Updated: Feb 17
Growing up, my community could have done a better job of educating us about the founders of the Mossad as we know it today. For example, detailing the hero’s behind the Mossad le’Aliyah Bet, ramping up their illegal immigration efforts, trying to rescue as many endangered Jews as possible before all hope was lost. I never heard of men like Ehud Avriel who dedicated their lives to smuggling as many Jews as possible on ships that were often caught by the British before being allowed into Palestine. Many of these individuals are in photos or letters from our archive.
I don’t recall being told about Shaike Dan, who parachuted behind Nazi lines in the Balkans and rescued many Jews in Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe. In my modern Jewish history classes, they didn’t focus enough on the countless Jewish women who risked their lives for the Jewish people. I wish I was better informed about the men and women who help secure the weapons that would go on to save Israel in the War of Independence.
One of Israel's unnoticed heroes was a man named Zalman Unreich, my grandfather of blessed memory. Also known as Zalman On, A highly regarded champion wrestler, a diplomat, and an undercover secret agent that defended the Jewish people.
What's the story behind this impressive Israeli who took part in negotiating the Czechoslovakian Arms Deal that helped the State of Israel defend itself during its early days of becoming an independent state during the 1948 War of Independence?
How did this master of deceit help smuggle both weapons into Israel and later helped the victims of the Communist anti-Jewish “show-trials” get many people illegally across the European Iron Curtain in the early 1950s and accomplish so much more?
We can't talk about Zalman Unreich without first talking about the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
The Mossad was founded in 1949, but before they became the well-known foreign intelligence gathering spy agency, the Mossad was the successor to the intelligence arm of the Haganah (the Jewish military force in Palestine during the British mandate period). At that time, a man by the name of Reuven Shiloah, who had been involved in special operations and secret diplomacy during the pre-state period, served as their first director. Various Mossad agents have since been involved in countless intelligence gathering and counterterrorism initiatives.
You've definitely heard of some of their agents accomplishments recently, namely in a 2019 Netflix show called the Spy. Which presents Eli Cohen, the greatest Israeli spy of all time, who Zalman also help recruit. Eli Cohen infiltrated the highest ranks of the Syrian government and passed their secrets to his homeland, Israel. The Mossad has carried out hundreds of operations in Israel and around the globe, but there’re are less well-known missions sometimes for various reason, which is kind of what you would hope for, especially from one of the world's top intelligence agencies, right?
Most top intelligence agencies have their unsung MVPs or nameless hero’s and Zalman earned that distinction with the Mossad in the late 1940s and into the early 1950s in Czechoslovakia. But who was he? How did an immigrant from Slovakia, raised as an extremely religious boy, with a strict father who hoped his son would become a Rabbi, who ended up using his champion wrestling background to defend the Jewish people, become a valuable asset to the Mossad?
Let's take it from the top.
His adventurous "career" first began in the streets in Bratislava with his best friend Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga, then later in Palestine and eventually in Israel…
Zalman was born in 1912 to Slovak-Jewish parents living in Bratislava or at the time known as Pressburg. Their Unreich home was a study hall for Torah learning and they unselfishly devoting their energies to philanthropic causes and helping others. Although their household wasn’t necessarily built upon Zionist ideologies, most of the Unreich children immigrated to Israel and other parts of the world.
Unlike his older brother, Shlomo who immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s, Zalman stayed back in Bratislava to finish his professional wrestling career and help protect the Jewish community in his hometown against increasingly antisemitic atmosphere. Until 1933, Zalman joined his brother and immigrated to Palestine, for different reasons. There, he eventually married a the love of his life, a Vienna Jewish immigrant, who also escaped an anti-Semitic environment, her name was Gerty Tova Sussmann, and together they had three children.
He started looking for work, and in 1933 joined the Jewish Palestinian Police Force, patrolling alongside Zalman was Yisrael Carmi, famous today as the inspiration for the 2009 Hollywood movie Inglourious Basterds, based on the campaign he led at the end of World War II to hunt down and execute SS and Gestapo officers. Carmi helped get Zalman noticed and eventually recruited him into the Haganah. Eventually, a senior member of the Haganah High Command, called Eliyahu Golomb, recognized Zalman’s multiple talents giving him more dangerous missions with greater responsibilities.
