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On anniversary of murder, museum for Trotsky proves to be tourist draw
JTA / August 23, 2005

By Larry Luxner

MEXICO CITY — Fronting a busy highway yet hidden from view by a high concrete wall, the residence at 45 Viena Street looks like any other in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán, with its covered vines, old-world arches and red-brick construction.

Its last occupant is what sets this house apart from the others.

Leon Trotsky — founder of the Soviet Red Army, hero of the Russian Revolution and communist reformer — spent his last few years here, having been sent into exile by his arch-enemy, Josef Stalin.

This week marks 65 years since the Aug. 21, 1940, murder of Trotsky, arguably the most famous Jew ever to live in Mexico. Yet the anniversary is overshadowed by a controversy over ownership of the bloodstained icepick used by one of Stalin's agents to kill Trotsky.

Ana Alicia Salas is the granddaughter of a secret policeman who probed Trotsky's death in Mexico City. She claims to have the alpine mountain-climbing axe and wants to sell it to the Leon Trotsky Museum, located in the house where the Russian revolutionary lived and died.

The authenticity of what's known as "history's most famous murder weapon" can only be verified by comparing any DNA found on the icepick with that of Trotsky's descendants. But 82-year-old Esteban Volkow, who watched his famous grandfather die, says he'll agree to a blood test only if Salas donates the icepick to the museum.

"If she wants to make business with this object, then I really don't want to collaborate with her," Volkow recently told the BBC.

Perhaps because of the icepick controversy, neither Volkow nor his daughter, noted Mexican poet Verónica Volkow, would speak to JTA. Nor would another prominent great-granddaughter, Dr. Nora Volkow, who works for the Bush administration as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md.

Yet much can be learned about Trotsky by visiting the museum dedicated to this famous man.

Established in October 1990 by Derecho de Asilo y las Libertades Publicas, a nonprofit organization that helps foreign dissidents fight for political asylum in Mexico, the museum attracts 60,000 visitors a year. About half are Mexicans; most of the rest are Americans and Europeans.

As an informational pamphlet explains: "One of the most important figures of the 20th century to be granted political asylum in Mexico was Leon Trotsky. It is of particular significance that the Institute is located in a building adjacent to the Trotsky Museum."

Entering the house from the backyard garden, one passes Trotsky's kitchen, filled with Mexican ceramics from the state of Puebla, and his spartan bathroom, where his jackets still hang in the closet above his shoes.

Every artifact here, from the Indian bedspreads down to Trotsky's dictating machine, has been carefully restored — even the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia were chemically treated so they wouldn't crumble in Mexico City's contaminated air. Elsewhere, a badly deteriorated oil painting of Trotsky was rescued and restored, as was the huge wall map of Mexico that dominates the study.

There's also a photo of Trotsky taken in New York, when he was working as a movie extra in Brooklyn for $5 a day, in addition to writing articles for the Russian socialist newspaper Nivii Myr.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the house is its library. Here, Trotsky's own "History of the Russian Revolution" competes for space with Beard's "The Rise of American Civilization" and Karl Marx's "Das Kapital."

Surprisingly, the museum's exhibits make no mention whatsoever of Trotsky's Jewish roots — except in a passing reference to his birth name, Lev Davidovich Bronstein.

Trotsky himself wasn't a practicing Jew, nor as a lifelong communist did he have much use for religion. According to published sources, the boy was sent to a private Jewish school but during his teen years changed his name to Leon Trotsky, perhaps to avoid anti-Semitism.

In 1900, he and Aleksandra L'vovna Sokolovskaia were legally married by a rabbi, but two years later, the couple parted. Trotsky later met a young exiled revolutionary, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, who would remain his companion and partner for the rest of his life.

In 1904, Trotsky — writing in the party organ Iskra — called Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl "a shameless adventurer" whose movement was destined to collapse.

"Herzl promised Palestine, but he did not deliver it," he wrote. "It is impossible to keep Zionism alive by this kind of trickery. Zionism has exhausted its miserable contents.... Tens of intriguers and hundreds of simpletons may yet continue to support Herzl’s adventures, but Zionism as a movement is already doomed to losing all rights to existence in the future."

Yet in a January 1917 interview with the Jewish Daily Forward shortly after his arrival in New York, the revolutionary expressed his regret over not knowing Yiddish and Hebrew fluently, writes Joseph Nedava, author of the 1972 book "Trotsky and the Jews."

Trotsky correctly predicted the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis, though in July 1940 — only a month before his assassination — he harshly criticized what would eventually become the State of Israel, writing that "the attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of Jews to Palestine can be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish people."

After his falling out with Stalin, Trotsky fled his native Russia, traveling to many countries before being granted political asylum in Mexico.

Shortly after his establishment in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán, Trotsky began working on a biography of Lenin. He also had an affair with famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (whose house is located a few blocks away and has also been turned into a museum).

Meanwhile, the Soviet government sentenced Trotsky to death in absentia, and the Mexican Communist Party began to plan ways to carry that sentence out.

On May 24, 1940, muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and 20 devoted Marxists tried to kill the philosopher, but failed. Less than three months later, Ramón Mercader del Río, a Spanish Stalinist posing as Belgian businessman Jacques Mornard, gained intry into the house and sank the icepick into Trotsky's skull as the unsuspecting Russian read his newspaper.

Trotsky died the next day, and his funeral procession was attended by an estimated 250,000 people. Trotsky's body was cremated and his ashes given to Natalia. His murderer, meanwhile, spent 20 years in a Mexican jail. In the 1960s, he was released and went to Havana, where he reportedly died of cancer. Natalia moved to France and died there in 1962, though her ashes were sent back to Mexico to be buried alongside her husband's.

Given Trotsky's rejection of religion, no Star of David graces his tombstone. Rather, it's the hammer and sickle — and the red flag of the Soviet Union — that towers over this peaceful garden of cactus shrubs, potted plants and tall trees where visitors come to pay their respects to the famous revolutionary.

Yet the flame of Yiddishkeit hasn't been entirely extinguished in the Trotsky family.

According to the museum, one of Trotsky's great-grandsons, David Akselrod, is a 43-year-old rabbi living in Israel with his wife and three children.

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