Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Champagne for the spy

I did not read too many spy stories, but from what I've read, it seems that their stories are far beyond our already flamed imagination. What we are told is probably only one quarter of the story, in the happiest case scenario, but still enough to give ideas for thousands of thrillers. 
My latest story from this category is about the so-called Champagne Spy, by Nadav Schirman. The movie is reconstructing the life of Ze'ev Gur Arie aka Wolfgang Lotz, through personal stories of his son, Oded and access to direct access to Mossad operatives and documents. Lotz played an important role in the 1960s as a spy in Egypt, a time when German scientists were helping the anti-Israeli authorities in Cairo to build weapons and eventually nuclear and chemical facilities.
It may be a very simple post-WWII spy story but it's not at all. 

When German can be useful

Lotz was born in Germany in a family of artists. His father, not Jewish, was a theatre director and his mother, an actress, not religious and who did not even care to circumcise her son. The father killed himself when he was 2 and he grew up with his mother. They escaped Germany to the then Palestine , got a new name - Ze'ev Gur Arie. There, he was assigned by the Brits to interrogate the German POWs captured in Cairo. He also worked for Haganah. After the independence of the state of Israel, he was looking for a job and his good German skills helped him to make his way to the intelligence services, using also his good family connections, as a future Shin Beth director was part of his circle of relatives. 
He goes through the routine training, helped also by his native German skills, and even though in his evaluation is mentioned that he cannot stand torture and he has 'Problems in overcoming passion for women and wine', he will be accepted and assigned to Unit 131, a top secret unit that operated in cover countries posing a war threat to Israel. At the time: Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Egypt and the chemical weapons

Hardly any German scientist who stayed in the country during the war was not involved in a way or another in the warfare industry. After, many were hunted either for the Americans for sharing the secrets or for being sent to the well deserved prisons for their involvement in the mass killings. Some of them - including notorious war criminals -  escaped and made their way in the Middle East countries. 
Even though the official explanations delivered by Bonn were that they haven't done it for anti-Semitic feelings, their contribution was on behalf of countries who were building up their arsenal with the aim to attack at a further date the state of Israel. The German government was not happy with the situation but could not prevent it either. This ambiguity and the need to answer international pressures would help somehow Wolf/Gur Arie later in his spy life. 
The scientists from Cairo who were involved in developing chemical weapons used to work at the Army Center in Peenemunde, an important center during the war.

Life in Paris

Wolf/Gur Arie and his family were sent to Paris, as part of the military mission of the embassy there. After the war, Paris used to be the European headquarters of Mossad and many of the children who were at the same school with Oded Gur Arie were part of a bigger family of secrets. Compared to them, he had the advantage of being aware of the reasons for the long absences of his father, as knowing his double identity and partially his mission. 
Except the absences of the father, they lived quite well, in a classy apartment in the 16th arrondissement. 
Unusually enough, he even took his son, less than 15 at the time, to a meeting with some liaison in Paris. He was even shown the tools used for the transmission of secret messages, again quite unusual. His wife was also aware and patriotically supported him, waiting for his returns, a couple of time the year. 

Champagne in Cairo

Life in Cairo seemed to be quite extravagant, if we are thinking about how Europe was. Wolf/Gur Arie started his mission by creating a horse racing club, a meeting point of the expats and rich locals, a good hub for making connections and sharing information.
The Egyptian secret services were pragmatical enough to use the knowledge of the Germans while watching them very carefully. 
The things were getting better for Wolf/Gur Arie who posed as a former Wermacht that participated at the Desert Storm. He enjoyed so much the life there that from a certain point on, noticed one of his superiors during the interviews, he forgot who he was. 'Spying is an art and you don't have to stick too much to the surroundings', this operative said, mentioning that Wolf/Gur Arie mistake was that he needed more self restraint.
Another possible mistake that was fatal to his mission was that he was operating completely on his own, as it appears from the movie: he was gathering information, created a base and also performed various direct missions, as the bomb threat letters sent to the offices of Paul Goercke, Wolfgang Pils and Hans Kleinwachter. The explosive were hidden in Yardley soaps and sometimes collateral victims suffered.

Dirty secrets

One Saturday morning, his mother sent Oded to buy, as usual, the International Herald Tribune. He bought the newspaper and he read on the first page that his father and his wife, whose existence was unknown not only to the family, but to Mossad as well, disappeared from their residence in Cairo, together with other German residents.
What was more strange again was that Mossad found out the news from Rivka Gur Arie, who called them to inform about the news read in the newspaper. 
The 'other wife', Waltraud Neumann, who will be faithful to him till her death, was born in East Germany, in a family of Yehovah Witnesses, a religious group that suffered a lot during the war. They accidentally met on a train during one of Wolf/Gur Arie trips to Europe and she followed him in Egypt. Another mistake: he told her too he is a spy, but didn't mention for whom, but she helped him in his efforts. 
The circumstances of his capture are not clear, the main suspicion being that he was caught while sending secret messages from his room.  

The reward

Because Mossad did not want to be directly involved in the case, the German embassy helped them and offered legal representation to Wolf/Gur Arie and his wife, who were tortured and beaten by the Egyptian secret services. It was convenient for the Egyptians too to consider him a German spy, as they were looking to get rid of the German presence there, now that they shared a lot of important secrets. 
He was condemned to life in prison and she to 3 years. The process was transmitted live in Cairo, and Mossad needed to blur the transmission to Israel, avoiding that someone from home will recognize him. 
They were freed though as part of the prisoners exchange after the Six-Day War, in 1968. Mossad suspected that he might have been recruited by the Egyptians and he was debriefed on several locations in Europe. 
Wolf/Gur Arie returned to Israel living with the German wife till her dead, in 1973. 
Oded and his mother returned too, but their lives followed different paths. Oded fought in the Yom Kippur war and after he went to the States to study business administration and made several businesses here where he resides with his family. Rivka Gur Arie and her son received the proper financial support but there were always resentments for her situation and her destroyed family. 

The adventure continues

Once an adventurer, always an adventurer. After returning, Wolf/Gur Arie was helped to set up a riding center in Israel, but he failed. Later on, he remarried twice, always with women that he met accidentally. He pursued various business projects that eventually failed again, and ended up selling fish at a shopping center in Munich. For a while, he got a book contract and wrote his memories and was paid to share his experiences, but this ended up too. At the end of his life, he was bankrupt and living from loans. He died in 1993 in Germany and was further buried in Israel.
As usual in such situation, his work cannot be evaluated in black and white. He lived in hard times, doing his duty, while trying to get the best out of his life, a glass of champagne in his hand.