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Our Miserable 21st Century

Our Miserable 21st Century

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Any professional intelligence officer would attest that the Bond movies were a highly distorted, cartoonish portrayal of the real world of espionage, with their high-speed car chases, exotic weaponry, casual executions, and impossibly sexy women. But the two worlds of espionage—the real one and the cinematic version—actually collided in the person of Joseph Katz, whose name appears nowhere in the Spy Museum.

Katz was one of the more elusive and obscure Americans who worked as a Soviet spy in the 1940s—and he played a significant role in the production of several Bond movies. This is the story of Joseph Katz’s two lives.

I n 1945, an important KGB courier and agent-handler named Elizabeth Bentley went to the FBI and identified dozens of federal employees who had turned over government secrets to her. She named several high-ranking American Communist Party officials who had known about and facilitated Soviet espionage. She also described one of the men to whom she reported, an American who was first introduced to her in 1944 as Jack. In his mid-thirties, Jack was, Bentley said, the “most completely colorless and nondescript person I had ever seen; he could have faded into any crowd and never been noticed.” Short, with alert eyes, a receding hairline, a pronounced limp, and a Brooklyn accent, Jack told her he had been born in Lithuania. Bentley found him kind and very human, and surmised that he shared her qualms about working for Soviet intelligence.

He had been a very busy man. In addition to Bentley, Katz had supervised Tom Black, who did industrial spying, and Harry Gold, who started out as an industrial spy and then became a courier for the Rosenberg spy ring and the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs. Katz had previously handled Robert Menaker and Floyd Miller, who had spied on American Trotskyists (themselves Communists, but enemies of the Stalinist regime in the USSR). It turned out that Katz had personally installed a listening device in the home of James Cannon, the leader of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.1 In 1945 alone, Katz was meeting with Soviet sources Maurice Halperin, Duncan Lee, and Julius Joseph of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA), Victor Perlo and Harry Magdoff of the War Production Board, and Joseph Gregg of the U.S. State Department. He also met with Charles Kramer, a congressional aide, to sort out complaints about how Perlo was supervising the espionage group he headed. In addition to this punishing schedule, Katz was the chief contact with Bentley and met periodically with Earl Browder and Bernard Schuster, top officials of the Communist Party of the USA. He was so valuable that in 1943 the KGB station chief recommended that he receive a Soviet medal, the Order of the Badge of Honor.

Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, deciphered KGB cables showed that Katz had at the time owned two companies, Meriden Dental Laboratories, and an import-export firm, Tempus Import Company, both financed by the KGB. He had also operated several parking lots in New York.

The Vassiliev Notebooks, copies of KGB files made by a one-time officer, further revealed that in May 1945, another report mentioned Katz’s “departure to a commercial fleet.” Indeed, there is firm evidence—letters to his brother—indicating that Joseph served in the Merchant Marine during the last half of 1945. He was rejected by the Army for flat feet; volunteering for the Merchant Marine may have been motivated by a desire for some sort of war service or possibly by other personal reasons. He returned to the United States in the late fall of 1945, left the Merchant Marine and resumed his work for the KGB.

Around this time, the KGB had concluded that Bentley had become unreliable, and in late November 1945, the KGB station chief in the United States began to ponder how to assassinate her. His first candidate for the job was Katz, since Bentley trusted and would willingly meet with him. He could drop poison in her wine or present her with a poisoned ladies’ compact. A riskier option would be to use a duplicate key to enter her room and use “a cold steel weapon or stage a suicide.” That was dicey since Bentley was “a very strong, tall, and healthy woman.” In any event, Moscow Center vetoed the idea.

In the end, though, there was little in Bentley’s statement to the FBI that was very helpful in identifying Jack. Most of the FBI’s efforts were focused on the dozens of spies whose names she had provided. It took three years for the Bureau to come up with a suspect. In 1948, it showed Bentley a picture of Joseph Katz, and she made a positive identification. But while it now had a name and a face, the FBI had no idea where Katz was.

Katz had, in fact, moved to France after Bentley’s defection. It was not until early 1950 that interviews with other defectors and witnesses, and the increasing success at decoding Soviet intelligence cables, provided the FBI with a better picture of just how important a KGB operative Katz had been.

To locate him, the Bureau set up a mail cover on his brother, a Yiddish poet living in New York named Menke Katz. Menke regularly received letters from Paris. French intelligence confirmed that Joseph was quietly living at that address, but all indications were that he was not involved in espionage. Under French law, he could not be extradited.

