Olivia Jane Frank was quietly laid to rest among her people in a Birmingham cemetery a few weeks ago with no relative there to mourn her.
She was one of a number of Jews every year in the UK classed as a meis mitzvah – a person who has no one to bury them and whose funeral is arranged by charity.
But Frank, who was 76, had a more unusual background than most: she was a trans woman who five years ago published a memoir about her life of adventure, called The Mossad Spy.
She was born a boy to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father in West Gorton, Manchester. The Amazon blurb for her book – which the website says is no longer available – says she wanted to “emulate her Desert Rat father” and to rival Lawrence of Arabia.
She joined the IDF, serving “as an officer leading daring night raids” and was trained by military intelligence in counter-terrorism and “infiltrated the PLO in Beirut”. It says she was recruited by none other than Mossad’s British-born deputy director David Kimche and was involved in the mission to track down the terrorists who murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
What she said happened to her when she returned to Britain was recounted in another book, entitled Thatcher’s Prisoner. In the late 80s the British government was at loggerheads with Mossad over its activities in the UK, shutting down the agency’s operations here and expelling a diplomat from the Israeli Embassy.
Frank said she was prosecuted on fabricated charges at the instigation of the security services, becoming the first known trans woman to be sent to a women’s prison, but was then enlisted by MI5, working under a bogus identity.
Asked if it could confirm any details, the Ministry of Justice told the JC it would not comment.
Her name was unknown to Rabbi Yossi Cheruff of Birmingham’s Chabad House when it was first brought to his attention. He had been emailed by a member of the city’s Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, who was a doctor at Shrewsbury Hospital, where Frank had been receiving end of life care.
Rabbi Cheruff then called in Misaskim, an Orthodox charity which quietly works to help in cases of difficulty involving a death.
Frank, explained Doniel Stanton, a volunteer with Misaskim’s Manchester branch, had “got in touch with the chaplain in Shrewsbury and had expressed that she was Jewish and would like to be buried in accordance with her faith, which was Judaism”.
But before Misaskim could act, it would need to verify her Jewish status. No family had come forward and the Medical Examiner, who was responsible for the release of the body, had no further details.
“The hospital said if no one came forward, they would cremate her and sprinkle her ashes in the Garden of Remembrance,” Stanton said.
Cremation is not allowed in Jewish law and a non-Jewish person should not be buried in an Orthodox cemetery.
If they could not establish her Jewish identity, the option remained to arrange interment in a non-Jewish cemetery since that would have been preferable to cremation.
But they were able to get the evidence they sought, via a rabbi who had a connection with Israeli intelligence. “We got confirmation that she did work for the Israelis and she had a Jewish mother,” Stanton said.
“The rabbi said he trusted the integrity of the person in intelligence. For the rabbi of Misaskin, that was official enough.”
Misaskim then approached Rabbi Yossi Jacobs of Birmingham Hebrew Congregation since “Birmingham is the nearest community [to Shrewsbury]”.
The Birmingham community donated a plot in the Jewish section of Witton Cemetery and organised a minyan for Frank’s funeral in October.
Although Jewish law does not recognise transgender reassingment, the ritual pre-burial washing of the body was performed by women. “It was done out of respect for the deceased – how she would feel what would be most dignified when she was alive,” Stanton explained.
But the version of the memorial prayer recited at her funeral was for a man.
Every year, Misaskim’s Manchester branch helps to bury around ten lone Jews. Some like Frank have no relatives but he recalls one case where a man in a care home had two sons who had been estranged from him for many years and refused to bury him.
“No Jew is left behind, regardless of their observance, because a Jew is a Jew and everyone receives the dignity they deserve,” Stanton said.
But that is far from their only work of chesed (lovingkindness). “We help people who are bereaved through paperwork or if there is a coroner’s investigation.”
Not so long ago, they helped to repatriate the body of someone who had died on a cruise to Turkey.
In one instance, the body of a man found on Saddlesworth Moor in the Peak District had lain in a mortuary for more than a year. Misaskim managed to identify he was Jewish and bury him accordingly.