By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com
It happened in the summer of either 1914 or 1915, to a student of the Chofetz Chaim – Efraim Leibowitz from Memel, Germany. And it happened again now, almost 105 years later, to former US marine Paul Whelan (also a British citizen).
Just this week, Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison for allegedly spying on Moscow.
In each case, a Russian agent planted incriminating “state secrets” on an innocent person and convicted him of espionage. Each one was sent to prison.
We will start with the talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. As a result of the first world war, which began on Tisha B’Av of 1914, the Chofetz Chaim split his Yeshiva in half. He left half the bochurim in Radin, Poland, with Rav Yoseph Nenendick as the Mashgiach and with his son-in-law, Rav Hirsch Levinson as the Rosh Yeshiva. The Chofetz Chaim took half of the yeshiva with him to travel and stayed in Vilna for the time being.
There were three German bochurim that were learning at the Yeshiva, and it was decided not to register them because it would complicate things. In the meantime, a Jew from a frum family who was secretly a member of the Ochrana, the Tsar’s secret police. joined with the Yeshiva. He had aspirations to make it big in the Ochrana.
This Jew joined up with the Chofetz Chaim’s Yeshiva. He became friendly with the German bochurim, and even gave them some pocket money. Once, on the 17th of Tammus, the bachurim took a walk in the countryside. This individual joined them. He had claimed to be a wandering leather merchant from the town of Meretch. He then planted in the jacket of Efraim Leibowitz a sketch drawing of the protective forts of Kovno. He then departed – permanently.
That night, Ochrana agents raided the temporary dormitory – the home of Reb Leib Matlis, brother in law of the Chofetz Chaim, where the boy was staying. He was arrested on charges of espionage – along with Reb Leib and the two other German bochurim.
A few months earlier, there were numerous arrests in Vilna for the same charges – and now, our Ochrana wannabe was going to make it big.
Efraim had no idea as to where the drawing came from. He was arrested and brought to deep within Russia – in the province of Penzenskaya Oblast, in the town of Penza. There, one or two years after his arrest, Efraim recognized that the guard had a Jewish name. He called out for him and told him to tell the Chofetz Chaim where he was being held. The guard did so.
The Chofetz Chaim sent him a message of chizuk – back. The Chofetz Chaim tried to get the “Ben Brafman” of Tsarist Russia to represent his Talmid. This man was Oscar Gruzenberg, and although he was not observant, he had his heart with Klal Yisroel. He had successfully defended Mendel Beilis of Slabodka in the blood libel trial.
Indeed, in that trial, he employed a remarkable tactic in his cross-examination of the notoriously anti-Semitic Russian Orthodox Priest who was called as an expert witness on Judaism. In his cross-examination, Gruzenberg asked the priest if he was expert in Judaism. He responded that he was. Gruzenberg asked him to identify some major personalities in Jewish history. They were easy ones.
Gruzenberg then threw in the clincher. He asked the priest who was Bava Basra and when did she live. The priest responded that he certainly knew of her and that she had played an important role in saving the Jewish people, but could not recall exactly what era of Jewish history she lived in.
Gruzenberg had filled up the courtroom with Jews and the priest’s answer caused rip-roaring laughter. Bava Basra, of course, is the name of a Talmudic tractate – not a Jewish historical figure. The entire incident can be found in the transcripts of the Mendel Beilis trial.
Gruzenberg, unfortunately, did not accept the case. The Chofetz Chaim, then roughly eighty years old, travelled himself to Gruzenberg in Moscow. Gruzenberg told the Chofetz Chaim that since this was in a military court rather than a civilian court, it would be preferable to use a military lawyer – and a Christian one at that. According to the Chofetz Chaim’s biographer, Gruzenberg recommended a certain Captain Zvyazik. This author has been unable to locate any biographical information about this lawyer. No mention of him is found in the memoirs of Gruzenberg either.
The military trial of Efraim Leibowitz took place in Vitebsk in December of 1916. Leibowitz was convicted and sentenced to 12 years. The entire episode can be found in Rabbi Yashar’s biography of the Chofetz Chaim.
Back to the former US Marine, Paul Whelan. He was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison, a Moscow court ruled this past Monday.
Speaking from behind the glass screen before his fate was sealed, Whelan called the entire trial a “sham.” He called upon President Trump as well as leaders of Ireland, the UK and Canada to help him.
Whelan is also an Irish, British and Canadian citizen. He was first detained at a Moscow hotel in December of 2018 by the Russian counterparts to the Tsarist police. They alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. Whelan was held in Lefortovo prison in Moscow since.
The trial was held behind closed doors.
His lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, previously said Whelan was unwittingly handed a flash drive containing “state secrets” while on a personal trip to Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said Whelan was caught “red-handed.”
Whelan denied the spying charges and says he has been denied proper medical treatment while in detention. His family maintains he traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding and was arrested on false charges.
The Gemorah in Shabbos (55a) tells us, “Truth is the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He.” The holy prophet Yirmiyahu similarly tells us “The L-rd Hashem is truth” (Jeremiah 10:10). All moral people should protest what is being done to Paul Whelan and recall that the Russians are no different now then they were during Tsarist Russia.
The author can be reached at [email protected]