After 18 months in captivity in North Korea, Otto Warmbier was finally returned to U.S. authorities, and to his family—in a coma with extensive brain damage (North Korea denies torturing him). He died on Monday just six days after his release. Warmbier was buried in Cincinnati, Ohio, his hometown, today. He was 22.
A few days after he died, JTA reported that Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was active in Hillel and had participated on Birthright, when he was given a Hebrew name. Rabbi Jake Rubin, who leads the Hillel at UVA and who called Warmbier “a beloved member of our Hillel community,” would not confirm to JTA whether or not Warmbier was Jewish. “He was a regular at Bagels on Lawn, celebrated Shabbat and holidays at Hillel, and even led a Seder for other students that focused on issues of environmentalism and sustainability,” Rubin added.
Despite evidence that he was active in the community, Warmbier’s Judaism was not confirmed by any members of the press, including Tablet, or publicly by his family or friends; Jewish organizations appeared to make no public remarks either.
But by Thursday, Eric Cortellessa of The Times of Israel had gotten in touch with Mickey Bergman of The Richardson Center, an organization run by the former governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, that negotiates the release of hostages, including Warmbier, with a particular focus on North Korea. “We didn’t want to share [his Jewish faith],” said Bergman. “The family chose, rightfully so, not to share that information while he was in captivity… because they didn’t want to embarrass [North Korea] by explaining that he actually was Jewish… That’s why that part of the story was kept quiet.”
Bergman, a Warmbier family spokesman, appears to have advised the family to keep his Jewish identity under wraps because it would undercut North Korea’s alibi, which involved a church, for sentencing Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda poster, the video evidence of which is grainy.
Reported CNN, in February of 2016:
A North Korean official with direct knowledge of the case tells CNN that Warmbier is accused of meeting last year with a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio—a small suburb of Cincinnati. The church member “emphasized that North Korea is an anti-Christian communist state and that communism should be ended,” said the North Korean official, whom CNN has agreed not to identify.
According to the same official, the church member allegedly encouraged Warmbier “to take an important political slogan from North Korea in order to weaken the ideological unity and motivation of the North Koreans” and promised to give him a “$10,000 used car” if the “mission” was successful.
CNN spoke with the church’s Senior Pastor Meshach Kanyion, who did not know the purported church “deaconess” named by North Korean officials. He said Warmbier is not a member of the church, which has a congregation of around 500 people.
“I’ve never met his family. Clearly there are some people who know him and went to school with him. If his family went to our church, we would’ve been much more involved” in pushing for his release, Kanyion said.
Given this, it still remains unclear as to what repercussions, or what consequences, would have occurred should Warmbier’s Jewish faith been public knowledge, or why keeping this under wraps represents a form of a negotiation tactic.
On Thursday, Warmbier was laid to rest at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cincinnati, after a funeral at Wyoming High School, where Warmbier had graduated as salutatorian in 2013, before becoming a business major at UVA. His funeral was reportedly attended by around 2,000 people, including a number of government officials.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.