Not Afraid to Go All the Way

Over and over, Klingberg comes back to the painful question that plagued him in prison and continues to torment him today: What would have happened if he had not caved in under pressure and confessed to the charges against him?

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

Marcus Klingberg missed the boat. He was arrested in 1983, kept under a false name for years, and was released to home arrest - paid for his guards and surveillance equipment - and finally left Israel in 2003. At some point during his lengthy prison term, an attempt was made to mediate between Israel and the Soviet Union in order to strike a complicated deal, typical of the relations between the blocs in those days, whereby Klingberg would be released in exchange for the missing Israeli navigator, Ron Arad. The deal fell through after someone at the top of the Israeli totem pole couldn't resist ordering the assassination of Shiite sheikh Abbas Moussawi - an incident rarely mentioned in connection with Arad, for the simple reason that it ruined any prospects for his return. Our defense establishment, aided by its faithful correspondents, especially intelligence reporters, whose information all comes from a single source, is not fond of talking about its failures. Dealing with villains is easier. For the same reason, we are not accustomed to the kind of spy book written by Marcus Klingberg, who is today 89. We are used to being fed stories about the cunning and cleverness of our intelligence agents, who get dummies to fall into their trap. In this case, it is Klingberg's superiors who fall into the trap. So is it any wonder that vengeance has been so cruel?

This memoir is also a tale of espionage: secret meetings, handing over intelligence data, living a double life (Klingberg fiercely safeguarded the secrets of the Nes Tziona Biological Institute, where he worked, although he had no qualms about revealing them to the Soviets). That he was an active member of Mapai (the forerunner of the Labor Party) seems reasonable, albeit surreal - to passionately criticize Golda Meir for being a "Bolshevist" during party meetings, while working for the Bolshevists with even greater passion.

Over and over, Klingberg comes back to the painful question that plagued him in prison and continues to torment him today: What would have happened if he had not caved in under pressure and confessed to the charges against him? The Shin Bet security service had no proof. However, one slap, two fingers poked in his eyes, the fear of being locked up in Abu Kabir jail (not far from where he met with his Soviet handler) and the investigators' promise to let him retire quietly if he confessed - all these led him to sign a confession that landed him in jail for 18 years. His wife was shocked when she found out that he had done so; she refused to sign. She had something he lacked: utter mistrust of interrogators. He fell into their trap. You pulled our leg for 30 years, and we pulled yours for three weeks, the interrogator told him.

What this book is missing, more than anything else, is the full story of Wanda Klingberg. From the little her husband reveals (she was a partner to his secret and even managed to smuggle out bacteria cultivated at the institute and to hand it over to the Soviets), she was a woman who lost everything in Warsaw, while hiding under a false identity in its "Aryan district." None of her family survived. She left Poland because she didn't want to live in the "giant Jewish graveyard" that Poland had become, but she didn't want to go to Palestine, and didn't like Israel from the start. She died in Paris, and was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, while her husband was still in prison.

The South Tel Aviv landscape of the book provides a picturesque backdrop: The Russian handler draws a black circle on a wall on Herzl Street; Klingberg draws an "X" in the circle; toward evening a car pulls up, evading surveillance; Klingberg gets a hat (to hide from photographers) and meets his handlers at the Russian church in Abu Kabir; praise begins to trickle in from the Soviet Union; he and his wife are invited to a festive ceremony where he receives the second-highest medal for valor in the Soviet hierarchy. Everything is conducted in secret - even the honors. But he found the strength to go on, because somewhere out there was the regime he identified with, since fleeing the German occupation zone in Poland in 1940.

Senior scientist

In public, Klingberg was a high-ranking officer who went on to become a very senior scientist in Israel's defense establishment. He knew everyone who was anyone (when Haim Bar-Lev visited Ashkelon prison as minister of police, Klingberg made a superhuman effort not to be seen). He helped to found the facility where Israel developed weapons of mass destruction. Why did he do it? Courage, love of science (i.e., his expertise in immunology), loyalty to the Soviet Union, a Faustian desire to excel, adventurousness, membership in a specific sector of Israeli society (in the early 1950s, the battle over which bloc Israel belonged to was not yet settled), and, if I understand correctly, a kind of pain that could not be smoothed away: the pain of losing his family.

