Agent Kollek in the shadows

teddy kollek b&w 298.88 (photo credit: Jerusalem municipality)
teddy kollek b&w 298.88
(photo credit: Jerusalem municipality)
The following is an archive article from May 24, 1991 The celebrations marking Teddy Kollek's 80th birthday next week will focus as a matter of course on his 27 years as Jerusalem's mayor. Before that, however, Kollek had already lived enough lives to provide the entire cast of characters for a novel portraying the epic of Jewish revival in our time. In addition to being a member of Kibbutz Ein Gev, the Hungarian-born Kollek was a Zionist operative who met with Adolf Eichmann in Vienna in the 1930s to get exit permits for young Jews, a Hagana gunrunner stalked by the FBI in New York in the 1940s, and the principal domestic troubleshooter of prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s. In between, he was a player in the murky world of intelligence - a world of seedy backrooms and corridors of power where the fate of individuals and of nations is bandied between unsmiling men who keep their backs to the wall. It was a role seemingly ill-suited to Kollek's outgoing, non-furtive personality but he managed to play it in his own style. In a recent interview, Kollek agreed to talk about his little-known life as a secret agent. Recruited from the kibbutz by the Jewish Agency's political department, Kollek was dispatched in 1943 to neutral Istanbul to join a handful of other Palestinian Jews maintaining a surreal contact with doomed Jewish communities in Nazi Europe. His cover was as a correspondent for the Ein Gev Diary. Through well-paid German couriers who were also double agents, the group exchanged letters with Jewish leaders in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and elsewhere. They were able to send in money to be used in attempts to buy freedom or purchase weapons for partisan groups. They were even able to get letters into and out of concentration camps. Astonishingly, there was also telephone contact with Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. These efforts were able to save only a tiny number of Jews, and members of the team would later be tormented by the thought of what might have been if a serious rescue attempt been made earlier. It was the group in Istanbul which first learned the dimensions of the Holocaust from the trickle of Jews who managed to escape the death camps to Turkey, and they desperately tried to alert the world. The world, however, did not respond. Kollek's job was to maintain contact with British and American intelligence in Istanbul and with the press. It was British Intelligence which provided the group with the courier pouches and the political protection that enabled them to operate. "Our partners were the British and our enemies were the British," says Kollek. "We depended on the British in Istanbul but the British police in Jerusalem were trying to catch us." In exchange for the help rendered them by the British, the Palestinian Jewish group in Istanbul provided information about conditions in Nazi-occupied Europe derived from their own sources. "We were even able to provide reports on the weather conditions in the area of the Ploesti oil fields before bombing raids. We got them by telephone from Jews in Romania." The underground railroad established to smuggle Jews out, via Greece and other points, was also used to rescue downed Allied airmen. Wartime Istanbul was a warren of agents taking sidelong looks at each other under downturned hat brims. All sides, however, honored the rules of the game - there were no attempts at assassination. One evening Kollek took a break from his frugal existence to dine at Istanbul's best restaurant - an indulgence he would permit himself throughout his career - and found himself sitting at a table near the German ambassador, Von Papen. On another occasion, a German agent who had heard Kollek recall how he had passed through Beirut came up to him in a hotel lobby to reminisce about Bayreuth in Germany. Two members of the team had an apartment across the street from the German Embassy. As the tide of war began to turn, the Palestinian Jews began to be contacted by couriers from the Nazi zone - motivated less by greed than by the desire for "reinsurance," as it was called, against post-war retribution. One such courier was the deputy Hungarian Chief of Staff, who brought letters with him from Jews in Budapest and agreed to take letters back. He did not trust the British, and asked Kollek to introduce him to an American emissary for debriefing. After returning from Istanbul in the summer of 1943, Kollek was sent frequently to Cairo by Re'uven Shiloah, head of Intelligence for the Jewish Agency's political department. In Egypt, he helped organize the smuggling of stolen British weaponry to the Hagana in Palestine, and maintained an elaborate network of contacts with Egyptians and the British. An ex-colleague from Istanbul recalls entering Groppi's, Cairo's best-known cafe, and seeing Kollek, dressed in khaki, in animated conversation with British officers. Among subjects discussed was the dropping of Palestinian Jewish parachutists from British planes into East European countries - which the parachutists had left only a few years before to immigrate to Palestine - in