14 February 2014

Minna Weizmann, Chaim's Invisible Sister

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2584-2610, 10153-10155:
The spymaster [Curt Prüfer] clearly took his new enterprise very seriously and as a true patriot was ready to let whatever affections he felt for Minna Weizmann be trumped by those he held for the kaiser. In early May 1915, Weizmann made the crossing to Egypt as the newest member of Prüfer’s spy ring. She probably needed little in the way of persuading; as both a Jew and a socialist, she might as well have been wearing a czarist bull’s-eye on her back, and here was the chance for both adventure and revenge.

Initially, Weizmann did very well in her new vocation, her hospital work and the novelty of being a female physician giving her entrée to the upper echelons of British Cairo society. Her luck didn’t hold, however. Under the cover of accompanying a badly wounded French soldier home, she managed to reach Italy, but there was observed meeting with the German ambassador in Rome. Unmasked, she was hauled back to Egypt, where she faced a decidedly grim future: internment in a British prisoner-of-war camp at the very least, and possibly execution. Instead, Weizmann’s considerable charms combined with old-fashioned chivalry produced a far more pleasant outcome. As related by a Swiss woman who crossed paths with Minna that August and heard her story, “she was so beloved in Cairo and Alexandria, and held in such respect that people gave her unwavering denial [of being a spy] credence.” Ironically, even the czar’s consul in Cairo vouched for Minna’s innocence and arranged for her safe passage back to Russia. It was while staying at a hotel in Romania, in transit to the homeland she had escaped from two years earlier, that Weizmann desperately reached out to the Swiss woman.

“She revealed everything to me,” Hilla Steinbach-Schuh explained to a German official, “and fervently begged me to inform the German embassy in Constantinople of her deportation, especially that Herr Prüfer should be advised of this.”

But the remarkably tender treatment shown Minna Weizmann—she would not only survive the war, but eventually return to Palestine to work for the medical service of the Zionist women’s organization, Hadassah—may have also stemmed from her lineage. Her older brother was Chaim Weizmann, a renowned chemist who had immigrated to Great Britain in 1904 and who in 1915 was already working closely with the British munitions industry to improve their war-making capability; Chaim would go on to become the first president of the state of Israel, while Minna’s nephew Ezer would serve as its seventh. That lineage may also explain why Minna has been largely excised from the history books, and even from the Weizmann family’s memory (Chaim made not a single reference to his sister in his memoirs); for “the first family of Israel” to count among its members someone who not only spied for Germany but whose spymaster lover went on to become a senior Nazi diplomat is surely one of those awkward family stories best left untold.

Even before learning of Minna Weizmann’s fate, however, Curt Prüfer had seen his fledgling Egyptian spy ring largely shut down, a result of Italy’s joining the Triple Entente in May and the consequent severing of the German embassy “ratline.” Still, Prüfer’s bold initiative had greatly impressed his superiors in both the military and intelligence spheres. As Lieutenant Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, the commander of German forces in Palestine, informed Berlin, “Curt Prüfer is indispensable as the leader of the intelligence service.”


For her services to the Central Powers war effort, Minna was included in a prisoner exchange between Germany and Russia in the last days of World War I. Managing yet another escape, this time from the chaos of postwar Germany, she returned to Jerusalem, where she worked for the health service of the Zionist women's organization, Hadassah.

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