Dei'ah Vedibur - Information &

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Cheshvan 5765 - November 10, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







A Career in East Berlin

by Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

Part II

Just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the East German Communist state, the dying regime hired a rabbi. The country did not even permit religious marriage, but it wanted a fully Orthodox rabbi. It hoped to show its tolerance and care for its Jews, and hoped that world Jewry would help pave the way for it to receive aid from the West.

They hired Rav Tzvi Weinman of Jerusalem. For several years after that, Rav Weinman spent time every year trying to revive the Jewish community of East Berlin, under the Communists, and later. This is his story.

Secret Trip to Syria

Rav Weinman's shiurim and lectures became more frequent. More and more of the kehilloh members showed an interest in them. Among his listeners were Jews who held key positions in East Germany's foreign relations apparatus and others who ran the well-oiled intelligence machine.

One of these spy chiefs was Herman Aksen, the number-three man in the East German politburo. Born in Galicia, he was put in charge of East German intelligence liaison with the Palestinian Fatah and other terrorist organizations. Through his work he had befriended Syrian President Hafez el-Assad and the commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash.

Rav Weinman had an idea. He decided to take advantage of this fragile connection to decipher a great mystery: What had become of the soldiers who disappeared in Lebanon at the battle at Sultan Yaakob in 1982? If they were alive, perhaps he would have the merit to perform the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim. If not, choliloh, perhaps he could at least recover their remains for a Jewish burial. The uncertainty of their fate was even harder to bear than bereavement. The parents had to be relieved of their suffering somehow. In his heart, Rav Weinman reached a decision.

At this stage, Rav Weinman met with Herman Aksen several times and their relations became shrouded in mystery. "The first time I came to his house, he served me a drink. `Many years had passed but I remembered everything I had learned,' said Aksen. Afterwards, he recited Shehakol. I told him about the pain felt by the families of those missing in action. I was their mouthpiece, giving expression to their anguish. Since it was a humanitarian case I asked him to make use of all his connections to clarify what had become of them."

Aksen contemplated the matter silently then replied with resolve. "If you bring me confirmation from Meir Vilner, the head of the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), that this is a humanitarian and not a political matter, I will do anything I can to achieve the goal."

After obtaining permission from security officials in Israel, Rav Weinman met with Vilner as soon as he returned to Eretz Yisroel. Of course, Vilner gave the requested confirmation.

A short time later, Rav Weinman was back in East Germany. Aksen had done his homework. He said he had already met with a ranking official at the Syrian embassy whose name he refused to divulge. But he had a proposal. When Rav Weinman heard the suggestion a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. "You will come to Syria as the rabbi of the kehilloh I belong to," said Aksen. "There you will receive answers to your questions. Perhaps even more than that . . . "

Rav Weinman didn't believe his ears. His thoughts drifted and he felt fear. Yet he knew this was a great mitzvah. Since he also knew the level of protection Arab hosts cast over their guests, he understood that as long as he was a guest of the Syrian government he would be safe. He decided that he would agree to go.

The idea was passed on to Israeli security officials right away. At first it appeared that the plan would be approved, but eventually he received a negative reply and nothing ever came of the idea.

Protecting the Jews

It was at this time that the Iron Curtain between East Germany and the West began to crack. The Berlin Wall fell. The question of German reunification was being addressed. The world followed developments worriedly. The remnants of the local Jewish community had serious misgivings as well.

State funds were scanty. The Russians discontinued their support. Eastern Germany faced bankruptcy. Industry lagged far behind. Phone lines threatened to break down and communications were faulty. Every day, 3,000 East Germans who saw no economic future in their homeland went west through the Brandenburg Gate to the West.

With the exception of its sister to the West not a single government wanted to get involved in investments in East Germany that stood little chance of success. The price— reunification; the ramification—the loss of East Germany's identity.

The right and the neo-fascists were active in East Germany. Talk about unification included a single, large and powerful army. But the thought of a strong Germany had the nations of the world frightened, for the dust had yet to settle from the two world wars. Jewish hearts also skipped a beat. Some hoped to hear a protest by world Jewry, but there was none.

