'Please answer questions about this person's religion'

Israel declassifies file on Nazi who enlisted in the IDF and spied for Egypt

Ulrich Schnaft’s capture underscores the challenges and vigilance of a counterintelligence body vetting countless undocumented immigrants while fighting a 4-front war

A copy of the file on Ulrich Schnaft that Israel's General Security Agency recently declassified shows a picture of the Nazi soldier turned Israeli army officer. (Israel State Archives via Haaretz)
A copy of the file on Ulrich Schnaft that Israel's General Security Agency recently declassified shows a picture of the Nazi soldier turned Israeli army officer. (Israel State Archives via Haaretz)

Even by the standards of the Cold War espionage world, Ulrich Schnaft had a rare talent for infiltration.

A former Nazi and Waffen-SS fighter, in 1947 Schnaft posed as a Jewish refugee and tried to immigrate to pre-state Israel, ending up in a British internment camp for illegal immigrants. Establishing Zionist credentials there and studying Hebrew, he joined the Israeli army to become an officer — only to then become a spy for Egypt.

Decades later, it is still unclear how deep this mole had managed to dig: the file on him, which the Israeli counterintelligence apparatus only recently declassified, contains redacted parts that suggest that his actions 65 years ago are still viewed as sensitive today.

One such redacted item is one of at least four aliases listed as belonging to Schnaft — whose main alias in Israel was Gabriel Zusman — in the file that the Shin Bet recently declassified, according to Haaretz.

The file paints the portrait of an opportunistic, daring and sometimes foolhardy man with a knack for adapting to ideologically driven societies and using them for his own goals and survival. It also shows the vigilance and challenges of Israeli counterintelligence in the state’s early years, when it greeted and conscripted for its wars thousands of undocumented individuals from across war-torn Europe.

Schnaft lived in Israel for six years until 1954 under a false identity, according to Friday’s report in Haaretz about the declassification.

Undated illustrative image of Waffen-SS ‘Wiking’ division in Russia. (CC BY-SA Bild National Archives, Wikimedia Commons)

A former fighter for the Waffen-SS, a Nazi elite unit, in the Eastern Front, he was wounded in battle and transferred to the Western one, where American troops captured him as a prisoner of war in 1944. After his release, he moved to war-ravaged Munich, where he decided to leave Germany by posing as a Jew, to benefit from aid provided to Jewish refugees by American international organizations.

In 1947, Schnaft boarded a ship of Jewish illegal immigrants in Marseille, France bound for what would soon be Israel, but which was still governed by the United Kingdom and subject to its ban on immigration.

The ship was intercepted by the British navy and its passengers were imprisoned in an internment camp in Cyprus. Schnaft, who was born in 1923 in what is now Kaliningrad, participated in several escape attempts organized by fellow prisoners with ties to the Haganah, the paramilitary Jewish group that served as the kernel for the Israel Defense Forces.

He enlisted in the IDF and served during Israel’s Independence War. He lived in Kiryat Anavim near Jerusalem and became a member and activist for Mapai, the party of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Schnaft became an officer during his reserve service in the artillery corps.

But his request to become a career officer was blocked. The Shin Bet vetoed it, pending further inquiry into the religious background of Schnaft, who had blonde hair and a typical German appearance. “Please answer questions about this person’s religion,” reads one memo about Schaft to agents.

The net tightens

Israeli counterintelligence first flagged Schnaft in 1952, the file shows, when they began suspecting he was not Jewish. As the Shin Bet made its inquiries, the organization began unearthing the reckless aspects of Schnaff’s boldness.

Illustrative; Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Southern Front Commander Yigal Allon (to his right) and Yitzhak Rabin (between them) pictured on the southern front during the 1948 War of Independence. (IDF / Wikipedia)

One report said he had shown a picture of himself in “SS uniform or German army uniform” while drunk. When asked about this later, Schnaft said it was just a costume. Shin Bet describes him as a “loner” who was seen in the company of “sketchy individuals.” He was also suspected of stealing ammunition from an army base and, according to the file on him, ammo was also found in his room during a police search of it.

Sensing, perhaps, that the net was closing around him, Schnaft left Israel in 1954. It later emerged that he went to Egypt to offer to share with the Egyptian intelligence the information he had on the Israel Defense Forces. Counterintelligence operatives defined the information as valuable and “a major contribution to the enemy’s familiarity” with the IDF.

In 1955, the Mossad located Schnaft, who was working as a pharmacist in Frankfurt, and launched an operation designed to lure him back to Israel. A female agent posing as a journalist seduced him and offered to introduce him to Arab intelligence operatives who would be interested in the information he had on Israel.

She introduced Schnaft to Mossad agents posing as Arab intelligence ones, who gave him a fake espionage assignment in Israel and a fake passport with which to enter the country. Schnaft was arrested upon his arrival in Israel and sentenced to seven years in jail. He left Israel after his release. Attempts by several journalists to track him down in Germany and beyond did not succeed.

Following the publication in Haaretz, one reader, Asaf Yanai, added to the public record of Schnaft an unverified claim that was not in the declassified file.

Schnaft singlehandedly killed six infiltrators from Egypt while on patrol with Yanai’s father near Ashkelon, he wrote.

Yanai claimed his father froze up as the infiltrators sought shelter in an abandoned structure where the two Israeli soldiers had stopped to rest. Schnaft rushed down from the top floor to the ground one, killing the infiltrators swiftly and likely saving the life of his father, he wrote.

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