A chapter prepared for the book The Secrets of World War I in the Holy Land
Fanny was the nickname for the young, attractive Berlin-trained doctor who immigrated to the Jewish homeland from Motele near Pinsk in Russia in 1913. As a woman, she was a pioneer in attending medical school. She was the first of her family to make “aliya” – immigration to Palestine, where she worked in a Jerusalem hospital. Perhaps her loneliness made her easy prey for Curt Prüfer, a German diplomat known for his philandering. But Prüfer was also the head of German intelligence in Palestine, and he charmed and recruited Fanny into being one of his spies against the British. The British were allied with Czarist Russia, and it probably wasn’t too hard to turn Fanny, an anti-czarist socialist (who even dallied with the Bunde as a teenager).
Prüfer dispatched his new recruit and paramour to Egypt in May 1915, where she was welcomed as a doctor at the overcrowded British military hospitals and as a feigned ingénue in British, French, and Jewish circles in Cairo and Alexandria. Egypt was a candy shop for the young, attractive Jewish doctor and German spy.
The doctor, whose full name was Mina Weizmann, had a dilemma in Egypt: how to deliver her information to her German spymasters. She embarked across the Mediterranean, accompanying a badly wounded French soldier.
Arrested by the British
In Rome, she brought her report to the German ambassador to Italy, unaware that the embassy was under British surveillance. Weizmann was arrested and taken back to Egypt for trial – and possible execution. “Instead,” wrote a blogger, FarOutliers, “Weizmann’s considerable charms combined with old-fashioned chivalry produced a far more pleasant outcome…. She was deported to Russia in the fall of 1915.”3
Fanny’s family connections certainly helped her. Mina “Fanny” Weizmann was the youngest sister to the Zionist leader and pro-British scientist Chaim Weizmann who would become Israel’s first president
Weizmann was shown “remarkably tender treatment,” according to Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.5
A Central Intelligence Agency study on The Role of Military Intelligence in the Battle for Beersheba in October 1917 reported that she was “generously returned to Russia.” But, the CIA analyst James Noone suggests, “Mina’s lenient treatment has led to speculation she was herself a double agent [who worked] against Prüfer.”6
Scott Anderson related in his book that for “her services to the Central Powers war effort, [Weizmann] was included in a prisoner exchange between Germany and Russia in the last days of World War I. Managing yet another escape, this time from the chaos of postwar Germany, she returned to Jerusalem.”7
Return to Jerusalem
After returning to Jerusalem, Weizmann worked in the Hadassah-Rothschild Hospital in the obstetric department. She rented an apartment from the well-known Hebraist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and attended the high society salons of Jerusalem. Apparently, at one such gathering, she met British Army Captain Alfred Noel Law, a decorated veteran of the battles of Gallipoli, Gaza, and Jaffa. After the war, Law became a senior official of the British High Commissioner of Palestine. Mina, the non-conformist, married Law, a Christian. At that time, intermarriage was a rare event and may be one of the factors why she is barely mentioned in Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography. Mina’s marriage to a British Mandate official, a former British officer decorated for his combat heroism, also lends credence to the theory that she may have been a double agent. Law and Weizmann had no children.
Dr. Mina Weizmann practiced medicine until her death in 1925 at the age of 35. One account said she died suddenly on June 18, 1925. During and after World War I, diseases such as malaria, cholera, influenza, and typhus were common in Jerusalem and took a heavy toll, including among medical personnel.
Her German handler, Curt Prüfer, returned to Germany, where he worked in the Foreign Ministry. In December 1937, he joined the Nazi Party. In 1943, he was appointed head of the ministry’s Oriental Department, overseeing the liaison with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.9
See British Intelligence’s files on more than 40 years on Curt Prüfer from the British National Archives.10
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Weizmann Institute, https://wis-wander.weizmann.ac.il/time-tunnel/family-trials↩︎
Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Doubleday, 2013, https://faroutliers.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/minna-weizmann-chaims-invisible-sister/↩︎
Benny Gvertzman, “Mina Weizmann,” https://www.mymotele.com/%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%94-%D7%95%D7%99%D7%99%D7%A6%D7%9E%D7%9F/↩︎