The remarkable untold story of Israel Michelson

A daring mission by Latvian partisans saved the first and only Jew to escape Nazi-occupied Latvia.

Israel and Miriam Michelson at a rally 521 (photo credit: FROM FAMILY  ALBUM)
Israel and Miriam Michelson at a rally 521
(photo credit: FROM FAMILY ALBUM)
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, 1944 – American Iver C. Olsen, representative of the War Refugee Board based at the US Embassy and a senior operative of the Overseas Special Service (which in 1947 became the CIA), was prepared to fund one more attempt at rescuing a Jew from Nazi-occupied Latvia, to hear for himself if there was even the slightest chance of saving the remnants of the country’s once-flourishing Jewish community. All previous efforts to place an agent in the Baltic state had resulted in dismal failure. The agents had soon lost contact and were presumed dead.
In the summer of 1944, a huge sum of $2 million (mainly donated by Jewish charities) had been sent from the US for the purpose of saving Jews in Europe, and had been received into the account of the War Refugee Board’s Stockholm Enskilda bank account. This particular $2 million had been specifically earmarked for helping Baltic Jews. With no information as to just how many Baltic Jews remained alive, but previous painful experiences having shown there were plenty of charlatans who had profited despite failing to bring a Jewish witness to events in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the neutral territory of Sweden, Olsen, and his close colleague, US Ambassador to Sweden Herschel V. Johnson, were running out of time and ideas.
Previous promises of transfers by sea to the Swedish island of Gotland organized by the Latvian consul-in-exile Karlis Lasmanis, and others, had resulted not in the promised arrival of rescued Latvian Jews, but in the ‘rescue’ of a significant number of non-Jewish Latvians, many of whom were strongly suspected of being either Nazi collaborators or activists.
As a last resort – and on the urging of ex-pat Latvian Jewish leader Hillel Storch – Olsen turned to a group of Latvian partisans, one of a number fighting a guerrilla war against the Nazis in the forests of the Kurland region of the country. He would pay them well if a Jew could be brought out alive, but knew the chances of a successful operation were incredibly slim.
On October 14, 1944, a coded message was transmitted and picked up by radio operator Valentine Lasmane, formerly a high-flying young editor of a respected Latvian newspaper.
By chance, she and her colleagues in the Latvian resistance had only days before heard rumors of a Jewish woman (a prison camp escapee) living rough in the dense Kurland forests. Information suggested she was being fed by resistance members and villagers risking execution if caught assisting a Jew, the entire region having some time before been declared Judenfrei. Finding the woman would be a task in itself, but getting to the area would also be incredibly difficult with roadblocks everywhere. Travel by car was permitted only for the German military and Latvian Nazi collaborators.
Almost a month after receiving the message, on November 13, 1944, the resistance had come up with a plan to find the woman and smuggle her out of the country by boat.
Karlis Frishenfelds, a fellow resistance member, remarkably managed to acquire an SS uniform, a gun, and a car. Lasmane obtained forged papers allowing them “access to all areas” as SS personnel. They drove the 150 kilometers south (both frightened of being stopped as Frishenfelds spoke very poor German), and arrived at the village close to where the Jewish woman had last been sighted. They quickly learned the dreadful news that the woman had disappeared just days earlier, around the time the Germans had performed a fresh sweep of the forest.
Food left for her in a secret hiding place had not been collected since then. She was assumed dead. Lasmane and Frishenfelds’ plan had proved a failure.
FRISHENFELDS STAYED with the car at the village, but Lasmane headed into the woods with an old schoolfriend who lived locally, to see for herself where the woman had been hiding. They came out of the woods and walked back to a hillside to talk.
It was now around 3 p.m. and dusk was setting in. Looking down towards the woods, Lasmane thought she saw someone moving among the trees and immediately sprinted down the hillside, only to find not a Jewish woman, but a Jewish man, terrified out of his wits.
She tried talking to him in Russian, but he wouldn’t calm down, so she then tried in Latvian.
Speaking to me in 2006, Lasmane recalled, “I came to rescue a Jewish woman and try to take her to Sweden, but now I told the terrified man – this man who looked like a tramp – ‘I will take you to Sweden.’” She quickly explained to the dazed and frightened man that people were prepared to pay for him to go to Sweden, that she was from the resistance, that – hard as it was to believe – she had stolen an SS car and had a fellow resistance member dressed as a Nazi waiting at the village to take them to safety.
The stunned man, heavily bearded, dressed in ill-fitting clothes, frightened and clearly exhausted, insisted she would turn him in to the SS. He’d escaped a forced march from Kaiserwald concentration camp, having previously lived through the horrors of the Riga Ghetto, slave labor in the peat bogs of Skrunden, and the notorious Dundaga labor camp. He had seen the most unspeakable acts committed against the Jews of Latvia, but had been driven on time and again to survive – sometimes from the very depths of despair – by a determination that he would somehow live to bear witness to the Nazi atrocities.
