A Spy Story

When we think of espionage it often carries negative connotation: spying is not “nice”. However when given the more respectable label of “intelligence”, we all recognise its importance to the security of our own state and others. Indeed, the importance of spies and who controls them is very much in the news at the moment with the publication of a report by David Anderson QC that calls for a complete overhaul of intelligence legislation and the transfer of powers to authorise spying from ministers to judges, as is the case in several other countries, including the USA and Australia. Unsurprisingly, the government opposes this move and the report is likely to be hotly debated.

Whether the work of a particular spy should be seen in a favourable or unfavourable light depends on one’s own loyalties and point of view. Thus, we are told, Moses acted on God’s instructions in sending spies into Canaan, although with the exception of Joshua & Calev the intelligence they brought back was more a reflection of their own lack of confidence than a dispassionate appraisal of the viability of an Israelite incursion. We are told that the subsequent years of wandering in the wilderness were a punishment for their misrepresentation and the Israelites’ acceptance of it. But what if theirs was the true picture and the Israelites needed to hear the bad news and endure an extended period of preparation before mounting a successful campaign to seize the land promised to them? We cannot know; all that is clear is that the majority of these spies brought back a sobering account of what they had seen and on the whole the Israelites believed them.

In the spring of 1933, my father was saved from a dreadful fate at the hands of the Nazis by a close friend, Wilfred Israel. My second name is Wilfred, after him, and as a child this caused a lot of teasing – Wilfred was not a cool name and I was angry with my parents for giving it to me. We have seen the importance of names to Dan, whose given name is perfectly Hebraic, but who has adopted the Hebrew name Avi’ad for reasons best known to himself. As a child in the 1950s the War still dominated our play but most of us had only a vague understanding of what it had all been about. Thus I had enough trouble being called Oppenheimer, which my classmates took to be German rather than specifically Jewish. Two other things fed into this: they had heard of Robert Oppenheimer “the father of the bomb” and of his troubles at the hands of Senator McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee, which accused him of being a communist agent. At the same time, friends who visited my house frequently saw my father wearing headphones and twiddling the knobs of his ex-naval surplus radio. Picking up distant stations broadcasting in exotic languages was one of his passions, but when word of his hobby got about my class it was interpreted as clear evidence that, like Robert, he was a spy, either Russian or  German. So Wilfred was just another naming burden. To deflect this sort of unwelcome rumour about my family, to my shame I started one of my own: our class teacher, Mrs Stokes, was Scottish, but I put the word about that her accent was fake and that she was really a Russian spy. The poor woman could never understand why the class treated her with suspicion from then on.

My father told me I should be proud to be called after his friend but I was not convinced, and until very recently I knew nothing about this man except for these few facts: My father and another Jewish friend were walking home from a cabaret one spring evening in Berlin, only about three or four months after Hitler became Chancellor, when they were attacked by a gang of storm-troopers, merely because of my father’s dark complexion. He told his friend to run for it but was determined to throw a few punches before getting away himself. In the fracas he dropped his wallet, which contained some form of identity.

A day or so later, Wilfred Israel phoned my grandfather to tell him he must get my dad out of Germany at once, as he was on an arrest list because it was forbidden for Jews to fight back. He warned that the penalty for such defiance would be extremely severe. My grandfather acted on this warning at once, and my father was packed off to London. I remember asking why Wilfred’s warning was taken so seriously and how had he known who was listed for arrest. My father told me that at that stage they had no idea how Wilfred knew, they were just aware that he seemed to have a better idea than anyone else of what was going on. Later, however, when the war began and Wilfred was also in London, he was also instrumental in getting my father out of internment on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien, and into the army, and he then confided that he had been working with British intelligence since the late 1920s. My father also told me that Wilfred died in mysterious circumstances when the civil flight he was on was on was shot down over the Bay of Biscay. It was said that a number of people on board were possible targets, including Wilfred himself.

