It happened in the summer of 1914 or 1915 to a student of the Chofetz Chaim, Ephraim Leibowitz. And it happened again this week, about 105 years later, to U.S. marine Paul Whelan.
Just this week, Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison for allegedly spying on Moscow. In both cases, a Russian agent planted incriminating “state secrets” on an innocent person and convicted him of espionage. Each victim was sent to prison.
We will start with the story of the talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. As a result of the First World War, which began on Tishah B’Av of 1914, the Chofetz Chaim split his yeshiva in half. Half the bachurim remained in Radin, Poland, with Rav Nenendick as the mashgiach and with the Chofetz Chaim’s son-in-law, Rav Hirsch Levinson, as the rosh yeshiva. The Chofetz Chaim took half of the yeshiva with him and stayed in Vilna for the time being.
There were three German bachurim 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 a member of the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, had aspirations to make it big.
This Jew joined the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshiva. He became friendly with the German bachurim, claiming to be a wandering leather merchant from the town of Meretch, and even gave them some pocket money. On the 17th of Tammuz, the bachurim were taking a walk in the countryside. This individual joined them. He put a sketch of he forts of Kovno in Ephraim Leibowitz’s jacket. He then disappeared.
That night, Okhrana agents raided the temporary dormitory, the home of Reb Leib Matlis, where the boy was staying. Leibowitz was arrested on charges of espionage, along with Reb Leib and the two other German bachurim.
A few months earlier, there were numerous arrests in Vilna for the same charges, and now our Okhrana wannabe was going to make it big.
Ephraim had no idea where the drawing had come from. Nevertheless, he was arrested and brought deep within Russia, to the province of Penza Oblast. One or two years after his arrest, Ephraim 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 Chofetz Chaim sent back a message of chizuk. He tried to get the “Ben Brafman” of Tsarist Russia to represent his talmid. This man was Oscar Gruzenberg, and although he was not observant, his heart was with Klal Yisrael. He had successfully defended Mendel Beilis of Slabodka in the blood libel trial.
In that trial, he employed a remarkable tactic in his cross-examination of the notoriously antisemitic Russian Orthodox Priest who was called as an expert witness on Judaism. In his cross-examination, Gruzenberg asked the priest if he was an expert in Judaism. He responded that he was. Gruzenberg then asked him to identify some major personalities in Jewish history. They were easy ones.
Then Gruzenberg threw in the clincher. He asked the priest who “Bava Basra” was and when she lived. The priest responded that he certainly knew of her and that she had played an important role in saving the Jewish people, but he could not recall exactly in what era of Jewish history she had lived.
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 incident can be found in the transcripts of the Mendel Beilis trial.
Unfortunately, Gruzenberg would not accept the Leibowitz case. The Chofetz Chaim, then about 80 years old, traveled 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 Ephraim 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.
Paul Whelan, who was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Marines in 2016 over fraud allegations, has visited Russia repeatedly as a tourist over the last decade. Last week a Moscow court convicted him of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison.
Speaking from behind the glass screen before his fate was sealed, Whelan called the entire trial a “sham.” A British, Canadian and Irish citizen, Whelan called upon President Trump as well as leaders of Ireland, the UK, and Canada to come to his aid.
He was first detained at a Moscow hotel in December of 2018 by the modern Russian counterparts to the Tsarist police. They alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. Whelan was held in Lefortovo prison in Moscow ever since.
The trial took place behind closed doors.
His lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, previously said that Whelan unwittingly accepted 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 refuted the spying charges and says he has been denied proper medical treatment while in detention. His family maintains that he traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding and was arrested on false charges.
The Gemara 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” (Yirmiyahu 10:10). All moral people should protest what is being done to Paul Whelan .
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.