BORN WARSAW, OCTOBER 7 1918. DIED PARIS, NOVEMBER 30 2015, AGED 97
AS SPY stories go, Marcus Klingberg’s life is up there with Le Carré’s best efforts. Even before he gained fame as the highest-ranking Soviet spy to be caught in Israel, Klingberg’s life had been packed with drama and achievements. A Polish-born epidemiologist, he served in the Red Army Medical Corps during the Second World War and emigrated to Israel in 1948. There he held senior positions in the Israel Defence Forces’ Department of Preventive Medicine before leaving it in 1957 to become deputy director of the Institute for Biological Research at Ness Ziona, a top-secret laboratory that developed chemical and biological weapons.
As well as working at Ness Ziona, Klingberg taught epidemiology and was in charge of preventive and social medicine at Tel Aviv University; he was also an expert on birth defects, especially those caused by thalidomide and the 1976 dioxine-related disaster in Seveso, Italy.
Sandwiched between academic papers and conferences, Klingberg managed to fit in a career as a top Soviet spy, code name Rok (which translates as “fate” in Russian). Rok would leave coded messages scrawled on a wall in Tel Aviv to arrange a rendez-vous with his handler, Viktor. They would meet in a Russian Orthodox church where secrets would be exchanged while refreshments and vodka were consumed.
For several years Klingberg succeeded in leading a merry dance around Israel’s sharp-eyed secret services even if twice — in 1965 and 1976 — he was brought in and questioned. He was subsequently released, once even pass- ing a polygraph (a lie detector test).
His luck finally run out in 1982 but it took a double agent to unmask him. His capture was a cloak-and-dagger affair involving a top-secret trip to Singapore where his know-how was supposedly needed following a chemical plant explosion.
But instead of being taken to the airport on January 19 1983 Klingberg was delivered to a secret location in Tel Aviv where, after six days of interrogations, he finally cracked and confessed to passing secret information to the Soviet Union.
However, he was adamant that his reason for doing so had been purely ideological and at no time had he received any payment for his services. A deeply committed communist, he felt he owed a debt to the Soviet Union that, in his opinion, had saved the world from Nazi domination. He was condemned to 20 years in jail — the first 10 he would serve in solitary confinement — and his fate remained a state secret for years. Even in his high security prison in Ashkelon nobody knew his real identity; instead he became Abraham Grinberg, editor of a social science journal. It was only in 1993 that the Israelis acknowledged he was in jail.
Various attempts to secure his release failed and he served 15 years before being paroled and placed under house arrest. On completion of his sentence, in 2003, he was allowed to emigrate to France where his daughter lived, on the proviso that he never spoke about his work at Ness Ziona.
Abraham Marek (Marcus) Klingberg was born into an Orthodox Jewish family but became secular at an early age. He originally studied medicine at Warsaw University but left Poland for the Soviet Union in 1939, urged on by his father who, according to his memoir, told him: “At least one of us has
Marcus Klingberg: Cold War Soviet agent who disliked weapons secrecy to remain alive.” It would prove sadly prescient as Klingberg’s parents and younger brother would all die at Treblinka in 1942.
He completed his medical studies in Minsk and trained as an epidemiologist before volunteering and serving as a medical officer in the Red Army on the front line until 1941, when he was wounded.
He went back to Poland after the war to work as an epidemiologist for the Ministry of Health and married microbiologist Wanda Yashinskaya (real name Adjia Eisman), a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto.
They later emigrated to Sweden and subsequently to Israel where Klingberg was soon juggling two parallel careers — one in the field of epidemiology and preventive medicine — the other as a Soviet spy.
It is unclear when Klingberg’s life as a spy began: he supposedly told his Israeli interrogators that he started working for the Russians in 1957 — and only under duress — but in his memoirs he said he was recruited in 1950. However, it is widely believed that his contacts with the Soviets go back to his time in Sweden and that he was already one of them by the time he emigrated to Israel.
In spite of calling his memoirs (cowritten with his lawyer Michael Sfard in 2007), The Last Spy, Klingberg repeatedly stated that he didn’t think of himself as a spy, as he strongly believed that information about weapons should not be secret.
In 2010 he went even further: “I have never regretted my modest attempt during the Cold War to undermine what I believed to be the dangers associated with imbalances in scientific knowledge.”
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, his faith in communism never faltered. Israel may have given him a home, livelihood and status but his heart belonged to the Soviet Union. It was to that country, he said, that “I owe my life, my career in epidemiology and my most useful work; but, above all, the opportunity to fight fascism.”
Marcus Klingberg is survived by his daughter Sylvia and grandson Ian. His wife predeceased him.