Zalman’s work in the Haganah led him to working alongside the British and assisting with training the Jewish paratroopers, under the Royal Air Force regiment. Wherever possible the British used paratroopers who spoke the language of the region they were being sent to. The Haganah, largely composed of immigrants from countries which the Nazis were occupying, was an ideal recruiting ground. Some of the Haganah paratroopers later became quite famous because of the missions, namely Hannah Senesh and Haviva Reik.
Before officially being known as the Mossad, also known as the Jewish underground movement, Mossad le-Aliya bet, Zalman was a valuable resource to this organizations movement.
Besides being involved in rescuing Jews from an early age, Zalman was an asset also in part because of the many languages he spoke, which included German, Czech, Hungarian, Hebrew and English. He also had a large network of connections in Europe and familiar with smuggling routes, taught self-defense fighting techniques, and let’s not forget his strategic leadership skills. And for those reason he was hired in the later part of the 1940s by Ehud Ariel and Moshe Sharett as the director of security for the first Embassy consulate office in Prague to work along side Leon Kubovy.
There in Czechoslovakia, he would be engage in some serious espionage activities, from setting up secret intelligence radio towers, to assisting refugees by finding methods to ensure travel permits & passports for those who wanted to leave, and securing critical military equipment essential for Israeli’s war against the Arab nations in 1948.
According to the prime-minister of Israel at the time, David Ben-Gurion, was quoted as saying "Without these arms we would have all been massacred". Referencing the so-called weapon Procurement operation from Czechoslovakia, whereby hero’s like Ehud Avriel and Zalman played a central role in procurement operations general success.
In the later part of the 1950s, in Czechoslovakia, during the period of the Cold War, Zalman was forced to return to Israel soon after the end of the anti-Jewish “show-trials”, while still helping to smuggle as many people across the Iron Curtain in Europe as possible.
Zalman was a consummate professional, who left little traces of his work, and as a result, his story is untold -- until now. And today, Zalman’s story about a a nameless hero is told in a self-published book called “The Undercover Wrestler”. It show inspirational stories and sacrifices people are willing to make for their Jewish homeland.
Zalman’s story evolves by starting out with protection of people because it was necessary, then moving on to protection of others because it was right, followed by protecting people for political reasons, and finally to providing security of others for public relations reasons.
Enjoy the book and more supportive footnotes below!
For additional details about less well known stories, please continue reading:
1. Zalman’s Haganah papers
2. Czech Secret Communication Networks
3. Homing Pigeons
4. Zalman’s and Jakob Gazit’s Czech Secret Police Files
Zalman’s Haganah Papers
An old packet labeled with the words “Haganah.” The Haganah was the Jewish paramilitary or underground defense force organization during the time of the British Mandate of Palestine (1921–48), which later became the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In this packet we found the following cable and wire telegrams between Zalman and others, referencing Ehud Avriel, months after the weapons transfer. The cable & wireless telegram from October 8, 1948, reads: “Salman Unreich working (labor) Tel Aviv – Ehud in Paris will make arrangement with Berman – See you soon Shana Tova – Yosef.” It’s unverified, but I believe it was signed by a Yitzhak (Issac) Berman, an Israeli who joined the Irgun and worked in the organization’s intelligence department, at that time also helping Ehud with the arms transfer. Enclosed are telegram messages to Zalman that mentioned Ehud.
Initially, the Mossad members wrote their messages in Hebrew transliterated into the Latin alphabet, but it did not take long for the Czech secret police to crack that encryption. So they started writing Hebrew messages using the ancient techniques of atbash and gematria; simple strategies where one letter was transposed for another, or numbers were used to signify letters. This code was indecipherable to the Czech police because the underlying message was in Hebrew, rather than in German, Czech or English; it was as if they were encrypting their communications twice.
Czech Secret Communication Networks
The Mossad, Israel’s well-known secret service agency, is responsible for intelligence collection, covert operations, and counterterrorism in Israel and around the world. Mossad has invested enormous resources into training its secret operatives to lead operations, and has had great success over the years.
