How I became a Mossad operative
My recent reunion with Erika Fabian at the Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport, after a separation of 65 years, triggered the recollection of a half-forgotten event.
Namely how I become an operative of Mossad, the legendary Israeli spy agency. It happened in 1953, in Communist-ruled Prague, Czechoslovakia.
As reported previously in one of my columns, I rescued Erika, at that time 13 years old, from a prison in Bratislava, Slovakia. She, her mother and 16 year old sister, Judith, had tried to escape from Communist Hungary by crossing Czechoslovakia to reach Austria.
In an interview, Erika recalled: “It was in the middle of December, with snow up to our knees. Czechoslovak border guards showed up with German shepherd dogs, flares and guns. There were, like 20 of us, trying to cross the border. The border
guards shot some of the people. We were lucky — we were lying down on the ground because my mother said, ‘don’t move, you get shot.’ So, we were just simply picked up and taken to prison.”
I was serving as a foreign correspondent based in Prague for Hungarian newspapers. I had dealings with the Czech Ministry of Interior and knew some officials there. I managed to secure the release of Erika and Judith into my custody, until their case was settled. For their mother, I could only obtain permission to provide her with extra food.
My main goal was to provide a kind of legitimacy to the Fabian family’s escape attempt to the West. I argued that they are Holocaust survivors, and their aim was to immigrate to Israel and reunite with their late father’s brother, Ely, who settled in Israel when it was Palestine under British mandate.
To get in touch with Ely and obtain an affidavit confirming that he is ready to take care of the Fabians, I needed the assistance of the Israeli Embassy in Prague.
My dealing had been with a consular official. After several meetings, he ushered me into an office filled with blaring music. Sitting close to me, in a very low voice, he said, “You are an accredited foreign correspondent. You can travel around the country without arousing suspicion. We need someone who would assist Czech Jews to reach Israel. Would you help us?”
I asked for some time to think it over. Finally, I agreed.
My first assignment was to meet the captain of a motorized barge sailing the Danube River between Vienna, Austria, and Komarno, Slovakia. He was a seasoned people-smuggler. On each trip his barge took on a cargo of heavy machinery for export, crated in huge, wooden boxes. I learned some of the boxes often contained a person fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia.
was shown a photo of the captain and told to meet him the next morning for breakfast at a coffeehouse in Komarno. An elaborate game of identification was devised. It included me placing a pair of yellow pigskin gloves on the table.
Alas, the captain didn’t show up. I went looking for him and his barge in the port
It was a restricted area, but with my press credentials I got in. I saw him sitting on a camp chair on the deck of his barge and waved at him with my yellow, pigskin gloves. I walked toward the port-tavern, and he followed me. I sat at a table and placed the pair of gloves apart from each other, as instructed.
The captain explained his absence from the coffeehouse. A draught, made the Danube River shallow. Ships and barges got stuck in ports. But the water level was rising and in a few days he will be ready to sail. He indicated readiness to take on big cargo crates.
It took me some time to realize that the official I was dealing with at the Israeli Embassy was the Mossad representative in Prague. My interaction with him paid off. At the request of the Hungarian authorities, the Fabian family was sent back to Budapest to face charges for their escape attempt. But instead of facing 10 years in prison, they were set free. The affidavit from uncle Ely, transmitted through the Israeli Embassy, confirmed that Erika, Judith and their mother were trying to immigrate to Israel, not flee to the “evil” West.