I Spy

After three years in Paris, Prof. Marcus Klingberg, who served a 20-year sentence for espionage, asserts that he still feels '100 percent' Israeli. In a comprehensive interview, he speaks about his research, his ties with the KGB and the too-harsh punishment he says he received.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Share in Facebook
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

PARIS - "I am not a traitor," says Prof. Marcus Klingberg, who is then asked if he is a patriot. "I do not like the word 'patriot,'" he replies.

There is something symbolic about the fact that this interview is being conducted on the eve of Israel's Memorial Day. Does he feel a twinge in his heart? "I have no twinges. I am not a sentimental person. I also do not like bombastic declarations. But I feel that I am Israeli, 100 percent. I lived in Israel for about 50 years. I have no other citizenship, only Israeli, and I am not looking for any other citizenship, even though I could have received Polish citizenship. I served the defense establishment for many years and I feel that I have shares in Israel's security. But above all I am a Jew. I was born a Jew. I received a Jewish education."

The symbolism of the date of the interview is even more acute, because this year the eve of Memorial Day fell on May 1 - a date that may be seen as reflecting the problems he has with his identity, identification and loyalty, or perhaps his multiple loyalties.

An international expert on infectious diseases and epidemics, Klingberg was formerly a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a senior scientist at the Biological Institute in Nes Tziona, outside Rehovot. He was convicted of aggravated espionage for the Soviet Union and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Shin Bet security service considers him the most dangerous spy ever to operate in Israel, and one who did very grave damage.

While he was confined to his bed in his small Paris apartment with possible pneumonia, his daughter Sylvia and his grandson Jan Brossot marched in the May Day parades in the city. His daughter, who in Israel was active in the far-left Matzpen movement and is now a member of a Trotskyite organization in France, marched with her trade union colleagues. The grandson, 26, who teaches French, is a member of the French Communist Party and marched with his comrades. "We are three generations," Klingberg notes proudly. "Yes, I am a communist, I do not deny it. I never spoke against the Soviet Union. Well, just once. It was after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. I went then with my wife to a demonstration against the invasion."

Wanda Yashinskaya, his wife and a central figure in his life, who died in September 1990, is buried in Paris in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery. Not exactly buried: She willed that her body be cremated, and what is in the cemetery is a vase containing her ashes and a small relief with her name.

No regrets

In the past two years Klingberg has again become a popular lecturer in his areas of expertise. The department of public health at Oxford University had invited him to speak last month about his experience as an epidemiologist in the Red Army, and this month he has been asked to be a guest at the Ludwik Fleck Center of the Collegium Helveticum, an important university center in Zurich. Klingberg was one of the initiators of the establishment of this center and a year ago delivered the opening lecture there. A Jewish Pole, Fleck was a microbiologist and a philosopher of the sciences. He survived Auschwitz, immigrated to Israel in 1957 and got a job at the Biological Institute, where he became friends with Klingberg. Four years later Fleck died and Klingberg was appointed the trustee and executor of his will.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in the academic world in Fleck and his research, and this is another reason for Klingberg's popularity as a speaker. Still, the simple lesson one gleans from observing Marcus Klingberg is that it's not worthwhile to be a spy. Certainly it is not profitable. Since leaving Israel three years ago, Klingberg has lived alone in a one-room apartment of 35 square meters, though in an elegant building on the Left Bank. From the State of Israel he receives the pension of a lieutenant colonel - which comes to more than 2,000 euros a month - but he complains that this is barely enough for his rent, food, health insurance, medication and frequent hospitalizations.

He spends much of his time reading newspapers and preparing lectures for conferences to which he is invited. He sees his daughter every day and meets once a week with his busy grandson. But his sense of being a foreigner in Paris is more acute because he does not speak French. Nevertheless, he has no regrets.

"I do not regret anything I did, even though I am not proud of what I did," he says. "If I were approached today, I would certainly not agree to work for the Russians. But I did it because I felt it was the right thing to do. Why? Because of the Cold War. I wanted the two blocs in the Cold War to be the same thing, out of a desire for a more balanced world."

But you told the Shin Bet interrogators that the Soviets blackmailed you, in other words that you did not spy for ideological reasons.

