Before he killed the president of the United States, Lee Harvey Oswald was a metal lathe operator at a radio and television factory in Minsk. He had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959, hoping to take part in a revolution that, unbeknownst to him, had been snuffed out three decades earlier, when Stalin liquidated the old Bolshevik guard.
When Oswald learned of this he fled to Moscow, since he hated America and his mother. The KGB did not want him to stay, and they refused to extend his six-day tourist visa, but then Oswald tried to kill himself in his hotel room and they relented. In January 1960 he was sent to Minsk, which was sleepy and far away from anyone important.
In 1960 and early 1961, before Oswald met his future wife, Marina Prusakova, the people who inhabited his world were mostly Jews. Even though their Jewishness had been attenuated and warped by their Soviet experience, it flickered on. It was, in fact, unmistakable. Their religious identity colored their thinking about the Soviet Union, communism, the war, the West, God and man. They were different, even if they didn’t like to think of themselves as different, from the Russians.
This had a profound, if subtle, effect on Oswald and his experience inside the Soviet experiment. That effect was felt in ways concrete and not-so-concrete, in Oswald’s daily life and in his political fragments: very short, disjointed essays on the Soviet Union, the United States and what he called his “Atheism System,” which pieced together elements of communist dogma and capitalist theory and was as juvenile as it was overwrought and misguided.
The most important Jews in Oswald’s life were Alexander and Alexandra Ziger; their daughters, Eleonora and Anita, and the woman he met at the factory and proposed to outside his apartment building January 2, 1961. Had Ella German said yes, it’s hard to imagine Oswald returning to the United States when he did: German, probably the only woman he ever loved, did not want to leave Russia.