There are many paths to the literary grave — bad timing, shifting taste, a lazy publicist. But the surest is the intentional, politically motivated burial of a writer who might otherwise be integrated into the mainstream canon. Politically persecuted writers are often remembered not for their books, but for their imprisonment; not for their works, but for their suppression. Sometimes the sympathetic resurrection of an author is actually a second burial, as the fame of the blacklisted individual can overshadow their artistic contributions. Many are familiar with the Hollywood Ten, but how many have read Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun?
While Trumbo has resurfaced in recent years, his fellow Communist writer Albert Maltz remains hidden. Thanks to the long shadow cast by the blacklists, Maltz’s novel A Tale of One January was not distributed in the United States until this year. Maltz was once a best-selling author, but while his name sometimes appears in political histories, his works hardly ever appear in literary histories or critics’ accounts of twentieth century literature. If he is known at all, it’s usually as a blacklistee, not a novelist. Save for the Oscar-winning short film starring Frank Sinatra titled The House I Live In (1945), his screenplays are also largely lost to history.
Occasionally Maltz makes an appearance in the work of anti-communist historians who weaponize the “Albert Maltz Affair,” in which an article Maltz wrote for New Masses calling for artists to strive for aesthetic quality over political content was denounced by the party. They use the controversy to drive home broader, often heavy-handed points about American Communists’ authoritarianism. To these historians, Maltz and other Communist writers are only as important as their criticisms of Communism itself. Their long lives of pro-worker, anti-fascist, and anti-racist activism in the Communist Party go ignored. Only their disagreements with the Soviet Union and the domestic Communist Party are preserved — polished and cherished like precious pearls plucked from history’s vast ocean of complexity.
Maltz wrote A Tale of One January in 1962. The publisher Calder and Boyars published it in the UK in 1967 to a warm reception. The novel’s plot centers on Auschwitz prisoners who, having escaped a death march into an abandoned brick factory, await rescue by Russian soldiers. This year, Alma Books has printed a new edition, and Bloomsbury is distributing it in the United States for the first time. The story deserves a new life as fascist movements and struggles against them are on the rise across the globe.
More Naked as Human Beings
When the war begins, Claire and Pierre are married. She is romantic, honest, pragmatic, and is studying to be a translator. He is brave and charming and a scientist. Later the fascist interrogator presses Pierre on why he neglected to ask his wife about his refusal to work with Nazis. He responds, “If you respect your wife, you don’t ask her silly questions.”
In the first pages of A Tale of One January, Claire is in Auschwitz remembering an admiring letter from Pierre written before their marriage. The letter describes Claire’s blonde hair, admirable facial structure, and her strange habit of “wearing high-heeled shoes on all occasions.” Pierre wonders humorously to his wife-to-be whether when the moment comes, and she’s lying naked in bed, “will she be wearing those silly appendages?” To this, she had responded, “Dearest Pierre . . . it is not too soon to find out.”
Through two cases of typhus, severe malnourishment, and a death march, Claire has maintained her distinctive vitality. On her twenty-sixth birthday, January 18, 1945, Claire’s Dutch-Jewish prisoner friend Lini wakes up early to give her two biscuits and a pair of shoes. That day, the Nazis take the prisoners of Auschwitz out for a death march as the Soviets move in to liberate the camp. Claire and Lini make an escape, and wind up hidden under hay in a barn with “four gentlemen from Auschwitz,” setting up the six characters for a tense and exhilarating set of events as liberated but imperiled individuals who stick together.
For such a bleak topic, Maltz’s book brims with humor. When the Polish socialist Jurek returns from a nearby farmhouse with food, someone asks if the farmer has any vodka. “Oh, he offer big bottle vodka, but I no take . . . I no like vodka, only French cognac.” Sparking anger in the group, Jurek quickly follows up, “I make joke. Is no vodka.” A Tale of One January is dark, rosy, and thrilling. In it there is not only death, but also an unexpected degree of wit, and a sexual tension that permeates throughout their time hiding out in an abandoned brick factory.