"There are three reasons for a person to do this kind of deed: ideology, money or blackmail. I did not want to tell them the truth. I was afraid. Because in Israel the worst thing is to admit to ideological espionage. That is construed as the elimination of the State of Israel. I did not want to say that I received money, because I did not receive money, and I believe that to do it for money is prostitution. So I chose the third option, of blackmail. I thought I would get a lighter punishment if I admitted to having spied as a result of pressure and blackmail."

This, Klingberg says, was the genesis of the account that has prevailed since then in the Shin Bet, according to which the KGB officers blackmailed him and forced him to collaborate with them after they discovered that he had not completed his medical studies and lacked a diploma.

'Call me Mark'

The interview with Marcus Klingberg lasted a few hours over several days. It began as a telephone call from Tel Aviv and continued in Paris. The interview was also broken off before its end, because on Israel's Independence Day, Klingberg was hospitalized for a week. This is his first interview to the written press. While he was in prison and in detention in Tel Aviv, the security services prohibited him from giving interviews. His previous interview was three years ago, to the "Fact" program on Israeli television, shortly after he left the country.

He is relaxed in conversation. "Call me Mark," he says. "In Russia they called me Mark, but in Polish it is Marek."

Klingberg has a phenomenal memory. He remembers names, dates and places and is capable of describing in minute detail the appearance of his interrogators and what they wore. Vestiges of his Polish origins can still be heard in his voice. It was apparent that he was eager to talk, even though he did not reply to all the questions. "That I will tell in the book," he repeats evasively several times. Klingberg recently completed writing his memoirs, which he submitted to Israeli Military Censorship for approval.

He still refuses to say when, exactly, he became a spy. According to the indictment, based on his confession in the interrogation, he began his espionage work in 1957. He also denies the allegation that his first contact was formed when he visited the Soviet embassy, ostensibly to get confirmation that he had completed his medical studies.

"I was in the embassy only once, in 1959, with the authorization of Binyamin Blumberg" - the chief security officer of the Defense Ministry and the founder Ministry's Security Directorate, known by its Hebrew acronym, Malmab. "'Bibi,' as we called him - he was the first Bibi of Israel - sent me to meet a Russian scientist couple who had come especially for the first international conference of microbiologists held in Israel. Even [David] Ben-Gurion came to the opening of the conference in Jerusalem. But I did not meet with my handler at that meeting."

Did you have only one handler during all those years?

"No. There were a few. My activity was not continuous. People wrote - you among them - that I met with my handlers abroad. That is not accurate. Until 1967, during the period when the Soviet Union had an embassy in Israel, the meetings were in Israel."


"In the Russian church."

Did you have many meetings?

"Once or twice a year. And in the years when I was on sabbatical abroad there were no meetings at all. From 1967 to 1973 there were no meetings. After that there was one in Vienna and one in Geneva [headquarters of the World Health Organization], and that is all."

Were your handlers scientists?

"No. When I attended conferences abroad I met with Russian scientists, but they were not my handlers. I always told the Russian scientists that I had been in the Red Army and was very proud of that."

Father's request

Avraham Marcus Klingberg was born in Poland to a family of Torah sages. He studied Torah in a heder (religious school), but as an adolescent turned his back on the religious life and transferred to a regular high school. He then studied medicine at the University of Warsaw, and four years later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, he fled east, leaving behind his parents and his whole family, who perished in the Holocaust. According to the Shin Bet interrogators, his guilt feelings for having abandoned his family helped break him in the interrogation. Klingberg denies this vehemently.

"I left Poland because of the Germans, at Father's request," he says. "Mother was against it. But Father said, You have to leave. At least one member of the family must remain alive."

In the Soviet Union he continued his medical studies, completing them at Minsk University. On June 21, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. "At 10 A.M. on the day following the invasion I volunteered for the Red Army and I am proud of that to this day," he says. "I served on the front until October and I was wounded in my leg by shrapnel. It was a light wound, from which I recovered." (In 1950, when he was already an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, he was injured again, this time in a traffic accident. "I was hospitalized a long time. It was a serious injury and I could have received disability status. But I was ashamed to request it. A few years ago I read that Arik Sharon remembered after more than 40 years that he had been wounded in the War of Independence and requested recognition as a disabled veteran. I did not have the mental strength to ask for recognition as a disabled soldier.")

