Israel’s Prisoner X recalls Marcus Klingberg spy case

While more information continues to trickle out about Prisoner X, the mysterious man with alleged Mossad ties who hanged himself in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in 2010 and was identified this week by an Australian TV show as Ben Zygier, it’s not the first case of an Israeli spy jailed without public knowledge and under secretive circumstances.

During the Cold War, Marcus Klingberg, a high-ranking Soviet spy captured in Israel, found himself in similar circumstances.

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Klingberg was born to a chasidic family in Warsaw in 1918, then fled to Soviet Russia during World War II, where he studied medicine and served as a colonel in the Red Army. After briefly returning to postwar Poland to assume a position in the sciences, Klingberg, an epidemiologist, moved to Israel in 1948.

According to Avner Cohen, author of "Israel and the Bomb," Klingberg was recruited by Ehud Avriel, a Haganah member and diplomat who was involved in purchasing weapons from Czechoslovakia. Avriel reportedly was on a mission to find scientists capable of increasing Israeli’s scientific capabilities. From the JTA Archive:

In April 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, wrote a letter to Ehud Avriel, one of the Jewish Agency’s operatives in Europe, ordering him to seek out and recruit East European Jewish scientists who could “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses; both are important.” One of the scientists Avriel recruited was a 30-year old epidemiologist and colonel in the Red Army named Avraham Marcus Klingberg. In time, Klingberg became one of Israel’s leading scientists in the area of chemical and biological weapons (CBW). He was among the founding members and, subsequently, the deputy director of the Israel Institute of Biological Research (IIBR) in Ness Ziona, a dozen miles southeast of Tel Aviv.

But within a few years of arriving in Israel, Klingberg’s allegiances came into question. According to his own memoir, published in 2007 with the aid of his lawyer, Klingberg was recruited to the Soviet cause in the early 1950s by an Israeli serving as a pro-Soviet spy.

In 1957, Klingberg joined the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) at Ness Ziona, working there as deputy scientific director till 1972. He also held a number of prestigious medical positions elsewhere.

Finally, in 1983, Klingberg’s extracurricular activities caught up with him. During a decade in which Israel arrested a number of suspected Soviet spies among the Russian-Israeli population, Klingberg was arrested and secretly tried and convicted on charges of spying for the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But details of the Klingberg episode remained under wraps for a long time. Israeli publication Ma’ariv was the first to note his disappearance in 1983, nine months after his arrest. In 1985, a British investigative journalist was the first to speculate that Klingberg was in jail, triggering what Cohen called an "unprecedented" gag order that forbid Israeli media from even mentioning his name.

JTA picked up the Klingberg story in May 1988, when the West German newspaper Die Welt alleged that the Soviets were negotiating for Klingberg’s release. JTA reports:

According to foreign press reports, Professor Marcus Klinberg, former deputy manager of the Biological Research Institute in Ness Ziona, was arrested in 1983 by Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet.

He was reportedly charged with spying for the Soviet Union and imprisoned after a secret trial. But this has never been confirmed officially.

The claim that Soviets were negotiating for his release was repeated in 1992 but denied by Israel. As Klingberg’s health deteriorated, other attempts to procure his release were made in the1990s, but to no avail.

Four years before his sentence was up, Klingberg was released under house arrest in light of his poor health. But he continued to be monitored by Israeli authorities, who forbade him from discussing any details of his activities. Details of the Klingberg affair weren’t officially released from a gag order by the Israeli government until 2008, a year after Klingberg — by then living in France — published his memoirs.

Klingberg still lives in France today.

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