Category Archives: Spy

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.

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Moe Berg’s Final Mystery

The family plot in Bnai Jeshurun Cemetery includes the inscription for Moe Berg, whose ashes were once interred there. Photo by Tomas Dinges
The family plot in Bnai Jeshurun Cemetery includes an inscription for Moe Berg, whose ashes were once interred there. Photo by Tomas Dinges

Award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner wants to know: where is Moe Berg’s final resting place? As part of researching her new documentary about Berg, Kempner is currently in Israel trying to solve this final mystery of the man most remembered as the catcher who was a spy.

A Jewish baseball player, Berg caught and coached for five major league teams from the 1920s up until the 1940s during baseball’s Golden Age. But Berg also worked as a spy in Europe, Latin America and Japan for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. Today he is considered a hero, especially to American Jews.

But Berg’s final resting place has become as mysterious as his double life. After his death in 1972, the urn with Berg’s ashes was interred in the family plot in a Jewish cemetery in Newark, New Jersey. His name was engraved on the stone tombstone. However, at some point his sister Ethel apparently had the urn dug up and took it to Israel in 1974.

One story has Ethel burying her brother’s ashes in a location on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, in a grove of trees near Hebrew University. It could even be a location near where now students take breaks between classes. Other reports have his ashes spread over Mount Scopus, and another scenario is that Ethel herself buried the urn with Berg’s ashes somewhere outside Jerusalem. It is believed that a rabbi from an US/Israeli charity she had given money to guided Ethel, but who this rabbi was and the exact location of the burial are unknown.

In yet another version of the mystery, after Ethel’s death in 1987, their eldest brother Sam discovered that his brother’s remains had been moved from New Jersey. He contacted the unknown rabbi and pleaded with him to find the remains.

Years have passed. Still, the remaining mystery of Moe Berg’s life is that no one knows his final resting place. In his biography of Berg, The Catcher Was a Spy, author Nicholas Dawidoff wrote that “the final mystery of Moe Berg’s inscrutable life is that nobody knows where he is.”