His father encouraged him to flee the German occupation zone in Poland for the Soviet zone. The worst is on its way, he said, based on information he heard from an Austrian officer. He forbade Klingberg to tell his mother he was leaving for good (she did not believe the dire predictions). The son promised and kept his word. He didn't hug his mother more than necessary, and shed no tears. When he returned to Poland after the war, when he was already an acclaimed doctor with a senior position in Byelorussia, there was no trace of his family - all incinerated at Treblinka - apart from a bedspread he saw through the half-open door of their home, now occupied by strangers.

Family had been ripped from his life. In the meantime, he had a small family in Tel Aviv for 25 years, but danger was always hanging over his head. Now, toward the end of his life, Klingberg lives in a metropolis, Paris, near his daughter and grandson. With all the languages he speaks and reads - Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, German, Russian and English - the only one he doesn't know is the language of the city where he lives. Anyone who thinks his punishment is over doesn't know what he's talking about.

Here is the time to mention that I met with Klingberg, after his release from prison and the restrictions imposed on him during his years of house arrest. Once, in a Parisian cafe, I said to him: "Why don't you write your memoirs?" "The truth is, I can't write properly in any language," he replied sadly. "Actually," he continued, "I wanted to be a writer. You know who I gave the notebook with my first stories to?" I didn't know. And then he dredged up a memory from the distant past that is missing, unfortunately, from this book: "Janusz Korczak, in Warsaw, in 1939."

At that moment, when the man sitting before me appeared to loom larger than quotidian life in the catastrophic history of the Jews in the 20th century, I almost offered to co-author the book with him. But Klingberg keeps the cards close to his chest. He didn't tell me that the details had already been worked out, that he was planning to write the book with his lawyer, Michael Sfard.

Sfard, it is worth pointing out, is the grandson of the great sociologist Zygmunt Baumen, who made some of the most important observations about the Holocaust and modernity. Why is that important? Because a kind of circle has been closed with this book. It might also be worthwhile to know that Sfard's other grandfather was the president of the communist Polish committee, in Moscow, where he met Klingberg in the winter of 1943. This is what I mean by circles. Michael Sfard, a famous human rights lawyer, both represented Klingberg during the struggle to release him from prison and has done an excellent job of writing up his story.

At any rate, after reading the book I was glad I had not helped write it. True, I would have wanted the protagonist of the book to be tough on himself. I would have insisted that he explain, for example, why he felt the need to keep in touch with the Shin Bet interrogator who used physical force on him, and squeezed out a confession that sent him to a horrible prison cell in Ashkelon. On the other hand, I would not have wanted to know about the weapons of mass destruction that Klingberg helped develop. Incidentally, he was the one who called upon the scientific community in Israel to devote its research to this cause. No one refused, he writes. Anyone who has complaints about the immorality of espionage should first ask themselves some questions about the morality of producing such vile weapons.

The law-enforcement authorities probably thought that Klingberg would die under the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, but he lived to tell the tale. If the book contains anything intriguing beyond the spy story, it is the light shed on the tremendous sense of indebtedness felt by people who spent the war years in the Soviet Union. In those days, when fighting the Germans was also their war as Jews / communists / Soviets, these feelings ran very deep, regardless of what the Soviet Union really represented.

Those who sell secrets for money are easier to understand. Every day we sell things for something we believe is more important. Those who spy for ideological reasons remain an enigma. After all, we ourselves would never go that far. There were other Jews who fought with the Red Army, who remained loyal to the Soviet Union even while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. None of them went to such extremes. On the contrary: If anything, they went in the other direction. Nonetheless, people who go all the way are more interesting than those who stick to the middle of the road - although I am not sure going all the way would be recommended to those who know what the ride is like.