel’s true identity had finally been revealed in the early 1990s. When that happened, the U.S. House of Representatives, ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel and many others suddenly became intensely interested in his story.

During his time in Prague, Joel had married a Czech woman named Vera Krcmarova, and she bore him four children over the next decade. For years, Vera and the children didn’t know Joel was American, but he finally revealed that fact to them in the early 1980s, spurred on after a fellow scientist published an article in the U.S. correctly surmising that Iosef Berg was in fact Joel Barr. Joel didn’t tell his family about his ties to the Rosenbergs – but his 30-year-old son Robert would discover the truth about his father in a most unexpected way.

A professional cellist, Robert went on a concert tour to the U.S. with the Prague symphony in 1988. To the surprise – and chagrin – of his father, he defected, applying for American citizenship and settling in California. Soon after defecting, Robert read a book called The Rosenberg Files, by Ronald Radosh. Shocked to finally realize who his father truly was, Robert tracked down Dr. Radosh’s telephone number, and called him to say, “I believe the Joel Barr you wrote about is my father.”

Robert gave his father’s Leningrad telephone number to Dr. Radosh, who promptly called. “Is this Joel Barr?” Radosh asked, when Joel answered the phone. Joel’s response: “Ah, you found me.”

With his son now living in San Diego, the Cold War over, and his identity finally revealed, Joel decided to try and reclaim his U.S. passport. Because he’d never formally renounced his U.S. citizenship, he was able to get one – though he initially had trouble proving his identity, as his 1950 U.S. passport was lost in Czech government files. Once he re-established his U.S. citizenship, however, Joel also registered to vote (“I voted for Jerry Brown in the 1992 election!” he crowed) – and he began collecting Social Security. The $200 or so he collected each month was a pittance in America, but for an elderly pensioner in Russia, it was a comparative fortune.

Several months after Joel re-surfaced, Ted Koppel did a Nightline episode about him. Titled “American Patriot / Soviet Spy?” the show traced Joel’s life and examined the question, then unanswered, of whether Joel had in fact been a Soviet spy in the Rosenberg ring. The fact that Joel was collecting Social Security drew angry comments from several U.S. government sources, including former FBI agent Robert Lamphere, who complained to Koppel that “If I were running things in Washington, Joel Barr certainly would never be allowed back in the United States. Barr is a spy and a traitor, and I don’t see any reason why we should allow a man who has devoted his life to the cause of the Soviet Union, including running a research laboratory for them, back in the United States.”

In the fall of 1996, I had a copy of the Nightline transcript sent to me in St. Petersburg, and on reading it I remember being struck by the depth of anger so many Americans felt toward my goofy friend Joel. It did seem mildly outrageous that a man who’d spent the bulk of his life battling the U.S. system – and perhaps, in his younger years, even spying against it – should receive financial support from it in his later years. But even as several members of congress launched an effort to have him expelled from the country, Joel responded in his own inimitable way: He wrote a letter to Congressman Stephen Solarz, demanding that his Social Security payments be increased. The congressman’s office apparently did not respond.

During the last six months of 1996, Joel and I spent many hours together in St. Petersburg, and we agreed that I should, with his help, write his biography. I was enthralled by the thought, even though I’d never written a book and didn’t know how to get a contract. That December, I returned to the U.S. for what was meant to be a two-month holiday break. Once there, I accepted a job helping a friend who was a Washington Post reporter to write a book for Random House. This was it, I thought: Once I finished working on this first book, I’d get a book contract of my own, and Joel and I would be on our way.

In the meantime, I had an unexpected chance to ask Ted Koppel himself what he thought of my new biographical subject. My friend at the Post had invited me to join her for an event at Katharine Graham’s house, and when we entered Mrs. Graham’s grand Georgetown mansion, I saw Koppel sipping a drink across the room.

I introduced myself, told him I was planning to write a book about Joel Barr, and asked him his opinion. “You should be careful,” Koppel told me. “He’s charming, but he’s tricky. I’d be very careful with him.” I laughed, but spent the rest of the evening wondering what exactly Koppel’s warning meant.