During this period, the Stasi, the East German secret police and intelligence organization, was dismantled. One of its tasks had been to control right-wing extremists and fascists, the leaders of antisemitism. Now the Jews were left vulnerable. Jingoism invariably takes root in the seedbed of financial insecurity, particularly if the infrastructure already exists.

At a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Luther Damsia, Rav Weinman spelled out the problem. Damsia revealed that instead of the Stasi a special police unit called K5 had been set up to handle right-wing groups and its duties would include protecting the Jews.

But Rav Weinman was still troubled by the issue of the fate of the missing soldiers. His foremost concern was attending to the kehilloh's spiritual needs by giving shiurim and lectures, But the lack of information on the disappeared soldiers gave him little rest.

The Man with No Face

Working at the Personnel Department of IDF General Headquarters, Brigadier General (Res.) Yona Tilman compiled a file on the three missing soldiers. As a resident of Bnei Brak, Tilman was in close contact with Rav Moshe Yabrov and as an observant Jew, redeeming captives or providing the dead a Jewish burial were both issues close to his heart. He had been working hard to locate them.

"We made contact with everyone who had any information," Tilman explained. "Every Foreign Minister who arrived in Israel was recruited to help in the matter. When President Carter came to Israel he was asked to make a stop in Syria on the way in order to obtain information from President Assad. Spain gave guarantees to Damascus, therefore when a new ambassador was appointed there he was directed to raise the issue in the course of his work.

"We also forged contact with private individuals. Much help was provided by Rabbi Niderman, head of Satmar's Rav Tuv organization. Through his contacts, dedication and strong desire to help he managed to gather information in Iran. He really did use his foreign contacts, dispatching ambassadors and foreign ministers to these countries. We also asked Meir Vilner, who was sent to East Germany for an operation at the same hospital where Yasser Arafat was being treated, to try to find out about the missing soldiers.

"We had a special interest in East Germany because a Jewish lawyer named Fogel was working under government patronage there. He had been responsible for the exchange of Anatoli Shacharnsky and many others. When Rav Weinman was appointed rov of East Germany we tried to enlist his help in bringing the very painful affair to a close," says Yonah Tilman.

By this time Rav Weinman had already been thoroughly assimilated into the East German Jewish community and the spiritual activities of its members.

Markus Wolf, the master spy of Eastern Europe, was among the participants in the Jewish cultural organization. As head of the Stasi, an organization dreaded by many governments, Wolf was the man pulling all the strings. Nicknamed Misha, he was a man of mystery and intrigue. Counterintelligence organizations did not even have a photograph of him, although his mark was felt clearly in many cases. The CIA was willing to pay an immense sum for a picture of him. At the time he was known as "the man with no face."

Before Wolf joined the Jewish cultural organization, Rav Weinman asked for a few more details about him before approving his membership. "I wanted to see whether he had blood on his hands. Whether he had engaged only in espionage or whether he had been directly involved in activities against Jews."

After Wolf had begun attending lectures, Rav Weinman decided to enlist his help in locating the missing soldiers. He contacted Dr. Irena Ronga, the director of the organization. A former Stasi agent, she was the one who had traveled to Jerusalem to bring a rov to Berlin. Rav Weinman asked her to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Wolf. He agreed.

The story is recorded in Wolf's official autobiography: "In the summer of 1990 she [Dr. Ronga] phoned me unexpectedly and told me that Rabbi Tsvi Weinman, a ranking religious figure in Jerusalem, had asked to make my acquaintance. It was a Friday. This meant Shabbat would begin at sunset so he would not be able to meet me in person. Nevertheless, I called him. During the course of the conversation, we exchanged niceties and agreed to meet during his next visit to Berlin. A short time later, he arrived again, saying the main reason for his presence was a visit at the Jewish Cultural Association. I invited him to my apartment and he arrived right on time. The rabbi looked about fifty with a black, wide-brimmed hat on his head."

Later during the meeting, Rav Weinman solicited Wolf's help in solving the mystery of the missing soldiers. The head of the multifaceted intelligence organization, a man with numerous connections in Arab countries, could certainly contribute greatly Rav Weinman thought. Wolf said he would be willing to help.