His name was Israel Michelson, a 48-year-old bachelor and former timber mill owner from Windau – now known as Ventspils – in northern Latvia. He had been living rough in the forest, dodging Nazi death squads and Latvian collaborators, and avoiding being caught in crossfire between partisan groups and the Germans.
Some nine weeks earlier, he and five others had taken advantage of their Nazi guard falling asleep (doubtless as weary as they were from the relentless pace of the forced march from Kaiserwald towards Stutthof in Poland) and in the early hours of the morning had disappeared into the Kurland forest, only for their escape to quickly be discovered.
Pursued into the forests, the other five had been cut down in a hail of bullets.
Michelson had taken cover in the dense undergrowth and after half an hour without moving, with the last audible sounds of the Nazis having faded from the site of the killings, had emerged from his hiding place to find himself completely alone.
HE KNEW the forest well having traded timber from the region before the war, and had recently been helped by a Latvian farmer (never identified), who hid him for some time in a hayloft. A week earlier, after the Nazis visited his property, the farmer deemed it too dangerous for Michelson to stay any longer. He had given him a parcel of ham and bread, and an extra jacket to help fight off the bitter cold before sending him on his way.
It took some minutes of tense but gentle negotiations, but eventually Michelson was persuaded by Lasmane to leave the safe cover of the woods. He followed her to her friend’s house, where he was given clean clothes by her friend’s father. They appeared to be showing him true kindness, but the act of voluntarily stepping into the Nazi vehicle –still plagued with doubts that they genuinely were resistance – proved an incredibly hard step to take.
They were all scared out of their wits as they drove through the countryside on unlit roads, but passed freely through the roadblocks.
All went well until the very last roadblock, at which the soldiers on duty were uneasy about Frishenfelds’ credentials.
He panicked, pulled his gun and fired above their heads, then put his foot down, swinging the car around at high speed and racing away before the Germans had a chance to go after them. The three were terrified, but an hour later arrived at a safe house in the village of Jurkalne, on the north Latvia coast.
Michelson had been told he would be moved as quickly as possible to a boat and transported to Sweden, out of harm’s way; but days of hiding in a variety of safe houses turned into weeks, and he grew very suspicious.
Lasmane and Frishenfelds had kept from him the terrible news that nearly all the resistance leaders had been captured and executed just a day after he had arrived in Jurkalne. The two were now attempting to find someone else they hoped they could trust to get Michelson away.
Eventually, on November 23, 1944, they received a message to say their boat had arrived.
Michelson was smartened up, given respectable clothes, and, together with Lasmane, was driven down to the quayside.
His diary entry gives a sense of his feelings that fateful day. “They had been successful in outwitting the Germans. A ship from Windau would soon arrive. The weather was very favorable and within two hours we would have to move into the sea,” he wrote.
He recalled a heady cocktail of intense excitement and fear coursing through his veins as they reached a row boat, only to freeze at the sight of the enemy just meters away. But his luck was still holding. “There were eight Latvian SS men guarding the seashore.
They wished us a ‘good journey’!” Lasmane and Michelson waved goodbye to Frishenfelds and the rowing boat soon reached the ship moored out in the harbor.
“The ship took 153 Latvians, all of them with baggage,” Michelson recorded. “Naturally, no trace of Jewish blood was apparent.
Leaving the shore of that Land of Blood, which had swallowed all that was near and dear to me, made my heart heavy, but I was anxious for the ship to reach her destination.
There has not been one Jew who has been able to say that anyone had survived Hitler and his gang... Doing any more to our Jews could not have been possible. “ Amid the chaos of a massively overcrowded boat, Michelson was smuggled down below deck into the engine room, where he was locked into a cupboard for virtually the entire 36-hour journey to the Swedish island of Gotland. With strong doubts about the sympathies of many of his fellow passengers, and being of obviously Jewish appearance, knowledge of him being on board would almost certainly have cost Michelson his life.
When Lasmane arrived in the engine room and opened the cupboard to tell him they had arrived, he hugged her joyfully.
Only after all the others had disembarked was Michelson brought out on deck. They had come ashore at Slijta, the boat having landed in secret away from the main harbor area of the island.
The Latvian refugees were then taken to a camp, but Lasmane insisted on seeing the governor of the island to tell him personally that she had a rescued Jew with her. He immediately took charge of Michelson, and Lasmane handed him over to his care. She would not see him again or know what had happened to him for around a year.
IN STOCKHOLM, news of the arrival of an escaped Latvian Jew – the only Jew to escape to neutral Sweden during the entire Nazi occupation – had caused a massive stir.
The following day, a light aircraft arrived in Gotland to collect him. The Americans (aware of him being in imminent danger among suspected German Nazis and Latvian collaborators) were desperate to get Michelson away from the refugee center, just in case he was recognized as a Jew and killed before he could give evidence.
At an extraordinary meeting at the US Embassy in Stockholm on November 26, 1944, Michelson told all he knew about the fate of Latvia’s Jews. It was not the news that Olsen and Johnson wanted to hear, but it was essential information that would convince them to redirect the WRB funds to their expanding operation in Hungary, led by Raoul Wallenberg. The new influx of money – transferred as a result of Michelson’s testimony – almost certainly helped saved the lives of many Hungarian Jews.
