My Community Could Have Done a Better Job to Honor Forgotten Diplomatic Heroes

Updated: Jun 21

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 ambassadors of peace are revealed in photos and 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. Even his wife, Gerty Tova's diplomatic passport was issued & signed by a Walter Eytan, the first Director General of the Foreign Ministry, an Ex-Mossad member. Mr. Eytan during the World War II was part of the team that worked on cracking the enigma in Belchley Park. Also, he was a member of a four-man committee, including Yigal Yadin, Reuven Shiloah and Moshe Sharett, set up to consider special operations outside the borders of Israel. Zalman’s diplomatic passport was issued by Zvi Amnon.

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.