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Irv Refkin, Brash Accidental Spy in World War II, Dies at 96

By Sam Roberts, New York Times

Irv Refkin, an impromptu but daring spy who served the United States and Britain as a saboteur, assassin and courier behind enemy lines in Europe during World War II, died on Thursday at his home in San Diego. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by a friend, Vera Davis.

Dispatched from England, Mr. Refkin, a scrappy 5-foot-6 Wisconsin native, was said to have smuggled explosives to the French Resistance in Paris, infiltrated Nazi Germany to kill specific targets integral to the Nazi war machine, and sabotaged train tracks to slow the deployment of German tanks to Normandy before the Allied invasion on D-Day.

On his clandestine missions inside Germany, he would disguise himself in a Wehrmacht corporal’s uniform.

“No one,” he explained, “has ever noticed a corporal.”

He also carried out assignments in Italy, the Soviet Union and South Africa.

Mr. Refkin, who was discharged as a master sergeant after the war, was awarded the Bronze Star. In 2014, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Office of Strategic Services Society, an association of alumni from the wartime intelligence predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

“O.S.S. founder General William Donovan described O.S.S. personnel as ‘glorious amateurs’ who performed ‘some of the bravest acts of the war,’ ” said Charles Pinck, president of the society, in an email. “That’s a perfect description of Irv Refkin.”

Last year, when legislation was pending to award the Congressional Gold Medal to World War II spies who served behind enemy lines, Mr. Refkin lobbied for speedy adoption, arguing that the ranks of those former spies were dwindling.

“We’re all in our mid-90s,” he said. “We’re not going to be here that long.”

President Barack Obama signed the legislation in December 2016, but the medals have not yet been formally conferred.

Isadore Irving Refkin was born on June 7, 1921, in Milwaukee to Samuel and Anna Refkin, Jewish immigrants from Russia.

According to his account, his parents were killed in an auto accident when he was 3 or 4, and for the next 10 years he was raised in a German Lutheran orphanage. Then, he said, with $3.26 in his pocket, he fended for himself.

After completing high school he attended Marquette University in Milwaukee for two years, then enlisted in the Army in 1940 when he was 19 to avail himself of the proverbial “three hots and a cot” — a place to eat and sleep. After basic training, he was sent to Canada for instruction in explosives.

According to his account, he had a run-in with a senior officer there who extracted revenge by putting him on a plane to Britain without notice. By the time the authorities there realized he was not Canadian, and before the United States Army learned he was missing, he had parachuted into occupied France to apply his skills as a demolition expert and a speaker of German.

“If they catch you they’re going to kill you for being Jewish,” an officer warned him, Mr. Refkin recalled in an interview for the strategic services society this year.

“If they catch me for being a spy, is it going to be any easier?” he asked.

When the officer replied no, Mr. Refkin said, he delivered a typically practical response.

“One way or another,” he said, “I can’t let them catch me.”

He said he carried out three successful missions for the British. Once the United States entered the war he performed special assignments for the Americans, according to the society.

Read full article here

Dodgers’ Joc Pederson breaks record for most homers by a Jewish player in one World Series

Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers has set a new home run record for Jewish players in one World Series.

Pederson, a lefty-swinging outfielder, blasted a homer in the seventh inning of his club’s 3-1 win over the visiting Houston Astros in Game 6. The shot, to left field, was his third of the Series and moved Pederson past Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger who had two homers in the 1934 Fall Classic.

Greenberg still holds the mark for most runs batted in by a Jewish player in one World Series — at least for now, since there’s another game left — with seven. Pederson has five, as does Alex Bregman, the Astros’ Jewish third baseman, along with two home runs.

Written by Ron Kaplan.

Link to full article

Moe Berg featured in Episode Nine of “Genius” Series about Albert Einstein

National Geographic’s 10-episode first season of “Genius” was a fascinating series on Albert Einstein’s life, based on Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe. The show aired its finale on June 20th and includes scenes with Berg’s dangerous assignment in the OSS during World War II.

Episode nine opens with Berg receiving a gun and cyanide pill with instructions to listen to Heisenberg’s lecture at the Zurich Polytechnic Institute in Switzerland. He’s told specifically to listen for words and phrases like, “heavy water, plutonium and fast fission.” “If anything he says leads you to believe he’s developing an atomic bomb,” Berg’s told, “Kill him!”

Later, Einstein is listening to a broadcast of a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in 1939 and Moe Berg is referred to as “Einstein in knickers” because he’s the most intelligent of all the baseball players.

Berg’s final scene is in December 1944, as he listens to Heisenberg’s lecture and walks with the German physicist afterwards over cobblestone streets.

While not portrayed in the “Genius” series, Berg did meet Einstein after the war. In Nicholas Dawidoff’s book, The Catcher was a Spy the meeting is described: “Mr. Berg, exclaimed the scientist, “you teach me baseball, and I’ll teach you mathematics.” He paused a moment and added, “But let’s forget it. I’m sure you’d learn mathematics faster than I’d learn baseball.”

Office of Strategic Services (OSS) celebrates 75th Anniversary with ceremony on Navy Hill in Washington, DC on June 16th

Program Cover for the OSS 75th Anniversary Celebration

The OSS was created in 1942 by President Roosevelt and was the World War II predecessor to the CIA, US Special Operations Command and the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The celebration was held at the site of the first OSS and CIA headquarters on Navy Hill, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic places.

Moe Berg served as a spy for the OSS during World War II and was recruited by OSS Director General William (Wild Bill) Donovan.

Read more about the ceremony here. You can link to the OSS society website here.