He agreed for two reasons, explains Rav Weinman. "First of all he felt like a Jew. He even writes this in his book. `I am a Jew, an unusual fact for a man who holds a high-ranking intelligence post in the Soviet bloc. To put it more accurately, I am half-Jewish . . . But I was Jewish enough to be classified as such and to be targeted for persecution by the racist Nuremberg Laws . . . I have always shown an interest in Jewish issues and the tradition preserved in my family made me see myself as a man with a legacy . . . '"

Says Rav Weinman, "It's also hard to know what the Stasi did for the Arab nations and terrorist organizations. It could be that his Jewish conscience was stirred, that his past activities gave him cause for regret. He had very Jewish feelings, although he was not Jewish according to halochoh. He told me about his uncle, who had kept mitzvas meticulously; on Pesach he ate only nuts and lived in a hut in the forest where no chometz was brought all year and which was used only during Pesach."

Yated Ne'eman: Did Markus Wolf have other motives for agreeing to get involved in the case of the missing soldiers?

Rav Weinman opens the Wolf autobiography to page 33, where the text indicates Wolf's ties with Rav Weinman led to a desire to come to Israel. Meanwhile he suspected Rav Weinman was a Mossad agent and Wolf attributed the rabbi's interest in him to the Mossad's desire to find out what he knew about Palestinian groups and their activities. "I began to wonder whether to attribute the interest Weinman found in me to cultural matters alone. He made a point of avoiding mention of my previous job, even asking whether I'd like to visit Israel . . . Inquiries I made into Rabbi Weinman yielded a rumor that he worked for the Mossad during his youth. He himself quickly denied this . . . We spoke often on the phone and I greatly looked forward to my journey, imagining the disappointed faces in Bonn, Moscow and Washington at the sight of the headlines reporting my sudden presence in Israel. In any case the visit to Israel would have provided me another means of escape from Germany. I did not want to overly scrutinize the gift I had received . . . "

The visit never took place. Suddenly the invitation was cancelled. The door of hope Markus Wolf had been counting on suddenly slammed shut. Wolf claimed the cancellation was due to concerns that such a visit would undermine the excellent relations with West Germany. "No service I could have rendered them would have been worth this," writes Wolf. " . . . But now the pressure increased. I knew the authorities in Germany were eager to see me under lock and key. `Where could I flee?' I wondered, `And what would be the price of the haven I received?' No exciting prospects were open to me and time was running out."

Yated Ne'eman: It seems, then, that his willingness to cooperate stemmed from his legal problems since he was wanted by West Germany.

Rav Weinman: "Perhaps. When the Berlin Wall fell, Markus Wolf was accused of betraying his country. He faced serious charges of what were termed `crimes of the Democratic Republic [i.e. East Germany] regime' against West Germany. The Bonn government saw the two Germanys as a single country, so Wolf found himself cast as a traitor. As head of the Stasi he really had undermined West Germany's stability. His agents infiltrated all the way to the Chancellor's bureau, thereby bringing down Willy Brandt [West German chancellor from 1969 to 1974]. Wolf claimed East and West Germany were two separate states, thus the allegations against him were groundless."

Before his trial Markus Wolf had been about to get married. He mounted a white chariot harnessed to six horses and commanded the driver to take him to the marriage registry. From that point he disappeared, as if he had been swallowed up by the earth. Somehow he made his way to Moscow. With the fall of Communism and Yeltsin's rise to power he turned himself in. From that moment on he was embroiled in legal difficulties.

Rav Weinman: "When I met with him and asked him to intervene about the missing soldiers, he did not hesitate. I promised to help him in his trial in exchange for his assistance. We made a deal. He asked me to obtain a legal opinion from a well-known attorney who would support his stance. I mentioned the name Alan Dershowitz, a well-known Jewish attorney in the US. To contact him I wrote to a rabbi in the US who had been involved in these issues there, asking him to help obtain the legal opinion."

