Palais des Nations, Geneva. HQ of World Health Organisation until 1966.
A fateful triangle which ended a marriage, but not in the conventional way. No romance or sexual dalliance. It was far more dangerous than that. The relationship between Erwin, Noel Field and Alice would at first bring good fortune, but in time its sinister consequences would rise from the dark political depths of the Cold War. I knew about Alice’s connection to Noel Field, but I had not understood the minute and specific detail of the ways in which the fates of all three were intertwined.
Of course, the fractures in Alice and Erwin’s marriage existed before either of them met Noel Field. Alice had long been a member of the Communist Party and had left Erwin for a year to volunteer in Spain, saying in her farewell letter to him, “we belong to two different worlds”. However, she did return in 1938 and joined him in America for the duration of the war. They remained together for a further ten years and it was only during the fateful days of Noel Field’s downfall that they were brought to that final, irrevocable moment of choice.
It was Herman Field whom Alice met first, in 1940 in America. Her work with the International Workers Order brought her into contact with many other communists from both Europe and America. Herman was one of these, an architect, and like his brother Noel, deeply disturbed by fascism. As a result, they had both committed themselves to the cause of communism, as it was the first movement to challenge fascist ideology in Europe during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 he helped Communists to emigrate from Czechoslovakia to the US and this is how he met Alice, who was also working directly to help fellow Czechs to emigrate.
However, unlike his brother Noel, Herman’s involvement was entirely humanitarian. Noel had a far more direct political motivation. Initially he worked as a state department official with the League of Nations, but from 1940 he took up a post with the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee in Europe, helping refugees from fascist persecution in a more formal capacity. This was not all. Since 1935 Noel had also been working for the Soviets, passing on information and even on one occasion, being instrumental in collaborating with an assassination, of a so-called ‘traitor’ Ignaz Reiss. In 1945, when Alice finally met Noel Field, it is unlikely that she was aware of this dimension of his activities.
Noel Field was impressed by Alice, he described her as a “well-known and very active comrade in New York” and suggested that she might like to join him in the USC and head a medical mission to Czechoslovakia. Alice was not interested in the post for herself, she hoped for a more direct role within the Czech government. The victory for the Communist Party victory in the 1946 election had seen many of her former colleagues and comrades take up the reins of government and she wanted to be a part of that. Instead, she suggested Erwin, who with his medical background was far more suited to the role. Field agreed, although he was less taken with Erwin. In his interrogation he describes him as, “a sympathiser, but inclined to turn away from politics,.. a great egoist.”
After Erwin’s appointment to the USC, both Alice and Erwin met the Fields on many occasions. Erwin stayed with the Fields when visiting Geneva in 1946 and wrote to thank them for their hospitality, “thanking you once again for your great kindness in helping me to do my job and, above all, for all you did to make my stay in Switzerland such a delightful one…Thank-you for every minute that I was allowed to spend with you.”
Interestingly, only a few months earlier Howard L.Brooks (Director of the USC) had sent round a memo addressed to Erwin and Noel Field requesting them to take part in a survey to investigate, “alleged discrimination against other groups in favor (sic) of Communists.” Brooks was dismissive of the allegations saying, “The Committee does not place much credence in this report.” and he clearly did not suspect the source of the discrimination to be Field or he would not have asked him to take part in the survey. Erwin and Noel Field continued to correspond, and on June 27 1947 went together on a visit to Piekary in Poland to visit a USC project.
I have searched for evidence that Erwin may have known about or suspected Field’s activities on behalf of the Soviets and the closest I have come is an oblique reference in a letter to Howard Brooks on August 10th 1948,
“I had a long talk with Noel and Herta last night, and it was only then that I fully realised all the great changes that have taken place since I left. It is impossible for me to comment on all these things without knowing exactly what the facts and details are, nor the background and reasons for all the decisions.” Only a week earlier, on August 3rd, Whittaker Chambers had appeared before the House Committee for Un-American activities (HUAC) and named Alger Hiss as a spy. Hiss had then warned Field, and by October, Field himself had been named. It is too much of a coincidence that Erwin should have spent time with Field at this crucial moment in his life and not been aware of the allegations against him.
The events in Washington and the accusations against Alger Hiss meant that Noel Field no longer felt it was safe for him to return to the USA. He feared that he too would be summoned to appear in front of HUAC and one of the people to whom he turned for assistance was Alice. On October 15th, Field was named in the American press for his involvement in spying, and on the 28th of that month, he visited Alice in Prague requesting her support in his request for permission to stay in Czechoslovakia. Alice was then working for Czechoslovak Hotels, a job linked to the government, but this role was not as influential as the one she had previously held in the cabinet office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Vilem Siroky. Her dismissal from this post a month earlier, in September, and her movement to the job with Czech Hotels should have served as a warning to her. She no longer enjoyed the same trust and confidence from her colleagues. Either unaware of the danger signs or choosing to ignore them when Field came to ask for her help, she agreed to support his application.
