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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

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)
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On January 1, 1961, Oswald wrote: “New Years I spend at home of Ella Germain. I think I’m in love with her. She has refused my more dishonourable advanis, we drink and eat in the presence of her family in a very hospitable atmosphere. Later I go home drunk and happy. Passing the river homewards, I decide to propose to Ella.” Oswald appears to be serious here. He comes across, in his diary, as a little impulsive or, perhaps, taken with himself, but he had known Ella for several months, and it was not uncommon for people at that time to marry in their early twenties.

German had not been expecting Oswald on New Year’s Eve. They had made plans to spend the holiday together, but then they had quarreled. At a little past eight in the evening, he turned up at her house with a box of chocolates with a ceramic figurine on top. German asked her mother if he could spend New Year’s Eve with them, and her mother said, “Of course.” Everyone was there: Ella’s mother, her grandmother, her uncles (Boris, Ilya, and Alexander) and each of their wives (Lida, Shura, and Luyba). German’s mother sang and played guitar, and everyone danced. Two of her uncles were in the navy, and they had learned to dance the chechetka, the folk dance that involves tap-dancing while maintaining a perfectly erect back. “Alik liked it very much,” German recalled. “He drank heavily that night, and for the first time ever I saw him drunk.” Her mother served meat cutlets with potatoes, cabbage salad, and carrots with sour cream.

The day after New Year’s, Oswald saw Ella again. In his diary Oswald wrote: “After a pleasent hand-in-hand walk to the local cinima we come home, standing on the door step I propose’s She hesitates than refuses, my love is real but she has none for me. Her reason besides lack of love: I am american and someday might be arrested simply because of that example Polish Intervention in the 20’s. led to arrest of all people in the Soviet Union of polish origen ‘You understand the world situation there is too much against you and you don’t even know it’ I am stunned she snickers at my awkarnes in turning to go (I am too stunned too think!).”

German’s fretting about a “Polish Intervention” feels forced, to say the least. Viewed in this way, the end of their relationship, like the U-2 incident and the election of a young American president, was a function of global forces, not personal ones. But the truth is, she did not love him. When I met her, Ella said that, above all, she was surprised and bewildered by Oswald’s proposal. She didn’t know why he cared about her so deeply. Oswald seemed to grasp this. As he put it in his diary: “I realize she was never serious with me but only exploited my being an american, in order to get the envy of the other girls who consider me different from the Russian boys. I am misarable!” By the next day, his anger had subsided, but his unhappiness had acquired a more hopeless undertone. In his diary he wrote: “I am misarable about Ella. I love her but what can I do? it is the state of fear which was always in the Soviet Union.”

Oswald had closed out 1960 holding on to some of his early affection for Russia, and, in fact, New Year’s Eve at Ella German’s house had left him with a warm and romantic feeling, not only for German but also for Russia. It’s true that he had grown weary of the Soviet Union and daily life in Minsk, but he had not determined just yet that it was time to go. By asking for German’s hand, Oswald was signaling his willingness to stay. But she had said no, and almost immediately after that, all the doubts and angers that had been coalescing inside his head for the past several months sharpened into a desire to leave.

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Before he could make a move, Oswald met Marina Prusakova at a party at the Palace of Trade Unions. She soon became a fixture in his life, and in late April they married. On May 1, he wrote in his diary: “Found us thinking about our future. In spite of fact I married Marina to hurt Ella I found myself in love with Marina.” Then, in the entry marked simply “May,” Oswald wrote: “The trasistion of changing full love from Ella to Marina was very painfull esp. as I saw Ella almost every day at the factory but as the days & weeks went by I adjusted more and more my wife mentaly. I still ardent told my wife of my desire to return to U.S. She is maddly in love with me from the very start.” He had found himself a wife, and she, an American, but their love, as it were, had a tenuous feel to it. Ella German remained lodged in his head—a wistful memory of the life he might have had in Minsk.

A year later, in May 1962, Oswald and Marina, along with their infant daughter June, left for New Jersey. One week before Oswald left Minsk, he approached German at the Experimental Department. They had not spoken for almost a year, and she was surprised when he came up to her at the end of her shift and told her he had something important to say. She said they could speak at the factory, but he said it was important. He wanted to go somewhere private. She said no. It would look bad. She added that she was married now. “He asked me if he knew the man I had married, and I nodded, and very abruptly, without saying anything, he just turned around and left,” German said in an interview.

German was always ambivalent about Oswald. She said she had never talked to the KGB about him because she cared for him. In fact, if she could have done it over, she said, she would probably have married Oswald. It was a matter of timing. In January 1961, when Oswald proposed to her, she was still not sure about him, and she didn’t feel as if she had to get married immediately. By the spring of 1962, her sense of urgency was greater. She said she was tired of not having anything to do on the weekends and going to dances alone, and she wanted a family. If Oswald had proposed to her in April 1962, she might have said yes. Still, she never disliked him, and later she sometimes wondered what their life would have been like together.

From the moment he returned to the United States, Oswald was in a state of constant motion, but really, he had been in a state of motion, fleeing, interloping since infancy. Now he had arrived at a point of homicidal and suicidal destruction. Did he plan to kill the president—Kennedy—months or even years before he did? No. But his angers and disappointments put him at odds with America, and he would have been open to the idea of killing an American head of state. He would not have been inhibited. The assassination would elevate him to world-historical status, and it would end all his pains and furies.

Adapted from The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union by Peter Savodnik. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Book Group. Copyright © 2013.

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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

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