In October 1941, after recovering from his wound, he was transferred to a different unit. "They decided that I was needed more in my profession as an epidemiologist. My army ID booklet - which, by the way the Shin Bet took from me during the interrogation and has not returned to this day - contains a sticker stating that I am an essential worker." In 1943 he took an advanced course in Moscow and was part of a team that dealt with an epidemic which left thousands dead in the Urals. "When the epidemic broke out no one knew the cause," he relates. "But we were able to stop it and prevent its spread. It was only after I was already in Israel that I read in an article published in Russia that the cause of the epidemic was a fungus, which developed in wheat under the snow and emitted a toxin." Another contribution he made in this period involved research into typhoid fever.

Klingberg was discharged at the end of the war with the rank of captain. He returned to Poland, where he married Wanda Yashinskaya, a microbiologist by profession. In 1946 the couple decided to immigrate to the West. At first they tried Sweden, where their daughter, Sylvia, was born. They arrived in Israel in November 1948.

"Jacob Perry, the former head of the Shin Bet, for whom I have great respect, wrote in his book that I immigrated to Israel for Zionist reasons," Klingberg notes. "When he visited me in prison I told him, 'Mr. Perry, what you wrote about me is inaccurate. I was never a Zionist. I immigrated to Israel and volunteered for the IDF because I was a Jew. I did it also because the Soviet Union supported Israel."

In Israel, which was then embroiled in the final stages of the War of Independence, Klingberg was immediately drafted into the Medical Corps. He was assigned the rank of lieutenant colonel and given an apartment in Jaffa. To this day there are some in the Shin Bet who are convinced - including some heads of departments, who have close knowledge of the affair - that Klingberg immigrated to Israel at the instruction of Soviet intelligence and that already then he was a KGB agent. He denies this. "On my word of honor, I was not sent to Israel by the Soviets."

So when did you start working for them?

"Later, when I was already in Israel."

The long arm

of Malmab

He served in the IDF until 1957, becoming head of the preventive medicine unit. He emphasizes with pride that at his initiative an institute to study military medicine was established in 1953. The institute was shut down four years later due to a budgetary shortfall. Recently it was reestablished, and Klingberg notes sarcastically, "These days the army is full of fat and has money for everything." After the institute's closure he left the army and found employment at the Biological Institute in Nes Tziona. His wife, Wanda, also worked there.

The Biological Institute is one of the most clandestine institutions in Israel. Administratively it belongs to the Prime Minister's Office, but responsibility for its security and for guarding its secrets lies with Malmab. Some of the institute's research projects are published in scientific journals, but according to foreign reports, Israel is also developing chemical and biological weapons there, as well as protective measures against a chemical or biological attack. Based on the foreign reports, it is likely that the toxins used by agents of the Mossad espionage agency in Amman in 1997, in their attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, or in the chocolate bar that was sent at the end of the 1970s to the Palestinian terrorist Wadia Hadad, were developed with the help of the institute's experts.

From his first day in the institute until 1972, Klingberg was its deputy director. In 1964, after a two-year sabbatical in Philadelphia ("I also learned English then - who learned English in Poland before the world war?"), he was also appointed head of the epidemiological department. In 1972 he went on sabbatical to London and Oslo. Upon his return he no longer held administrative posts at the Biological Institute, having the status of senior scientist only. In 1969, concurrent with his work in Nes Tziona, he joined the staff of the school of medicine at Tel Aviv University. He was then appointed head of the department of preventive and social medicine (which is now called the department for epidemiology and preventive medicine). In 1982 he was appointed an associate professor.

"It is quite amusing that I remained head of the department until 1984, even after I was already in prison," he says. "It was only then that my appointment was canceled."

