Unearthing the forgotten story of Jewish agents in the Second World War: “Occasional Spies” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival4 min read
Occasional Spies (Spioni de ocazie) is a gripping and innovative documentary about a group of Palestinian Jews who volunteered to return to their countries of origin in Eastern Europe in order to help the Allied offensive during the Second World War. Directed by Romanian producer Oana Giurgiu, the film originally premiered in 2021. It was screened on 9 December in Georgia as part of the Country in Focus: Romania series at the Tbilisi International Film Festival.
By 1943, thousands of Allied pilots were in the hands of the Axis countries as prisoners of war. Many pilots had crashed or been shot down over Eastern Europe, with their fate left unknown. Given that it took more time to train one pilot than to build an entire airplane, these prisoners were extremely valuable. The Allies hatched an intricate rescue plan, recruiting agents among the Zionists who had emigrated from Eastern Europe to Palestine before the war. Given that any operatives needed to know the language, history, and customs of the countries they would be infiltrating, these emigres were the perfect candidates for the demanding mission. The civilian recruits were trained in Egypt before being sent abroad to find the allied prisoners of war, as well as carry out assignments set by the Jewish Agency of Palestine. Of the 250 original volunteers, out of which 110 underwent training, only 37 were able to infiltrate the target countries — these 37 volunteers are the film’s main protagonists.
Set chronologically, the film focuses on the volunteers infiltrating Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The audience can follow how the volunteers trained together and bonded during their time in Egypt before being sent as pairs on various missions throughout Eastern Europe. Though all of the volunteers are mentioned, the film mainly focuses on Zvi Ben-Yaakov, Rafi Reiss, and Haviva Reik, who participated in the Slovak National Uprising; Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein, who worked with Rezső Kasztner to smuggle Jewish refugees into and out of Hungary; and Yitzakh Ben Efraim and Shaike Dan, who helped organise the, unfortunately doomed, transit of the “Struma” across the Black Sea from Romania.
Throughout the film, Giurgia does not shy away from the historical facts. She examines a wide array of topics, ranging from British antisemitism — such as statements by the training operatives that this was the “first time they met Jews who didn’t want money” — to Romania’s collaboration with Nazi Germany as an allied country which was never occupied.
Given the lack of archival footage available — other than newsreels — Giurgiu chose to use a large amount of reenacted footage with actors to retell the essential narratives. However, in an interesting creative decision, these reenactments were only shown on-screen as a series of still images with overlaid narration and background noises. While it was usually clear which photos were original and which were part of the reenactments, the line did become blurred at times, such as the introduction of each volunteer with their biographical data. In this case, Giurgiu chose to use the actors’ headshots rather than those of the actual volunteers, whose real faces were only shown at the very end of the film.
In another surprising twist, Giurgi ends her film with an abrupt 10 year jump. While the majority of the film provided a solid overview of the role of Zionist spies in Eastern Europe during the Second World War, the film’s conclusion changes tack to examine how these volunteers were memorialised in the new state of Israel and used for political gain. The focus turns to Rezső Kasztner, now a government official, who was accused of benefiting from the SS negotiations he conducted in Hungary. In order to combat these accusations, the government organised a commemoration of the Zionist paratroopers. Unfortunately, a plane crash during the celebrations killed three of the remaining former operatives; Kasztner was assassinated not long after.
Overall, the film was a necessary and intriguing foray into an area of military history that is less known. It was both an artistic film, given the director’s film-making choices, as well as a historically relevant documentary. While it received a low audience turnout in Tbilisi, it should be added to the watchlist of anyone interested in engaging with the Jewish history of Eastern Europe.