The spy who fell into a trap

How did a beautiful middle-class South African become one of Mossad's most successful spies?


How did Sylvia Rafael, a beautiful middle-class South African with a Jewish father and Christian mother, become one of Mossad's most successful spies?

What motivated her to put her life on the line for Israel, and how did she earn the trust of some of the most dangerous people in the Arab world at a time when Palestinian terrorism was expanding across the Middle East and into Europe?

The biggest question of all is how she botched an assassination attempt on Ali Hassan Salameh - chief of operations for Black September and the mastermind behind the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics that left 11 Israeli athletes dead. The plot to kill him, in Lillehammer, Norway instead resulted in the murder of Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter. The botched operation led to Sylvia's arrest, exposure and imprisonment.

A fascinating forthcoming documentary, Sylvia: Tracing Blood, explores these questions by attempting to get inside the life of Sylvia through some of the people who knew her, or, in some cases, who thought they did.

Fortunately for the film's South African director, Saxon Logan, he was able to enlist the help of Sylvia's Norwegian widower and former lawyer, Annaeus Schjodt, who died shortly after filming, and her charismatic brother David, affectionately known as Bunty, whom Logan calls her "memories keeper". Bunty was "so forthcoming", the film-maker tells me on the phone from Cape Town. "And even though he admitted to a certain degree of ignorance, or lack of curiosity, he was able to really tell us the majority of the story."

She wanted to be an actress, which is key

Filming in South Africa, the UK, Norway and Israel, Logan was able to put as many of the pieces of the puzzle together as his budget and time would allow. Not that he could ever have uncovered everything about Sylvia.

"She did not open up to anybody unreservedly," he says. "She was true to her cause to the bitter end."

When Sylvia succumbed to leukaemia in 2005, she took her secrets to the grave. Only Mossad knows everything, and they are not telling. The agency helped Logan, but within limits.

"Mossad feel a huge debt of gratitude [to Sylvia], and I think that's why they cooperated in the way they did. But I was left in no uncertain terms that there would be certain stuff held back. Because, even today, other agencies can extrapolate from things she did and, perhaps, detect what they're up to in contemporary times."

Logan is in no doubt, though, that Sylvia was exceptional in her field and devastating in her impact. "She was responsible for near-enough eliminating the entire European Palestinian wing that were behind not just Munich, but many other outrages."

He interviews Eitan Haber for the film. Haber served as Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin's media adviser at the time of what became known as the Lillehammer Affair. He told Logan that if people knew what Sylvia had done for them and future generations, they would "visit her grave and place flowers on it until they reach the sky." This moved some of those at the documentary's March world premiere in Israel, that they travelled to Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, where Sylvia's ashes are interred, to pay their respects. "I am sure others will visit her grave when the film is widely shown," says Logan.

Although Sylvia was already known to Israelis, Logan is quietly critical of the way that her story has been embellished by the likes of her Mossad recruiter, Moti Kfir, and journalist Ram Oren, in their 2014 book, Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy. The documentary "sets certain points straight", he says, including an anecdote about a supposedly influential visit Sylvia's family received from an uncle who said he had seen family members murdered by the SS. Despite the story being widely repeated, Bunty confirms that it is untrue.

Logan has some sympathy for Kfir. "I think being a former Mossad operative, he felt duty bound to be circumspect in telling her story, and then felt, or had been misled into thinking, that certain things happened that simply didn't happen."

He suggests that Sylvia herself may have sometimes been the source. "She was a top bulls*****. She was very theatrical. We bumped into fellow scholars from her boarding school in South Africa and they remember her literally prancing down the corridors, spouting Shakespeare. She wanted to be an actress, and I think that also is key to how she was able to do what she did."

Sylvia was born on April Fool's Day, 1937, and raised in Graaf-Reinet, a farming community in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, in her mother's religion. Her entrepreneur Jewish father was an atheist, and very assimilated in the local Afrikaner community.

"The Afrikaners were largely antisemitic," says Logan, "and to some of their leaders' disgrace, sympathised with the Nazis."

One day, Sylvia witnessed some local boys pushing a Jewish girl in a wheelbarrow and chanting, "We're going to take you to Hitler." She was so distressed that her family sent her away to a private girls' school.

I suggest to Logan that her father's ability to thrive may have provided the future undercover spy with an early example of how to survive in a potentially hostile environment.

"Exactly that," he agrees. "How to cope. How to get on. How to get under that little gap that's presented."

Sylvia moved to a kibbutz after breaking off her engagement to a South African when his drinking became a concern. She was a passionate believer in Israel's right to exist, and enthusiastically joined Mossad when approached.

They gave her a new identity, 'Patricia Roxborough', using a passport that its Canadian owner had unwittingly promised to an agent as they'd drifted through a Tunnel of Love. Mossad then trained Sylvia as a photojournalist, and moved her to Vancouver to learn to speak French with a Canadian accent and create a plausible cover story as a freelance photographer. After that she relocated to Paris, the centre of Mossad's operations in Europe.

Bunty recalls Sylvia talking about embassy parties in Switzerland where she'd pretend to be antisemitic, allowing her to get close to Arab-based anti-Zionist movements.

When top Mossad spy Eli Cohen was publicly hanged in Damascus after the discovery of his high-level infiltration of the Syrian regime, Sylvia took over.

"In those days the Syrians would never have guessed Mossad would use a woman," says Logan.

She also became one of the first agents to penetrate the bases of the PLO in Jordan and Lebanon when Yasser Arafat was beginning his terrorist attacks.

Following the Munich massacre, Sylvia became part of the Wrath of God operation to hunt and kill members of Black September and the PLO, and is believed to have been involved in a number of assassinations. However, success turned to failure when Salameh set a trap for Mossad in Lillehammer, designed to damage the organisation's reputation for infallibility.

Sylvia had studied Salameh closely and knew they'd been led to the wrong man. She admonished her commander to abort the mission but he sent in the "wet-workers"- Mossad's name for their hit-men - anyway, and Ahmed Bouchikhi was shot dead, in front of his pregnant wife. When Salameh heard about the murder, says Logan, "he just laughed and said, 'To think Mossad shot a pool attendant.'"

In the film, the victim's brother, Chico Bouchikhi, co-founder of flamenco band The Gipsy Kings, describes the devastating effect of the murder on his family and how he hoped in vain that Israel would apologise during his mother's lifetime. Today, he promotes a message of peace and talks about forgiveness as a step towards healing.

By contrast, Yaakov Armidror, a former major general and National Security Advisor, explains how the size, position and Jewish character of Israel mean that she can never afford to be complacent. If Israel were to lose one war, he says, it would be the end of the Jewish State.

"They know that they will never be accepted within the Security Council," says Logan, who, while not Jewish, is an ardent Zionist. "They know they are up against billions of people who wouldn't really blink an eyelid if you told them Israel had fallen, and they're surrounded by many millions who want to do just that, and they are determined that that will never happen."

Sylvia knew this and one of the most affecting aspects of making the film, says Logan, was seeing it dawn on Bunty that his sister was committed to preventing a repeat of history.

"I'm sure there were all kinds of different appendages to that particular motive," he says, "but I think her principle motive was to ensure that what occurred in Europe would never, ever happen again."

Balanced, thoughtful and haunting, Sylvia: Tracing Blood is not only a powerful testament to the courage and skill of its mysterious heroine, but also to the strength of the Jewish people.

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