Fielding Dreams: Washington’s Jewish Ballplayers – Thursday, July 20, 7:30 – 9:30 PM Eldavitch DC JCC

Award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner will be taking part in a revealing discussion about Washington’s history of Jewish ballplayers. She will be sitting down with sports attorney and former Washington Senator’s broadcaster Philip Hochberg and author Frederic J. Frommer (You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions) at Eldavitch DCJCC as they will cover names such as Moe Berg (catcher, scholar, spy); the subject of Kempner’s new film, Elliott Maddox (the only Black Jew to play in the Major Leagues); and Jason Marquis (the first observant Jew to play for the Nats). Tickets are available here.

Highlights of the 1945 Baseball Season

Photograph by Washingtonian, Getty Images and Press Association Inc.

Here is a delightful Washingtonian article about how the Senators were upstaged by Hank Greeenberg’s hitting in 1945.

“Legendary slugger Hank Greenberg, just out of the Army Air Corps, had rejoined the Detroit Tigers. And on this last day of the season, it was Greenberg who stepped to the plate in the ninth inning of a game between his Tigers and the St. Louis Browns.

The game was more than 800 miles away, but Washington fans were paying attention. If St. Louis held its lead and won the second game of the doubleheader, the Senators would be one win from the World Series. If not, Washington was done. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Greenberg hit a grand slam, giving the Tigers the game—and ending Washington’s season. By the next spring, as regulars replaced wartime understudies, the team would return to its usual mediocrity.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Go to the official website for Ciesla’s documentary on Hank Greenberg for more stats and stories, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Aviva Kempner.

As Baseball Season Starts, Still Cheering for Team Israel

By Aviva Kempner

When the Major League Baseball season started this week, some of us Jewish baseball fans are still reminiscing how well Team Israel did last month in the World Baseball Classic, actually winning four games.

Team Israel was the closest thing we ever had to having our own dream Jewish American lineup. We American Jews can’t help but be jealous of the holy land for recruiting our professional American Jewish baseball players to compete for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic games. Labeled the Cinderella of the series, the Israeli baseball team gave American Jewry lots to cheer for, since most of the team members were Americans. It’s a hoot that we have been creating fantasy Jewish baseball teams in our heads for decades, and now Israel got to claim the accomplished Jewish dream team.


Read the whole article here

All the Jewish Major Leaguers to Watch- Baseball 2017

DETROIT, MI – JULY 20: Manager Brad Ausmus #7 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates a win over the Seattle Mariners with Ian Kinsler #3 on July 20, 2015 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Mariners 5-4. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

(JTA) — In baseball, they say time begins on Opening Day. Everyone has a chance for a fresh start. Most of the old familiar names are back, although some have new addresses. If you count Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, there are nine Jews who begin the year on Major League rosters. But then there’s the question of what to do about Ty Kelly of the New York Mets: Is he or isn’t he? That’s still a matter of debate among those who decide on such matters.

Read the rest of the article and find out more here.

Happy Birthday, Moe Berg!

The mysterious baseball spy Morris “Moe” Berg was born on March 2, 1902.  His parents immigrated to New York from the Ukraine. When Berg passed away in New Jersey on May 29, 1972, he was 70 years old.

Moe caught and fielded for five American baseball teams from the 1920s through 1939 during baseball’s Golden Age.  Berg also had a secret life spying on Japan while participating in an exhibition game and working for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. He played a prominent role in US efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program and is now remembered most as the catcher who was a spy. Berg is considered a hero, especially to American Jews.

Moe Berg, Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

 

A nurse recalled that his final words were “How did the Mets do today?” But his death was his final mystery and no one knows for sure everything he did during World War II or where his remains are. Although his ashes were buried in a cemetery outside Newark, it’s thought that his sister Ethel dug up the urn and had his ashes spread over Mount Scopus in Israel.  We are trying to uncover that mystery.

Berg declined receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1945, (his sister later accepted it on his behalf). Later this year he will be receiving the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously along with the rest of the WWII OSS spies.  The event will coincide with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

If you are inclined to raise a glass to toast Berg’s bravery today, we can suggest what to drink. Linda McCarthy, past curator of the CIA museum, reminded me that Pouilly-Fuissé was his favorite wine.

Here’s to Moe, 115 years after he was born, who will finally be celebrated in two films being made this year.

The dramatic film, The Catcher Was a Spy, directed by Ben Lewin, is being shot presently in Prague.  Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) wrote the script that is based on the great bio by Nicholas Dawidoff. Starring Paul Rudd as Berg, the film also features Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti and Jeff Daniels.

Here at The Ciesla Foundation we are making a feature documentary on Moe Berg, another famous Jewish baseball player like the one we featured in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.  We are already done with the research and the script treatment.  We expect the film will be out sometime during baseball season in 2018.

Thanks to William Levine, executive producer of the documentary, for making it all possible. Check moebergfilm.org regularly for news about the film.

Just remember Moe played for five baseball teams, but he spied for only one country.  Here’s to you, Moe, on your birthday.

Aviva Kempner

 

Moe with the Washington Senators in 1933

OSS Spies and the Congressional Gold Medal

Long overdue, World War II OSS spies, including baseball player Moe Berg, may finally receive the Congressional Gold Medal

award. After lobbying by OSS spies themselves, legislation has passed the Senate and House and is waiting to be signed by

President Obama. While nearly 13,000 men and women served, there are less than 100 OSS members still alive. The Office of

Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt and handled some of the most “daring

operations.” These daring OSS spies played a critical role during the war. Additional famous OSS spies include: Chef Julia

Child, future CIA director William Casey and the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Ralph Bunche.

Read more on the story here.