Katz soon vanished again. But the mail cover on his brother led to an address in Haifa, Israel. Robert Lamphere, who had for years directed the Bentley investigation, enlisted the aid of James Angleton, legendary chief of CIA counterintelligence, who had a close relationship with Israeli intelligence. Katz was identified—again with no apparent ties to Soviet intelligence. The FBI and CIA hatched a plan to lure him onto an American-registered boat under the guise of a fishing trip, sail into international waters, arrest him, and then transfer to an American vessel. On the trip back to the United States, Lamphere hoped to persuade Katz to cooperate. The plan was aborted after J. Edgar Hoover, angered by some CIA slight, cancelled the operation. Lamphere did manage to have Katz interviewed in Israel, but Katz denied ever having been a Soviet agent.

And there the trail ran cold. But Katz wasn’t out of the woods. Decades later, in 1988, an FBI report surfaced from back in the day. The report noted that Aviva Flint, wife of an Israeli official, had been told by Katz that he had been associated with a woman who had gone to the FBI and ratted him out. Katz had also told Mrs. Flint that in 1950 he had been summoned from Paris to Rome, where he had been harshly interrogated by the KGB for three days. That interrogation precipitated his break with Soviet intelligence. This information was likely what led Lamphere to the audacious plan to stage a kidnapping from Israel.

Years after Lamphere left the FBI, he heard from an old friend in the Bureau that Katz was back in the United States visiting his brother—an indication that as late as the mid-1980s, Katz was still being watched and monitored. Lamphere telephoned and spoke to Katz; he was writing a book, he said, and Katz was in it. A surprised Katz had little to say to Lamphere, but did respond that perhaps he, Katz, should also write a book.

In fact, he did. Letters to My Brother, published in 1998 by a small press in upstate New York, consisted of dozens of letters Katz had written between 1943 and 1986 to his older brother, Menke. None makes any mention of espionage, and Joseph never explicitly mentions membership in the American Communist Party. He is described instead as “an idealist who dreamed of eradicating social wrongs in the world.” But all of the details of his life match what is known of the KGB agent Joseph Katz. And a website devoted to Menke Katz maintained by his son Dovid includes the latter’s admission that “Yeiske (Joe) became a revolutionary and worked in one of the most clandestine branches of the American Communist movement.”

Both Menke and Yeiske were born in Lithuania, the latter in 1913. Their father immigrated to America that same year. Their mother and the four surviving children followed in 1920, settling in Passaic, New Jersey. When his father was naturalized in 1925, Joseph became an American citizen, and he and the rest of the family legally changed their names in 1928 from Chait, which his father had used, to the ancestral Katz. Menke devoted his life to poetry. Their younger brother Edward (known as Meishke) began in a menial job and rose to the presidency of the Amalgamated Bank of New York. Joseph studied engineering at Cooper Union but dropped out after one year to become a professional revolutionary. He later worked in or directed a variety of technical and commercial enterprises both to support himself and as cover for his work as a KGB agent.

Joseph Katz, circa 2000, Israel

Menke Katz spent much of his adult life in the uneasy orbit of the Communist Party. He fell in with a group of young Yiddish Communist poets clustered around the Freiheit, the CPUSA’s Yiddish-language daily newspaper. His first published poem, however, was denounced by the Party’s leading Jewish figure, Mossaiye Olgin, for mysticism, and after his first book of poems appeared, he was expelled from Proletpen, the avatar of socialist realism, after it was denounced as “an example of rottenness and degeneracy.” But he was rehabilitated later when Olgin praised his newest work at a rally and called his brother Yeiske/Joseph up to the platform to share his brother’s plaudits. Menke’s up-and-down ride with Communist literary strictures got him into trouble again in the late 1930s, but he resolutely refused to transfer his allegiance to the Forward, the democratic Socialist Yiddish paper: “You don’t want to spit in the well you drank from all those years,” Menke said.

Although Menke at first supported himself as a watchmaker, by the 1930s he was teaching Yiddish in the Communist-controlled cultural movement, an economic dependence that no doubt contributed to his willingness to remain in the party’s orbit. Not until after the 1952 murder of prominent Soviet Yiddish writers by Stalin did Menke revolt, storming into the Freiheit office to yell at its editor and publishing a poem, not in the socialist Forward but in the religious and pro-Zionist Morn-zhurnal. His defiance cost him most of his close friends but aligned him politically with his brother, who by this time had also broken with the Communist movement.

