The Gross Center invites Ann Hagedorn to speak about new book

This week, the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies hosted its first scholarly symposium in partnership with the Jewish Studies program at Purdue University. Titled ​​CONTACT: The Movement and Meeting of Jewish People and Artifacts across Cold-War Boundaries, the symposium showcased the work of over 15 domestic and international scholars who provided presentations about their works in progress to receive feedback for improvement.

At the keynote address on Monday, Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz, director of the Gross Center, shared that the goal for these works is to eventually be collected and edited as a volume for publication with Purdue University Press.

The main event at Monday’s address, however, was author and journalist Ann Hagedorn, who was invited by Labendz and Honors Program Director Erin Augis to discuss her most recent book, “Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away.” The book is a narrative nonfiction biography about George Koval, a Jewish American spy who used his clearances on the Manhattan Project to share confidential information with the Soviet Union.

Augis took the stage to introduce Hagedorn, sharing anecdotes about their close friendship and mentorship. Augis met Hagedorn after reading one of her previous books, and since then they have worked together closely, with Hagedorn mentoring her in her research interests.

“Since that day, Ann has mentored me in my research on an abolitionist and his pro-slavery foe, two real-life characters she introduced to the world through her archival research and book, and who I have passionately continued to study,” Augis said. “That Ann would have inspired and encouraged a younger researcher to delve deeper into her subject is not surprising.”

Hagedorn started her speech by emphasizing how her books are targeted toward the general reader but because of her chosen subject matter, she always has academics in mind, too.

“The question pops up: will this be clear to the reader? Will it be clear to an audience comprising of general readers and academics, and can they learn from this?” she said. 

Hagedorn addressed one of the questions she most often receives about how she chooses the topics she writes about. She had three answers in mind. 

“The topic must have significance and depth, of course, and possibly [be] in danger of falling through the cracks of history. It must have literary potential and that means it has to have a narrative thread, a storyline and settings to inspire descriptive writing… Perhaps most importantly, it must rouse the author’s writerly passions.”

She shared the unusual way that she discovered Koval’s story. She was visiting her hometown of Dayton, Ohio while researching another project, and a person she was interviewing mentioned offhandedly that a Soviet spy had been working there during World War II. 

“After the interview, I ignored it, and I continued my pursuit of details for the other topic, but I was brimming with curiosity… So I took time off to explore what the gentleman had told me,” she said.

While there are so many interesting facts within Koval’s story, Hagedorn chose to dive into the underlying but consistent antisemitism that Koval faced. She emphasized how even though he was a traitor to this home country and helped speed up the Soviets’ work on the atomic bomb, he wasn’t repaid kindly for his work. 

After spending eight years committing espionage in the U.S., upon his return to the Soviet Union, he faced “Russia’s long-standing antisemitic tradition” which was “nourished by the Nazi propaganda machine, by the Soviet xenophobic and anti-intellectual totalitarian regime and by the public’s need for a scapegoat to explain the dark economic conditions of the post-war Soviet Union.”

Above all else, Hagedorn’s goal with this book was to spotlight a spy so successful that he has largely flown under the radar all these years, until now.

“The ultimate question must be, of course, what can we learn from the complicated challenging life of such an unusual individual?” she said.


Featured photo by Rebecca Gathercole