Pre-Mossad: How one man used espionage to bring Poland's Jews to Israel

‘Bricha’ boots on the Polish ground.

PRISONERS LABOR at the site of Belomorkanal, the man-made channel connecting the White Sea and Baltic Sea that was constructed by Soviet Gulag inmates. Tzvi Netzer served a full year in the infamous Siberian Gulag. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
PRISONERS LABOR at the site of Belomorkanal, the man-made channel connecting the White Sea and Baltic Sea that was constructed by Soviet Gulag inmates. Tzvi Netzer served a full year in the infamous Siberian Gulag.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Miri Nahari’s father, Tzvi Netzer, was the point-man for pre-Mossad clandestine efforts bringing 250,000 out of 300,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland to Israel.
Despite that near-miraculous accomplishment, strangely, Netzer is not as much of an international household name as his boss, Shaul Avigur.
Avigur helped found the Haganah’s intelligence wing, and at points headed all of Mossad Aliyah Bet and Nativ – which, respectively, brought massive numbers of European and Russian Jews to Israel.
Still, Netzer was the operational leader on the ground for “the Bricha” (the Jewish Escape) in Poland.
That meant getting Jews out of Poland post-World War II and essentially made him the pre-Mossad Israeli intelligence station chief in one of the key countries in Europe for Jewish survivors.
But before he got to that point, he, in typical Mossad-level spellbinding style, survived quite a few precarious situations, Nehari tells The Jerusalem Post Magazine with a flicker in her eye.
At this point, Nehari herself is a grandmother, and spent aspects of her career carrying out important activities for the state.
Her dynamic and bubbly personality is on full display as we make small talk and she offers a hot drink in the living room of her Ramat Hasharon home.
NEHARI’S STORY of her father starts with his fleeing the Germans during World War II. Born in Poland in 1920 as Tzvi Melnitzer, he was mid-training to become a Zionist activist when he was forced to flee Warsaw in 1939 to escape the Nazis.
After multiple stopovers, he was eventually caught by the Soviets while trying to get into the USSR without a permit and attempting to smuggle concealed funds in his coat for Zionist activists.
He was sentenced to three years in the Gulag in Siberia.
MIRI NAHARI: Hopes her father’s story will inspire new generations. (Credit: Courtesy)
MIRI NAHARI: Hopes her father’s story will inspire new generations. (Credit: Courtesy)
Though he knew he could not ride a train out of Siberia in a regular manner, he was able to get on a train and then – in perfect spy movie style – escaped detection by moving along train roofs.
Netzer knew how to travel.
He made his way through Russia as well as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and eventually to Tehran, Iran.
Incidentally, Nehari says that along the way, her father collected names and addresses of potential allies or Jews in need, who Israel’s pre-Mossad spy network was later able to help and sometimes activate as agents.
In Iran, he mixed with Israelis who were helping the “Yaldei Tehran” group, a group of Polish children and teenagers who were sent there in the midst of World War II on a rushed basis to escape the Nazis and the carnage.
They accepted him since he knew Hebrew.
Nehari recalls that Netzer had learned Hebrew as a child in Poland, though he also knew Russian, Polish and Yiddish, making him an excellent future potential spy asset.
He eventually made his way from Tehran to Baghdad in Iraq dressed mostly cloaked like the Darwish; the sect had permission from the British (who were looking for Netzer and Jewish activists like him) to travel to seek religious blessings to heal them from maladies.
(CLOCKWISE FROM top left) Young Miri (center); a young Tzvi Netzer; ‘Running Poland at age 25’: Netzer with Polish officers. (Credit: Courtesy)
(CLOCKWISE FROM top left) Young Miri (center); a young Tzvi Netzer; ‘Running Poland at age 25’: Netzer with Polish officers. (Credit: Courtesy)
However, the British figured out that he and a companion were on a specific train and captured his companion.
Being very creative on the rails, Netzer alone escaped detection yet again, by getting off at the back of a train, dashing off and blending in before he was caught.
But at this point he was “off-plan” and did not know how to find his planned contact in Baghdad.
Showing the ingenuity and street-smarts of a Mossad agent who would use anything he knew about the native culture to his advantage, he reasoned that since many Jews in the area were jewel makers, his best shot at getting back on track and avoiding the British was with jewelers.
He knocked on the door of a jewelry store and his theory bore fruit.
Nehari tells that the jewelers were part of the Jewish underground for smuggling Jews to Israel.
In fact, they had been looking for him after they saw his companion was arrested, but to no avail.
They helped him get into Syria and from Syria to Rosh Hanikra in the North where he became a free man around 1943.
