'The Best Keeper of Secrets in the World'

Although he passed on to the Soviet Union some of Israel's most sensitive security secrets for 25 years, Marcus Klingberg does not express any remorse in his memoirs. He does, however, reveal some new information that he managed to withhold from his interrogators.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Avraham Marcus Klingberg released from Israeli prison. 1998.
Avraham Marcus Klingberg released from Israeli prison. 1998.Credit: AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

"Hameragel ha'aharon" ("The Last Spy") by Marcus Klingberg (with Michael Sfard), Sifriyat Maariv, 423 pages, NIS 98

This is a fascinating book about deception, illusion and pretense. Spies, like actors, pretend to be other people. They shed one identity and assume another. They conduct parallel relationships. Lies become an inseparable part of their daily routine. But as opposed to actors, spies and agents don't act on a stage but rather in the "theater of real," as John le Carre wrote in his book "The Little Drummer Girl."

In the book of memoirs by Avraham Mordechai (Marcus-Marek) Klingberg, another dimension of the deception, the illusion and the pretense that characterize the life of a secret agent is exposed: self-deception. "I continued to deceive myself," writes Klingberg, regarding his meetings with "Viktor," the intelligence officer in the Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv, who recruited him as a spy and became his handler. "I understood that this was not a matter of innocent meetings with a Russian friend ... Maybe it wasn't quite right that I, a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, was meeting representatives of a foreign country, without the army's permission." And nevertheless Klingberg agreed to maintain contact with Viktor, thus making himself a traitor in the country that had provided him with a home, a livelihood, military rank, status, honor and respect.

Here is yet another example that reflects the writer's self-deception, split personality and self-denial: "I managed to repress the subject to a necessary minimum. Years later I tried to explain this repressed emotional state and people didn't believe me. I didn't think of myself as a spy; even today I don't consider myself a former spy."

By making this statement, "I don't consider myself a spy," Klingberg absolves himself of the need to give a true reckoning of his actions, and not only to his readers, but first and foremost to himself. He prefers to create a clear-cut world for himself, in which there are no doubts or soul-searching. Everything is clear for Klingberg: I worked for the Soviets, but I didn't spy; I gave away my country's secrets, but I didn't cause damage and I'm not a traitor.

What is amazing throughout the book is the fact that Klingberg finds it difficult to formulate, even once, a sentence containing one iota of regret for his deeds. He is convinced of their justice and in order to prove it, he is willing to use any excuse or speculation. He claims that he did not cause harm to the State of Israel, because he knows better than even his superiors what could have damaged state security, and that information he did not reveal to his Soviet handlers. Moreover, his handlers told him that they did not transfer the secrets of Israel's biological weapons to Arab countries. Believe that if you can.

But why should we believe a man for whom lies and deception were an inseparable part of his life for years? If Klingberg does not consider himself a spy, then how does he define his deeds for a period spanning about 25 years, when he supplied to the Soviet Union the secrets of the Nes Tziona Biological Institute - one of the most clandestine institutions in Israel's kingdom of shadows and secrets? How does he define a person who is willing, at the request of his handlers, to recruit his wife to the mission and with her help, steal documents and samples of dangerous microbes from his place of work? And how does he describe a person who agrees to inform on his friends, scientists and officials, who were the "high priests" of the Israeli defense establishment, including those who developed sensitive technologies and secret weapons systems for it?

The only regret that Klingberg is willing to express in his book - and even that is not genuine regret, but a sort of anger or shame - concerns the fact that he broke down during interrogation and confessed his deeds. Had this not happened, the Shin Bet security service interrogators and the State Prosecutor's Office would have been unable to put him on trial, and he would have continued to be a free man. And the shame? Because he did not meet the expectations of his wife, the late Dr. Wanda Klingberg, a microbiologist at the Biological Institute, who is portrayed in the book as the strong one in their relationship. She was an active partner in the treacherous missions of her husband's, and when she discovered that he had been arrested and confessed during his interrogation, she did not conceal her anger and disdain for her husband's spinelessness.

Doctor, not rabbi

Klingberg's life story is an interesting one. He was born in 1918 in Warsaw, to a well-to-do ultra-Orthodox family. His grandfather, Moshe Haim Klingberg, was a rabbi. His parents, although they were religious, gave him an open and liberal education. In 1935 he began to study in the Warsaw University medical school, where he was captivated by the ideas of Marxism and the "proletariat revolution." Regarding that, his grandfather told him: "Nu, all right, Avraham Mordechai, you won't be a rabbi. But maybe you'll be a rabbi of the communists."