Fast forward to this year, when a couple of extraordinary coincidences led to my learning a great deal more about Wilfred Israel, including that his yahrzeit was last week, and I shall include him among those we remember when we say Kaddish. On a visit to Israel earlier this year, my wife Merav made contact with a long-lost childhood friend, who invited us to lunch. The women had a great deal of catching up to do and while they were chatting away her husband and I talked about what had brought each of us to Israel. He and his wife were both born in Iraq and he explained how their families had left during the very difficult time for middle-eastern Jews immediately after Israel’s independence in1948. He asked me how and when my family had left Germany and I told him, mentioning Wilfred. As I uttered his name, the wife stopped talking and asked: “did you just say something about Wilfred Israel? I was just telling Merav about the museum named after a Wilfred Israel in a kibbutz just up the road from here!” “It can’t be the same man, I replied, my Wilfred wasn’t famous.” “Well, the man after whom the museum is named was shot down over the Bay of Biscay in 1943.”

This revelation from a chance conversation led Merav and me to visit the little museum in Kibbutz Hazorea and to learn that my father was just one, although possibly the first, of thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Jews whom Wilfred Israel played a key role in rescuing. We discovered that he was the subject of a detailed and fascinating biography published in the 1980s by Naomi Shepherd and that Israeli documentary film-maker Yonatan Nir, himself the grandson of one of the many who owed Wilfred their lives, has made a short film about him and is currently in the process of making a longer one. We also learned that Wilfred was the model for Christopher Isherwood’s character Bernard Landauer in Goodbye to Berlin, on which the film Cabaret is based. It is said that when he learned of Wilfred’s truly heroic activity in Berlin throughout the 1930’s, Isherwood regretted having portrayed him merely as a rich, effete dandy. Wilfred certainly was rich, and gay, which together with his Jewishness made him a double target for the Nazis.

It is clear that he combined the careful gathering of information about developments within the Nazi hierarchy in Berlin, and in particular about the regime’s intentions for the Jews, all of which he passed to a contact in the British Embassy, with frantic action, at great personal cost, to rescue as many of his fellow Jews as he could. Although he had been born in London and had British citizenship through his mother, the granddaughter of the first Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and although he could have sold the family business, the oldest department store in Berlin, while it was still possible to do so, and settled comfortably in London, instead, he remained in Berlin until the last possible moment, using his fortune to help others escape, while continually filing reports warning of the dreadful dangers facing the Jews of Europe. Unlike the pessimistic reports of Moses’ spies, Wilfred’s fell on deaf ears, regarded by most as the hysterical outpourings of a man who suffered from all the prejudices of his day. When he finally left Germany he worked in London and Oxford as part of a group of experts on Nazi Germany advising government. With hindsight his reports and warnings were startlingly accurate, but at the time he continued to be regarded as an over-emotional exaggerator.

At the same time he worked for the Jewish Agency trying to help Jews to get visas to safe havens and this work led him to Spain and Portugal, where large numbers of refugees were gathering and the fear was that although neutral, sooner or later the fascist regimes of Franco and Salazar would bow to German pressure and hand these Jews over. It was after two months in the nest of spies that was wartime Lisbon that Wilfred boarded BOAC flight 777 on 1st June 1943, together with another Jewish enemy of the Reich and probable intelligence operative, the actor Leslie Howard, and another known British secret agent. The scheduled flights to and from neutral Lisbon had hitherto been left alone by the Luftwaffe, and subsequently they were again, but eight German fighters attacked Wilfred’s plane, giving it no chance to escape.

The second coincidence occurred just before the rehearsal for today’s service, just over a week ago. Rachel Ouseley had offered to make tea and I was following her into the kitchen when I passed a stand with surplus books being offered by the Synagogue library for £1 each. The first book that caught my eye as I walked past was called Foley, the Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews, by Michael Smith. I didn’t know why this book was for sale (Diane Barnett has since explained that the library has another copy, which you can borrow to read), but I paid my pound and took it immediately, because Frank Foley was head of the passport control section of the British Embassy in Berlin from the early 1920’s until August 1939 and was Wilfred Israel’s principal contact there. He was also an intelligence officer, one of whose agents, a Jewish Lawyer called Hubert Pollack, was also a school friend of Wilfred’s younger brother Herbert Israel. Pollack, who later served in Israel’s embryonic military intelligence, had established lines of communication with the Gestapo and was able to get names of Jews who were to be arrested. It may have been he who received the information that my father would be one of these. Wilfred provided the cash that enabled people to leave and Frank Pollack supplied the passports and visas, either to Britain or Mandatory Palestine. Between them this triumvirate saved tens of thousands who would otherwise almost certainly have perished, at enormous risk to themselves.

If the information that they gathered about the enormity of Nazi plans for mass extermination had not fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall and elsewhere, they might have saved many thousands more.