On Feb. 6, 1937 the SIS, the British Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6, wrote a report headlined “Nazi activities in Northern Africa.” Part of the report was forwarded to the British internal security organization MI5 some two weeks later. The information from SIS came from a German informant in Paris who claimed to be working for a German emigrant organization sending volunteers to Spain, which was at the time engulfed in a bloody civil war. According to the informant, the Nazis had set up headquarters in the city of Ceuta, a Spanish plot of land in North Africa bordering Morocco. The chief Nazi agent in Morocco, was, according to the same source, a certain “von Roland” (sic), whom the informant claimed worked closely with the Nazi organization in Seville and Lisbon and also with an Italian Fascist group in Tunis “responsible for anti-French agitation in that territory.”
It had been 11 years since MI5 had last heard about Baron von Rolland. The man had first appeared in the British security files at the end of World War I, where he had been a German agent for the Abteilung IIIb, the Imperial German military intelligence. What the MI5 already knew was that the Baron who allegedly had reappeared in North Africa, was neither a baron, nor a von, nor a Rolland, but a Salonikian Jew with the name of Isaac Mizrachi, or in some instances, Ezratty. Viewing his file, which runs from 1918 until 1947, there is no doubt that he served the Germans loyally in both World Wars and that from the 1930s almost until the end of the war, he worked for the military intelligence of Nazi-Germany, the Abwehr.
The fake baron was born in Salonika, or in its modern form Thessaloniki, April 15, 1893. His father Eliaou Ezratty, was according to his son’s file a highly successful merchant. When little Isaac was born, the Jewish community in the city consisted of some 60,000 souls. Salonika at the time was an integrated part of the Ottoman Empire, and thus he was born a Turkish subject.
Although the Jewish presence in Salonika can be traced back to antiquity, via St. Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians in the New Testament, the modern Jewish community was a direct result of the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. Indeed, the Ottoman census of the city a mere 14 years earlier did not record any Jews in the city at all. Among the Sephardic community then remnant of the Iberian Peninsula lingered on in the Jewish tongue of Ladino, which was far less removed in time from contemporary Spanish than its Ashkenazi equivalent, Yiddish, was from German. Both communities had a presence in the city, though the Sephardic community was dominant.
The Ezrattys belonged to the upper echelons of that community, but they were among the happy few, as a substantial part of the community was poor. The Jews were, of course, just a part of the cosmopolitan population of the city. In his book about the city, the historian Mark Mazower quotes a newspaper article from 1911, a year that would change the life of young Isaac Erzatty, that said: “Salonica is not one city. It is a juxtaposition of tiny villages. Jews, Turks, Donmehs [crypto-Jews], Greeks, Bulgarians, Westerners, Gypsies, where each of these groups which one today calls ‘Nations,’ keeps well away from the others.”
Like the Austro-Hungarian empire to its north, the Ottoman Empire was seeing an increased growth in nationalism among the nations, which for centuries had been humble servants. In October 1912 the First Balkan war started. It was followed by the second Balkan war in June 1913, which eventually led to the Greek control of the city.
The Jewish community in the city felt the rise of nationalism, but they did not seek salvation in Zionism. For the majority, the effect of Balkan nationalism led them into the ill-fated Ottomanist movement and later to side with the Young Turks.
The von Rolland file echoes some of these developments. The young man left his native town for studies in Germany in 1911. In a statement made much later he recalled that he left “with a Turkish passport, but when I returned to Saloniki it was occupied by Greece.” His new masters offered him a choice between Greek or Turkish nationality. He chose the latter, but his choice had implications. The Greeks told him that he had to leave the city within eight days. By the end of 1913 he was back in Germany. By August 1914 Europe was at war. The optimists said it would be over by Christmas, but instead the carnage had just begun.