Claire, in her new birthday shoes, almost loses her frozen and inflamed feet in the death march. She has to abandon the shoes in the barn after hiding out. Their replacement is a special creation by the captured Red Army soldier and former musician Andrey, who wraps her feet diligently with hay. He instructs her to massage the bottom of her legs to get the blood flowing again, an act that Lini performs admiringly for Claire. Andrey falls in love with Claire, and is thereafter constantly concerned with her health and, not unlike Pierre, her controversial situation with shoes. “As human beings they were much more direct, on a more primitive plane with each other, more naked as human beings, than is the custom in civilization,” Maltz wrote.
To Let People Forget
Claire is not a purely fictional figure, but is instead based on Dounia Wasserstrom, a dark-haired Ukrainian Jew who survived the death march described in the book. Despite the hair color difference, the novel remains largely faithful to Wasserstrom’s story, including a graphic scene of a young boy with an apple being smashed against a wall — the scene was made famous just before the novel was published by the 1965 Peter Weiss play The Investigation, which was based off Wasserstrom’s testimony against concentration camp overseer Wilhelm Boger.
A Tale of One January bears such resemblance to the Wasserstrom’s life that one almost wishes literary scholar Patrick Chura’s illuminating introduction were placed at the end of the book so as to free the reader from constantly wondering what’s fact and what’s fiction. Wasserstrom’s successful escape from the Auschwitz death march was not told in the form of a memoir or journal entries, but was instead given orally to Maltz.
Albert Maltz was not an apolitical writer. A member of the Communist Party, Maltz employed the medium, as did many other politically charged writers of the time, to fight against antisemitism, racism, and capitalism. In 1947, Maltz was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as one of the Hollywood Ten. Refusing to name names, he was sent to prison at Mill Point, serving some of his time with the author of Spartacus, the Communist novelist Howard Fast, who described Maltz as a “a sort of Communist saint.” Maltz feared an escalation of HUAC due to the Korean War and pitched to Fast the idea of planning an escape. Fast dissuaded him, but Maltz remained fearful that their imprisonment was only just the beginning of an anti-communist purge like Germany’s.
After being released from prison, most of the notable blacklistees fled to Mexico, including Maltz. He remained in Mexico longer than the others, skeptical of the political climate in the United States. In Fast’s memoir, Being Red, he recalls that Maltz was pessimistic about the new Communist Control Act and refused Fast’s insistence that he return stateside. “I have to live. I have to find love. I have books I must write. I can’t face the rest of my life in prison,” Maltz responded. It was in Mexico, ducking the FBI and pursuing writing jobs, that he interviewed Dounia Wasserstrom, both narrowly escaping fascism and winding up in Mexico.
“A Tale of One January is Maltz’s final novel, and perhaps his most unfairly treated work of fiction,” Chura writes in his introduction to the new edition. Maltz, fed up with using a pseudonym, held on to his manuscript for four years after completion. In 1961, he sent a copy of his interview transcript to the Authors Guild, likely in fear of the story never making it into novel form. “No U.S. commercial publisher would touch the book,” Chura said in an interview with the book’s new publisher. Although the Red Scare might have peaked in the 1950s, the blacklists lived on and to varying degrees are still alive today.
While J. Edgar Hoover might not be sending agents to threaten publishers in 2023, they generally remain somewhat wary of publishing Communists blacklisted during the Second Red Scare. The blacklists’ founding figures are long gone, but their effects still linger. Stubborn academics like Chura and small publishers like Alma Books are breaking those blacklists that have lasted for well over seventy years, refusing to let politically suppressed authors stay buried under the hay. As Claire put it in A Tale of One January, “For the rest of my life I’ll talk about Auschwitz and Fascism. I’ll write articles and send them to newspapers. What did we suffer for to let people forget it?”