Actor Chaim Topol, who gained international fame for his leading role as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” also played a part in some real-life high-stakes drama, as an operative for Israel’s Mossad spy agency, his family has said.
Topol, who had a storied career on stage and screen, died last month at age 87. In an interview with Haaretz, his wife Galia and children Adi and Omer talked about this heretofore unknown secret aspect of his life.
“I don’t know exactly what the appropriate definition is for the missions and duties he performed,” Omer said.”But what is clear is that dad was involved in secret missions on behalf of the Mossad.”
The family recalled that the actor had a small Minox camera and a tiny spool tape recorder and that he often made secretive trips abroad.
“What always motivated Chaimkeh [Topol] were ants in his pants, adventure and courage,” Galia said. “Therefore, no one was more suitable than him to be involved even in issues that are not discussed.”
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Though Topol gained success in Israel as an actor, it was the success of his 1967 West End performance in Fiddler on the Roof, and later in the1971 film, that shot him to international fame.
Topol at the time moved to London and bought an apartment there. He was a frequent visitor to the Israeli embassy and, according to his son, a member of the Mossad branch operating in the British capital.
Actor Chaim Topol plays the role of Tevye in the famous play ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in a theatrical production on December 21, 1997. (Flash90)
The family said the actor’s contact person for missions was his good friend, Mossad officer Peter Zvi Malkin, who would visit their home by sneaking in through the backyard.
Malkin was one of the four agents who kidnapped Nazi Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and brought him back to Israel for trial. He set up a unit that spied on airlines, travel agencies, airports and embassies of enemy countries, according to the report.
Topol “was a kind of cover for Tzvika’s [Malkin] operations,” Galia said.
“He would come to London and live with us when he needed to,” Adi explained. “Father would help Zvika with all kinds of things he wanted to check — such as an access point, recording programs and security arrangements.”
The pair’s method was for Topol to create a diversion while Malkin carried out the mission objective, they recalled.
On one occasion, Topol and Malkin traveled to a European city on a mission to bug an Arab country’s embassy. The plan involved renting an apartment next door, then drilling holes in the joint wall and inserting listening devices. As Mossad was fearful that the drilling would attract unwanted attention, the apartment was kitted out to look like a dental clinic. Sure enough, security personnel from the embassy arrived to investigate the noise and Topol quickly lay down on the dentist’s chair while Malkin pretended to perform a treatment. The performance was a success and the security guards left.
As an international star, Topol visited countries around the world including places where Israel had no local presence, such as China and the Soviet Union. The famed actor reportedly brought “sensitive equipment” to many locations during his travels.
In London, Topol also became acquainted with Zvi Zamir, at the time the IDF attache to the embassy and later head of the Mossad.
London was a key hub for politicians, officers, and intelligence figures from Arab countries. It was there that Mossad recruited Dr. Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who would later be an advisor to Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. It was Marwan who warned Israel about the impending attack that kicked off the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.
According to Topol’s son, the day before the war broke out, Zamir arrived at the family home following a meeting with Marwan and sent a message to Israel: “War will break out tomorrow.”
After the war, Topol joined the IDF spokesperson’s unit and met with foreign journalists who arrived to cover peace talks between Israel and Egypt. He also became friends with Egyptian generals, some of whom he hosted for dinner parties at his apartment in Tel Aviv.
Israeli tanks take positions of cover in the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War, on October 15, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archive)
Topol got to know other top security figures, and when the First Lebanon War began in 1982 he was sent to Beirut on missions to meet with foreign agents and journalists. On one occasion, he left alone to meet with a foreign journalist but had to abandon his car when he encountered a roadblock operated by the Palestine Liberation Organization. He made it to the meeting and returned to safety, much to the relief of his operators.
His activities continued into the 1980s when he assisted in efforts to obtain information about Israeli soldiers who went missing during the Lebanon war, recalled attorney Uri Slonim, who was the government’s representative on the matter.
“The goal was to get good information about our captives and missing persons. It was usually in countries with which we had no ties. We tried to get information from every possible source,” which included Syrian and Iranian officials.
Slonim said that Topol, an actor of international fame, had extensive connections which included ties to European antique dealers who would also trade with Syrian government and army officials.