Joseph had joined the CPUSA in 1932 while still in college. His route into the Party probably came through his girlfriend, Bessie Bogorad, also a young Communist activist who had grown up in Passaic. The couple got married in Los Angeles in 1936 and the following year Joseph was recruited by Soviet intelligence. Information about why he was in Los Angeles or what he did between 1932 and the late 1930s remains buried in American and Soviet intelligence files. (His FBI file has never been released.) One of his nephews, David—Meishke’s son, now a professor at Tel Aviv University—heard Joseph tell stories of working among blacks in the American South for some of that period. He also told David that for years he was responsible for laundering money for Soviet intelligence, using the businesses they had set up for him. He had a knack for running things; his enterprises did well.

What is clear is that his abilities and skills led to his acquiring more and more responsibilities and being entrusted with more sensitive assignments over the years. By the time of Bentley’s defection, Katz had become one of the KGB’s most trusted and important agent-handlers in the United States. The chief of FBI counterintelligence later judged that “Joseph Katz’s importance as a Soviet agent in the U.S. cannot be overestimated.”

As a security measure, the KGB suspended contact with him in late 1945, after Bentley’s defection, but it soon decided that it was too risky to leave him in the United States. Unlike most of Bentley’s government contacts, who were well known and could not easily disappear, Katz was known only to the FBI as Bentley’s Jack. If he was ever caught, dozens of Soviet spies would be in peril. Consequently, by June 1946 the KGB had relocated Katz to Paris, where he continued his espionage work.

Between 1946 and 1949 Joseph wrote letters to Menke from Paris, Rome, Milan, Belgium, the Swiss Alps, and the Pyrenees. Nothing in them carries a hint of what he was doing. But a document in KGB files from December 1948 indicates that he was in Italy at that time, “forming a company on our instructions to cover the illegal courier line between Europe and the USA.”

Defectors from Communism have often spoken of a Kronstadt2 moment—the event that finally shatters illusions and precipitates a break with the cause to which they have devoted their lives. Stalinist paranoia had several times led to sweeping internal KGB purges. As Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign gathered strength in the late 1940s and early 1950s, KGB officers with a Jewish background were shunted aside, demoted, or discharged, and foreign Jewish agents like Katz came under suspicion. As we’ve seen, Katz had told his Israeli contact Aviva Flint that suspicion about him in 1950 had ended his nearly two decades of revolutionary commitment. His letters that year are guarded but deeply revealing to anyone aware of his history.

One letter from 1950 hints at a recent traumatic event—probably his interrogation by the KGB and his fear that he would be liquidated. “I shall never forget the last few days,” he wrote. “The kind of things that happened would seem unreal in the worst pulp magazine story. I feel as though everything is unreal and out of focus.” He told Menke that “a few nights ago I was up all night preparing what I thought may be my last letter to” his daughter, Paula.

In October, he lamented the choice he had made in a cautious but nonetheless clear reference to his work for Soviet intelligence: “I know now the exact time and the exact chance happening to me that set me on a road from which there is no return. I think now that I had a feeling, a foreboding even then that I was starting on the wrong path, but once begun there was no turning back. I was never sure of what I was doing, but the element of adventure, the desire to impress and feel important overcame the doubts I had.” He had, finally, come to the realization that “my life up to now, all I believed and worked for, is a fraud and a lie.”

He dropped hints that he feared for his life: “When you ask me again and again where I will be, I cannot tell you. I am not sure about anything. When you ask such questions of me, it is clear that you do not understand my situation, and it isn’t possible for me to make it any clearer. You must forgive my nervousness. Things are not good.” He reported seeing himself on a deserted street in a strange city “and [I] am a little afraid.” Either to evade the KGB or, because he was spooked by the inquiries from French counterintelligence, he took a four-month vacation in the Basque country, writing that “how I came here is a long story,” but adding that there was a legend that Jews escaping the Inquisition found refuge in the Pyrenees.

Hiding from both the KGB and the FBI, Joseph disappeared again in 1951 before turning up in Israel by early November. He wrote Menke: “Who was it that said, ‘There is nothing sadder than a disillusioned revolutionary?’” He was filled with regret: “I am sure that in our dreams of creating a better world we did wrong things—and hurt those we loved—but not because we were bad—we hurt ourselves even more.” He bitterly noted that “we tried to spread beauty and truth, but it remained manure, and the flower does not grow.”