IN IRAN, Netzer mixed with the ‘Yaldei Tehran.’ Pictured – Tehran, past and present: Golestan Palace and Naseri St., 1930 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IN IRAN, Netzer mixed with the ‘Yaldei Tehran.’ Pictured – Tehran, past and present: Golestan Palace and Naseri St., 1930 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
That could have been the end of the story and Netzer did get married and settled down at Kibbutz Alonim until 1945.
YET THE multi-lingual, well-traveled, experienced and creative daredevil that was young Netzer had caught someone’s eye in Tehran who was important and who would change his life: Avigur.
Nehari recounts that while in Iran, Netzer worked with the Israelis working with the Yaldei Tehran, including their leader Tzipora Sharett, but was also noticed by Avigur.
In April 1945, Avigur sent Netzer to go back to Poland to run Mossad Aliyah Bet operations there to bring Jews to Israel.
Though young in years, his knowledge of both the Polish and Russians as well as the complex road along the way to Israel, and his daring and bravery, made the 25-year-old the perfect candidate.
In fact, Netzer succeeded in cutting crucial deals at different times with both Polish and Russian authorities, depending on which side was more flexible at any given moment.
Moreover, though some of the various authorities who were problematic already knew of him, he also already had his own network from his travels and even had some idea of which authorities could be bribed to cooperate.
Upon his arrival, Netzer immediately started the wheels in motion to make the Jew-smuggling network in Poland more organized and more of a disciplined machine.
Nehari said that many of the Jews they smuggled through Europe were given up to four forged passports to get them to Israel.
In addition, Netzer worked hard recruiting and training activists to lead groups of Jews on their journey.
He was able to offer his trainees unique insights, having accomplished it himself.
A frequent path through Europe included Czechoslovakia, which allowed Jews to cross through without a problem, knowing that the Jews did not plan to stay.
With Avigur running the overall European operations from Paris, including purchasing and delivering supplies and equipment, Netzer already began successfully getting thousands of Jews to Israel from Poland. Jews were also funneled to their homeland from a host of other countries.
BUT THERE were complex situations that Netzer and the network had to be creative in dealing with.
The British were committed to holding Jews in displaced persons camps for extended periods and often to sending them back to their countries of origin. This was true even if their home communities had been decimated by the Nazis and no longer existed.
In one displaced persons camp holding 300 Jews, about 30 Bricha activists infiltrated the camp at night, Nehari recalls.
They dug holes under the camp fence, along with recruiting some of the 300 displaced Jews. In just one evening, they moved the 300 Jews out of the camp.
In terms of the British following up on escaped displaced persons as a group, Nehari said it helped that the British did not have the most serious registration system at the camps.
In another daring Bricha story, Nehari relates that the pre-Mossad organization was trying to get Jews out of Romania.
Initially, Romania was fine with the Jews leaving, as it did not particularly want them in the country.
Some Jews decamped, but being that it took time to organize for each sub-group of Jews to travel, time passed and circumstances changed.
Romania started to oppose Jews’ departure.
Nehari explains that this likely related to the country turning more communist. Once the Iron Curtain of the USSR had descended on Eastern Europe, the Romanians needed to be stricter about letting anyone out.
If Jews could leave, others might want to follow. This could undermine the fiction that communism and its rulers were popular.
Nehari also said that British pressure could have led to the change.
The British might have told the Romanians, “What, are you crazy to let Jews roam around the roads of Europe and on boats” to who knows where?
In any case, the Bricha had to start working around the Romanian authorities. But they still had cooperation with the Bulgarian authorities for getting Jews on to boats to get them out of Europe.
Once again, the British caught on to the Bricha and sabotaged one of the boats, causing it to sink.
Repairing or replacing boats took valuable time and by the time a new vessel came from the US, the Romanians were stopping Jews more aggressively.
Navvab Street, with Milad Tower and snow on the Alborz Mountains in the distance, 2005. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Navvab Street, with Milad Tower and snow on the Alborz Mountains in the distance, 2005. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Nehari comments that Operation Solomon, even if it happened over only two days, took huge amounts of time to plan and organize and involved the fully matured and funded Mossad, the IDF, the US and Canada. Operation Solomon was a covert Israeli military operation to airlift around 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991 on 35 non-stop Israeli flights.
In contrast, she says that, in a stunning feat, the barely funded and mostly new pre-Mossad Bricha smuggled 15,000 Jews from Romania to Bulgaria and then on to boats out of Europe in only two weeks with no army behind it and no world powers helping.
They hired 20 trains and hundreds of cars in a ridiculously short period of time and got the job done.
Nehari says the operation was nothing less than “magic” or “help from God above.”
And yet the 15,000 Jews still almost got stuck.