Over the course of the next year, Joel and I kept in touch through email, and he even came to spend a few months in Washington while I was there. I began taping our conversations, and writing outlines for the book. And I finally began to understand that, despite his many denials, Joel had in fact been a member of the Rosenberg spy ring. My friend was a spy – and not only that, he’d lied to me about it.

The smoking gun was the secret material in the so-called Venona Files. Classified for more than 40 years, and finally made public in the mid-1990s, the Venona Files were intercepted Soviet messages that U.S. intelligence had de-coded in the 1950s. For all but the most rabid defenders of the Rosenbergs, these files made clear that not only Julius Rosenberg, but Morton Sobell (who was convicted with the Rosenbergs and sent to Alcatraz), Al Sarant, and Joel Barr were all Soviet spies during the 1940s. But Joel dismissed the Venona files in conversations with me, declaring that their messages had simply been misconstrued.

Though Joel had always insisted that he wasn’t a spy, I had never really believed him. The truth was, I found that I didn’t care whether he was a spy or not. If he was, I reasoned, he’d at least done it for ideological reasons rather than mercenary ones. The communist ideal was, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, still seen by many as a humane, progressive system. And the Soviets were, after all, U.S. allies in the fight against the Nazis – a period when innumerable American Jews embraced the Soviet cause. Who was I to blame or judge Joel for whatever idealistic decisions he’d made 50 years ago?

Besides, Joel was, in very real ways, a man without a country and without an identity – even before he disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. His father, a Russian Jew, had fled Russia for the U.S. at the turn of the century. Four decades later, Joel left the U.S. to bounce back across the sea to Russia. And four decades after that, Joel’s own son bounced right back across to the U.S. again. This was a family who belonged nowhere – or at least, who couldn’t figure out where they belonged. How could anyone demand patriotism, or any kind of loyalty to country, from such people?

Yet my easy acceptance of Joel and his past was put to a tougher test when I showed the Nightline video to my parents in the summer of 1997. By this point, I was finishing up work on my friend’s book, and preparing the proposal for my book about Joel. I was excited at the prospect, and eager to show the video to my parents, who’d heard all about Joel but had never met him.

We sat together in the living room of my parents’ modest split-level home, and as the video ended, my mother remarked enthusiastically that “Joel sure sounds like an interesting fellow!” My father, after a moment of silence, said curtly, “I don’t know why anyone would want to write a book about him. That guy’s not a hero. He’s not a hero at all.” I sat for a moment, unsure how to respond, before simply popping out the video and changing the subject.

I didn’t at first fully understand the source of my father’s pique. In fact, I didn’t realize it for several months. It was only later that I made the connection: Joel designed the anti-aircraft weapons that were used in the Vietnam War – a fact that was described in the Nightline video. My father, a retired U.S. Navy pilot, flew in that war. Joel’s inventions for the Soviet Union, I now realized, had been aimed at killing my own father. No longer was the question of Joel’s betrayal of his country merely an abstract one.

What is the nature of patriotism? Of betrayal? Of treason? Is it morally acceptable to embrace a culture or political system antagonistic to the one you live in? And is it possible to judge a person separately from his political beliefs and actions – especially if you find those actions abhorrent?

Even as I wrestled with questions about what kind of man Joel really was, he and I continued to prepare for the book. In the spring of 1998, he and I planned a trip together to San Diego, so I could finally meet his son Robert and his daughter Vivian, who had both become American citizens. Joel was still living in St. Petersburg, but we emailed frequently and made plans for our trip.

In July, when a few of my emails to Joel went unanswered, I didn’t worry. The electricity went out frequently on Joel’s pre-war apartment block. And the email service he used was occasionally down. But when a few more weeks passed with no response, I did begin to worry. I emailed Bill Danziger, an old Communist buddy of Joel’s from his days in New York, in hopes of finding something out. A few days later, I got a response.

Dear Lisa,

I have just gotten off the phone with Mort [Sobell] who gave me the news, then turned on our PC and found your message.

