Only 24 hours before he was to celebrate his long-delayed Bar Mitzvah, oil magnate Armand Hammer died Monday night at his Los Angeles home, following a short illness. He was 92.
What was to be a tribute to the billionaire industrialist Tuesday night in Los Angeles turned into a memorial to a man who served as liaison between American and Soviet leaders and, in deepest secrecy, between Israeli leaders and the leadership of the Soviet Union.
The child of non-religious parents, Hammer had no Bar-Mitzvah at age 13. That death intervened to deprive him of the traditional induction into Judaism he had come to desire was the final irony in a long life filled with paradox.
Armand Hammer, a maverick in the highflying world of international tycoons, was mistrusted by some Jews because of his close personal ties to Kremlin leaders from Vladimir Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev — Joseph Stalin excluded.
Yet he may have done more than any single individual to help secure freedom for Soviet Jews in the pre-glasnost era.
Through his influence with the Soviet Union, founded on the well-remembered medical and food aid he sent the embattled country following the Russian Revolution, he was able to press for the emigration of Soviet Jews, particularly those with extraordinary problems.
Hammer personally brought out two longtime refuseniks, Professor David Goldfarb and Ida Nudel, the prisoner of Zion.
Yet Hammer was often criticized by hard-line activists in the Soviet Jewry movement for not exerting more overt pressure. But to many Israeli leaders and a former leader of a Soviet Jewry organization, he was unfairly judged.
“At that time, one never knew what actually worked in terms of pushing buttons,” said Jerry Goodman, former executive director the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, who met with Hammer often in Washington and Los Angeles.
“He was private. His theory was that he could be more effective if he didn’t appear in public as intervening on behalf of Soviet Jews,” Goodman said.
SECRET VISITS TO ISRAEL
Israeli government leaders spoke Tuesday of Hammer’s secret visits to Israel on several occasions when he stayed at the homes of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. Hammer carried secret messages to Moscow from Israeli leaders for years.
Hammer, a millionaire from his youth, became a billionaire when he bought the bankrupt Occidental Petroleum Corp. in 1957 for a token $34,000. The corporation’s present estimated worth is $8 billion.
He made a much bigger investment in Israel — some $60 million in a Negev oil prospecting project, from which, at the time of his death, he had not realized a penny of profit.
Hammer’s business dealings with Libya and other Arab countries made it prudent not to advertise his connections with Israel. His 1984 visit to Jerusalem was publicly reported as his first.
Hammer was born May 21, 1898, in New York to Dr. Julius Hammer, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and Rose Robinson Hammer.
A graduate of Columbia University Medical School, Hammer did not practice medicine except briefly as a volunteer to combat a typhus epidemic in post-revolution Russia.
There as a youth he arranged his first giant business deal, in which the Soviet Union bartered fur and caviar for American wheat.
At 23, he was summoned to a personal interview with Lenin. It is said that in exchange for Hammer’s help, Lenin gave him several paintings from Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum, which started his multimillion dollar art collection.
(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.