Zdeněk Toman: Intelligence chief and black market kingpin instrumental in saving thousands of Jewish refugees

Film about Zdeněk Toman

Until recently Zdeněk Toman was an obscure name to many Czechs. However, his incredible story has now reached a broad audience thanks to an eponymous film about him that was released last autumn. Just this week Toman was nominated for 13 prizes at the upcoming annual Czech Lion awards. I spoke to Martin Šmok, the man who originally discovered his extraordinary story.

Martin Šmok,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio
Mr. Šmok, one could say that you are the man who discovered Zdeněk Toman. It was your 2003 documentary “Between a Star and a Crescent“, that first brought awareness to this figure. How did you come across him exactly?

“It was historical witnesses who first introduced me to Zdeněk Toman as a historical figure, while I was researching Czechoslovakia’s post-war attitudes towards her surviving Jews after the war. Once I started interviewing people who were involved in all kinds of social assistance and people-smuggling, I started hearing that there was this man called Zdeněk Toman, a key figure. Interestingly enough none of the direct witnesses had anything good to say about him. But that is how I first heard of his name.”

The story of Toman has become relatively well known in the Czech Republic since he became the subject of an eponymous Czech film last year on which you worked as a historical consultant. Yet, to most audiences abroad, he is still virtually unknown. Could you tell us a bit about Toman’s origins and his role in the Second World War?

“Zdeněk Toman was born in a town called Sobrance in the easternmost province of Slovakia, into a poor, rather traditional, Jewish family. His name was Asher Zelig Goldberger, but he kept changing his name throughout his life. He left the eastern provinces quite soon and studied in Prague where he most probably became a communist. So he was involved in the radical left movement since his youth.

“With the occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in 1939 he joined thousands of refugees and eventually came to live in London among the other exiles. His communist connections eventually landed him a job in the administration of the exiled Czechoslovak government in London and he got a position in the department that was preparing the repatriation of Czechoslovak citizens, who were used as slave labourers. So while living in exile he became a member of Czechoslovak politics, albeit as a member of the exiled government.”

Zdeněk Toman,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
Shortly after the war, Toman was named the head of the Czechoslovak foreign intelligence service by the Communist Party. Why would the notoriously paranoid Communists put a man who worked in capitalist Britain into this position?

“Don’t forget that there were many communists who came from London. The purges within the communist party started in late 1949 and the beginning of 1950. Communists who were in any kind of power and spent their wartime years in London or any kind of western exile were purged, murdered, persecuted and had really horrible things happen to them, but not yet!

“The clique of communists who spent their wartime years in London was strong and they felt there was no reason why they should be suspected by their comrades who spent the war in Moscow, or in the underground. They all worked towards a common goal, which was the takeover of Czechoslovakia by the communist camp. “

But there also must have been a practical reason why they named Toman as foreign intelligence chief. I understand that he was very useful in securing money for the Communist Party. Could you tell us a bit about this part of his personality?

Film about Zdeněk Toman
“Apparently after his return to Czechoslovakia he built quite a successful black market empire. He had nothing to do with any kind of ideology or politics. He was a black marketer, one of the kingpins of the underworld. However, in addition to his skills in this area, he also had political power and he could therefore cover up what he was doing.

“When you have a very skilled smuggler and black marketer, you use that person. Every single political party trying to fund a campaign that will let them take over power in the country needs a lot of black funds. They need to bribe politicians. They need funds that no one knows about. Toman was able to secure all of that for the communist party. The reason why he was named was probably exactly because he was unknown, an unknown person who was a proven and loyal Bolshevik. “

It is during his time as the head of foreign intelligence, that Toman enters the story you worked on. Could you tell us a bit about the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and how it got involved with him?

“The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is the biggest Jewish humanitarian agency. It is basically the body of American Jewish philanthropy. It was created during the First World War and became the lifeline for surviving Jews in Europe after World War II.

“The reason why Toman got involved was because after the pogrom in Kielce in the summer of 1946, Czechoslovakia became a transit country for a mass of illegal ‘migrants’ using todays’ language. Polish Jews who survived the war on the territory of the Soviet Union did not want to stay in Poland, because when they were returning from the interior of the Soviet Union after the war, they were labelled as agents of Bolshevism. This coupled with the popular antisemitism that still existed and still exists in Poland led to bloody murderous pogroms that made those people want to leave. The only ones willing to take them in were Jews in Palestine, but they had to get there illegally through southern Europe.

“So suddenly there was a mass of people crossing the Czechoslovak border from Poland. They were being caught, arrested and returned. No one knew what to do with them. They tried to build some kind of holding camps for them, but it was clear that what has to be controlled is the crossing of the borders. Zdeněk Toman controlled the borders.