an attempt to make contact with the Jewish remnants. The British agreed to this in return for the Intelligence information these agents would provide. While British officers in the Middle East were enthusiastic about the project, and trained hundreds of Jewish agents, London was fearful that the Jews would demand political compensation after the war for this effort and reined in project. In the end, 36 parachutists were dropped. Several were captured and killed, including Hannah Senesh. Among the British intelligence officers Kollek called on in Cairo was Maurice Oldfield, who would in time become head of MI6 (Britain's equivalent of the CIA and Mossad). He had been a student in Manchester of the historian Lewis Namir, a baptized ex-Jew who had become an enthusiastic Zionist, and whom Kollek had met in England. "We used every contact we had," he recalled. One of the reasons Kollek had been chosen for his job was the ease with which he related to foreigners, including foreigners of rank. He maintained a cosmopolitan stance bereft of either deference or surliness. "He was able to deal with the British as an equal," recalls a member of Ein Gev who was among its founders with Kollek. "That was not very common in the country at the time." Kollek received the British High Commissioner, and other distinguished visitors to the Kibbutz, and served as liaison with the British authorities. For his part, Kollek did not see anti-Semites under every bush, and related with genuine interest to people he met from any walk of life. His own engaging personality would, over the course of the years, win him the confidence of many men who would become senior military, intelligence and political figures in their own countries. Kollek's most important intelligence activity was undertaken in the post-war period, when he was no longer officially in the intelligence business. Shortly after returning to Jerusalem from his frenzied New York gunrunning assignment, Kollek was sent back to the US, this time as the number-two man in the newly-established Israeli Embassy in Washington. His main task was with the American Jewish community. But he maintained contact with the State Department when Ambassador Abba Eban was wearing his other hat in New York as ambassador to the UN. Some of the people at the State Department and in the newly-formed CIA Kollek had met in Cairo during the war, and he resumed old acquaintanceships. Both the U.S. and Great Britain were keeping the newly-formed Jewish state at arms-length in intelligence matters. "They were convinced that, with the large scale-immigration from eastern Europe, a great number of Soviet agents had penetrated Israel," recalls Kollek. In addition, the Western powers were aware that there were strong advocates within the Israeli leadership, including Golda Meir and Yisrael Galili, for an attitude of neutrality between East and West. Kollek believed this position a grievous error. "When I came to Ben-Gurion with my worries about this, his immediate reaction was that we had to be with the Western powers, and only the Western powers. After a while the internal argument about where he stood was resolved but not the suspicion of the Americans and the British that we had been penetrated and that we had no clear political line." Kollek took it upon himself in Washington to establish close working relationships with American Intelligence but was initially unsuccessful. The breakthrough came with the help of an American Jew, Fred Gronich, who had served as a senior American intelligence officer in the war. "He told me one day 'I think I can get you an appointment.' " At the given time, Kollek knocked on the door of a room in Washington's Statler hotel. The two men inside introduced themselves but their names meant nothing to him. For several hours, they questioned Kollek closely about where Israel stood in the growing confrontation between West and East, and the likelihood of Communist penetration of Israeli institutions. One of the two was a general who would go on to become head of NATO intelligence. The other was a senior CIA official, Jim Angleton. That meeting opened the door to the intimate cooperation between American and Israeli Intelligence that has been maintained till now. For many years the relationship bore the personal stamp of Angleton, who served as head of CIA counter-intelligence but insisted on hanging on to the Israel Desk as well. "I gradually won the confidence of Angleton and through him I met [Walter] Bedell-Smith [head of the CIA]," says Kollek. During Angleton's many subsequent visits to Israel, he often called on Kollek, even after he had become mayor of Jerusalem. A photograph by Angleton of Jerusalem's pre-Six Day War no-man's-land, taken from an upper story of the King David Hotel hangs in Kollek's office. "He was a complicated person," says Kollek. "His father was a representative of some American company in Italy and he grew up there. He went to Yale, studied literature, wrote essays about Ezra Pound, collected old prints, was an angler and a great reader. He was a valuable friend of Israel, a trusted friend." A memorial stone to Angleton, who died in 1987, lies behind the King David Hotel. In 1951, when Ben-Gurion made his first visit to the US as Israel's prime minister, the