Whatever Happened to Moshe Dayan's Forgotten First Wife, Wilhelmina Wagner?

Following the deaths of Ruth Dayan and Rachel Dayan, a 1935 marriage license was found that proves the defense minister had been married to a third woman

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Moshe and Ruth Dayan.

After the death this month of Rachel Dayan, the second wife of chief of staff and defense minister Moshe Dayan, we tried to find out additional biographical details about her. Their stormy relationship, which kept the gossip columns busy, began as lovers who cheated on their legal partners. They both eventually divorced and became husband and wife until Dayan’s death in 1981.

Genealogists Gidi Poraz and Nili Goldman, who describe themselves as “historical detectives” with a proven track record, volunteered for the mission, opened their computers, and started to burrow into archival materials. They soon had the results. Today it’s possible to discover a great deal of information about almost anyone, without leaving the house.

One of the documents that caught our eyes was a marriage license issued by the Nazareth rabbinate. The document was found in a collection of the Israel Genealogy Research Association, and proves that on February 24, 1935, Moshe Dayan Halevi, a 20-year-old farmer from Nahalal, the son of farmers Shmuel and Devorah, married a woman named Miriam (Mimi), the daughter of Zvi and Hannah Wagner of Vienna, Austria.

Five years older than Dayan, the document listed her occupation as a farmer, too. This document is intriguing, in light of the fact that several months later, in July 1935, Moshe Dayan married Ruth Schwartz, who is known as his first wife. An authentic marriage license proves that. Ruth died last month at the age of 103.

Have we discovered a “scoop” here, and it turns out that Dayan, whose love for women is no secret, was legally married an additional time, besides to his two known wives? The members of “The Archive’s Revenge” group on Facebook took on the task, opened the books, and discovered the identity of the mysterious Ms. Wagner.

“Ruth had a girlfriend named Wilhelmina, who lived with her in the boarding school. Her visa was about to expire and they were about to send her back,” wrote Ofer Aviran. In other words, Wilhelmina was a Jewish woman who had immigrated or migrated to Palestine from Europe, but did not have the required immigration certificate, and was under threat of being returned to her country of origin. Her friend Ruth decided to help her.

“Ruth decided that Wilhelmina should marry Moshe in a fictitious marriage. Moshe wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, because Wilhelmina spoke only German and was older than he. In the end he gave in to Ruth’s pleas. The rabbi of Nahalal, Zechariah Cohen, conducted the chuppah,” wrote Aviran, referring to the Jewish wedding ceremony.

“Ruth introduced Wilhelmina to Moshe, and because no ring had been bought, the ceremony was conducted with a coin. At the end of the ceremony the bride and groom separated. The first Mrs. Dayan boarded a bus to Haifa and Mr. Dayan returned to the cowshed.”

Ruth’s father “didn’t share his daughter’s happiness.” When they were about to conduct the wedding ceremony with Moshe it turned out that Moshe first had to divorce Wilhelmina. “Nobody knew where she was and there was even a fear that she had left the country despite the fact that Moshe had helped her to observe the mitzvah of building the land,” wrote Aviran. Finally Wilhelmina was found, agreed to the divorce, the papers were signed and Moshe was free to marry a woman of his choice without being accused of bigamy.

The source for the story is Ruth Dayan’s book: “And Perhaps … The Story of Ruth Dayan.” But what happened to Moshe Dayan’s first legal wife? The one whose life may have been saved thanks to the consent of the future chief of staff and defense minister to marry her in a fictitious marriage?

Gidi Poraz went into action now, too, and found the following details: Wilhelmina (Mimi, Miriam) Wagner was born in 1919 to Ignatz (Zvi) and Anna (nee Fleischner). Later Gidi found Michael Wagner, Mimi’s nephew, who provided more details. Her father, who was a bank manager, died of a heart attack in the early 1930s, he said. Mimi’s brother – Michael’s father – obtained an immigration certificate after declaring that he was a mechanic, a profession in demand in Palestine at the time. Later he also succeeded in bringing his mother to Palestine.

And what about Mimi? She emigrated to England, and later went on to Palestine, without a certificate. “The British treated her like a citizen of an enemy country,” says Wagner. After the marriage to Dayan, which gave her the option of staying here, she married another man, Fink, and had children with him.

The two emigrated to England, where her husband started a farm. Later they tried to emigrate to Canada, but medical exams revealed that Mimi was suffering from breast cancer. She passed away shortly thereafter. Her husband went on to Canada with their son. Their daughters emigrated to Israel.