Biographies/Ruth Wilson Epstein

Tags: Nurse NKVD NSA Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade KGB Nona Murcia Hospital 6th American Medical Group Hospitals Spanish Communist Party Member Of Communist Party Mataro Hospital

Researcher: Andrea Li, Stuyvesant '22

Ruth Wilson Epstein was born on November 2nd, 1906 in Brooklyn, NY. Little else is known about her early life. She received a higher education at a university in New York, taking elemental political courses during her time there. Ruth Beverly Wilson married an office worker named Jacob Epstein in 1934 and took his last name. Now under the name of Ruth Wilson Epstein, she and her husband joined the Communist Party USA in 1934.

Ruth decided to serve as a nurse in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as a part of her dedication to improving the lives of the poor and oppressed. On May 17th, 1937, Ruth received passport #414737 in preparation for her travels. At the time, her address was listed as 319 E. 17th Street, New York. Ruth sailed for Spain with the 6th American Medical Group, arriving in Spain on May 29th, 1937. Upon arrival, she also joined the Communist Party Spain. Ruth began her war service as a nurse in Murcia at the International Brigade hospitals based there. While there, she was pivotal in establishing proper nursing care and educated fellow nurses to meet the Republic’s shortage of trained hospital nurses. Furthermore, on January 10th, 1938, Epstein spoke on Radio Madrid’s broadcast to the US describing the challenges posed by the nursing shortage in Spain and how she provided a rudimentary nursing education to local Spanish women in the region's “first nursing school.” After the fascists overran Murcia, Epstein and her fellow nurses were relocated to a larger hospital, Mataro, in Catalonia. Here, she was reunited with Jacob for he had arrived in Spain in 1938 also as a Lincoln Brigade volunteer, serving as a liaison between the US brigade-patients and the Republican military command. Epstein continued to take care of injured patients until Catalonia was overrun at the war’s end. The Epsteins returned to the US on December 31st, 1938 aboard President Harding.

Though unclear as to how, Ruth and her husband soon became involved with the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the precursor to the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, the precursor to the National Security Agency (NSA) revealed the Epsteins affairs through VENONA (started February 1943) where they decoded KGB encryption of Society transactions. NKVD communication between Mexico City and Moscow revealed on March 25th, 1944 that the NKVD were planning on having Jacob return to America as soon as the Gnome affair was complete. At this time, the Americans were already surveilling Jacob in Mexico and Ruth in New York City, with a possible arrest impending. The Gnome affair was decoded to be about the breaking out of Jacques Mornard, most commonly known as Ramón Mercader and Leon Trotsky’s murderer, from the Mexican prisons. On April 16th, 1944, it was communicated that Juan Gaytan Godoy was endlessly delaying Jacob’s departure for America and in turn the departure of Pavel P. Klarin, the 2nd Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. Jacob’s departure was complicated by the fact that he did not want to leave Mexico. On April 21st, 1944, Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin was notified that Jacob’s departure was dependent on Juan Gayton Godoy, to which he responded on April 27th that Jacob was to be handed over to “Kira” for liaison. By August 1944, Jacob had been sent home to the US and was suspected by the NKVD of having indiscreetly revealed information on the Gnome Affair. On March 21st, 1945, Moscow had contacted New York asking for a password and details about rendezvousing with “Nona.” In this transaction, the Soviets revealed the true identities of “Harry” and “Nona” to be Jacob Epstein and Ruth Wilson, respectively. This was critical as the communication helped the SIS identify Soviet agents. During a hearing on the Trotsky assassination, the House Committee on Un-American Activities questioned Jacob on Communist Party membership to which he pleaded the Fifth. He remained vague in all his responses to questions ranging from signing his own passport applications to meeting with Pavel Klarin or Anna Colloms.

Having not been indicted, Ruth and Jacob were left to live a life enriched by a wide range of cultural interests and a warm circle of friends and family in New York City as a closely knit couple and veterans of the Spanish Civil War. For several decades before their retirement, the Epsteins were teamed as highly successful designers and builders of custom office furniture. At age 90, Ruth Wilson Epstein passed away in New York City on December 12th, 1996. She was survived by Jacob, to whom she was married to for 62 years.


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