Rav Weinman also contacted the families of the missing soldiers. The Baumel Family took on the task of obtaining the legal opinion from Dershowitz. Markus Wolf entrusted Rav Weinman with two envelopes containing several ideas for where to search for the MIAs and who to talk to, based on the enormous quantity of information he had been privy to over the years. But the use of this information was conditioned on obtaining the legal opinion from the US. When it arrived, Wolf sent the following notice: "You may pass on the envelopes to the Baumel Family."

In another letter he wrote that his memory was no longer what it used to be. "I cannot do anything myself and I refer you to my deputy and successor, Herr Horst Janicke, who I am convinced can be trusted and he will provide the correct information." Of course, Wolf had first spoken with Janicke asking him to cooperate using all of the tools at his disposal.

Yated Ne'eman: Was the information useful?

Rav Weinman shows a reluctance to provide any unnecessary details. "Markus Wolf's ideas were excellent. Some of them were looked into, but unfortunately they did not yield results. The other ideas of the master spy intricately involved in all the obscure details of Middle East terrorism were not examined at all, though they could have shed light on the heart-rending situation."


Rav Weinman stopped coming to East Germany, except for short visits, but before bidding the kehilloh farewell, he made a demand: that they keep Shabbos. He told them the Chofetz Chaim's parable about how even a store without merchandise is not an abandoned business. "The customers assume the merchandise will arrive in another day or two, but when the sign is taken down it is a sign the business has been closed for good," Rav Weinman said. "Shabbos is a sign for Am Yisroel. As long as Shabbos is observed it is a sign you are Jews. Please be sure not to take down the sign. A Jew whose wife lights Shabbos candles, who is seen making Kiddush on the wine, at least the sign has not been taken down . . . "

The members of the kehilloh were glad to abide by his request. They even promised to light the candles half an hour before Shabbos.

Since then Jewish Berlin has gone through many changes. A yeshiva was opened. Here and there, Jews returned to their origins. However, Yiddishkeit has yet to be restored to its former glory. The Jewish "Berlin Wall" that collapsed has not been rebuilt—only a few of the foundation stones have been put back into place. "Two good partings," says Rav Weinman, referring to the two bnei aliyoh who set up Torah homes thanks to his influence, and have become marbitzei Torah themselves. Many others also drew somewhat closer to Yiddishkeit.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. New roots have been laid and hopes have been renewed with the founding of the yeshiva. The image of Berlin in the Jewish perspective is of Prussian military parades on the wide boulevards, the burning of botei knesses on Kristallnacht and the burning of the Reichstag one hot day; a city of blood and iron, bombings and destruction, a wall, devastation and suffering, wars, both hot and cold. This city has been both the victim and the hangman of history in the modern era.

In the future will we be able to describe Berlin as a city of Torah renaissance? Will the initial seedlings Rav Weinman planted in the city that once had a wall running down its center take root and grow into tall trees? Will Jewish life return and be rebuilt here?

The Career of Markus Wolf

"I never spied on Israel," says Markus Wolf, the spy master who led the East German security apparatus almost until the demise of the Communist regime. ". . . it was mostly due to professional considerations. I preferred to concentrate on gathering information in West Germany and in NATO."

Wolf is considered to be one of the most talented, daring and brilliant intelligence operatives in the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War period. His character has been documented in dozens of books, documentary films and Hollywood-style action films, and he was the inspiration for several characters created by John Le Carre.

As head of East Germany's Stasi, his agents infiltrated every aspect of West German society, including the nation's federal government offices, the foreign intelligence service, major corporations and NATO headquarters in Brussels. Wolf's most famous success was the penetration of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's office by his agent, Gunter Guillaume. When it was discovered, it caused a major scandal.

Markus Wolf was born in 1923 to a Jewish father and a non- Jewish mother. His father was a playwright who wrote the play "Professor Mamaluke," among others, which dealt with the oppression of Jews in Germany.

The Wolf family fled to Moscow after the Nazis took control of the government in 1933. Markus Wolf became a Communist, and returned to East Germany after World War II. He became a member of the German Communist Party and joined the Stasi apparatus, where he became a general.

