Seventy years ago this week, Mordechai Oren, an Israeli emissary of the left wing Zionist party, Mapam, mysteriously disappeared in Prague. He was due to go by train to Vienna and then take the next El Al flight to Israel. As the days went by, his friends and family became increasingly worried at the sound of silence. Oren was a true believer in Stalin and the mission of the Soviet Union to throw off the capitalist shackles on the backs of the international working class. After all, without Stalin’s support at the United Nations, the state of Israel would never have come into existence. Following the communist coup d’état, the new Czechoslovakia poured huge quantities of arms into Israel in a bitter war against the Arab states in 1948.
Oren believed that Mapam rather than the official Communist Party was the true representative of Marxism-Leninism in Israel. Stalin’s collected works had been translated into Hebrew, published in Tel Aviv and bound in an admirable red leather.
Oren had attended a trade union conference in communist East Berlin, travelled on to Prague and met a Soviet envoy, with whom he had raised the question of Jewish emigration to Israel from East Germany and the Soviet zone of Austria. He then boarded the night train en route to Vienna and was cawakened at 3am by Czechoslovak border police who demanded specific papers from him — a deception to take Oren off the train and arrest him. Placed in solitary confinement in Prague and cut off from the world, he was transformed into prisoner 2132.
Oren had become a pawn in Stalin’s grand design to decapitate the leadership of Eastern Europe’s communist parties. The template of show trials of communist leaders had already been on display — Dzodze Koci (Tirana May-June 1949); László Rajk (Budapest September 1949); Traicho Kostov (Sofia December 1949).
These trials were followed by that of Rudolf Slánský and his associates in Czechoslovakia — and included Oren. While it was designed to mimic the previous show trials — although ‘Zionists’ had featured during the Rajk trial in Hungary — this one was profoundly different, in that it demonstrated deeply anti-Jewish undertones.
A majority of the defendants in the Slánský trial were Jews who were distant from their Jewishness and opposed to Zionism. Rude Pravo, the daily of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, remarked: “Before the court in Pankrác prison sat 11 Jewish cosmopolitans, people without a shred of honour, without character, without country, people who desire one thing only — career, business and money.”
Otto Fischl, the Czechoslovak deputy Minister of Finance was introduced to the courtroom as “a bourgeois nationalist, son of a rich merchant and collaborator with the Nazis”. He told the courtroom that he was a member of “a ring of Anglo-US imperialists and their agents in Israel, headed by Ben-Gurion, whose actions were aimed at enriching the Jewish bourgeoisie”.
The raison d’être of the Slánský trial was to lay the foundations for the Doctors’ Plot in 1953, in which many Jewish physicians would be accused of attempting to poison the leaders of the Kremlin. This, in turn, would lead to a possible deportation of Soviet Jews to Central Asia.
Oren’s role in this machiavellian scenario was to be the crucial link in a fictitious Zionist conspiracy to subvert the noble intentions of the Kremlin in sheering off the chains of the oppressed. To cement this connection, Shimon Orenstein, a businessman from Haifa, was also arrested and appeared as a witness.
Oren was driven to confession after months of interrogation, with no sleep and little food. He had been given the fake news that his young son had been killed and that his wife had been involved in a serious accident.
His interrogators instructed him to state that he was a captain in British intelligence and was operating at the behest of prominent Labour Party leaders, Konni Zilliacus and Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson’s grandfather). He was also ordered to state that he was taking his orders from the Independent Labour Party’s stalwart, Jimmy Maxton (Gordon Brown wrote his biography).
Stalin was also keen to tie in Oren to Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, who had broken with the USSR in order to follow an independent Communist path.
In this spider’s web of conspiracy, Oren was now connected to Moshe Pijade, a senior leader of the Yugoslav Communists, who was Jewish. Pijade had persuaded Tito to allow the emigration to Israel of several thousand Jews at the end of 1948.
Eleven of the 14 defendants in the Slánský trial were hanged and their bodies cremated. Two out of the three who escaped the executioner, Artur London and Eugene Loebl, later wrote books about their experience and testified to the all-pervading antisemitism. London’s wife had been pressured to ask for the death penalty for her husband. Even though London’s mother, sister and family members had perished in Auschwitz, this did not prevent his interrogators from telling him that, “Hitler was right about the Jews and we will finish what he started”.
Denied his own lawyer during the trial and confronted by witnesses who were complete strangers to him, Oren was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In Israel, Mapam was in ideological turmoil over the affair. Its leaders proclaimed Oren’s innocence but at the same time informed the Knesset that “Mapam considers itself an inseparable part of the world revolutionary camp at whose head stands the USSR”.
Mapam quietly solicited the help of veteran European socialists such as Pietro Nenni and Louis Saillant, but to no avail.
Mapam as the great alignment of the Left and the second largest party in the Knesset simply fell apart. Factions such as Ahdut Ha’avoda left and reconstituted their own party.
Individuals such as the former leader of the Hagana, Moshe Sneh, joined the Communists. Still others joined Ben-Gurion’s Mapai.
At the beginning of 1956, Krushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ to the Soviet party congress — and denounced Stalin. A couple of months later, Oren was finally released after four-and-a-half years imprisonment. He immediately returned to Israel and was greeted by thousands who came out to welcome him home to Kibbutz Mizra.
Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the crushing of ‘socialism with a human face’ in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the trials of dissidents and the emergence of the Jewish emigration movement in the USSR, Mapam’s belief in the Kremlin began to falter. A younger generation in the 1970s began to align itself with the New Left and project an independent Marxist outlook. They understood that the struggle for international socialism and the national interests of the Soviet Union were not one and the same.
Mapam eventually became a component of Meretz when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister in 1992 and its ministers served in his coalition.
Many factors have contributed to the decline of the left in Israel over the last 40 years. One was undoubtedly the unrequited love which Mapam exhibited for the Soviet Union, even in the immediate aftermath of the Oren affair. The dream of the dawn of humanity, revealed by the Soviet Union, was one which could not be put aside. The blindness of the older generation to Stalin’s crimes and the suffering of multitudes in the Gulag proved to be a nail in the coffin of the Israeli left.
Mordechai Oren’s sojourn in Czechoslovakia had a much wider significance than he could ever have imagined when he was taken off his train in the dead of night, 70 years ago.
Jewish Chronicle 7 January 2022