His work in the institute and in the university, and his research papers, earned him an international reputation in his field. He took part in conferences of the World Health Organization, and in 1976 was president of the committee ("In Italy," he jokes, "everyone calls himself 'presidente'") that monitored the ecological disaster caused by a chemical plant near Milan. He refuses outright to talk about his work at the Biological Institute, "even though I am convinced that I did not harm Israel's security. After all, I am well aware of what [information] I passed on and what damage it could have caused." What is he afraid of, then, of violating the oath of secrecy he signed? "No," he says, "it is because I know that Malmab has a very long arm."

In contrast, he has no problem boasting about his contribution to medical research in Israel. "Together with Prof. Nathan Goldblum, my wife and I were the first in the world - and this is an achievement I really like to brag about - to study Nile fever. We carried out the study in army bases at Tzrifin and Camp 80. We examined how the disease spreads, but we did not find a cure for it. From 1962 I started to deal with noninfectious diseases and I was even the president of the European Association for Congenital Defects."

Pure as the

driven snow

While Klingberg was working at the Biological Institute, suspicion arose that he was in contact with foreign agents. The most suspicious of those involved was M., the institute's security officer, but his complaints did not always receive the treatment they deserved on the part of his superiors in Malmab. But in the mid-1960s, when information arrived to the effect that Klingberg was involved in suspicious contacts, he was summoned for a polygraph (lie-detector) test. This was no small matter. He was a senior official and a member of Mapai, the ruling party, took part in meetings of its Central Committee and knew leading figures such as Moshe Dayan (who was then in the Rafi party) and then prime minister Levi Eshkol. Klingberg reacted angrily and pretended to be offended.

Victor Cohen, who later became head of the Investigations Branch, admits that the test was a failure. "We asked him the wrong questions," he says. Klingberg was suspected of having met with agents of the Polish security service and therefore was not asked anything about a possible Russian connection. He passed the test. A few years later, new information was received along the same lines, but this time the Shin Bet, having been "burned" once, treated him respectfully. He was asked to answer a few questions in a conversation and emerged as pure as the driven snow. The third time, in 1982, the Shin Bet received information to the effect that Klingberg was expected to meet with a handler or someone suspect in a forthcoming trip to a scientific conference abroad. A Mossad team, led by operations man Moshe Levin, followed him but turned up nothing. Klingberg did not meet with his handler - for the simple reason, he says, that he broke his ties with the Soviets at his initiative in 1976.

Nevertheless, information of a suspicious nature about him continued to arrive. The Shin Bet decided to try again. In January 1983 the security service launched Operation Shunit, initiated by Yinon P., head of the branch, for foiling subversion and preventing espionage. Shin Bet agents pretending to be from the Mossad met with Klingberg and asked him to assist Israel. He was told that a Muslim country in Southeast Asia, which did not have diplomatic relations with Israel, wanted the help of an Israeli expert on epidemics, in the wake of a breakdown in a chemical plant. Flattered by the request, Klingberg said immediately that he would be glad to help. He was told to tell his wife that he would be out of the country on a secret mission.

On the day set for the flight, P. and another Shin Bet official picked him up and took him to a safe house in Tel Aviv, where two interrogators were waiting for him: Haim Ben Ami, who used the alias "Yisrael," and Shraga K. (the two were also involved in the interrogation of the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu a few years later). Rafi Rahav, the head of the Investigations Department, hid in the apartment and monitored the interrogation.

"They had nothing against me," Klingberg says. "Not a phone call, not a slip of paper. There was nothing. If I had not opened my mouth, they would have let me go."

Then why did you open your mouth?

"I don't understand it myself. After all, I knew the Shin Bet people. They told me that if I told them everything they would release me. What stupidity on my part - how could I have believed them."

Was there an agreement between you?

"What is an agreement? You are in their hands. It was a handshake thing, nothing written. And even if there had been a written and signed paper, they could have taken it and destroyed it."

Did you ask them why they were not honoring the agreement?

"Yes. Yisrael told me: We promised. So what."

According to Klingberg, "In the matter of the agreement there was a mini-trial during my trial afterward. I said they had extracted the confession by illegitimate means, in return for a promise. But it was my word against theirs. The judges believed them, of course, not me. My lawyer, Yaacov Hagler, argued in the trial that under the Interrogators Law, a log of the interrogations must be kept. The interrogators said: We don't have one, we didn't keep a log."

