ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Interview'It was such a controversy, such a scar on Israeli history'

Villain or heroine? New book documents the complex, astonishing life of Ruth Blau

Prof. Motti Inbari explores the stranger-than-fiction tale of a woman who spied on the Gestapo, converted to Judaism twice, kidnapped a boy, and whose marriage sparked protests

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Lucette Ferraille, Ruth Ben David and Ruth Blau in the different stages of her life. (Courtesy Motti Inbari and Nechama Davidson)
Lucette Ferraille, Ruth Ben David and Ruth Blau in the different stages of her life. (Courtesy Motti Inbari and Nechama Davidson)

She was born Lucette Ferraille into a Catholic family in northern France in 1920. She was buried in Jerusalem in 2000 as Ruth Blau, a longtime member of the extremist anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta sect.

In her 80 years on earth, Blau lived more lifetimes than would seem possible. Her stranger-than-fiction story winds its way from a stint in the French Resistance during World War II to serving as a spy in Morocco, going to prison for tax evasion, converting to Judaism twice, playing a key role in the kidnapping of a boy in Israel, a wildly controversial marriage to the founder of Neturei Karta and at least one meeting with Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Academic Motti Inbari has attempted to dig through the many complicated layers of her life in his latest book, “Ruth Blau: A Life of Paradox and Purpose.” Inbari undertook years of research to trace Blau’s story, poring over three contradicting versions of her own autobiography, digging through archives on three continents and speaking to a handful of her descendants.

While her name has largely faded from the Israeli consciousness in the interceding decades, Blau – known then as Ruth Ben David – was undoubtedly most infamous for her central role in the Yossele Schumacher affair in the 1960s. On guidance from ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Blau kidnapped the 8-year-old boy from his family and snuck him out of the country to raise him in the Haredi lifestyle rather than return him to his secular parents.

For two years, Blau repeatedly moved Schumacher around the world, forging documents and forcing him to live under fake names to keep him hidden. Eventually – after her son turned on her – she cut a deal with the Mossad, which located the boy in New York City at the address Blau had provided in exchange for complete immunity.

“In Israel, people know about Yossele, it’s a story people are familiar with, because it was such a controversy, such a scar on Israeli history,” Inbari told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “If you go in the streets and ask people about Yossele, people have heard of it, absolutely.”

Author Motti Inbari and his newest book, ‘Ruth Blau.’ (Courtesy)

Inbari, a professor of Jewish studies at University of North Carolina at Pembroke, has written and lectured extensively about Jewish fundamentalism. He first became interested in Blau’s largely unbelievable life story when digging through the personal archives at Boston University of Rabbi Amram Blau, one of the founders of Neturei Karta and Ruth’s eventual husband.

“The more that I dug deeper into her story and into the narrative, the more I realized how rich the story is and how complicated her life story is,” he said.

Infiltrating the Gestapo

To better understand Blau and track her life path, Inbari worked to uncover details of her childhood and young adulthood in France, long before she even considered converting to Judaism.

“I went to France and I tried to trace everything that I could find… and figure out what happened with her life,” he said. “The French military archives had a thick file on her, which gave me a lot of information about what happened during World War II and after the war. The information that I was able to retrieve was actually quite astonishing.”

As a young divorced single mother in the 1940s, Blau infiltrated the ranks of the Gestapo on orders of the French Resistance by forming a romantic relationship with a senior Nazi officer.

Lucette Ferraille’s military ID in the French national resistance in 1944. (Courtesy Motti Inbari)

“She penetrated into the Nazi headquarters pretending to be a Nazi, a Gestapo officer, and reported to the resistance all the time about what’s happening in the headquarters,” Inbari recounted. Her clandestine work did not stop there, as she later traveled to Morocco on behalf of the French secret service to engage in a number of espionage activities.

After the war, Blau began a spiritual journey, including taking up theological studies at the Sorbonne. Disillusioned with the Catholic Church, she dabbled in Seventh Day Adventism for a period before deciding in 1950 that she was drawn to Judaism. She met and got engaged to a secular Israeli man in France, visited Israel and underwent a Reform conversion in Paris, but never went through with the wedding.

Not long afterward, she met and fell in love with a modern Orthodox rabbi in France, and – along with her son Claude, now Uriel – underwent an Orthodox conversion and moved to Israel, adopting the name Ruth Ben David. Once again, the wedding did not take place, but Blau began moving further and further toward strict ultra-Orthodoxy and anti-Zionist beliefs, including eventually renouncing her Israeli citizenship, which she held in 1961-63.

Kidnapping mastermind

In 1960, a rabbi affiliated with Neturei Karta who had been guiding Blau asked her to smuggle Schumacher out of the country. She agreed, enlisting then 20-year-old Uriel to help, and disguised the young boy as a girl to sneak him away first to Switzerland, then France and eventually New York, moving him every time she felt authorities closing in.

