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Oswald was probably 12 or 13, and he knew nothing about history or politics or Marx or the Cold War. Still, seven years later, when he was camped out in a hotel room in Moscow, waiting for the KGB to decide what to do with him, and an American reporter asked him how he had become a communist, Oswald recalled that day in New York. He explained that this was when the Marxist idea had first been planted in his head and led him to read “Capital” and, later, to imagine what it might be like to live in Russia.
Similarly, it was Alexander Ziger who, just a few months after Oswald turned up in Minsk, suggested that Oswald reconsider his Soviet adventure. The next year, 1961, when Oswald told Ziger that he was thinking about returning to the United States, Ziger told him he thought that was a good idea.
Oswald, so far as we know, never discussed his reservations about Soviet life, but they were understood. Oswald’s Jewish experience played on his own sense of alienation. He was, almost by design, incapable of building a home for himself. He had joined the Marines, and then he had ventured to the Soviet Union, believing that he would transcend this feeling of permanent homelessness, and in both cases he was left deeply unhappy.
There was something oddly “Jewish” about Oswald’s feelings of dislocation. The ineradicability of Jewishness that contemporary anti-Semitism, with all its biological imperatives, imposed on Jews seemed to parallel Oswald’s mounting fear that, no matter what, he would be never escape his rootlessness.
Alas, the Jew has a tradition and people in which solace and meaning can be found. Oswald did not. He had hoped that in Russia, in the motherly embrace of the communist utopia, he would be able to escape his misery, and he was wrong. When he returned to the United States in June 1962, he was no longer simply displaced — he was enraged. He did not see it this way exactly, but the feelings of anger and helplessness were unavoidable, ineradicable. The great divide between Oswald and his fellow floating ions was, of course, Oswald’s reaction to these feelings. The Jewish impulse, however quixotic, has often been to build a better world, one that moves beyond notions of otherness. In Oswald’s case, it was to destroy it and himself. He was, in this last, tragic effort, successful.
Peter Savodnik is the author of “The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union.” He lives in Washington, D.C.