Sometime in 1915, the man born under the name Isaac Ezratty in Saloniki relocated to Barcelona, Spain, under the name Baron Ino von Rolland. He had been sent there by Abteilung IIIb, the German military intelligence. The circumstances around his recruitment, and mission, remain covered in the fog of war, as do most of his first years in service of the kaiser. He took up residence, at least eventually, on 29 Ronda San Pedro in Barcelona. The fake baron was not a towering figure. He was a mere 5’4-5” (1.63-1.65m). Reports suggested him being around 30, whereas in fact he was in his early 20s. He was very dark, pale and clean shaven, with small gray-brown eyes and a large mouth. He also wore rings and tie-pins. Though this description stems form 1918, it would seem that his appearance was more or less the same during the first years in Spain.
Little is known about the baron’s first years in Spain, save for a chance meeting with a young naval officer, who was to become his friend and acquire his services in another war, under a very different regime. The name of the young officer was Wilhelm Canaris, who in 1935 became the head of the German military intelligence—the Abwehr. Canaris had been sent to neutral Spain in late 1915 to handle supplies for German U-boats, which docked in Spain, while operating in the Western Mediterranean. The fact that the two men met indicates that the baron also had a hand in this business. There are also signs from his file that he was involved in pro-German propaganda.
From what we know from his file, the British interest in Baron von Rolland did not start until the last months of the war. The first scrap of information there stems from intelligence shared by the Italians in early July of 1918. It is followed up by similar information shared by the French, and most of it concerns other agents working for von Rolland. By Oct. 1, the British had reason to believe that he was about 30, used the alias of Boyal, but that his real name was Isaac Ezratty or Ezrati.
A week after the war ended, on Nov. 11, 1918, the Brits had a fuller picture. An MI5 report dated Nov. 18, 1918, gives a pretty accurate picture of the baron and his family background, though it states that he was a Syrian, with family in Upper Egypt. By the time the war was over, the British believed that he had been the “chief of German espionage in Barcelona.”
As far as WWI is concerned the story of the Jewish spy from Saloniki is a mere curiosity, as Jews fought on many fronts for many nations during the mass slaughter. His file, however, tells an interesting story of some of his movements in the interlude of the wars as well. There is a recording of an arrest when he entered France from Spain. Released from the French jail, he soon after boarded the S.S. Dunabis and sailed for the city of his birth. The Greeks were not pleased to see him, and he left for Germany again soon after. By April 1920 he was back in Spain, allegedly being involved in espionage for the Germans again.
Apart from a brief interlude from 1925, when there were false indications that the baron had turned up in the United Kingdom, the file falls silent about his movements until 1937, when a Mrs. Cathryn Young called at the Foreign Office. The woman stated that she was intent on going to Spain, which was engulfed in the bloody civil war, with the purpose of getting to Madrid “as soon as Franco captured it.” The reason for the journey was to get to her Madrid flat because she “was anxious about some dogs she had left in it.” What caught the eye of the MI5 were not the dogs, but the information that during her last journey to the country she had been accompanied by a “notorious German spy,” whose name she would not give. It turned out to be von Rolland. Shortly after this sighting the report of the Nazi spy-network in Morocco appeared.
To what extent von Rolland really was involved in the spy network in North Africa remains an open question. The informant in Paris might have fed the British old information, or mere rumors, at least if his movements during the 1930s are to be believed. According to a postwar statement he was in Spain in 1931-33 and 1934-35, before he headed north to Denmark in 1936. The following two years he spent traveling in South and Central-America, before he left Europe for good in 1939, to what was to become his final destination for the duration of the war. The British meanwhile were in the dark about his movements, and the last prewar report on him contained conflicting information that he had either returned to Spain or gone to South America. Apart from an attempt to trace him in Spain in 1941, the file remains silent until September 1943.
Although the MI5 kept him on the watch list, they did not manage to find out very much about what he was up to during the 1930s. Yet there is no doubt that von Rolland was on the pay books of the Abwehr more or less from the day that Canaris became head of the organization. Canaris had not forgotten the young man he met in Barcelona 20 years earlier. According to the fake baron, Canaris was also “the only man in Germany who knew I came from Hebraic origin.” The task of Carnaris’ Jewish spy was to send confidential reports that went directly to the head of the Abwehr about “the political situation in the countries where I was sojourning.” He also reported on political parties and what military equipment could be sold. His main task was to establish front companies who could serve the Abwehr financial transactions.