Even when the Mossad finally tracked her down after more than two years, Blau refused to tell them where the boy was being held, resisting their questioning for days until they told her that Uriel had admitted their involvement in the affair. Then-Mossad chief Isser Harel, who led the mission to recover Yossele and personally interrogated Blau, later wrote a book about the intense operation.

The incident created a sharp fault line between religious and secular Jews in the State of Israel and came to represent the clash between the power of the state and the independence of the Haredi community. In an effort to move on from the fracture, the state decided that neither Blau nor anybody else involved would face charges for the kidnapping.

“Nobody got prosecuted — this is amazing, this shows the power of the government that they were able to do that,” said Inbari. “They said ‘OK, this is behind us,’ with the understanding that the ultra-Orthdox will never do something like that again.”

The front page of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in 1962 announcing the safe return of Yossele Schumacher. (Courtesy)

Avoiding prison, Blau nevertheless did not live a quiet life moving forward. About a year later she got engaged to Rabbi Amram Blau, the Neturei Karta founder, 25 years her senior, a widower with 10 children and a virulent anti-Zionist activist who refused to recognize the state, pay taxes or even handle Israeli currency.

News of the engagement set the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem aflame, with some protesting so strenuously that the official Eda Haredit religious court issued a ruling banning the union.

Inbari digs into correspondence from around the period of their engagement to reveal the range of conflicting reasons for opposition to the match – from their age gap to her conversion, his supposed impotence from an injury, false claims that she had once worked as a stripper in Paris and concerns that she wore beige stockings instead of black ones.

“There was a lot of politics behind the opposition. Amram’s opponents were trying to get rid of him basically, using this as a tool to get rid of him, so the opposition to the marriage was tinted with these colors,” explained Inbari, noting as well that the ultra-Orthodox community was not particularly welcoming to converts, often viewing them as outsiders.

Ruth and Rabbi Amram Blau in an undated photo during their marriage. (Courtesy Nechama Davidson)

Ruth and Amram ultimately decided to wed regardless in 1965, but they did so outside Jerusalem, fleeing to Bnei Brak and attempting to evade the press, which had become enamored with the story. The couple remained married until Amram died in 1974 at age 81.

Inbari documents that their marriage was not exactly a smooth one, in particular due to the fact that Ruth – despite Amram’s purported infertility and her advanced age – was desperate to have another child. In one astonishing anecdote, the book relates that six years into their marriage, Ruth ripped her hair covering off in the middle of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem.

When Neturei Karta Rabbi Dov Sokolovsky approached her to demand she cover up her hair, she told him “since she is still a virgin, the rules of a married woman do not apply to her,” Sokolovsky wrote in a letter to Amram about the incident. Far from playing the unseen, background role embraced by most women in extreme ultra-Orthodox sects, Blau seemed to relish being a very visible member of the community.

That behavior did not stop following the death of her husband. In yet another twist to Blau’s shocking story, she took on a curious series of activities in Muslim countries in the 1970s and 1980s. She even met at least once with Iranian ayatollah Khomeini, in a visit recounted by a French journalist, and extracted a promise from him that he would protect the Jews of Iran.

Inbari documents a range of mysterious travels to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iran and her ultimately unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the release of Jewish hostages – banking, perhaps, on her anti-Zionist bona fides – including Iranian Jew Albert Danielpour, and IDF soldiers Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman.

Unlike many of her other activities, Inbari said, Blau did not keep records of her negotiation attempts on behalf of Jews being held in foreign lands, though some of them were documented elsewhere.

“The assumption is that she kept documents about it but she hid them… she probably kept old documents about those travels outside of Israel, maybe in Switzerland,” he said. Nevertheless, he added, “There is evidence that confirmed parts of the stories of things that she had been involved with… I was able to find some [corroboration] from multiple sources, newspaper articles and others.”

Complicated legacy

Inbari admits up front that his book in some way “rehabilitates her image, and I acknowledge that some may resent this, especially Yossele and his family,” he writes. He portrays Blau as someone deeply dedicated to her beliefs in an admirable though flawed way, and he skims over the violent extremism of the Neturei Karta sect, including the multiple imprisonments of Amram Blau for rioting, rock-throwing and anti-Israel activity.

Blau, for her part, never apologized for her role in Schumacher’s kidnapping, and Yossele himself — now in his 70s — has said that she is the only one who took part in the entire ordeal whom he does not forgive.

“In Israel, she is viewed as a villain, and I came from this mindset, but the more I started to learn about her, the more I had sympathies toward her,” Inbari said, adding that he believed she was also “not mentally stable.”

“I felt like I understood her, and I sympathized more,” he added. “If you look at her life through the prism of her full life, you see that overall she was trying to do good things, she was trying to be a good person – at some point in her life she just lost her compass.”

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