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Herb: A reflection by Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz

Herb Romerstein has just passed away. He was very ill for a couple of years. Yet, not so long ago, after the Venona decrypts became, ahem, available to the public, he stood up at a conference and yelled at a detractor: “You traitor! You were a paid agent of Stalin.” Guilty as charged. A friend, a colleague, a mentor, a politically incorrect joker in residence, and a Red-hunter extraordinaire, Herb had a fire in his belly (to quote his wife, Pat) second to none. That simply means that he cared very much. By the way, when I say Herb, I should explain that I also mean Pat, Mrs. Romerstein. One did not exist without the other. They fulfilled and complemented each other. Period. It all started with a double blind date; they ditched their designated partners, fell in love, and never looked back. But I should stop stealing Professor Lee Edwards’s lines.  

I will therefore stick to the Polish angle of Herb’s story. True, he was born in New York, but he was attuned to the world and cared about it a great deal as if his mother had had him somewhere in Warsaw. As a matter of fact, Herb used to say, his family was from “Poland.” More precisely, his grandfather was from Mir outside of Wilno (Vilnius, now in Lithuania) and Nowogródek (Navahrudak, now in Belarus). Incidentally, Herb knew that when his grandfather was born, Poland did not exist, having had been partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria at the end of the 18th century. But his grandfather, who fled his domicile to America to avoid service in the army of the Tsar, taught him to refer to his place of birth as “Poland,” and to themselves as “Polish Jews,” and not Russian ones, or the Litvaks, God forbid. That is telling. His grandfather taught him to care about that place.

Herb thus had a tie to Poland from the very beginning, admittedly a tenuous one, which he would however strengthen as life went on. But first he became a Communist. Why? Well, in the 1930s, he lived in a German, Irish, and Italian neighborhood of New York City. The neighborhood kids loved Hitler. Why? The Irish hated the English, Rome was an ally of Berlin and shared some of its ideology. And the German attitude is self-explanatory, Herb would chuckle. Only the local Jewish kids opposed Nazi Germany. And some of them were drawn to the Communists who were the most vociferous in their denunciations of the Third Reich and its Führer. Herb was one of them until his grandfather caught him, put him across his knee, and gave him a good drubbing.

The grandfather was a Bundist, a Jewish Marxist. I would make a face and wince; and Herb would explain: “Calm down. Being a Polish Jew and a Marxist from a party the Bolsheviks suppressed made him an anti-Communist. And it made me an anti-Communist. And it also taught me to appeal to the leftists to desist from swooning over Moscow.”  The Korean War drove that reality vividly home for Herb. From then on it was knives drawn against the reds. And Herb never forgot to fight the browns, either. He loved freedom. Hence, he hated both totalitarianisms. 

During the war and after, Herb served in the military. And then he entered another kind of government service. Among other things, he worked for the House Committee on Anti-American activities. He hunted the red subversives abroad, in Europe mostly. At the height of the Cold War he boosted the Russian émigré trades unionists and other leftist alternatives to Communism. Later, he would neutralize the Communists, Soviet agents of influence, and a bevy of useful idiots in the Western European peace movement. He even defended, in deed and word, the Ukrainian nationalists from the KGB. Naturally, the intrepid Commie hunter supported Poland’s “Solidarity,” officially and unofficially. And throughout, he fought the Soviet lie of Katyn.

Last but not least, Herb penetrated into the bowels of the disintegrating Soviet empire, where at its very heart, in Moscow, he was buying up all he could on the archive market. Our professor knew his stuff. No one could dupe him, and the post-Soviets did attempt to peddle junk to him on many an occasion. Herb would sneer at them, while, to me and others, he would bemoan the imbecility of the CIA which was “not interested in history,” and was not supporting financially or otherwise such research ventures into the lands of the former Evil Empire. Still, he amassed a virtual treasure trove of documents, including on Polish affairs, which Herb generously shared with me. Most of them are at the Hoover now, thanks to the aquiline eye for archival treasure of Dr. Maciej Siekierski.