Today, Wolf says that he never was involved in the oppression of the German people or those who resisted the Communist regime in East Germany. Rather, he focused on gathering information abroad. Wolf said that the organization he led had no ties with Palestinian terror organizations. East Germany did train Palestinian terrorists but he claims that was done by another division of Stasi, known as "Number 22."

After his retirement in 1986, Wolf was considered to be one of the liberal voices calling for reforms in the policy and structure of the East German government. In 1989, when Communism fell, Wolf escaped to Moscow. He says that he considered seeking shelter in Israel, but he was afraid that Israel might deport him to Germany. After the German reunification he returned to Germany, where he now resides with his wife in Berlin.

The German government tried to imprison him twice in the '90s. He stood trial in 1993 for his Stasi activities, particularly his involvement in the Guillaume affair. He was tried again in 1997 for kidnapping. Wolf says that the German government wanted revenge for his successful penetration of their offices. They used what he defines as "dirty legal tricks."

The German High Court pardoned Wolf and overturned the decision of a lower court, which had sentenced him to eight years in prison. Wolf became a much sought-after guest in the media as a result of the legal proceedings, and wrote six books. One of them, a book of his memoirs, became a best- seller and was translated into many languages. The book was titled a A Man Without a Face in Hebrew and English. Wolf visited Israel in 1997.

Reparations from East Germany

During the period preceding Germany reunification, Israeli diplomats made the issue of Holocaust reparations a condition for renewed relations with East Germany, but that government refused to admit complicity in Nazi crimes, for both practical and economic reasons. "We fought against the Nazis and were imprisoned in concentration camps," East German diplomats claimed. "The founders of East Germany were anti- Fascists. The Nazis were in West Germany and some of them even seized key government positions. As far as reparations go, we have no money to give."

This issue also came up during Rav Weinman's meetings with East German leaders. The East Germans rejected the claim for economic reasons, but Rav Weinman persisted. Rav Weinman made the rabbinate's position clear:

The State of Israel does not represent all of the Jewish people. "After compensating the Jews who suffered you must compensate the spiritual institutions you destroyed. The majority of these institutions, as well as the people, were chareidi Jews. The vast majority kept Torah and mitzvas. How can the money for people who died as chareidim be given to organizations that inculcate a worldview contrary to that of the people who were reduced to ashes in Auschwitz? True, some were not observant. But the majority were chareidim ledvar Hashem. And the division of the reparations must be proportional."

These sentiments reached the general press, setting off a furor.

When Rav Weinman arrived in Eretz Yisroel he went to Maran HaRosh Yeshiva zt"l. HaRav Shach told him to do everything in his power, and to bring in Agudas Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel and abroad. Rav Weinman contacted Agudah, headed by Rabbi Moshe Sherer. But in the end the issue became irrelevant. East Germany never paid reparations.

The Reparations Issue after the Holocaust

The issue was raised on the chareidi agenda in a different form. When West Germany paid reparations, Agudas Yisroel met to discuss the issue and sought the advice of gedolei Yisroel. HaRav Weinman recalls the events of the time based on a collection of documents and letters he has assembled over the years.

"The issue was raised before Agudas Yisroel and Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in 5712 (1952). The World Executive Committee, which was working on this question, decided "to make every effort to secure chareidi Jewry's portion." Following an activists' conference, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah met and decided otherwise.

At a subsequent meeting attended by Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah representatives, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Levine announced the decision by Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah to object to any negotiations with Germany. One of the participants, who wanted to understand the depths of daas Torah behind the decision, phrased a question carefully: Did gedolei haTorah reject the idea because they doubted the seriousness of the Germans' intentions to pay such a large sum or did they object to negotiations with Germany in principle?

"The majority decision of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah leaned toward the opinion of Maran HaRav Aharon Kotler," said HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky, "who objected to negotiations of any kind with Germany, even if large sums of reparation money could be obtained. This was in addition to his doubts that the Germans would ultimately pay."

At this same meeting, Dr. Goldschmidt noted there are two laws in Germany, one regarding reparations for looted and stolen property and another for orphans, widows, bodily damage, etc. Said HaRav Kamenetsky, "The two laws are patently different. One can file suit against a murderer and pillager and receive the damages. But one cannot conduct negotiations with murderers and receive something that compensates for the terrible acts. I am concerned that the State of Israel wants to remove the blame from Germany and build friendly relations between the two peoples. Chareidi Jewry should not take part in this effort."

