Oded Gur-Arie was just a boy when he learned that his dad was a spy.
Today, Gur-Arie teaches entrepreneurship at Adrian College in Michigan, but he was born in Israel and his father is one of the most famous spies in the country’s history, known by his cover name, Wolfgang Lotz.
In the 60s, Israel suspected that Egypt was developing weapons of mass destruction, which could then potentially be used against Israel. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser brought German scientists in to help with the development of the nuclear program and Mossad sent Gur-Arie’s father to try to infiltrate their circles, pretending to be a former Nazi officer.
Young Gur-Arie and his mom were housed in Paris for the mission and his father — Zeev was his real name — came to visit from time to time.
“On one of his first visits back from Egypt, he went to meet with his boss and he took me with him,” says Gur-Arie. “All of a sudden, I realized they are talking about things that are pretty amazing, like information, people, and spies, and Egypt and this and that, and it became very clear to me what he was doing.”
Gur-Arie asserts the Mossad decided it would be safer to expose him to what was going on, rather than run the risk that he might find out on his own and then react in a way that could blow his father’s cover.
“Afterwards, when we were walking home, my father turned to me and he said, ‘Now you know what I'm doing.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You realize that my life depends on it? It should be kept in utmost secret because otherwise bad thing will happen?’ I said, ‘Yes.’”
That was an immense responsibility for a 12-year-old boy to carry and it became even larger when Gur-Arie realized his father had been caught. Gur-Arie was the first one to find out, before his mom or his father’s handlers.
“It was Saturday morning, I went down to get the newspaper, The Herald Tribune. I was walking there to this little news stand and got the paper and I started to walk home. As I'm walking home I'm kind of glancing and reading the paper and I see on the front page, I see something that says, ‘Six west Germans disappear in Egypt.’ It caught my eye and I look and I see my father's name there.”
Gur-Arie, who immediately realized "disappeared" meant that they were captured, noticed another thing that took him by surprise.
“I saw it said, ‘Wolfgang Lotz and his wife, Waltraud Lotz’ and I said, ‘Who the hell is this Waltraud Lotz?’ I didn't know anything about her existence.”
At that point, the news hadn’t made it to his mother, nor to Mossad in Israel. Gur-Arie had to be the messenger.
״Now I said to myself, ‘What do I tell my mom when we get home?’” Gur Arie recalls. “It was maybe less than a quarter mile from the newsstand to the house. It seemed like the longest walk I've ever taken, trying to figure out what's next. I realized that my life as I had known it and my mom's life as we had known it, it's all going to really be changing in extreme fashion.”
Wolfgang Lotz's marriage to another woman in Egypt wasn’t part of the plan. When his Mossad operators found out about it, by accident, they considered aborting the mission but it was going well otherwise, and Lotz was a very good spy. In fact, he was such a good spy that he was able to maintain his cover even after he got caught. He convinced the Egyptian authorities that he was indeed German and the owner of a horse riding club, and that he only did some spying for the Israelis in exchange for money and because they were pressuring him. If the Egyptians had found out he was Israeli, they most likely would have executed him. So for a few years, while his father was in the Egyptian prison, Gur-Arie had to keep up appearances and pretend nothing was wrong.
“We immediately came back to Israel and I was going to school and I had a girlfriend. ... I was 16, 17 at the time and doing the things that every teenage guy does. I had to keep this incredible secret to myself and couldn't share it with anyone.”
Wolfgang Lotz was released a few years later and got back to Israel, but he never came home. To the disappointment of Gur-Arie’s mom, he brought his new, German wife with him. Lotz had troubles adjusting to civilian life in Israel and he was never able to establish a second career. He died in Germany in 1993.
Gur-Arie, well-trained in keeping secrets, didn’t talk about his experience for years. That changed in 2007, when his son came back from school one day with a book titled The World's Greatest Spies. Gur-Arie was watching TV. He saw his son leafing through the book and one of the pictures caught his eye.
"I showed him, there was a picture there. I said, ‘Do you know who this man is?’ He looked at me and said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘That's your grandfather.’ He said, 'What?' That's when it kind of dawned on me that even the closest people to me — my family, my wife, my children — they knew the story in general, but they didn't really know all the details.”
That convinced Gur-Arie to agree to take part in a documentary film about his father’s life, after rejecting many other offers throughout the years. Gur-Arie describes the experience of sharing his story in front of the camera, often in tears, as having a cleansing effect. He agreed to work with the director, Nadav Schirman, since he found him to be truly interested in the human story and not just in the action parts.
“What if James bond had a family?” Gur-Arie explains. “People don't usually think about that aspect, but behind every spy story and adventures and so on, there are people, there are families, there are wives and children and mothers. We look at the glamour and all the adventure stuff, but not at the humans and the toll and the cost that it takes on other people.”
This article is from America Abroad's episode "Espionage in the Age of Terror" about the current state of human intelligence gathering and its future. America Abroad is an award-winning documentary radio program that takes an in-depth look at one critical issue in international affairs and US foreign policy every month. You can follow us on Facebook, talk to us on Twitter, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter for updates.