Eli Cohen is well known for his heroic espionage work in Syria in the early 1960s, when he developed close relationships with the Syrian political and military hierarchy and provided essential intelligence to the Israeli Army, which played a key role in Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Barely remembered, however, are the equally important contributions of Wolfgang Lotz (1921-1993), the “Jewish James Bond” who was singularly responsible for Israel’s stunning victory against Egypt during that war.
Lotz was born in Mannheim, Germany to a Jewish mother, an actress, and a non-Jewish German father, a theater director. His parents were removed from the Jewish fold to the point that they didn’t even circumcise him – which, ironically, later played an important role in his ability to pass as a non-Jew during his dangerous undercover mission.
His parents divorced in 1931 and, when Hitler was elected German Chancellor two years later, his mother took him and fled to Eretz Yisrael, where they settled in Tel Aviv. Adopting the Hebrew name Zev Gur-Arie (Zev being the Hebrew word for “wolf,” as in Wolfgang), Lotz began studies at the agricultural school at Ben Shemen before joining the Haganah at age 15.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the British took advantage of Lotz’s fluency in German, Arabic, English, and Hebrew and assigned him to an intelligence unit in Egypt, where his primary duty was interrogating German prisoners of war. After the war, he returned to Israel, where he married Rivka, an Israeli Jew; had a son, Oded Gur-Arie; and joined the Israeli underground, smuggling weapons for the Haganah.
At the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence (1948), he joined the newly-formed IDF as a captain and participated in the battle for Latrun. Later, during the 1956 Sinai War against Egypt, he rose to the rank of major and commanded an infantry brigade.
In the late 1950s into the early 1960s, the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, grew increasingly concerned about the danger to Israel from German scientists in Egypt working to develop the country’s rocket program. As such, it actively sought an agent who could gather intelligence on Nasser’s armaments plans and Soviet arms being supplied to Egypt; scope out targets for Israel’s next attack on Egypt; and, most importantly, infiltrate the group of former Nazi rocket and weapons scientists working for Egypt.
Lotz was the perfect candidate to serve as a Mossad undercover operative: he had stark Aryan features, including classic blond hair and blue eyes; he was fluent in German and was the very model of a former Nazi officer; he had demonstrated courage in battle; he was an extrovert who, like his mother, was a skilled actor; and last, but by no means least, he was uncircumcised.
After intensive training in espionage and rigorous study of Egyptian history, politics and culture, Lotz was sent to Germany in November 1959 to establish a fake identity and to move around so as to make him difficult to trace. Drawing on countless stories he had heard in the course of his work interrogating many hundreds of Nazi POWs, he was able to pass as a rabid anti-Semite and to hold himself out as a former member of the Nazi party and Wehrmacht officer who had served in North Africa.
Working with his Mossad handlers, he developed a clever cover story pursuant to which he was a wealthy businessman who had spent more than a decade in Australia as a horse breeder and had come to Egypt to establish an equestrian club.
Sent to Cairo in December 1960, he went to various equestrian clubs, ultimately finding one patronized by Egyptian Army officers. There, he met and befriended the Egyptian chief of police, and word soon spread about the debonair Nazi officer and horse breeder. He quickly became accepted in high Egyptian society, became an “A-lister” among the glitterati and in demand for all of Cairo’s most prestigious parties; and, most importantly, gained access to the Egyptian government and military elite.
At a June 1961 meeting with his Mossad operators in Paris, he was given considerable funds and a transponder for sending secret messages. To further create the image of great financial means, he frequently held his own lavish and alcohol-soaked soirees and conspicuously purchased high-priced steeds.
His lavish Israeli expense account enabled him to give extravagant gifts to his Egyptian friends, including paying for the cosmetic nose surgery for the daughter of a good friend – the chief of police – for which he earned high public regard.
During the trip to Paris, Lotz visited Rivka and Oded in Paris, where they resided during his mission to Egypt. On his train out of Paris in June 1961, he met Waltraud Martha Neumann, an East German refugee living in America and traveling to visit her parents in Germany. He became enamored with her and, without ever discussing the matter with his Mossad handlers, he married her – notwithstanding the fact that he was already married to Rivka.