And what did the three judges say?

"Nothing. They did not react. To me it seemed that they had no interest in me or the trial. They did not ask questions. It was all fixed from the outset."

But you had a lawyer.

"Yes, but in my opinion he did not conduct my defense properly. He persuaded me not to testify. He told me, '[the prosecutor, now Judge Sara Sirota] Sirota will tear you apart. It's not worth it.' The trial ended very quickly, after six sessions. After the two sides presented their arguments for punishment, the judges let me speak briefly. Then the judges entered their chambers. Twenty-five minutes later - I timed it - they returned with the verdict. It was already typed up. They sentenced me to 20 years. Obviously they prepared the verdict before they heard what I had to say. In the appeal to the Supreme Court I said, referring to the District Court judges, 'What talented people the three judges are. Real geniuses. They managed to write the verdict in 25 minutes.'"

The Shin Bet account of Klingberg's activities, according to several people who were involved in the interrogation or knew the case well, is completely different. In this version no promise was made to him, so no promise was violated. In his book, Klingberg intends to add that he confessed because he was shown photographs of his daughter in Paris and this was a hint that they knew everything about her and there was an implied threat that she would be harmed. There is also a dispute over the question of what drove Klingberg to attempt suicide while he was in custody.

Is it true, as the Shin Bet also suspects, that your wife tried to bring about your death by bringing you a large number of medicines after she found out that you had talked and incriminated yourself?

"That is not true at all. It is true that my wife did not like the fact that I had talked in the interrogation. But I did not try to commit suicide because of her. I tried to commit suicide twice. The first time was even before I made a confession. That was after four days of interrogation."

What did you do?

"I tried to stick something metallic into the electric outlet in the room and electrocute myself. But it didn't work."

When was the second time?

"After I made the confession. I swallowed medicine. I asked my wife to bring me Coumadin [a blood thinner]. But to say that she tried to get me to commit suicide? Absolutely not. If it had happened because of her, she would have had a bad conscience for her whole life. The decision to commit suicide was mine. I saw that it was all over. I didn't want my family to suffer because of me."

The Shin Bet took Klingberg to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and registered him under the name of Avraham Greenberg. To maintain maximum secrecy, he was also held under this name during part of his incarceration in prison in Ashkelon. Indeed, his interrogation, trial and incarceration were one of the best-kept secrets in Israel. Journalists who took an interest in the case were immediately visited by the Shin Bet. Klingberg agreed to cooperate with his interrogators and not to disclose his true identity in the prison. He had no choice, he says now: If he refused, he was threatened with worse prison conditions and loss of rights, especially visiting rights. It was made clear to his wife and daughter that if they revealed the fact of his arrest they would not be allowed to visit him. "They were forced to tell anyone who asked - friends, mainly - that I was hospitalized in a Swiss sanatorium."

Were you surprised to be sentenced to 20 years in prison?

"Yes. I admit that I deserved punishment, but not such stringent punishment. Maybe 12 years, maybe 15, but not 20. I was convicted of aggravated espionage and of being in contact with a foreign agent, not of treason. Vanunu was convicted of treason and got 18 years. Udi Adiv was convicted of treason and got less than I did. It is disproportionate. When I entered prison I had just had surgery. I had a heart attack already in 1965. No one thought I would survive, and the truth is that I also wanted to die so as not to cause suffering to my family."


by Horev

For a time in the early 1990s, Klingberg shared his cell with another spy, Shimon Levinson, a colonel in Military Intelligence, who worked for a few years for the Mossad in Ethiopia and with the Kurds in northern Iraq. In the mid-1980s, Levinson was the chief security officer of the Prime Minister's Office and under the authority of the Shin Bet. Beginning in 1983, when he was between postings, and afterward, when he was chief security officer, he acted as an agent in the service of the KGB. Levinson entered the service of the Soviets at his own initiative, his sole motivation being money. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and released after serving seven years. Among the public figures who testified on his behalf were Ariel Sharon and the Mossad agent Rafi Eitan (now minister of pensioners affairs, and a relative of Levinson).

