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On Assignment for Israel - My Life as a Spy

A new book by Ruth Zucker.

Reviewed by B. John Zavrel


The writer and graphologist Ruth Zucker of Jerusalem.


Mata-Hari of Israel remembers * a spy against the British * on a swim with the hangman of Akko * show me your signature, I'll know all about you * barefoot monk on a Harley saves 2,600 children * disguised as an old gypsy woman * Rinah saves 970 "Teheran Children" * the boy, his ball and his puppy * her four Arab "guardian angels" * as spy at the United Nations * stay, we will give you a uniform * hope for peace between the Arabs and the Jews


"In the middle of the night, it had to be around midnight, I suddenly woke up: something was scratching on my door. I asked: "Who is there?," jumped out of bed and put my ear on the door. A man's voice whispered: "Please open up at once!" I believed I recognized the voice of the young receptionist. "No, I won't, go away!" But his voice became still more urgent: "I beg you, miss, open up. It it's a matter of life and death! Of YOUR life and death!"

In this way, Ruth Zucker, the famous 84 year-old grapholog, astrolog and consultant to important statesmen, describes her encounter with one of her "guardian angels": nameless Arabs who saved her life during her work as a spy for the Haganah. It was in the 1940's in Palestine, then under British administration.

Ruth was born in 1914 in Bonn, Germany. Her wealthy parents made it possible for her to get her education at the Ecole Internationale in Geneva, where she studied psychology and graphology. It was there that she met Mahatma Gandhi, and at one point in her life she wanted to go to India as one of his disciples to fight for India's freedom from the British occupation. But fate willed it otherwise: she fell in love and followed her future husband to Haifa, joining other Jewish settlers pursuing their dream to establish a new Jewish homeland.

"What, me a spy?" Ruth Zucker felt as if she was struck by a lightning, when she received the proposal in the spring of 1937 to work for the Haganah, the Jewish underground organization. She was 23 years old and three years ago followed her lover, a physician, to Haifa. Then, the land of Palestine stood under English administration. In this book she talks about her dangerous as well as successful twelve years long career as a "mole" in the British administration and at the United Nations.


The ancient biblical city of Jerusalem in Palestine.


To understand the setting of the book, we need to briefly review the political situation in Europe and in the Middle East at the time, and the events leading up to those eventful years.

The State of Israel was proclaimed on the evening of May 14, 1948 by its founder, David Ben Gurion. With this ended the so-called "British mandate" over Palestine. The mandate was given to Great Britain by the predecessor of today's United Nations on July 24, 1922.

This mandate had its origins in the declaration of the British Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour of November 2, 1917. In it he expresses a declaration of sympathy for the Jewish-Zionistic efforts: "The establishment of a national homeland in Palestine for the Jewish People will be positively considered by His Majesty's government. It will do its utmost to facilitate the achievement of this goal, but at the same time it is to be made unmistakeably clear that nothing may be done which would negatively effect the civil rights and the religious rights of the non-Jewish population, nor the rights and the political status of Jews of any other countries."

The United Nations predecessor's decision was made in 1920 at a conference in San Remo and it became the task of Great Britain to take care of the fulfillment of this proclamation. This fact was the legal basis for the future Zionist buildup of the Land of Israel, and on the other side, the reason for the conflict with the Arab neighbors. This conflict escalated as a result of the 16th Zionist Congress in Geneva in 1929. There, at the urging of Chaim Weizmann, the enlarged Jewish Agency for Palestine was founded. In the eyes of the Arab leaders, this enlarged Jewish Agency meant a "Zionist government," which had only one goal: to expel the Arab inhabitants from Palestine.

The following Arab-Jewish confrontations due to Jewish settlement plans took on a larger and larger scale, and the British Army soon became involved on a wide front. The British, at the beginning of their mandate gave the Arabs to understand that a new homeland would be created for them, "which would stretch to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea". Regrettably, this never happened. As the world events unfolded, Great Britain became greatly worried that the Arab world could make an alliance with Hitler's Germany; this concern strengthened their support for the Arabs. In the British policy-setting "White Book" of May 17, 1939 it was stated: "To appease the Arabs, the Jewish immigration quote is to be drastically reduced to 75,000 for the next five years, and after that immigrants can only be allowed with the consent of the Arabs." With that, the Balfour Declaration was effectively put on indefinite hold, and the dramatic result was that "at the time of the most urgent danger for the European Jews the gates of the old-new homeland were closed for a new Jewish mass immigration."