When the Mossad learned about the second marriage, it was horrified by the serious breach of protocol and the increased likelihood of his being compromised as an agent but, deciding that the mission was far too important to abandon, Mossad Chief Isser Harel returned him and his new “wife” to Egypt.
Upon his arrival, he was greeted by the Egyptian police chief himself, who drove him to Cairo, where a grand party awaited him. He formally launched his equestrian club and, when Lotz informed Waltraud that he was an Israeli agent, she began to work with him.
Lotz caught a big break when he befriended Brigadier General Fouad Osman, a high Egyptian military intelligence officer who, as chief of security for Egyptian rocket bases and military factories, was in charge of protecting the very sites about which Israel was seeking intelligence.
He also established a close relationship with Hussein El-Shafei, one of Nasser’s closest advisors, who often shared important state decisions with him. Through his personal relationships with these and other Egyptian officials, he was able to learn about Egyptian missile launch sites and gather important intelligence on the Egyptian military and its industrial production.
It was quite remarkable. Lotz was not only invited to tour top-secret bases near the Suez Canal, but he was also granted access to airports where the Egyptians stationed their MIG fighter aircraft, where he took close range photographs of the pilots posing proudly near their planes.
The Egyptians bragged to him about how they were misleading the Israeli air force about the strength of their air battalions by mixing imitation planes in with real ones on their airfields and, of course, he reported all this information back to Israel.
Moreover, he also managed to infiltrate the innermost circles of the Nazi SS and to compile a comprehensive list of the leading former Nazi scientists working for the Egyptians, which included precise details of their assigned tasks, their Cairo addresses, and the locations of their families back in Germany and Austria.
Lotz wrote menacing anonymous letters to the scientists naming their wives and children and advising them that, if they valued the lives of their families, it would be very much in their interests to cease working for the Egyptians. Furthermore – unknown to the Mossad – he unilaterally decided to mail clandestine letter bombs to a number of the scientists, but the explosives killed a number of Egyptian civilians and he failed to induce the scientists to discontinue their work.
There are two differing accounts of the circumstances that led to Lotz’s arrest at his Cairo home on February 22, 1965.
According to one version, in late 1964, the Soviets, upon whom Egypt had been largely dependent for a decade, pressured Nasser to invite East German President Walter Ulbricht to Cairo, notwithstanding vociferous protest from the West German government. To prove that he would not be pushed around by West Germany, Nasser ordered the arrest of 30 West Germans living in Cairo, including Lotz and Waltraud.
Unknown to Lotz, the Egyptians had advised the West German ambassador that the arrests were merely for show and that the arrestees would soon be released, but Lotz assumed that his covert activities had been discovered. As the Mossad had feared, his prime directive became protecting his wife, so he decided to cooperate fully with the Egyptians – who actually had not suspected anything. As such, during his “show” interrogation, he confessed all to his shocked interrogator.
Many sources, however, argue that this was a bogus narrative fabricated by the Mossad and that the true story begins with Syria’s adoption of new radio direction-finding equipment, which it had used to catch Eli Cohen red-handed. Taking a lesson from the Syrians and assisted by Soviet experts in radio detection, the Egyptians employed similar equipment and picked up Lotz’s transmitter.
This version of his discovery is confirmed by Lotz himself, who writes in his autobiography, The Champagne Spy, that he was captured after a wireless set was discovered hidden inside his bathroom scale.
But in any event, the Egyptians were too late. Unknown to the Egyptians, Lotz had already provided crucial strategic military information to Israel, including specifically which Egyptian airfields contained fake planes to lure Israeli warplanes into futile attacks.
Today, it is broadly recognized that the seminal event in Israel’s miraculous victory in the 1967 Six-Day War was its destruction of the Egyptian air force on the ground before its planes could take off, which never could have happened but for the information provided by Lotz.
After his capture, newspapers worldwide published his photograph, and the remarkable story of the Nazi officer who served as an Israeli spy generated enormous attention. The interest in Israel, however, was a bit different, as people simply could not imagine a Nazi officer working as an agent for the Mossad, let alone serving as a major in the IDF.