Aside from the gripes at the unbearable lightness of being of the bureaucrats in the intelligence community, Herb’s greatest pet peeve was the Hill. He stressed that most of the fighting of the Cold War took place in Congress. Without U.S. leftists, fellow travelers, agents of influence, progressive dupes, and others, the Cold War would have been won much earlier. Whenever he was back stateside, Herb would be stomping out the domestic-bred reds with a variety of outfits, including the New York Police Department. My favorite story, however, is about the browns. After Herb was done chasing the Commies in New York City, he was tasked with tackling the Ku Klux Klan in the area. Our bad guy hunter even tricked himself out in a spiffy KKK outfit. He duly infiltrated that nefarious organization. Alas, it turned out that out of seven people in the leadership six were either law enforcement or snitches.   

But I digress. Well, not really. There’s a Polish story to the KKK, too. Herb loved to mentor young people. And he shared his crazy adventures with a few of them. Lest Professor J. Michael Waller reacts to this with his customary forgiveness and warmth, I am not going to talk about the appreciation of his own talents by Herb back in college, but, rather, I will focus on a few of our Polish interns. Two of them hit it off with Professor Romerstein in particular: our IWP doctoral fellow Piotr Gontarczyk, Ph.D., and Wojciech Jerzy Muszyński, who was a graduate student when he came to us, but has earned his Ph.D. since and is a brilliant historian. And so is Dr. Gontarczyk. 

As far as Piotr, I asked Herb to elaborate for him on my stories of the anti-Communist Zionist-Revisionists that I had told the Polish kids (and written in my books), while mentoring them during my sojourn in Poland in the 1990s. In particular, I explained about the greatly neglected Jewish Military Union (Irgun Zwoi Leumi), whose fighters hoisted the Jewish and Polish flags during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943 to the great fury of the Germans. Herb took to the task with a gusto. Piotr returned to Poland and helped make a documentary on the Revisionists.  Their contributions have now been amply recognized not only on the Polish Right but also at the popular level. Kudos to Herb and Piotr.

And then there is Albert. Oh, my goodness. Mrs. Romerstein called Herb and Albert the Siamese twins. They were joined at the hip. They had similar facial expressions; they had similar interests; they were passionate about similar things. They rattled off anecdotes and historical minutia like machine guns: “No, this was the 27th and not the 28th Waffen-SS division.” “Absolutely, he was a major in the NKVD in the Gulag, but later he was reassigned to New York.” They knew their stuff.

Herb and Albert were inseparable. They should have gotten married. As Pat rolled her eyes, Herb and Albert scouted flea markets in the post-Soviet zone. “No, this is a fake ghetto police badge,” they would shout in unison to a black market vendor. They would pick up Nazi paraphernalia, or Communist trinkets. Both avid hoarders and fanatical collectors, they loved to share their loot, but only with themselves, sniffing suspiciously when anyone approached their stash. And they laughed heartily at everything, infecting everyone with their sick jokes. Together they donned bizarre historical uniforms, e.g., Stasi regalia. And the infamous duo never relented. Sick, sick, sick! We all loved their jokes. 

Herb, of course, was forever the mentor to Albert. And he taught him his jokes. Here’s a small sample of politically incorrect Romersteinalia. “What is anti-Semitism in Hungary?” “Hating Jews excessively.” Or: A bunch of anti-Semites angrily corner Yitzhak Goldberg. “Who killed Christ?,” they demand. Goldberg responds: “I did not, but I have heard that it was Rosenzweig and I will gladly give you his address.”  Or: A Jewish kid to his dad: “Daddy, are we descended from apes?” Dad: “Maybe you are, bubbele, but not me.” 

Herb knew what was right and wrong. He always came to my rescue whenever I was in trouble. He was intrepid. And the courage and the humor never ended.  And it never will, as we promise to carry on the way Herb would like us to. 

Requiesce in pace, my friend. I can’t do kaddish, but I’ll give it my prayer.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 8 May 2013

Please click here for a New York Times article about Prof. Romerstein.

Marek, Herb, and Albert

Photo: Herb Romerstein, during one of his Polish trips, near Królewiec/Königsberg/Kaliningrad with a trophy acquired in the old USSR. Dr. C on the left, Albert to the right.