Michelson’s testimony was also witnessed by the British Zionist leader, Shalom AdlerRudel, the Latvian Jewish leader in Sweden, Hillel Storch, and the Latvian consul in exile, Lasmanis.
Lasmanis, alleged by some at the time of having been party to the misappropriation of funds designed to rescue Jews, gave Michelson a hard time, as he vividly recalled in his diary. But Michelson, a well educated, intelligent man, stood his ground and gave as good as he got.
“The Latvian Consul Lasmanis rubbed his hands and asked where other living Jews were to be found,” Michelson wrote. “Naturally, I said that there were 12 or 13 Jews hiding in the Dundaga forests, and of their position I had already informed the agent.
“‘Then you don’t know about the 600 Jews in the Kurland forest?’ he [Lasmanis] asked.
“Yes, I knew, I told him. There was little to tell about the 600 Jews... other than they are not alive anymore.
“He [Lasmanis] seemed to have finished speaking, but then, as if shocked, coldly said, ‘We didn’t save you and bring you here on a special flight to Stockholm to hear this! This operation was based on the principle that you were going to tell the truth. But then you tell us they are not there anymore?’” Michelson sensed that Lasmanis was panicking, while around him searching glances were being cast in the direction of the man who had been pivotal in directing the questionable finances of the Swedish Latvian Committee. The ambassador’s bombastic arrogance and dismissive tone prompted Michelson to raise his own voice a notch, but sensibly he remained restrained and delivered a telling blow to the reputation of the senior Latvian representative to Sweden.
“It is ironic,” Michelson told Lasmanis, “that you know more than I do about who is in the forests. Dear Consul, would I not say it was possible to save 60 Jews if that were the case, never mind 600? If it was only dependent on my speaking the truth, do you not think that I would be prepared and ready to say and do anything? Unfortunately, that is not possible. Why have you, Herr Consul, only now shown such great interest? At last you’re coming to save the Jews. Where were you three months ago? Enough Nazi elements have safely managed to arrive here.”
Michelson’s frustration and anger at the manner in which his people had been left without help welled up inside him. With the shocked Lasmanis standing directly opposite him, surrounded by Olsen, Johnson, Storch, Adler-Rudel, and others, he crashed his fist down on the table beside them. “Where were you then, Herr Consul!? Where were you then!?” THE ROOM fell silent. Before these men of means and power, Michelson had in a few brief sentences laid down the gauntlet to the Latvian consul, giving vent to the frustration felt by a witness to the massacres of tens of thousands of his people, abandoned and betrayed by their own countrymen.
Israel Michelson was the first and only Jew to escape Nazi-occupied Latvia during World War II. He survived, but was left alone in the world. At the end of the war, the arrival of liberated eastern European Jews to Sweden gave him a new lease on life. A generation older than most of the young survivors of the concentration camps, he became a father figure to many.
In 1946, he married Miriam Milchikeh, the sole survivor of her family from Vilkija, Lithuania. The wedding, at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm, was paid for by Hillel Storch, with whom Michelson had become and would forever remain close friends.
Michelson was 50 years old; his bride was 25.
Unlike many refugees who used Sweden as a staging post to points around the globe, Israel and Miriam chose to stay in Sweden. They were passionate Zionists who throughout their lives raised funds to support the State of Israel. In 1948, Michelson gave evidence to the International Red Cross, thus contributing to the conviction of war criminals from the Riga Ghetto.
Valentine Lasmane would never return to live in Latvia. She married an ex-pat Latvian in Sweden, raised a family and made her life there. Returning to Latvia (then under Soviet occupation) was too dangerous for her, having been associated with a pro-democracy newspaper in the early years of the war. She and Michelson remained lifelong friends, often going on picnics together. She became a successful linguist and staunch advocate for Latvian independence, which she saw come to pass in 1991. She still lives in Stockholm and is now 97 years old.
Karlis Frishenfelds was arrested and tortured by the Nazis soon after participating in the escape of Lasmane and Michelson.
Upon the arrival of the Soviet forces into Latvia, he was swiftly dispatched to Siberia, where he spent more than 20 miserable years in a gulag. He was assumed dead by both Lasmane and Michelson; but in 1991, he was located by a Latvian documentary maker and brought to Sweden to meet up again with his two friends. The meeting was, understandably, incredibly emotional.
He passed away a few months later.
Israel Michelson’s diary is now at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and forms the basis of a still-unpublished book, by this writer, based on his remarkable wartime experiences, “The Zebra Man.” Married to Miriam for 50 years, he died on June 23, 1996, just eight months short of his 100th birthday. He was buried at the head of the Stockholm Jewish Cemetery in honor of his contribution to the Jewish community of Sweden.
A few days before Michelson passed away, Valentine Lasmane went to visit him one last time at Stockholm’s Jewish retirement home. He was deaf and almost blind; but on waking from a deep sleep and on being told who had come to see him, he smiled and simply said, “The forest – you saved me from the forest.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist, who can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster and at