It was only then that the Jewish Agency started to undertake the illegal immigration, and many refugee dramas took place on land and especially at sea, which the writer Leon Uris memorialized with his unforgettable novel "Exodus".

Because of the fact that also after 1945 the British policy of the "White Book" continued, Jewish special commandos were built up for the fight against the English and the Arabs. David Ben Gurion ordered the Haganah, the secret self-defense organization of the Jews, to take up armed struggle.

In July 1945 the Arab League was founded in Cairo by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. While the Jews wanted to force their immigration, the Arab League threatened with war, if a Jewish State were to be established.

On July 22, 1946 the anti-British attacks of the right extremist Jewish military organization had a tragic climax with their attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. In the hotel were housed the British military headquarters. In spite of advance warnings, ninety men died in the explosion.

In February 1947 the British government decided to terminate its mandate in Palestine, and a United Nations Commission recommended the division into a Jewish territory and an Arab territory; the area around Jerusalem and the city itself would be placed under international administration. This recommendation led to the official UN decision of November 29, 1947 regarding the division of Palestine.

While the Jews were ready to negotiate, the Arabs totally refused the plan. In the following months the Arab-Jewish fighting flamed up, and on the day after the proclamation of the State of Israel (May 14, 1948), the War of Independence broke out. The provisionary Jewish government with David Ben Gurion as Prime Minister and Chaim Weizmann as President had appealed in vain to the Arab states and their populatioon to give Israel a hand, in order to build up the land in close cooperation and mutual assistance. The Arab peoples, which attacked Israel, counted 204 million, and the total Jewish population had not reached even one million… As the opponents of the proclamation tried to convince David Ben Gurion against the proclamation, he said: "Whoever in this holy land does not believe in miracles is not a realist; we will win." And he was right.

This book by Ruth Zucker deals with the non-military section of the secret Jewish underground organization Haganah in the time of the British mandate. Haganah means "defense." Prominent members of the Jewish society considered in necessary, due to the threatening situation, to become involved in the double-dealing world of espionage. Among them were the later President Chaim Herzog, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, defense minister Moshe Dayan, and many others. With the founding of Israel the "mole" activity of the Haganah ended: it became the official Israeli secret service "Mossad."

Since the English tried since 1939 to bring Jewish immigration to Palestine to a complete stop, the members of the secret service attempted to infiltrate the British administration system. Thus they had an opportunity to get the most current and sensitive information about British plans and intentions, which they could then counter.

Also spying on all the Arab centers of power belonged to these efforts. The main goal was to smuggle refugees into the country and to obtain illegal weapons for self-defense. For this it was necessary that Jews should have influential positions in the British administration. Naturally, these "civil servants" could not in any way act publicly, since they had to pretend to be loyal English employees. But there was the organization "Shai" which was above all founded to break through the British blocade against the European Jews, and to protect the Jews already in Palestine; the attacks of the Arab terrorist groups were becoming more and more frequent under the eyes of the English. Almost daily there were Jewish victims.

Today, after 50 years, the Jewish citizens still continue to die due to acts of terrorism in the never-ending war between Arabs and Jews…

And now back to the fascinating story of espionage, intrigue, dedication and hope. It was 1934 and the 20-year old Ruth Koopmann decided go to Palestine to be with her fiance Walter Zucker, who moved there recently. Since she could not go as an immigrant, she had to go as a tourist. To make things worse, she had to earn the money for her ship voyage to Palestine. But it took her six months to save enough money just for a one-way ticket. To an immigration officer, this is a no-no. One way ticket is a dead giveaway that one is an illegal immigrant. But Ruth could not wait another six months to save more money for a return ticket: what if her fiance met somebody else in the meantime? She would not survive that. So, in spite of all, she boarded a ship in Marseilles for Palestine, with a one-way ticket. On board of the ship she had a stroke of luck: she ran into an old acquaintance from her school days is Bonn. He was alone, on a two-week business trip to Tel Aviv to attend an industrial exhibition. At once, Ruth had the idea: let's pretend that I am your fiancee, and we are going on this trip together. Said and done, the two spent the whole time on the ship together, as two inseparable lovers. The ruse worked, although she was nearly sent back home by the British immigration officer at Haifa. But the ship's captain saved the day: "Don't worry about her, she is with her boyfriend on this trip. They are inseparable! Where he goes, she goes. She will go back with him, she is no illegal immigrant!"