Alice was a loyal member of the party and, although she wrote supporting his application, she also reported her contacts with Noel Field to Antonin Jandus, an official for the District Committee of the Communist Party. According to his report, Alice asked what attitude she should take to Field. She was concerned that he had been given an extension to his passport by the US Embassy and Alice felt that this was suspicious, as she was aware of the circumstances surrounding him in the USA. Alice continued to report to Jandus about her contacts with Field. She informed him when Field left Czechoslovakia just before Christmas 1948 and of his plans to return in the New Year.
On May 5th 1949 Field returned to Prague from Paris and Alice arranged for him to stay in the Pallace Hotel. However, on 11th May, just after another meeting between Alice and Jandus, Field was found to be missing. His baggage and mail were still at the hotel, but he had gone. He had been arrested by the Hungarian secret police and taken to Budapest for questioning.
From this point on, Alice’s fate was sealed. Field was interrogated in Hungary as were Geyza and Charlotte Pavlik, accused of being his associates. Ironically the Soviet spy, with his favouring of communists, was accused of being a spy for the Americans and all his communist contacts were implicated in his spy ring. Stalin had chosen to use him as a way of terrorising and purging the hierarchy of the Czech communist party.
The Pavliks were tortured and forced to confess to an imperialist international spy ring. On June 23rd, Alice was arrested and questioned for an hour by the StB, the Czech Secret Police, and finally on July 10th she was arrested and imprisoned.
The contact with Noel Field had been disastrous for Alice. For Erwin, his involvement with the USC had led to close ties with doctors in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in February 1949, he had been offered a permanent post there in their headquarters in Geneva. Alice had tried to dissuade him from taking the job and refused to accompany him. So, as he settled to a new life in the freedom and plenty of Switzerland, the prison walls closed around Alice.
These are the facts, the questions remain. How much did Alice know about Field’s activities as a spy? Was she aware of the mounting suspicions in her own party about him? When did Erwin start to suspect Field and was he aware of the danger that posed to Alice? And why, when he had to answer an eight page questionnaire about his links to the Communists did no-one ask about Field?
Ruzyne Prison, Prague.
- Der Fall Noel Field Schlüsselfigur der Schauprozesse in Osteuropa 1948-1957: Band 1Gefängnisjahre 1949-1954 (Zeitzeugen) (Sondereinband – 2. Mai 2003)
- Marton, Kati, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy (New York 2016)
- Erwin Kohn’s Response to the Interrogatory to the International Organisations Employees Loyalty Board
- Tauchmanova, Milena Memoir
- Correspondence from the USC Archive, Andover Theological Library, Harvard.
- Documents from the Czech National Archive.
10 thoughts on “A Fateful Triangle- Erwin, Noel Field and Alice”
What a remarkable story.
The world Alice, Erwin and Noel (and others) inhabited then is hard to comprehend.
What a complicated story. It has the seeds of a Le Carre.
I look forward to the next instalment!
This is very revealing, Liz, and opens up the extent of Erwin’s own vulnerability simply by association. A so dangerous position to be in with Stalin in power. His move to Switzerland is clearly critical. But what agony for their relationship and marriage.
This does indeed have the seeds of a Cold War thriller, But your interest is primarily ‘the personal’, I think. I’m drawn to your listed sources too!!
I am in the middle of a thick bio of Nixon, including his days as a rising political star – thanks in large measure to his pursuit of Chambers/Hiss that you refer to. Are able to look through all the HUAC files in Washington?
All these lives interlinked… No different today, I suppose. Bad news knows no borders.
I have looked up some information online about Helen Vrabel whom Alice worked for, but I haven’t looked up the Alger Hiss stuff. I am not sure how much is online. I think too there will be some info on Alice in CIA files. I am going to have to investigate whether it is possible to access that.
What an extraordinary story. I’m sorry to hear about Alice but thank heavens your father was safe. Much love as ever Anne
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Wow, Liz, Noah Field crosses my path as well. Have we talked about Erica Glaser? Haven’t read your piece yet. Just moved and it is rather hectic. Judith
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Wow! What an intriguing story Liz! It reads like a rivetting thriller and definitely sounds like a fascinating film plot to me……..now which actors would you cast in the leading roles?!
Looking forward to the next instalment!