“Sleeper Agent” Review: From Moscow to Oak Ridge

Many Americans know the names of Soviet assets Alger Hiss, Klaus Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Few, however, have heard of George Koval, a devastatingly effective WWII atomic spy who walked away from his exploits undetected by US intelligence. Today writer Ann Hagedorn told her story in “Sleeping agent” (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $ 28), a first-rate historical page turner.

In the fall of 1944, she writes, Koval, a 30-year-old American electrical engineer, was driving his U.S. Army Jeep daily around the Manhattan Project Labs site in Oak Ridge, Tenn. There and later in Dayton, Ohio, Koval, who five years earlier had been recruited by Soviet intelligence, obtained data from top-secret research facilities that would help produce the enriched plutonium used in Russia’s first A-bomb, which exploded in August 1949.

Koval’s father, Abram Koval, was a Russian Jew who fled the 1910 pogroms and ended up in Sioux City, Iowa, a location chosen for him by a Jewish settlement organization. Soon, Ethel Shenitsky also arrived in Sioux City, and she and Abram were married in June 1911. Their son George was born on December 25, 1913.

After 1919-20, the year of the Red Fear, many Americans viewed Jews as Bolsheviks, which inflamed the very anti-Semitism that the Kovals had faced in Russia. Jewish emigration from Europe stopped with the Immigration Act of 1924, and in Iowa, the racist, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan grew to more than 40,000 members. Despite this, young George grew up as a successful all-American. A top student, he graduated from high school at the age of 15, and in 1929 moved to Iowa City to graduate from the State University School of Engineering. . But after the Great Crash, George, disillusioned with capitalism, became active in the Young Communist movement, beginning a lifelong commitment to the Soviet experience.

Abram Koval now wished to leave America and return to the house he had fled. Like other immigrant Jews, he had heard of the creation of a Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Far East called Birobidzhan. In May 1932 he left with his whole family, believing in the bright Jewish future the Communists would build.

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