Mort tells me that Joel died on August 1. Although he was quite ill the feeling is that he would have recovered if just average medical care had been available to him. The hospital care was dismal. Mort had been away and picked up the messages that had accumulated during the week.

We are very sad – he had been a continuing part of our lives here for quite a few years and we will surely miss him. Be in touch.

Affectionately, Susan and Bill

Joel was dead – killed, one could argue, by the shortcomings of the system he’d fought so hard to build – and my hopes of doing a book about him died at that moment as well. This was our great adventure together, and without him, I had no interest in continuing alone. He is buried under his alias, Iosef Venyaminovich Berg, in a cemetery outside Prague.

8 responses to “My friend the spy, Part V”

  1. Rachel says:

    Wow! Every installment of this saga has been fascinating, but the finale is mind-blowing. If Joel had lived, you would still be wrestling with many of the questions your father’s reaction raised within you. Even though you were making plans at the time of Joel’s death to continue your research, do you think you’d have gone through with the book project?

    P.S. I love to think of young Lisa P. at Katharine Graham’s house, chatting with Ted Koppel.

  2. bryan says:

    ditto what rachel said. this just got better and better, and the final installment was terrific. more than i bargained for. i think you should still write the book — the ambivalence about his choices and their consequences *is* the story.

  3. Stephanie Wells says:

    Definitely. The subject has changed–it’s now you, and what conflict your father and Joel churned up in you ideologically. This finale was definitely worth the 78 installments! You can smack me for that when you see me tonight!

  4. MarleyFan says:

    Lisa P.,
    A great short story. It’s always interesting to find what life can both bring and take away. It’s fun to learn something new, and as I was watching final season of The West Wing last night (on Netflix), there was a reference to Julius R., which I would not have caught, without having read your story. Very Well Done!

  5. Lisa Parrish says:

    Here’s the dirty little secret: I did still want to write the book, and even put together a detailed proposal four years after Joel’s death. In fact, these TGW installments are adapted from that proposal.

    My idea was to open the book with the scene where Joel says “You have to promise you’ll never write a book about me,” then tell parallel stories: the first about my getting to know Joel, and our wacky times together in St. Petersburg and Washington; and within that, telling his own incredible history as he unfolds it to me over time. The book was going to end with Joel’s death, and my final comment that “now the book would never be written.” The end. (Well, I thought it was clever, anyway).

    I had a hoity-toity NY literary agent who circulated the proposal, but though there was some mild interest from some editors, I couldn’t get a contract. As I recall, we gave up after about 10 rejections. In retrospect, I wish we’d circulated it more. In fact, at some point I might resurrect the project. There are a lot more incredible details I’ve left out, including reactions of Joel’s family and friends when he first returned to the US etc.

    As an aside, last year a writer named Steve Usdin (who I met through Joel in about 1997 or so) published a book about Joel and his friend Al Sarant. It’s called Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley. I know Steve has been checking out this My Friend the Spy thread, so… Hey there, Steve! And here’s a little promo spot for your book.

  6. Lisa Parrish says:

    Oh, and thanks everyone for your nice comments throughout the serial.

  7. […] Pandora Brewer, “Roses are red, aphids are dead” Dave B, “Ghosts” Brooke Maury, “Life and death in the long tail of music” Lisa Parrish, “And the lord said: ‘Ask her about her sex life’” Lisa Parrish, “My friend the spy” (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) Bryan Waterman, “Going back to Webster Hall” Bryan Waterman, “Coach” […]

  8. Bill Danziger says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I just ran into your Part 5 of “Myfriend the spy” article while doing a rendom search on Google on my name.
    Joe visitied here many times.He was at my wedding in 1993. I was a widower and remairried then..
    He was a charmer and very bright and inventive and in my graduating class at CCNY.
    I have papers and letters he left behind, did see his daughter performing at a restaurant in Brighton Beach.
    Trust you are well and be in touch, please. You know, of course, that a guy named Steve Usdin recently published a book. The title is Engineering Communism which doesn’t at all do justice to his life. Another book may still be in your future.

    Best, Bill .