One of these front companies, Transmare, was founded in late 1935 or early 1936 and had many branches both in Europe and in the Americas. A second one, Scandinavian Overseas Trading Company, set up during his stay in Denmark, was entirely his, but it also had an Abwehr connection, although the local director, a Mr. Whal, did not know that it was a front company for German intelligence.
By the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, von Rolland had moved to Argentina. Here he kept working with Transmare, although he later claimed to have known little of the inner workings of the company in Europe. Under the guidance of von Rolland, Transmare dealt both in imports and exports. The exports consisted mainly of copper and bronze in bulk, which was sent to Germany. All contact with Canaris went through the German Embassy in Buenos Aires. After the war he would claim that his contact with the company faded around 1943, just around the time that the British got another lead on the Baron’s whereabouts.
In September 1943 the British established that he lived in a house in Calle Diagonal in the Argentinean capital. However, the interest in their old WWI acquaintance increased two months later, in November, when the notorious Yugoslav triple agent Dušan Popov, codenamed Tricycle, provided the British with information that von Rolland was a personal friend of Canaris. A Spanish agent working for the Gestapo, Perez Garcia, confirmed that von Rolland was a German spy, after he was captured onboard a ship and brought for interrogation to MI5’s secret Camp 020.
At the end of 1943 the MI6 managed to trace von Rolland in Buenos Aires. He was now living in “Mersina del Plata and spending at least 10,000 pesos a month entertaining Argentine society people. … He does not mix with leading members of the German community,” the report stated. A few months later, in March 1944, the MI6 reported that he was “in close touch with von Meynen, the German chargé d’Affaires.” His address remained the same, but according to MI6: “he devotes most of his time to heavy gambling.” By now the Saloniki-born Jewish agent seemed unhappy. His brother Solomon Ezratty, who had been the Spanish vice-council, had escaped their native city when the Germans staring to round up the Jews. He had managed to save a few of his friends and eventually went to Spain, before he moved to Tel Aviv in late 1944. The British thought for a while that his agent brother was on his way to Palestine when they intercepted a letter that his brother sent to the Spanish Consul General in Athens. However, that was not the case, and von Rolland remained in Argentina for the duration of the war, until the Nazis were finally defeated.
After the war the Allies put pressure on Argentina to extradite von Rolland and other German agents. Toward the end of 1946 he and 12 other deported persons were sent on the Argentina ship “Pampa” to Hamburg. Von Rolland was taken to Camp 74 in Ludwigsburg, which was in the U.S. Zone. He was interrogated by the American military first, in mid January 1947, but their interest was mainly connected to the state of Communism in Argentina, a clear indication that the Cold War was starting to take priority.
When the British started their interrogation on May 5, 1947, von Rolland gave a long written statement about his work for the Germans in both wars. He also told the British what they wanted to know about German agents in Argentina and contacts he had had in the Transmare system. The statement is rather straightforward. The Holocaust was never mentioned by Ezratty or by his interrogators. He had been a German agent for nearly 30 years but provided no motive whatsoever for his actions. In the end the file leaves more questions than answers. What drove him? Money? Greed? Action? A safe conduct out of Europe? His friendship with Canaris? All these questions remain hidden in the fog of war, unless his Abwehr file someday appears.
What became of Isaac Ezratty is also a mystery. But the Internet does provide a few clues. In 1948, when the State of Israel gained its independence, he appears to have moved to Franco’s Spain, where one can imagine him walking the streets of Barcelona, the city where he started his carrier as a German spy. Perhaps he hoped that his conduct would be forgotten. And so it has been, until now. Isaac Ezratty has come alive again thanks to his file, but he is still surrounded by mystery. How could he serve a country that murdered 98 percent of all the Jews of his hometown?
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Asgeir Ueland is a Norwegian Journalist and author. He lives in the Upper Galilee, Israel. His second book about Norway in WWII is due this fall (in Norwegian).