Lotz undoubtedly would have been executed had the Egyptians immediately realized that he was a Jew, and a Zionist to boot. However, while confessing to being an Israeli spy, he was unfaltering in sticking to his cover story that he was a German who had served in the Afrika Corps, where he learned the equestrian arts. According to one account, he insisted that he spied for Israel only to obtain financing necessary to establish his equestrian club and, according to another, he claimed that the Israelis threatened to reveal his Nazi past unless he cooperated with them. Both may be correct.
In any event, Lotz did everything possible to convince the Egyptians of his truthfulness, even making a televised broadcast to the German people urging anyone approached by the sordid and revolting Israelis – who had taken every advantage of him, as Jews are wont do – to reject any solicitation by the Zionist state.
In a highly unusual step, the Mossad chief at the time, Meir Amit, contacted all newspaper editors across Israel and told them the truth – i.e., that Lotz was merely posing as a former Nazi officer – and begged them not to publicize his photograph, lest he be identified by someone who might expose him, whether inadvertently or intentionally, thereby ending any chance he might have to escape an Egyptian death sentence.
Elevating the national interest over their personal and parochial concerns, the editors complied with Amit’s request and no photographs of Lotz were published in Israel for many weeks.
Charged with espionage, Lotz and Waltraud were put on trial, but the Mossad was able to get them a good German lawyer and to arrange for an observer from the German Embassy, whose presence ensured some measure of fairness by the Egyptian judicial system.
Things were going reasonably well until a shocking development at a critical stage in the trial: The court received an anonymous letter stating that Lotz was actually Ze’ev Gur-Arie, not a Christian but a Jew; not a German but an Israeli; and not the owner of an equestrian farm, but a major in the Israeli armed forces.
While the identity of the person who sent the letter remains unknown, various theories range from a German lawyer who represented the scientists threatened by Israel’s letter campaign to a disgruntled Israeli Jew who bore animus toward Lotz and sought to see him hung by the Egyptians.
Though it accepted the letter as factual, the court nonetheless announced that it had determined that Lotz’s testimony was true. It did so almost certainly in response to an order issued from the highest levels of the Egyptian government; though the actual reasons remain unknown, the most likely explanation is that the Egyptians were embarrassed that an Israeli agent was able to so successfully penetrate their highest security protocols.
On August 21, 1965, Lotz was convicted as a spy but, rather than executing him as would have been expected, he received a life sentence at hard labor and his wife was sentenced to three years in prison. Both were released in 1968 pursuant to a prisoner exchange following the Six-Day War, but Israel paid a heavy price: the release of 4,000 Egyptian prisoners of war, including nine generals.
After his release, Lotz returned to Israel, but he did not publicly disclose his presence there until November 24, 1971, when he attended the wedding of fellow Israeli spy Marcelle Ninio, who was released together with Lotz from their Egyptian imprisonment. Exhibited here is an original newspaper photo of the wedding, officiated by Rav Shlomo Goren (right). The bride was “given away” to Lt. Col Eli Boger by Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Lotz stands between her and the bride.
Victorine Marcelle Ninio (1929-2019) was the only woman recruited to act as a liaison for an Israeli spy cell, which planted bombs inside Egyptian, American, and British owned civilian targets. A device going off prematurely at a cinema caused great embarrassment to Israel and led to the infamous “Lavon Affair,” and it was her marriage in 1971 that led to the Israeli public learning more about the long-secret details of the Affair.
Lotz remained in Israel until Waltraud’s death in 1973, when he returned to Germany and lived the rest of his life in poverty. Used to living the high life in Germany and Egypt, he grew unhappy that he could not resume his grandiose and flamboyant lifestyle, complained that his Mossad pension was insufficient for his needs, and struggled to resume his true identity.
Lotz died from the heart disease he had developed during the years of his incarceration in prison, and he was buried in Israel with full military honors. Fourteen years later, after the Mossad declassified the case file, his son, Oded, broke his silence and served as host for The Champagne Spy, a film that told Lotz’s story and won the 2007 Israeli Academy Award for Best Documentary.