Hasidic informers and Jewish agents in the communist world

Throughout history, the Jews have been subject to external attacks seeking to destroy them. Alongside these, internal enemies have also had to be dealt with: informers, turncoats and agents infiltrating communities. Rabbi Baruch Oberlander reviews Attila Novák’s new book Ideológia és önazonosság – Az 1953-as budapesti cionista per („Ideology and Identity – The 1953 Budapest Zionist Trial”) on zsido.com.

The only way to destroy Jewish religious and cultural life in the Stalinist Soviet Union was to enlist the cooperation of insiders who reported on the „transgressions” of others. Later, this method was also used in Hungary.

One of the important foundations of the communist system that made dictatorship possible was the network of informers and agents. These people betrayed their friends, colleagues and often even their faith by writing regular reports on what was going on among the people. This destroyed society from within, because people lost trust in even their closest friends and, in many cases, religious leaders.

In the years after the regime change, there was a constant discussion in this country about how to relate to these people.

There was also a big question of how to judge their actions, as well as how to know who was motivated simply by malice, who by some kind of hope of gain or advancement, and when someone was acting under duress.

I have always been very interested in this topic, even before we moved to Hungary and the regime change happened because in Lubavitch circles, as we will see, it has always been a topic of conversation. This interest led me (together with Shlomo Köves) to write a major paper in 2005 entitled Ügynökök és besúgók a zsidó jog és etika fényében (“Agents and Informers in Light of Jewish Law and Ethics”), which was published in both Magyar Jogban and Új élet.

Informers against the Hasidim

For years the GPU [Ed. note: The State Political Directorate, intelligence and secret police in Hungary when part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] and later the NKVD  [Ed. note: People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs under Soviet rule] ran into a wall when they took up the fight against the Lubavitch Hasidim because they held out very firmly and refused to give in to pressure or temptation, refusing to be informers. The situation changed when in 1938 a Hasid, who had been sentenced to death for all sorts of crimes, made a deal: The charges against him would be dropped in exchange for him reporting on his associates. This was a near-fatal blow to the Hasidic movement, as the traitor’s activities led to the arrest of many leaders, some of whom were executed and others exiled to Siberia, never to return, any trace of them lost forever.

The process of liquidation slowed down considerably when a Hasidic girl happened to notice the informer being received outside the NKVD office after showing his red book. From then on, the Lubavitch community knew who to beware of. Later, in 1946, hundreds of Hasidic families managed to leave the Soviet Union with false Polish papers.

It has been a topic of conversation among the Lubavitch Hasidim ever since — who were the Hasidim (of whom I know of only two) who completely avoided arrest and imprisonment and how they managed to do so; who, after being arrested, was able to resist and not give out any information about his associates, etc. There were several methods to avoid giving out information. The father of the Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878–1944), for example, was cooperative and gave out information about others, but only, as the interrogation records show, about those who had already died or managed to leave the Soviet Union alive. Later, he would say that no, he simply „forgot” to talk only about people still alive and in the Soviet Union…

We know stories of how he was broken by torture and began to testify about others. However, when he was rewarded by being allowed to take a long rest, he managed to pull himself together physically and mentally to the point where he regretted endangering the lives of others and stopped confessing; this meant he had to go through multiple torture sessions, but it didn’t break him.

When he was released from the Soviet Union, many people attacked him for confessing against them, but the Rebbe always soothed their anger by saying that he was punished the very next day during the torture, so his soul had been purified…

Fortunately for me, I was able to learn about these events not only from the many books and newspaper articles I had read, but also from Hasidim who were knowledgeable about the subject.

Zionist trial per the Soviet model

I recently received a copy of Attila Novák’s new book entitled Ideológia és önazonosság – Az 1953-as budapesti cionista per („Ideology and Identity – The 1953 Budapest Zionist Trial”). I am particularly pleased with the publication of this book for a number of personal reasons.

The trial referred to in the title was modeled on the Soviet doctors’ trial, where, through trumped-up charges, Stalin took action against millions of Soviet Jews.

In the show trial that took place, Jewish doctors were accused of attempting to assassinate members of the Soviet leadership on behalf of the Joint [Ed. note: a Jewish relief organization] and various secret services. The Hungarian authorities followed suit, taking action against the then existing Zionist youth organizations, accusing their leaders of anti-regime activities. Several members of their leadership were arrested and subjected to harsh interrogation.

 Firsthand knowledge

I have heard a lot about the Zionist trial from one of the main characters, Tibor Engländer (1932–2012), who was the head of Hásomér Hácáir at the time. After our arrival in August 1989, Engländer was perhaps the first person to invite me to give a series of lectures at the Oneg Shabbat club he organized that year, held at the Bethlen Square synagogue. The lectures took place on Thursday evenings, and since the two of us always arrived early, we had a good half hour of conversation alone. Tibor came from a religious family in Tokaj and had come to Budapest when he was young.

Although he had had his digressions, when I met him, he considered himself a religious Jew, attending the Bethlen Square minyan every morning in tallit and tefillin

He told me a lot about his roots and his religious upbringing, and he asked me about old customs to see if he remembered this or that well. He knew that because I grew up in a Hungarian community in America, I was familiar with the customs here. We also talked a lot about his professional life and his work as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Psychology. But what was closest to his heart, what he talked about most, was his Zionist activities in the 1950s. In particular, it was the events surrounding his arrest and the trial that he talked about most. These lectures took place over a period of about two years, and I kept in touch with Tibor even after the series was over.

Once, sometime in his last years, the day before Pesach, I learned from an old Israeli friend that he had been admitted to a hospital in Sopron, where he was spending the holiday, and he had no matzah. I quickly put together a package of everything he might need for the holiday and sent it to him by taxi. He was very grateful for the help and, as usual, he praised the Lubavitch movement and the Rebbe’s vision for the Hungarian Jews, which he was able to benefit from.

About a year before his death, when I heard that he was very ill again, I immediately went to his home. It was the last time I had the chance to talk to him at length: We talked for hours, and, I remember, I arrived home just in time for Shabbat candle lighting. During this last meeting, he talked a lot about the trial and his arrest. It was then that he shared with me his dilemma, which had been brewing in him for a long time.

Some people had told him that the most important thing he could do at the end of his life was to write down the activities of the Zionist movement in Hungary and the story of the trial because he was the only person who could record it authentically, firsthand.

He would have liked to do so, but he felt that he should systematize, conclude and summarize his life’s main work, his research at the Institute of Psychology. In the end, he decided to do this because, as a doctor, he felt it was his duty to do what he could to help people and not just create a historical document, albeit an important one.

You can read the full article here

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