Gaynor Jacobson,  photo: Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“Apparently it was Masaryk who introduced the director of the JDC, Gaynor Jacobson, to Zdeněk Toman. Masaryk was too scared to be really involved, so he simply told the Jewish humanitarians: ‘I would always be on your side, but I can’t really help you. Zdeněk Toman can.’ “

How important was this partnership exactly? Would it have been possible without Toman’s help?

“In terms of arranging the transit of 200,000 or more Polish-Jewish refugees I am convinced it would have been impossible without Toman on board. Regarding the other things he claimed credit for I think he just loved portraying himself as the king of everything that happened in Czechoslovakia. However, when it comes to opening and closing the border, which he was paid handsomely for, I really believe he was in charge and was being listened to.”

It should also be said that throughout his time in power, Toman seems to have been in the favour of both sides, serving as the Communist Party’s powerful intelligence boss, but at the same time often consulting with leading democratic figures such as Jan Masaryk. How was he able to do this?

Jan Masaryk,  photo: Czech TV
“It is simply because he really was the king of the black market and the underworld. Everybody needs such a person to fix things in a post-war country where nothing is available and you have to smuggle everything through. Toman even claims that he was arranging emigration possibilities for Masaryk and that he helped him get money abroad. He probably really was doing that, because that is how he existed. For money and a commission he would fix anybody.”

Eventually however, his relationship with the communists soured. He was fired and later arrested. What happened?

“My personal opinion is that he was going too far with his black market operations and was already too visible as a communist and a person with real political power. Despite what politicians tell us, they really operate as gangs. There are always certain groups of politicians even within the same party who stick together and not with other, actually fighting with them. I think this is what started Toman’s downfall and it continued with a series of mistakes.

Karlovo Náměstí  (Charles Square) with the Palace of Justice  (left)
“Also, once the communists were in power there was no need for him anymore. The first arrest warrant was issued shortly before the takeover, but it was never executed. Then, after the takeover, he did get arrested.”

In most cases, getting arrested by the communist party as a high functionary meant torture and confessions at a show trial. But Toman managed to escape from a prison located in the centre of Prague. Was he lucky? Or did he have western contacts?

“It was the jail on Karlovo Náměstí next to the Palace of Justice, literally in the centre of Prague. In his recollections he said that he simply walked out, greeted the guards and before they realised he was not their boss anymore but a prisoner, he was lost in the city.

“Again it is all because this is very early in the story. He was one of the first communists to be arrested. At that time it was those individuals that were labelled as enemies, who were being arrested. Therefore, I suspect that the lowest strata of officialdom were unsure about how to treat him and what to do with him.

Toman is seated in the second row,  second from left,  photo: Czech TV
“He escaped just before he was transferred to a safer location, because he understood what was happening. After all, this was a system he helped to build. I think his escape was successful exactly because he did not use any of the contacts that we as well as the secret police suspected he would use. He actually showed up at the flat of the director of the JDC and was flatly refused any help. But he used these underworld contacts to get himself out.”

At the time his wife had just given birth to his son. Is that correct? What happened to them?

“The wife committed suicide and the son was basically stolen, given a new identity and given to ministerial employees who could not have a son."

Rudolf Slánský
And he never saw his son again?

“He never saw him again. The son died in a freak accident. But the intelligence services kept hiding the fact that he was dead and played a game with Toman offering a fake son in exchange for money.”

What did Zdeněk Toman do once he escaped to the west?

“I am very sure he immediately offered his services to American intelligence. We know he was debriefed. That is where he claims to have given them the idea of bringing Slánský down. [Rudolf Slánský was the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party who was later arrested and executed after a show trial.]

“The documents then have him appear in Paris, where he survived what he claimed to have been an assassination attempt and eventually went to Venezuela, where his few surviving family members, including his brother, lived. He started an import-export business called Gexim, became a very rich person and eventually retired to Santa Barbara with his new wife. But when he realised his son does not exist. That he will never find him. He donated quite a lot of money to the Ben-Gurion University in Israel. “

Jiří Macháček as Zdeněk Toman in film Toman,  photo: Total HelpArt T.H.A.
Overall, would you say that Toman simply was a very lucky opportunist?

“I think that is exactly what he did. It was purely his own personal interest that he always had on his mind. He was an egomaniac and a kingpin of the underworld. He was not a Jewish fighter, nor a hero. He was a communist when it was useful to him. I believe that in the end he even stole money from the communist intelligence services after his escape. And I do not think that he ever thought about anybody else than just himself.

“I think throughout his whole life. Toman was trying to find his own identity. At first he was a poor boy from eastern Slovakia, an orthodox Jew that no one would take seriously. He came to Prague he became a student, probably he felt more at home among the Hungarians so he changed his name to Zoltán. He dropped his family name, he dropped his Jewish name. He kept coming up with new names and identities.

“I do not think that was just opportunism. I believe that he was sincerely looking for a place to belong into, but never found one. I think it is improper to call him a Jew. I even think it would not be right to call him a communist. But if I had to use any label, I would perhaps agree with that of Czechoslovak communist.”