Red Scare connected with Israel had largely subsided in Washington, and Kollek organized a meeting between Ben-Gurion and Bedell-Smith to discuss Intelligence cooperation. The two men had first met in Europe shortly after the war when Bedell-Smith, then deputy to Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower, had granted Ben-Gurion's request to speed up the release of Jews from Displaced Persons camps so that they could go to Palestine, and to permit the teaching of Hebrew in the camps. "In Washington, Bedell-Smith and Ben-Gurion agreed verbally and with a handshake - there was nothing in writing - that we would not spy on each other," says Kollek. "I don't think we've ever proved that the Americans broke this agreement. The serious thing about [convicted spy Jonathan] Pollard is that he broke the agreement." The intelligence link between Washington and Jerusalem quickly proved a bonanza - for Washington. The stream of immigrants from eastern Europe to Israel provided the U.S. with a major source of information about the Soviet bloc. The bulk of the information was seemingly trivial - a rise in the price of bread, shortage of a certain commodity - but the accumulated detail permitted the construction of a comprehensive picture of the economic-social-political situation in the countries of eastern Europe. Detailed reports compiled from the debriefings of Soviet bloc arrivals were passed on to Washington. "Their knowledge was so sparse about eastern Europe at that time that the debriefings in Israel provided a very large percentage of what they knew," says Kollek. The Americans, in turn, passed on information about Soviet-bloc weapon systems in Arab hands. "I was told later they didn't give us all they knew," notes Kollek. The greatest intelligence coup for the West, deriving from the Jerusalem-Washington udnerstanding, was the acquisition of the speech given by Nikita Khruschev to the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, which officially acknowledged, and for the first time, the dimensions of Stalin's crimes against his own people. Intended only for the party hierarchy, this sensational speech was given the widest publicity by the CIA, which smuggled millions of copies into eastern Europe, thereby creating the first major crack in the citadel of Communism. Bedell-Smith's successor at the CIA, Allen Dulles, said that the acquisition of Khruschev's speech was the greatest accomplishment of his term in office. It was years before it became known that the speech had been acquired by Israeli Intelligence, and passed to the CIA. A few years earlier, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the Americans had attempted to persuade Israel to join the UN forces fighting against North Korea - in the same way that they tried to mobilize coalition partners for the recent Gulf War. Ben-Gurion reluctantly agreed to send an Israeli unit but was overruled by the Cabinet. In Washington, Kollek attempted to persuade his Intelligence contacts that it would be a mistake to involve Israel, since the Soviet Union might retaliate by cutting off entirely the flow of emigrants from the Eastern bloc, thereby drying up an important source of intelligence for the West. "In the end, they agreed that this was more important than our participation in the coalition." The acquisition of the Khruschev speech would dramatically justify that view. Kollek had established a close personal relation with Allen Dulles, even before he took over the CIA, and was often his house guest, and sometimes the only foreigner present at a dinner party. When Ben-Gurion visited Washington for his first meeting with President Eisenhower, Kollek called up Dulles, and asked for a meeting on the eve of the visit. It was felt in Israel that while President Truman had been accessible, Eisenhower was a remote fixture who would not fully understand or properly value Ben-Gurion. An unusually heavy snowstorm stopped traffic in Washington that night, and Kollek crunched his way on foot to Dulles' house to brief him on the visit. The next morning, Dulles met with the President before Ben-Gurion's arrival to provide him with a proper perspective on his Israeli visitor. On a visit to Angleton one day, at CIA headquarters at Langley, outside Washington, Kollek noticed a familiar face in the corridor. He had last seen it in Vienna more than 20 years before but he had no trouble recognizing Kim Philby. When Kollek had known him he was a communist. He had married a Jewish girl from Vienna, also a communist, whom Kollek knew. The two men had even exchanged a sentence or two back then. "I said to Angleton 'What is he doing here? Once a communist, always a communist.' " Angleton replied that Philby was a senior British Intelligence officer. Kollek's warning was not followed up, and Philby was left with years more to mole his way through the highest reaches of the British Intelligence Establishment. For Kollek, these forays into the great game of international intrigue were not much more than excursions. His main interest lay in the more tangible aspects of human experience - building a society, and raising the funds with which to build it. He would thrive not on stealth but on human interchange. "I regard boredom as the deadliest sin," Kollek said recently.