David Katz later learned from his uncle that Israeli authorities had been suspicious of his bona fides when he arrived; during his first year he was questioned extensively about his Communist allegiance. He never discussed exactly what he told those in intelligence about his espionage activities, but managed to convince them that he had irreparably broken with his past. Exactly how forthcoming he was remains a secret in the archives of Israeli intelligence.

He may have abandoned Communism, but Joseph remained a committed socialist. He established close ties with Menachem Bader, an important figure in Mapam, the pro-Soviet Zionist political party that tried to blend Marxism and Jewish nationalism. In 1953, Mapam faced an existential crisis when one of its leaders, Mordechai Oren, was arrested on a trip to Czechoslovakia and forced to testify against 14 leaders of the Czech Communist Party. Under torture, he falsely confessed to being a British and Zionist spy and implicated the defendants, most of whom were Jewish, as his agents. Eleven of them were hanged, including Party leader Rudolf Slansky. Joseph wrote his brother that he was convinced the trial was a frame-up: “In the end our dreams turned to nightmares.” He became increasingly anti-Communist and more fervently Zionist. “Better a Jewish state without socialism than socialism without a Jewish state,” he wrote to Menke. He also remarked that Israeli forces should have conquered Cairo in the 1956 war to force the Egyptians to make peace, and he denounced the “Russian fascists” who had destroyed the Hungarian Revolution.

He worked with Kibbutz Artzi, a federation of left-wing Mapam settlements, helping individual collective farms with engineering projects. He began to do part-time work for the Ministry of Development and travelled to Europe to inspect equipment being considered for purchase. He spent a year or two in Africa with Solel Boneh, a government-owned construction firm, helping to build the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. (In 1976, the Israeli raid to free Jewish hostages was facilitated by the company’s possession of the original blueprints, which helped the military plan the operation precisely.)

Joseph also remarried. He and his first wife, Bessie, had had a daughter, Paula, born in 1941. By 1945 they were estranged and Katz was living with a woman named Eva Getzoff. In March, Moscow reluctantly agreed to allow Getzoff to be used as a courier for Katz but worried that since he lived with her, “there could be potential complications with his wife.” Not long after this message, Katz signed up with the Merchant Marine; perhaps he was escaping a difficult love triangle.

When Joseph left for Europe in 1946, Eva Getzoff remained in the United States. Joseph must have had a reconciliation with Bessie, because in 1949 he informed Menke that Bessie and Paula had just departed from the home they shared with him in Paris for America. He and Bessie either divorced or he became a widower in the 1950s after she died of cancer, and Eva became his second wife. The shadow of their past never completely disappeared. In 1961, when the FBI arrested the spy Robert Soblen, it named Eva Getzoff as an unindicted co-conspirator. Neither Joseph nor Eva ever talked publicly about their pasts or cooperated with American intelligence.

In the 1960s, Joseph went to work for a film-equipment company and received patents in fiber optics, film lighting techniques, and the development and installation of double filament lighting and automated grid systems. His expertise in lighting and film techniques led to his employment by Berkey Photos, a British company, as its managing director. He moved to London in 1966. Berkey wanted to send him to the United States on company business, and Joseph, who had renounced his American citizenship shortly after arriving in Israel, feared he would be arrested. So he switched jobs—and, improbably, helped make films that glamorized and fantasized the world of espionage that he had abandoned.

H arry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli were the producers of the James Bond movies from 1962, starting with Dr. No, through 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun under the aegis of Eon Productions. Together they made a total of nine Bond films. Saltzman hired Katz as a technical adviser on lighting in 1967, and he remained in that capacity until 1975. Both Dovid and David, his nephews, recalled the thrill of visiting the set at Pinewood Studios in Norfolk while filming took place. Dovid got to travel to Dover to watch spectacular takes of cars hurtling off cliffs and exploding in midair. David met Roger Moore. As Saltzman’s Israeli representative in 1972, Katz negotiated for his purchase of Berkey Pathe Humphries, a major film and photo-finishing laboratory in Tel Aviv. In 1985, Katz listed himself in a Who’s Who as an associate and former consultant to Harry Saltzman Enterprises. In 1998, on the dust jacket of Letters to My Brother, he promoted himself to Chief Executive Officer of Saltzman Enterprises.