She explains that there was a dramatic and fateful fight between David Ben-Gurion (then pre-state leader of the Jewish Yishuv) and Avigur.
Ben-Gurion opposed getting the 15,000 Jews out of Bulgaria as they would likely need to come to Cyprus.
This would not only anger the British, but could cause a loss of international support right as the UN was nearing a historic vote on the November 1947 Partition Plan.
The vote was still very much in doubt and, in Ben-Gurion’s eyes, the fate of 15,000 Jews was nothing compared to potentially endangering UN support for a future State of Israel.
Avigur acted on his own, says Nehari. He sent a cable to Moshe Carmi in operations in Israel that they were going forward no matter what Ben-Gurion said.
Essentially, she says, he decided that Ben-Gurion could stuff it with his greater diplomatic considerations, and that his personal mission was to alleviate the suffering of Holocaust survivors – at all costs.
He would not make them wait any longer after they had already spent a year being essentially homeless –never mind surviving the horrors of the Holocaust.
In the end, the 15,000 Jews made it to Cyprus. While the British were not happy, there was no struggle and the British even freed a bunch of Jews they had been holding in Cyprus camps since there was not enough room otherwise for the new 15,000.
Nehari laughs that the 15,000 Jews not only eventually got to Israel, but that their coming earlier helped others Jews get to Israel earlier – despite Ben-Gurion’s concerns. And of course, Israel still won the historic UN vote.
IN ANOTHER story, Nahri tells how her father brilliantly and audaciously saved Yigal Allon, one of Israel’s founding fathers, from arrest by the Polish police.
Allon was not even supposed to be in Poland.
He had come to Europe to visit a variety of other countries, especially displaced persons camps.
Allon wanted to check on the status of military training of some of the displaced persons in preparation for them joining Jewish Yishuv forces. This included attending some swearing-in ceremonies.
At these ceremonies, Allon or other officials would tell new recruits “to place one hand on the Bible and one hand on a gun and to swear to help their [Jewish] brothers,” says Nehari.
Once he was already on his European tour, he spontaneously decided that he also wanted to see concentration camps in Poland.
Netzer and others in Poland warned him not to come and that it was an especially tense time for the treatment of Jews because of Polish elections.
Allon came anyway.
Netzer had been right to be worried. On the way from Warsaw to Wrocław, they were stopped at a checkpoint.
Allon had no papers and was in serious danger of being arrested by Polish police.
Nehari says dramatically that “without Allon, there would be no Israel,” and that her father sprang into action.
Netzer started yelling at the Polish police that had stopped them and demanded that they bring their supervising commander.
When the Poles tried to resist, Netzer said he refused to speak to lowlife soldiers like them.
He bellowed at them in perfect Polish to bring their commanding officer and that he was bringing activists for helping a political party with elections in Wrocław.
He threatened the Polish officers with terrible consequences if it turned out that the political party was undermined because the police slowed them down on their way to their activities.
The daring charade worked.
The Polish police ended up accompanying them by jeep to make sure they got to Wroclaw posthaste.
One fascinating component of the Bricha is that Nehari reveals that British intelligence was on to them, even if many of the lower in-the-field British officers were not.
She says the British viewed the Bricha as something of a “fifth column” that could move any number of people wherever it wanted.
Nehari notes that due to its success, British, US and Soviet intelligence all sought to infiltrate and use the Bricha, by turning some of the Jews who traveled to British Palestine into their spies, and occasionally, but very rarely, succeeding.
In any event, after Netzer finished getting Holocaust survivors to Israel, he did a variety of other things.
Nehari’s father would later be called on by the organization Nativ and returned to Poland as part of the organization’s efforts to get Russian Jews to Israel. He was also an important figure in convincing Western Jews to support these efforts.
What was it like growing up with a father who was such a national hero?
Curiously, Nehari says she did not realize what an unusual upbringing she had with leaders of the Bricha and intelligence heroes always in and out of her house.
Avigur, Efraim Dekel – head of Haganah intelligence – and others were like her extra uncles.
She says she grew up hearing some of their stories, so that their exploits were not completely news to her.
But only as an adult did she realize the volume and immensity of what her father and these other heroes, whose knees she sometimes would play on as a child, had accomplished.
With her eyes going wide, she pauses and exclaims that at the mere age of 25, her father “was running Poland” (the Bricha operation there).
There are a myriad of other amazing stories, one about the Bricha getting 5,000 Jews to safety by crossing the Alps, and it is crucial to Nehari that the stories continue to be told.
This comes full circle to part of why Nehari is telling her father’s story.
Planning for a new exhibition of the Israel Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center is underway to bring to life the stories of people like Nehari and her father.
She hopes telling the story and the new exhibition will continue to inspire new generations for years to come.