On Father’s Day in 2013, I wrote a memorial for my grandfather Morris Dembo, accompanied by a scan of the photo above. At the time, I was simply trying to write down as much as I knew and remembered about my grandfather. I guessed that the photo above was taken in 1976, for example, perhaps at the Bicentennial–because I couldn’t remember.
As you can see in the new composite above, I was mistaken. I am four years old in the photo, and that must be Manhattan. If the picture was taken by Rose, that would be my Aunt Rose.
In the three years since that time, a surprising number of people have come forward to offer more information about my grandfather. An estranged family member contacted me out of the blue with a cache of wonderful photographs and old recipes from my paternal Grandmother, Doris Dembo, as well as some jewelry she had collected over the years–I was asked to pass those treasures on to my own daughters, if possible, but I’ll also be sharing some of this information on my blog, including the corrected detail on the photo above.
If my experience of writing about my grandfather has taught me anything, it’s that I could not see the whole picture from where I was sitting. And honestly, I may never see the whole picture from where I sit. But as more and more people started to come forward, I realized that my grandfather’s true nature was hidden in more ways than one. It wasn’t just his doting granddaughter who could not see his true face.
The first person who contacted me was a distant cousin. He’d received a letter from my grandfather from Nairobi in the autumn of 1965. He kindly scanned it and sent it to me as an email attachment. I’ve pasted the full text together as one image above.
The blue paper and the blue ink, the cursive written with a fountain pen, is iconic of Morris Dembo’s correspondence. In my teens he gave me a series of fountain pens to use for personal writing, and I filled journal after journal with my own slanting cursive, which he told me was very beautiful. Those notebooks are gone now; in my early 30’s I dug out almost all of those old journals, as well as anything I’d hand-written in the previous ten years, and burned them. I haven’t missed the chance to leaf through my teenage thoughts, ideas, and troubles, but I do feel a pang when I think about the ink–my grandfather’s ink.
He was always writing these single-page letters, using stationery which folded to form its own envelope. This quirk actually may have served him well, in that it made it impossible for him to say too much or spend too long on any given letter, and kept his network of correspondence broad rather than allowing any one person to preoccupy him. I imagine it’s the same reason that many people today prefer Twitter, with its draconian character limit, to the limitless time sink that Facebook can become…
My grandfather loved writing by hand, and the fact that I had good handwriting always pleased him. In later years I would hear that he was always disappointed with my father’s penmanship, and tyrannized him over it more than once.
In the 1950’s, of course, no one had ever heard of dyslexia or any other issue that might affect someone’s handwriting–it was assumed that if someone wasn’t writing perfectly neat whorls of school marm cursive, it could only be because they weren’t trying hard enough! And if you were a school master in a colonial school in Africa or India, the way to get a Jewish boy to learn his letters properly was by beating him like the star of a Pink Floyd musical.
I don’t really have to imagine how my father learned his aptitude for violence. He shared that information with me when I was a child. He always viewed the male teachers at the colonial schools as rejects, men sent away from home because they were too brutal and sadistic to serve domestically in Britain.
He described the way one teacher would bring down the long ruler upon the hands and wrists of his victims while they sat trapped in their desks. How another would cup a boy’s face in one hand almost tenderly, and say “Nice little boy,” before he delivered a staggering slap with his free hand.
I didn’t know what to do with this information when he shared it with me, and I’m not sure what to say about it now. It sits like shrapnel under my skin.
Beyond the relatives who wrote to me about my grandfather, however, there were people who had been touched by his friendship and scholarship. One of them was a gentleman from India, whose name I will not publish without permission. He wrote to me last year to share his odd relationship with my grandfather, whom he had never met in person face-to-face.
I first heard of your grandfather in the late Sixties in Delhi, where I grew up and went to college. We lived in the area called Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid (mosque) was about 2 km from our home. This part of town was built about 350 years ago. Our friends who lived in that area told of this man called Morris Dembo who dressed informally, hung out in that area and spent time in Urdu bookshops. He was also suspected of being a CIA agent in those xenophobic days. I think he was fascinated by the ambiance of that area and was seriously interested in Urdu language. Later on he co-translated (with Hafeez Malik) a book from Urdu into English. The publisher of this book is still located in the Jama Masjid area.I arrived in Philadelphia on 1 October, 1969 to pursue graduate studies at Drexel U. For the first two years I lived on Baltimore Avenue and 47th Street. Around August 1971, a group of us Indian graduate students rented a house on Spruce Street. I was very pleasantly surprised to find the many books in that house. I read widely and many of these books were of interest to me. I discovered Morris‘s name on some of these books. I don’t remember seeing any art objects in the house but there were quite a few books. I lived in that house till January 1972 when I moved to Newark NJ. While there I did wish that this Morris Dembo would turn up at the house and I would say to him “Mr Dembo I know of you from Delhi.”Recently I have been reading a book called Strains in a Minor Key: Celebrating Sixty Years in Calcutta by Rani Sircar. Kolkata, Gangchil, 2013. Her son, Sanjay who also lives in Canberra, Australia gave me this book to read. On page 356 who pops up but our friend Morris Dembo. In the following pages Rani Sircar writes affectionately of their friendship with Morris and the various courtesies Morris extended to the Sircar family. She also mentions a Dembo granddaughter who writes Science Fiction, I guess that would be with you. I have attached pdfs of these pages. Sanjay also remembers him vividly.I found your moving Father’s Day tribute to him and the beautiful photograph. We would also have sat on the same stairs enjoying a glass of beer on a warm Philadephia autumn day.I never did meet him but our lives did cross paths. I can imagine him – a man of Polish Jewish descent (with all the attendant baggage), a cultured man interested in and curious about the world around him, a man trying to find out why there is (and has been) so much conflict in this world. I think he and I would have got on quite well.Warm regards,Name RedactedCanberra, Australia
This note from Australia gave me a bit of a chill, I must admit. The book this man mentioned was written by a woman from India. It is completely personal, a journal of loss and recovery. In it, she describes her sense of grief and loss when her last few deeply personal letters to my grandfather, grieving the loss of her husband of 45 years, were never answered by a man who no longer knew her.