During this meeting, it was unanimously decided to inform the Executive Committee in Jerusalem that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the US firmly objected to all negotiations with Germany over compensation payments to world Jewry or the State of Israel.

Despite the clear decision from the US, no such decision was reached in Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Levine raised the problem of reparations from Germany and asked the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in Israel for a decision on the matter, but gedolei Torah in Eretz Yisroel did not put forward their opinion, neither as individuals nor as a body.

The only decision made in Eretz Yisroel came from the National Policy Committee (Havaada Hamedinit). During a committee meeting, when Rabbi Levine read the letters cabled from the US, it was decided that Agudas Yisroel MKs would abstain from the vote in the Knesset on this question. But later this decision proved to be a temporary one.

At a subsequent meeting, Rabbi Levine briefed the committee on developments and a conversation he conducted with Prime Minister Ben Gurion during which the subject of reparations arose. The question was such a charged public issue that the coalition hung in the balance. Rabbi Levine tried to influence Ben Gurion not to cast the question of compensation payments as a no-confidence motion. Political tension filled the air.

Neither the government nor the coalition directors had doubts about Agudas Yisroel's intentions to abstain. Rather, they demanded that at least Rabbi Deutsch, who had expressed his approval of reparations, vote in favor. The Mapai Chairman demanded this categorically during a coalition meeting, even threatening that if Rabbi Deutsch refused to vote in favor it could precipitate the dissolution of the coalition. He also demanded this of PAI representatives and it seemed likely that Mr. Mintz (of PAI) would agree to vote in favor.

The committee members were divided on how to proceed. Lacking a decision by Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in Eretz Yisroel it was decided to give Agudah MKs a free hand to vote according to his conscience. During the ensuing discussion, the MKs said that the government's viability should not be endangered over this problem. Therefore, it was decided that Rabbi Levine would abstain from the vote and Dr. Deutsch would vote in favor. At the time Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz was abroad.

Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz had asked the Chazon Ish how to vote. The Chazon Ish asked whether the decision hinged on Agudas Yisroel or whether there was a majority in favor without them. Rabbi Lorincz told him that Agudas Yisroel's vote would not change anything. "If so, then abstain," said the Chazon Ish.

Rabbi Lorincz accepted the decision, but nevertheless he wanted to know daas Torah on the issue. Was it permitted to accept reparations or not?

"Do you think when people come to ask me questions I just whisk out an answer?" said the Chazon Ish. "When I am asked a question I open the Gemora, Rashi, Tosafos, Rishonim and Acharonim. Only after studying the whole sugya thoroughly and the matter has become clear to me do I answer. If your vote were decisive, I would have to delve into the halochoh and clarify the matter from start to finish. But if your vote will not alter the situation, since I'm involved in other matters, I do not have the time to deal with this now" (see Al Mishkenos Haro'im).


When the question of reparations reached the implementation stage, concerns arose that chareidi institutions would be discriminated against. The World Executive Committee devoted a meeting to the task of probing the problem comprehensively. Rabbi Levine and Rabbi Goodman surveyed the negotiations, the exchange of letters and the private meetings with Jewish Agency executives. Statements were also made against the Jewish Agency's attitude toward Agudas Yisroel's demands. "Agudas Yisroel's stance on the matter of reparations in general is known. But it is also known that the [greatest devastation] was wreaked on chareidi Jewry, which was organized and represented by Agudas Yisroel, in thousands of institutions. Now, when reparations for compensating and rehabilitating the ruins are being received, the Jewish Agency has evaded any support for Agudas Yisroel institutions and all those associated with it."

It was also decided to turn to the Jewish Agency again, "and if our demands are not met, every possible measure should be taken to save [the monies] for chareidi Jewry." Furthermore, it was decided to ask the chairman of the World Executive Committee in New York, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Lewin, "to take appropriate steps in order to secure our demands from the Reparations Committee."

The demands of chareidi Jewry were never met . . .


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