At the time of the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, Klingberg had concluded his fourth year of study. After Poland was occupied by the Nazis, the 21-year-old student escaped and fled to the Soviet Union. He left behind his family, which was destroyed in the Holocaust. He writes in the book in an apologetic tone that he acted at the instructions of his ill father, who ordered him: "At least one has to remain alive. You have to go."

His chief interrogator, Haim Ben Ami (Klingberg calls him "Yisrael," which was how Ben Ami introduced himself to him), noticed after he arrested him that Klingberg, 65 years old at the time, kept his parents' photo among his possessions. He understood that this was an interesting psychological case, and accused him during one of the interrogations, saying, "You betrayed not only the State of Israel. You betrayed your mother and father, abandoned them, left them to the Nazis and fled." The interrogator was trying to imply that betrayal was in Klingberg's "genes."

And in fact, after this interrogation, Klingberg broke and confessed that he was a spy. Ben Ami believes that with the help of this accusation he succeeded in breaking him, but Klingberg denies it. He claims that he made every effort to convince his family to join him. His mother stubbornly refused. According to Klingberg, he broke down only after the interrogators hinted that they would harm his daughter Sylvia and his grandson Jan. "You're capable of anything," he quotes himself as saying during a conversation in which he vented his anger at his interrogators. "In the end you'll execute me." The fact that Klingberg thought so during the interrogation, when he was helpless, is certainly credible. But the fact that he is capable of repeating it even today attests to a lack of intellectual honesty, which is designed only to excuse and to justify (to himself?) the fact that he broke during the interrogation.

The only moment of frankness in the book is when the author admits that he informed on his daughter to the security officer of the Biological Institute. Sylvia revolted against her bourgeois parents, darlings of the Mapai (the forerunner of the Labor Party) establishment, joined the far-left Matzpen movement and married Udi Adiv, when he was serving his prison sentence for espionage [he had met clandestinely in Damascus with PLO officials and Syrian intelligence officers]. During one of Sylvia's difficult conversations with her parents, she told them that she had discovered that biological weapons were being produced in the institute where they worked. The fact that her father informed on her attests to his character perhaps more than anything else: he was willing to hand his daughter over to the authorities. Such things happened with the Stasi in East Germany.

From Poland Klingberg fled to Byelorussia (then part of the Soviet Union) and continued with his medical studies at Minsk University. He boasts of the fact that on the day when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, he volunteered for the Red Army. Klingberg repeatedly emphasizes the fact that he finished his formal studies and was certified as a doctor. In order to illustrate this, the book is adorned with photos of the permits and certificates that he received from various institutions. He proudly points to his scientific achievements, perhaps in order to rebut the criticism leveled at him in recent years by his colleagues at the institute, who claim that his research was not outstanding. That is one point about which he is sensitive, and it constitutes a point of departure for Rashomon.

He did it for love

After he broke down during the interrogation, the interrogators asked Klingberg to explain his motives. In the book he writes that he was afraid to tell them the truth - namely, that he did what he did only from ideological motives, out of total identification with the Soviet Union and a desire to help it during the Cold War against the United States, and not for the money. In order to emphasize this, Klingberg says that when he was jailed in Ashkelon Prison, contrary to what was promised, he was placed in a cell together with another spy, Colonel Shimon Levinson. Klingberg feels disdain for Levinson and describes him as a person who did not keep the toilet clean. He writes: "If someone in the Shin Bet said to himself, 'Both worked for the Soviets, they'll probably get along,' he apparently didn't see the tremendous difference between me and Shimon Levinson. He worked for money and I did it for ideology. In his case it was prostitution, in mine it was love."

But in his interrogation Klingberg preferred to lie, and to explain his deeds by the fact that he was blackmailed. According to this version, this occured when in 1957 he turned to the Soviet Embassy and asked them for confirmation that he had completed his studies and been certified as a doctor. They, he says, referring to the Shin Bet interrogators, "bought the blackmail story," he writes. "It was very unprofessional of them to believe my explanation." Incidentally, some veteran Shin Bet members still believe that Klingberg was never certified as a doctor.