Having joined her beloved Walter, the young couple got married and soon had a boy, Eli. As the political struggle between Arabs and Jews intensified, Ruth one day decided to take an active part by joining the Jewish underground self-defense organization Haganah. But there was a small glitch: Ruth was a pacifist to the bone, and she would not take part in armed struggle. But she was a young, attractive woman who was fluent in English, German, and French, and her recruiter decided to put her to work in their "information department." Little did she know what she got herself into. When she got home and proudly told Walter that she now worked also in the Haganah as a translator in their information department, he exclaimed: "A translator?! "Information department" is espionage… now I find out that my wife has become a Mata Hari!"

The young Ruth Zucker in 1940s, in the time of her activity as a spy for the Haganah (1937-1948).


When she first met some of her colleagues in the Haganah, one of her new comrades came to her with outstretched arms: "So you are "Rinah"? It's great that you are here!" She answered: "What do you mean, "Rinah"? My name is Ruth. "We all have code names, and that is the name which we selected for you. It means "joy", and it is for us a great joy, to have you with us. Actually, we have been waiting for you for a long time. With your English and your expertise in graphology you will be able to achieve a great deal for us. You can analyze for us the characters of the high English government officials: according to the motto "Know your enemy!" We have a list of names for you already… In principle, the idea is that the English should work not AGAINST us, but FOR us. Naturally, there are some, who can be bribed by money or gifts. But with others such attempts would achieve the exact opposite. Therefore, one must know, whether and to what extent one is an opportunist or a materialist. And they must not be too smart, either. And then again, others are interested in women... can you tell from one's writing, if he is always looking for sex?" Ruth nodded…

Slowly, starting with small assignments, Ruth was becoming a valuable member of the organization. As an illegal immigrant, one of her fist tasks was to put her immigration papers in order. Only one who has been at one point in his or her life been an "illegal immigrant" can appreciate how much effort, persistence, and good luck is involved in the process. It was at this time that Ruth met the Chief Immigration Officer in Haifa, a Mr. Stafford. Although the official British policy at the time was to discourage immigration, he took pity on the young woman and advised her how to get her papers in order, and helped her in the process a great deal. The description of the small Odyssey it took her to get her legal papers makes for fascinating reading.

She and Walter befriended Mr. Stafford, who eventually helped her to get a job in his office. The circle of their English friends grew, and opportunities for Ruth to provide Haganah with valuable information became more and more frequent. But one was clear: she had to be careful. Her life was on the line every day. Outside of the city was an old Arab fortress, named the Akko. In it, many of the Jewish freedom fighters were imprisoned by the British; and many of them were executed there. The infamous hangman of Akko was a dreaded figure, and meeting him on one occasion in person made a shattering impression on Ruth. The chance, that one day she might lose her life in this prison, if she were discovered by the British, was an ever-present and growing danger.

Her story is a fascinating one. She tells of her husband's kidnapping by the British army, his work in their slave-labor camp and his miraculous escape. She talks of her work with the British in their Censorship Office, of the dangerous time when the German Field Marshall Rommel was approaching their city of Haifa and they were making plans for their defense and suicide. She describes the escalating violence against the British, her participation in smuggling live bombs in her car, in turning their small apartment into a weapons depot. As their young son Eli became of school age, he too became involved in the spy business, when it was decided to blow up the British radar station near their house. Little Eli got a ball, and was sent to play with it and his puppy at the gate of the military base. The ball "happened" to fly over the fence and the boy and his dog were allowed to fetch it; searching and searching for the ball, Eli measured distances between the barracks and when he returned home, drew a map…

