Could a Jewish Beauty Have Saved Kennedy by Marrying Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk?
Ella German declined Oswald’s proposal, putting him on course to return to the U.S.—where he would assassinate the president
It was evening when Lee Harvey Oswald stepped off a train in Minsk on Jan. 7, 1960. The American did not know where he was, except that it was called Minsk. He had been in Russia for three months and believed he had defected to the Soviet Union. Just 20 years old, he was at the start of a long spiral that would eventually take him back to the United States and to a window in the Book Depository in Dallas, overlooking President Kennedy’s motorcade. But for now, Oswald was a young, rootless man in search of a place to call home, and this was where the Soviet authorities had sent him to find it.
Officially, there had been a city called Minsk since the 11th century, but the place Oswald found was really only 15 years old. The old Minsk had been flattened by the Germans after they invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. There had been a huge Jewish community in Minsk for centuries; before the war, it had included writers, artists, musicians, university professors, and party officials. In the center of the city, the Germans walled off a ghetto for the Jews, built a concentration camp called Masyukovshina, and killed, plundered, and destroyed wantonly. In the years immediately after the war, villagers from across the smoldering Belorussian plain streamed into what was left of the city. They rebuilt what had been an old, crammed, medieval tsarist trading center as a model communist city. The new Minsk was an unequivocal statement of the totalitarian impulse, stripped down and neatly fitted together, and without any history, energy, cultural edifices, or anything else that might feel busy, loud, urbane, or unexpected.
Oswald was given an apartment on Kalinina Ulitsa and a job at a factory making televisions, but it took him until April or May to make his first friend: a Jewish woman named Ella German. At that time, she was a montazhnitsa, or fitter, on the first floor of the Experimental Department of the television factory. Oswald fell for German almost immediately. In his diary he wrote: “Ella Germain—a silky, black haired Jewish beauty with fine dark eyes skin as white as snow a beautiful smile and good but unpredictable nature, her only fault was that at 24 she was still a virgin, and due entirely to her own desire. I met her when she came too work at our factory. I noticed her, and perhaps fell in love with her, the first minute I saw her.” Ella was the first woman he had fallen for—he probably felt more strongly about her than any other woman he ever met, including the woman he eventually married, Marina Prusakova—and it was his eventual break with her that would force him, more than anything else, to reassess his desire to make a life in the Soviet Union and return to the United States.
Soon Oswald and German were eating lunch together most days. “Alik could go at any time,” said German, who now lives in Akko, north of Haifa, in Israel. “He was not touched because he was American. He was in a special position, not like all of our workers. He could go earlier, so then I wouldn’t have to stand in line, and he could grab two lunches, for himself and me, and we would sit together.” German said that, from the moment she met Oswald, she thought he was curious, and she was keenly aware of the differences between them.“He was obviously very different from anyone I had ever met,” she said. When she spoke about him in our interviews, she didn’t sound as if she missed him; she was more detached. Oswald was an oddity, mostly because she had never expected to meet an American.
She had been born in Minsk in 1937, and like many other Soviet Jews, she stressed that she was “born into a Jewish family,” the same way that others said they were born into Russian, Ukrainian, or Armenian families. When the Germans came, in June 1941, Ella was with her grandparents in Mogilev, southeast of Minsk, while her mother was in Minsk. Her grandmother had come to Minsk two weeks before to take Ella, then 4, to Mogilev for the summer so her mother could take care of Ella’s brother, Vladimir, who was still a baby.
After the Germans occupied Minsk, no one knew where anyone else was. All they knew was that they had to go as far east as they could, so Ella and her grandmother and grandfather went to Tambov and then Saratov, and in Saratov, miraculously, they found her mother and Vladimir. But they couldn’t stop. As Ella put it, no one knew where Germany ended and Russia began. All they knew was that they had to keep going east. So they found a small space on a teplushka, which was a train for transporting horses and cows—teplo means “warm”—and that was how the family ended up in Mordovia, which is six or seven hours, by train, southeast of Moscow.
After Minsk was liberated in the summer of 1944, Ella’s mother returned alone from Mordovia and, after she found a place where the family could live, sent word that they should come. There was a swath of forest near their home that they called “the burnt place” because it was littered with rubble, and behind them, on a small rise, was the opera house. Everywhere smelled like tar. On Saturdays, when Ella was in high school, all the students would have a holiday, and they would clear debris (concrete blocks, rubble, shells, pieces of metal). This lasted until 1951 or 1952. By then, they had made enough room for the new buildings that started going up near the Svisloch, on Prospekt Stalina, Kalinina Ulitsa, Krasnaya Ulitsa, and elsewhere. A few years later, Ella became a montazhnitsa, and after that, she started working at the Experimental Department, where she met Oswald.
Even though Oswald had embraced the principles of communist revolution, he was, by the fall of 1960, beginning to wonder whether he belonged in the Soviet Union. Minsk only had so much to offer, and he had by then heard plenty of criticism of the regime. But Oswald was still in pursuit of Ella German. He was having other affairs, but Ella was more innocent and, therefore, more beguiling to him. She was also Jewish, which he made note of twice in his diary and, one suspects, found rather exotic.
German said she was unaware at first that Oswald had been seeing other women—she called them “girls”—but she found out later. This was when their relationship became more serious—at least, in Oswald’s eyes—in the late summer and fall of 1960. “Probably, like a man, he needed that,” German said. “I just learned about this at the end of October, at this party, and we spoke about it often, and there were several quarrels about it, of course. I was aggravated that he didn’t tell me the truth. I was offended. Right after that, I started not to trust him so much.”
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