During World War II Klingberg sustained a leg injury. He spent most of the war as an epidemiologist, and was appointed chief epidemiologist of the Byelorussian government and formed ties with senior officials in its Communist Party. Toward the end of the war, to the disappointment of the Soviet functionaries, he returned to Poland, where he joined the Health Ministry. In Lodz he met Wanda Yashinskaya (Adjia Eisman was her real name) - a microbiologist and Holocaust survivor who had survived the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Due to pressure on her part they left Poland and immigrated to Sweden, where their only daughter, Sylvia, was born. Against Wanda's wishes Klingberg volunteered for Mahal (Overseas Volunteers) and immigrated to Israel in November 1948. He joined the Medical Corps, received the rank of lieutenant colonel, and in 1952 joined the Biological Institution in Nes Tziona, a research institute where, according to foreign sources, Israel develops biological and chemical weapons as well as means ofcounter-measures.

The book makes five new revelations about the Klingberg affair. Klingberg reveals the fact that he succeeded in tricking his interrogators and hid the whole truth from them, although he had promised to reveal it to them. He claims that he began to work for Soviet intelligence in 1950 rather than 1957; he also admits that his late wife was a full accomplice to his actions and even helped him (the Shin Bet interrogators suspected her and even arrested her for questioning, in which she did not reveal anything); he says that he recruited another two spies to work for Soviet intelligence: an engineer he knew and a famous scientist who was a close friend. Klingberg mentioned the scientist's name in his manuscript, but the publisher omitted it, in the wake of to family opposition. Klingberg also reveals that he gave his handlers photos of secret documents from the institute, as opposed to his confession during the interrogation to the effect that he relied only on his memory.

The last revelation in the book is that due to the negligence of the Shin Bet, Klingberg was able to peruse his file, where he discovered how he was found out in 1983. Klingberg was arrested in a brilliant Shin Bet maneuver: He received an offer to travel on a national mission sponsored by the Mossad, in a southeast Asian country that had presumably asked Israel to assist it after a mishap in a chemical facility. He was flattered by the offer and agreed. Instead of being driven to the airport Klingberg was brought to a safe house that had been prepared in advance in Tel Aviv.

That was the third time that suspicion against him was aroused, but during the first two times Klingberg succeeded in deceiving his interrogators, and in 1965 he even passed a lie-detector test successfully (the interrogators simply asked the wrong questions, mainly whether he had worked for Polish intelligence). Even now, due to the opposition of the military censor, it cannot be revealed how the Shin Bet succeeded in catching the spy after many years of failure.

Throughout the entire book Klingberg expresses great disdain for the Shin Bet and mocks the professional ability of its agents. On the other hand, he has great admiration for the high level of his Soviet handlers, and particularly Viktor, who recruited and handled him for about seven years, in secret meetings in his car in the streets of Tel Aviv Jaffo and in the KGB facility in the Russian church in Abu Kabir, near Tel Aviv.

One cannot ignore the unique involvement of his lawyers in the book. Avigdor Feldman wrote a foreword, and as usual has produced a clever text, in which he mocks Yehiel Horev, who was the chief of the Defense Ministry's security department (known by the Hebrew acronym Malmab), and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who claimed that Klingberg's punishment should not be commuted because "he knows something that he doesn't know." That, of course, was an absurd and baseless claim, which testified to the strong desire of the defense establishment, with the backing of the judicial system, to take revenge against Klingberg. But we could have expected Feldman to voice, even if only in passing, his opinion of his client's actual deeds and his insistence on showing no regret and his refusal to apologize.

The second attorney, Michael Sfard, is a co-author. The problem is that in the absence of any reservation or clarifying remark, one can conclude that Sfard is a full partner both to the content of the book and to its spirit. But does Sfard really identify, for example, with Klingberg's belief in communism? Is he a partner to the mocking words with respect to the Shin Bet interrogators? And does he believe that Klingberg was really drugged and beaten during his interrogation? That's not clear.

The book is very readable, and has clearly been edited. There are also few mistakes: As opposed to what it says, it is not true that "all the espionage files" in Israel were transferred to the responsibility of Malmab in 1994; and the land that was once a part of South African homeland is not Botswana but Bophuthatswana. Nevertheless, a book of this type should include an index.

In summary, the picture of Klingberg that emerges from this book is of a person who seeks honor, is full of self-importance, and believes that everything he did in his life was always "the best." He was one of the most important scientists in Israel with a worldwide reputation; his handlers were the best and the most intelligent; even while he served his sentence (20 years), he was "the best keeper of secrets in the world and I always found the failures in the Shin Bet activities and always pointed them out to them." Even the name of the book "The Last Spy," testifies to its author's self-importance. But if he sought to impress his readers in his book, he is liable to achieve exactly the opposite result, and to be seen as a petty clerk, and mainly as a childish and pitiful person.