What troubled me was not the notion of the letter from a man who no longer remembers, though–I have experienced that first hand myself, and it is a familiar pain to think about it. No, what made the hairs stand up on my back was that mention of the CIA.
I think the first time it occurred to me that my grandfather might have been a CIA case officer was when I was in my teens. My grandfather was in a rare sharing mood, and was telling me about his father’s candy store in Brooklyn. He proudly remembered stocking all the newspapers and magazines daily, and reading as many of them as he could.
“I did it every day of my life,” he said. “Until the day I went into the Army.”
I was floored. It made perfect sense, of course–he was the right age, he was healthy and unmarried, of COURSE he would have been in the ranks somehow during World War II. But he had never spoken of it before, even in passing. There was no memorabilia, there were no stories oft-told, it was not a thing that was even hinted at during family discussions.
It was like a window suddenly opening in what I had assumed was a blank wall. I found myself wondering how anyone could be so close-mouthed about his involvement in such a huge historical and political event. And I found myself thinking about his amazing gift for languages, his ability to pick them up so easily that he could easily be a diplomat in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. I thought about his personal habits, the way he wouldn’t form regular patterns–never walking the same way twice in a row to the post office.
I may have also asked myself why he had this tremendous huge and luxurious house in Philadelphia, and a second house in the wealthy Washington. DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia. Was it normal to own so much property after having been a minor functionary in the US Foreign Service…especially when you started off as a kid from Brooklyn, listed as a stock clerk on your draft notice because your job was filling up the magazine display at your father’s candy store?
At the time, I know I put the idea that my grandfather might have been a spy aside, and did not think of it again until many years later. While I was researching a story set in Laos during the Vietnam War, I read a few books about the CIA and how it structured its operations world wide. I felt another chill when I read that it was fairly common to place a CIA case officer among the staff at a US embassy, and that one of the most common jobs was passport officer.
A passport officer has people of all kinds constantly flowing in and out of his office all day, to handle a variety of visa issues. The sheer volume of traffic makes it difficult to spot which people are actually assets, because following everyone who comes and goes to his office is a huge commitment of time and resources.
As I read those words, I remembered my grandfather mentioning that he had worked in the passport office, in Africa. It came up in the context of how lost Americans could become when they were trapped in a foreign country. He had been particularly saddened by the desperation of African-Americans who found themselves unmoored in Africa, struggling to get back to a country which treated them as second-class citizens…
I began thinking about my grandfather’s friends from the foreign service, Pete Piette and his wife Margaret. My grandfather took me more than once to their cabin on the shore of Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire, and the days I spent swimming, rowing and canoeing there are some of my happiest memories.
I remembered that Pete and Margaret were still very actively involved in bringing in foreign exchange students from abroad. I remembered the amazing slide shows of Margaret’s lifetime of landscape and ethnographic photography, which absolutely fascinated me. I was always nagging Margaret to get those photos published, but to my knowledge she never did–which means that the archive of those photos, if her children managed to preserve them, still lurks somewhere in New Hampshire waiting to be unleashed.
Sifting through all those memories, though, I found that there were many questions I actually couldn’t answer. Like….WHAT THE HELL were they doing, back in the Good Old Days when they were working abroad? What exactly had Pete’s job been? What was my grandfather’s job? What was the work?
What did they actually…do?
The idea that my grandfather Dembo may have been with the CIA was actually not that implausible, once I looked into it. He was actually deliberately outed at least twice as a spy, the first time in 1968, in a publication from the Stasi of East Germany, a 605-page tome that was literally called “Who’s Who In the CIA”.
He was mentioned again in a second publication from the same source in 1988, a much smaller book called CIA-Operation Hindu Kush.
In August of 1961, his name appears in a memorandum to the Director of Intelligence, an annual report of the National Intelligence Survey. Morris Dembo was to receive a commendation for an outstanding contribution to the program. He is listed under the heading “Department of State – Office of Research and Analysis, Mid-East”.
He’s also mentioned in a book called Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961. In August of 1951, my grandfather is the Embassy official who met with middle-class black Africans to listen to their views on the political unrest of the region.
The text of my grandfather’s original report is available on-line–you can find it here.
I don’t know how to summarize all this information, what final conclusion to draw. Does it really matter that my grandfather may have been a spy? Would it make me love him less, cherish my memories of him less? Would I think less of him, or his elderly chums, if I knew that they’d spent their careers trying to engineer the downfall of communism?
No. I’m in my 40’s now, and I’ve spent a lifetime loving problematic people and art. I can live with this idea.
But I will admit that the idea confuses and causes me a pang.
It is hard to love someone so much, and realize years later how little you really knew him.
Happy Father’s Day, Grampa. I miss you.