There is also a love story. In a recent interview, Ruth Zucker confided to me: "You know, in my book there is another story, within a story... it is a wonderful war time love story... would you like to hear it?... as you know, when I studied graphology in Geneva, I became very close to my professor's son ... he was a very handsome young man, rode a horse in the Swiss Army and eventually I moved into my professor's house, to be close to him... we were great friends, we were just like a brother and sister... but I was not in love with him... when he found out that I decided to marry an Israeli, he couldn't get over his disappointment... out of desperation, he took a monk's vows and lived, barefoot, as a monk in a remote monastery... then the war came and the Jews were being deported in trains to the camps in the East, whole families with children, small boys and girls... the parents were desparate... how to save the children?... so, some would take the children and throw them our of the windows of the moving trains... some of the children died in the fall, but some survived it and aimlessly roamed the surrounding forests looking for food and shelter... when my old frined, now a "barefoot monk" heard of these tragedies, he was deeply moved and decided to try to save some of these children... he would ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle, barefoot, through these forests and pick up these children... hide them in remote monasteries... he is said to have saved some 2,600 of them in this way... when they asked him, why he did it, he said that he did no know... in his whole life he knew only one Jewish person and it was his former sweetheart Ruth Zucker... and that every time he saved one of these children, he saw her face... of course, I didn't know about any of this until much after the war... I was in Haifa, working in the Haganah to bring in refugees from Europe... we also heard about these children being hidden in monasteries, and so it happened that I helped to bring 970 of these children into the Palestine... because some countries would let them pass through, they had to go to Poland, to Russia... then, finally the Shah of Iran agreed to help... they were sent to Iran... therefore they were called the "Teheran Children"... from there by ship all around India, to Egypt, and then again by train to Palestine... getting into the country on a falsified visa, which was one of my big successes at the time... obtaining the super secret signature of the British counsul by playing the part of an old gypsy woman...but that is another story... you see, my old friend the monk and I helped to save the same children, one not knowing of the other's efforts until much, much later, after the war... and he did it out of his love for me... "


Some of the 970 "Teheran Children" that Ruth Zucker helped save during the war.


And the story goes on and on. The family moved to Carmel, then a French enclave on a mountain in Haifa. There they live in a small upstairs apartment and observe their neighbors below: a German spy, after him an Egyptian consul and after him a Syrian consul and his family. After the end of the war, Ruth gets to work as a translator for the United Nations as negotiations on the future is Israel go on. And she continues her work even here: she is told: "play this article up, play that article down." One day, returning home for the weekend, a malicious American driver takes the car into the Arab section, and yelling at a stop at a local pub "I've got a couple of Jews in my car," she is nearly killed by the angry mob. A French officer saves her life and brings her home. On hearing this latest brush with death, her husband Walter has had enough and tells his wife: "This is the end. You will never go back!"

Her boss in the Haganah, "Aharonchik" agreed that it was time for her to retire from the spying business. But he had another idea: "Look, now we are establishing our own Army. We need people like you. A good graphologist would be of greatest value." Ruth looked at him with disbelief: "In the Army? You mean in uniform?" And he said with a smile, "Yes, of course, it will look just great on you!" Rinah replied: "Oh no, that will never happen! Did you forget that I am a pacifist? I was ready to help our people as we stood with our back against the wall. If we had given in, they would have driven us into the sea. I was willy nilly a spy; but to be a part of uniformed Army? Never in my life!"

So ends the story of the young Rinah, and her twelve years as a spy for Israel. In the course of those eventful years, she had often felt that there was a "guardian angel" watching over her. On several occasions, ordinary Arab men saved her life, knowing that she was a Jew and helping her could cost them their own lives. To these unknown people who saved her life, she is to this day grateful. This knowledge also gives her hope for the future of her homeland and for the much longed for, but still elusive, peace between the Arabs and the Jews.


Clarence, New York

February 18, 1999


Copyright 1999 Museum of European Art

Excerpts used courtesy of the publisher, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, Friedrichstrasse 1a, D-80801 Munich, Germany; Ms. Lore Cortis, editor: cortis@dtv.de



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