Despite his service as a technical adviser, Joseph was not listed in any of the credits of the Bond movies. David surmised that he was afraid of being too prominent, perhaps fearing the long arm of the KGB. While the KGB might have lost track of him, the FBI did not, as he knew. Fear of being arrested kept Katz out of the United States for decades. As the years went by, he began to take some risks. Around 1968, he came to America with an entourage that included Saltzman and Sean Connery and managed to avoid attention. Then, in September 1974, a grand family reunion was planned at Meishke’s Great Neck home. David Katz was assigned to pick Joseph up at Kennedy Airport. He walked out of Customs and was immediately surrounded by FBI agents who took him into custody. He was eventually released, but Joseph was required to attend several meetings in a room at the Plaza Hotel where he was questioned. He refused to provide any information and, after the last interrogation, hired a car and left for Canada. His youngest brother, Meishke, later employed a law firm that succeeded in reinstating Joseph’s citizenship and his passport.

Menke and other family members knew the outlines of Joseph’s involvement in Soviet espionage. He had in fact occasionally spoken of it but mimimized the extent and significance of his activities. When Lamphere’s book The FBI-KGB War appeared in 1986, with its depiction of Joseph as an important Soviet spy, he told them that it was an “exaggeration.”

Although he always insisted to family members that he had never acted against American interests, but had primarily spied on Trotskyists and other Communist dissidents, he was more forthcoming to David just a few years before his death. David had shown Joseph a 1999 article in an obscure academic journal on intelligence. Written by Earl Hyde, a retired CIA agent, it was entitled “Bernard Schuster and Joseph Katz: KGB Master Spies in the United States.” The article praised Katz’s versatility, which “included skills such as safecracking, lock-picking, electronic bugging, and jujitsu, as well as being a crack shot,” and it speculated “that he was recruited as a young man and trained in the USSR.” The article, Joseph told his nephew, was 100 percent accurate, except for the claim he had trained in the Soviet Union; he had learned his tradecraft in San Jose, California.

His business success had left Joseph a moderately wealthy man. He drove a Bentley. He lived in an expensive flat in London. In Israel he owned homes in Safed and an exclusive area of Tel Aviv. When he visited Lithuania after it became independent, staying for weeks in the most expensive hotel in Vilnius, he fell in love with a woman teaching at the university and wound up buying her an apartment. He was in his eighties; she was four decades younger than him. Eva suffered a fall, broke her hip, and died in 1993. Joseph hired a Ukrainian immigrant to take care of him and soon convinced himself that she was in love with him.

As his health declined he became more reliant on his Ukranian caregiver and on Danny Margalit, an Israeli contractor, whom he treated as a surrogate son. Margalit and his wife cooked meals for him, visited him often, and accompanied him on vacations. When Katz died in 2004 in Israel at the age of 92, he left his estate, worth about $3 million, to Margalit and the Ukrainian woman.

Joseph Katz devoted nearly 20 years of his long life to laboring in the clandestine world of Soviet intelligence. Abandoning both Communism and espionage before he was 40, he became a fervent Zionist and a successful businessman who collaborated in the portrayal of one of the iconic fictional figures of espionage. If he ever marveled at the disparity between the real life of a spy that he had once lived and the derring-do of James Bond, living a life of luxury, casually fending off super-villains with high-tech gadgets and bedding a series of glamorous women, he kept it to himself.

He looked nothing like the handsome leading men who played James Bond, but Katz was remarkably charismatic and remarkably manipulative. During his espionage career, he successfully directed dozens of American agents and sources and satisfied demanding Soviet superiors. He ran successful cover businesses that produced a steady stream of money to finance espionage operations. He was also cantankerous, moody, and volcanic, regularly picking quarrels with family members and breaking contact with them over perceived slights. He cheated on both his wives and left nothing in his will to his only daughter. Born in poverty, he died a wealthy man. Few members of his own family missed him, even though they were fascinated by him. David recalled “lots of assholic qualities.” Dovid found him “unbearable.”

In the Bond movie Octopussy, released in 1983, a villain sneers, “You seem to have this nasty habit of surviving,” to which Bond responds, “You know what they say about the fittest.” Joseph Katz navigated a remarkable journey. And even though he lived to tell the tale, he went to his grave without doing so.

1 Katz had also directed the activities of Amadeo Sabatini and Irving Schuman. It had been their job to watch Walter Krivitsky while he lived in New York. Krivitsky’s defection from the KGB and his sensational articles in the press had enraged the Soviet Union, and he was later found dead in mysterious circumstances in a Washington hotel room. The case was officially ruled a suicide.
2 Kronstadt was a naval base in the Soviet Union where a sailor-led revolt against the nascent Soviet regime was brutally crushed in 1921.



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