While some of its operations have been well publicized, such as more recently when the Mossad uncovered Iranian plans to build nuclear weapons, others remain secretive. One such operation that has remained veiled in secrecy began prior to the founding of Israel as a state in 1948. In 1947, the Mossad established a secret radio network in Prague, much like the one seen on the Netflix series about Israeli spy Eli Cohen.
The Prague station was actually one of the very first secret radio networks established abroad. It began when Ben Gurion asked certain high-ranking officers of the Haganah to work with Ehud Avriel to identify sources in Europe to procure arms from to help prepare for a looming war. Obtaining such weapons was challenging because all of the Western countries, including the United States, had imposed severe embargoes on the sale of weapons to the soon to be recognized Jewish State. The only country that agreed to supply the weaponry needed was the Czech Republic.
Those seeking to found a Jewish homeland and obtain the weapons needed to fight knew they needed a reliable communication link with the officials who went to Prague to negotiate the arms arrangements. This led to the establishment of the Prague Station, known as the Gideon network. Ehud Avriel received permission from the Prague authorities to establish a wireless station in the officials’ offices.
You can read more about the team of engineers involved (members of the Haganah and the Palmach) and this special communication network from the Palyam.org website and Uri Goren’s autobiographical book at: http://www.palyam.org/Gidhonim/Uri_Goren/njvPRAGUE.php.
Mr. Goren was quoted as saying “Upon receiving our orders, we purchased a very powerful transmitter and all the necessary equipment.” At that time it was the most sophisticated and by far better, than any communication stations Israel had setup in the past. The radio system had stations in major cities in Europe, including Prague, Bucharest, Rome, Milan, Paris and Marseille. Israel depended on the intelligence information it gathered from abroad over the radio, and started laying the foundation for communication networks to deliver such intelligence across multiple countries in a covert fashion, without those transmissions being detected.
We also found letters in German that Zalman kept related to homing pigeons, which were commonly used to send communications in secret between locations. Homing pigeons had a keen ability to find their way home over extremely long distances, and as such, they were used as messenger pigeons to deliver messages. This process was referred to as "pigeon post" if used in post service, or "war pigeons" when used during war time. In the letters I found, Zalmon was specifically interested in locating “Florentiner Pigeons” of very good stock and animals capable of breeding. Supposedly, this breed of pigeons won multiple awards for its abilities to assist with secret communications. The business location was in Graz/Steiermark/ Austria. It’s a so-called nice town with an active Jewish community and also famous for the “Grazer Uhrturm” - the clock tower.
Zalman’s and Jakob Gazit’s Czech Secret Police Files Translated Notes
Jakob Gazit was the Secretary Archivist of the Israeli legation at the time. In his Czech StB Secret Police file, we learn about the intelligence operations that he was involved in, including some of those described above. From the translated written notes, we learn that the Israeli Embassy in Prague had in place high security "policies" (keszultseg). Huge treasures (trezor) of the Embassy were placed to one room (z4), located on the first floor at Vofrsilok and Ostrovni street. No one from Czech employees has access to this room. Zalman was one of the only few people who had access. For Mr. Gazit, who lives in the apartment after Ronelz, had furnished different apartments in the Israeli Embassy in the back of the building under "radio station" (kozvetito? Radioallomas?). Employees of the Embassy before leaving their workplace, including radio-telegraphist Mr. Garson, have to handle over the keys of treasures and of the office of Mr. Gazit, even at noon when leaving for lunch.
Thank you to archivist Dr. Stefan Litt at the National Library of Israel and his team Tamar Lewinsohn and Matan Barzilai. With their help, we are preserving the legacy of past Israeli foreign ministry diplomats.
By updating historic photos (see below) with my saba (grandpa), Ambassador Aryeh L. Kubovy and his wife Miriam taking part in Rafi Reiss, Haviva Reik Jewish, Slovak, Heroine Post-WWII parachutist burial ceremony in Prague, Czechia, z”l.
We owe a special debt of gratitude for all her help by putting us in touch with Dr. Litt, thank you Grace Cohen Grossman, Acquisitions Curator at the National Institute for Holocaust Documentation at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.