"As I see it, a person who volunteers to spy for money is the worst of all," Klingberg says. "I do not understand why Levinson received such good treatment. He was immediately moved to a prison. I was held for five months in the detention facility of Abu Kabir, and there is no worse place than Abu Kabir - brutal conditions, rats and mice and dirt, and no food and no canteen. He [Levinson] received a television set in his cell right away. I was not given a television set for two years. It's only because he was a friend of everyone. It's all personal connections."

He is also contemptuous of Levinson's behavior in prison. "He was a submissive type. When a warder entered the cell he would get up to show respect. I always kept sitting. I did not get up even for the prisons service commissioner. He told me his whole story, but I kept silent and did not tell him anything. He told me he wanted a lot of money and that he had traveled to Moscow for meetings. I never traveled to the eastern bloc. Even when I was in Berlin I did not cross to the east."

Klingberg was also in contact with Mordechai Vanunu in prison; their cells were not far apart. "Vanunu told me all the time not to have a television set in the cell because the Shin Bet broadcast waves through it against you. Of course I was happy to have a television set. When I passed by Vanunu's cell I would call to him, 'Stop with your nonsense. It's all in your imagination.' He talked against the Shin Bet all the time. He had an obsession."

Klingberg reserves his most stinging criticism for Yehiel Horev, the head of Malmab, who did all he could to prevent the prisoner's early release. It was not until 1998 that Be'er Sheva District Court acceded to his request, which was submitted through attorney Avigdor Feldman, and ordered Klingberg released to his home. Former Shin Bet chief Jacob Perry contributed to this decision by testifying that Klingberg posed no danger to state security. Klingberg feels a debt of honor to Perry and occasionally sends him his regards.

Klingberg spent the last five years of his 20-year term in his home in Tel Aviv, under restrictive conditions. He was forced to pay himself for security guards who accompanied him everywhere; he installed in his apartment, also at his expense, a camera that was hooked up to the Malmab center in the Kirya (the Defense Ministry compound) in Tel Aviv. To pay for the conditions of his release he took loans and finally had to sell his apartment to repay them.

"Yehiel succeeded in bankrupting me completely," he laments. "No one in Israel wants to tangle with him. All the defense ministers are afraid of him and so he will hold that position for life. No one will touch him, I don't know why. Maybe he has a file on everyone, like Edgar Hoover did." (Horev chose not to respond to this.)

During this period Horev tried twice to deprive Klingberg of his army pension. On the first occasion he argued that a person who is convicted of serious security-related offenses against the state does not deserve to receive the pension of a lieutenant. But Sara Sirota, the prosecutor, and Ben Ami, the interrogator, came to Klingberg's defense, declaring that in the interrogation it was agreed that Klingberg's pension would not be affected if he confessed and cooperated. On the second occasion, Horev tried to block the pension by arguing that Klingberg did not complete his medical studies and never formally became a physician, but again he failed: Klingberg produced the necessary documents.

In the final analysis the Russians did not try very hard to obtain your release.

"That is not accurate. It is true that the first time the French lawyer whom Sylvia hired asked the Russians to take action on my behalf, they did not really believe his story. But afterward, when they authenticated it, they very much wanted to get me released. Even [Mikhail] Gorbachev, who in my view was very right-wing, tried to act. At some point in 1989 there was an offer to exchange me and release Ron Arad. The Shin Bet even told me to pack a bag. I have notes that I wrote to my wife, telling her what to pack. But then Israel kidnapped Sheikh Obeid in Lebanon and the deal collapsed. Afterward, when the drunkard Boris Yeltsin came to power in Russia, they really did not take an interest in me."

Are you angry at the Russians?

"I have only good memories of the Russian people. They helped me a great deal."

And at Israel?

"No. I received my punishment and I deserved punishment, though maybe not so weighty. I paid my debt."

Would you like to visit Israel again?

"Yes, very much, but physically it is not so simple and I don't believe it will happen."

Are you afraid of death?

"No. I am already 87 and a half. Three months ago I broke my leg. After that I spilled boiling water on the other leg while cleaning the refrigerator and I received second- and third-degree burns. For months I could not get out of bed. Now I may have pneumonia. I do not want to be a burden on my family and on society."