Essay 6: The Case of A Most Reluctant Witness

NOTE: This essay describes the first investigation I ever did when, back in 1990, I “re-invented myself” as a private investigator. I later chronicled the episode in my fact based fiction novel, Little Sister Lost, iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2004, the first of the Matt Dawson adventures (call 1-800-AUTHORS or go to http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Little-Sister-Lost?keyword=Little+Sister+Lost&Store=book).  The book has since been cited as a Primary Source in a Wikipedia article on the subject of Maxim Lieber, written by David Chambers, Whittaker Chambers‘ grandson. Click on this live link to read the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim_Lieber  

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© Anthony J. Sacco, Sr., May 2005.

            Robert Hannsen, recently convicted of spying for the Soviet Union

The city of Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico.City of Cuernavaca, Mexico; a hotbed of dissent during WWII.
and after its demise, for the Russians, is the latest of several to be apprehended in the last twenty years. Trofimoff, Nicholson, Ames, Bloch, Pelton, Pollard, the Walkers, and Whitworth, all discovered since 1985, remind us that spying is not a new phenomenon. This essay is a case in point.

            On a chilly November night in 1951, the headlights of an unmarked ambulance probed a thick blanket of fog in Brockett’s Point, Connecticut. The white vehicle stopped in front of a weathered, cedar-shingle cottage. Its two-man crew carried a stretcher to the door, placed a man on it, returned to the ambulance and quickly drove off into the mist.

             The man on the stretcher was Maxim Lieber, an agent for the American Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Because of what he’d done and whom he knew, the FBI sought him as a witness against Baltimore native and alleged spy, Alger Hiss. But because Lieber was reluctant to testify, he severed his ties with America and began an odyssey that took him first to Cuernavaca, Mexico, then behind the Iron Curtain, and later, back to America.

            That dreary winter night in 1951, the bogus ambulance drove Lieber to a local airport. There, his health remarkably improved, he boarded a pre-arranged private plane bound for Mexico City. His wife, Minna, and their two children had left Brockett’s Point by car the day before. Their route took them through Baltimore, where they spent a few days visiting her brother, Towson resident, Alvin Zelinka, before continuing south to Cuernavaca.

             Thirty-six years later, in April 1987, Zelinka, a quiet, retired former United States government clerk, was found dead of natural causes in his comfortable Hampton House apartment. His death set off a three-nation search in order to settle his estate.

            After Alvin’s death, his close friend Jim Haynes, an attorney, filed Alvin’s will for probate. But Haynes’s task was complicated by the fact that Zelinka’s only known relative, his sister, Minna Lieber, had not been heard from in thirty-six years. If still living, Minna stood to inherit her brother’s entire estate. Frustrated by his inability to find her, Haynes, who had seen several letters she wrote to Alvin from Cuernavaca, traveled to Mexico in search of her. “It was a shot in the dark,“ he told me. “I’d done all the usual things without any luck. So I decided to go down there. They weren’t there, and I couldn’t find anyone who’d ever known them.“ Shortly after, Haynes gave up his law practice for a job with the State Accident Fund. He turned the file over to Robert Winkler, a Baltimore County lawyer with extensive experience in estate administration.

            But Zelinka’s estate was destined to remain open in the Orphan’s Court for two more years as Winkler tried, without success, to find Minna Lieber. By 1990, out of time and options, he asked me to help.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

            “The Orphan’s court was beating on me to close the estate and turn the assets over to the State under the doctrine of escheat,” Winkler said. “I felt I had to make one last attempt to findAlvin’s sister before I did that.”

            Minna Lieber was Max Lieber’s third wife. Although they had not been married when Max’s espionage activity was at its height, she probably knew about his unsavory past. She understood that someday her husband might be forced to either flee to avoid prosecution, spend a substantial amount of time in prison, or become a government witness. When that day arrived, what would she do? In 1951, with the FBI breathing down their necks, she answered that question. She, Max, and their two children quietly slipped away.

           Cuernavaca was a small town one hundred miles west of Mexico City. By the late 1940’s, numerous American leftists, sympathetic to the cause of International Communism and the Soviet Union, called it home. From Thanksgiving, 1951, until early 1954, the Lieber family resided there. During that time, Minna communicated with her brother. Five newsy letters, dated from November 1951 through the end of 1952, were among Alvin’s possessions after his death. Then, an unexplained silence ensued; one that was to last almost forty years.

            In late winter, 1954, helped by the Soviet Communist Party, the Liebers left Cuernavaca and relocated behind the Iron Curtain, to Warsaw. Max had been born there and had maintained dual citizenship. Housing was provided. A job teaching English was arranged for Minna, at Warsaw University. They stayed until 1968, when, having outlived the events that had made Max a most sought after and painfully public figure, they returned to the country they had abandoned, settling in West Hartford, Connecticut.

             While working to locate Minna, I was stunned to learn that her husband had been an accused spy involved in the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers case. Another surprise followed. I discovered that Congressional Representative Richard Nixon, then a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had played a role in causing Max Lieber to defect.

              On a rainy spring morning in 1990, I drove to the federal records depositary on John HopkinsUniversity’s campus in Baltimore, the same college that Alger Hiss had attended. In a basement room, I poured over microfilm transcripts of HUAC hearings from 1948, 1950, and 1951, mesmerized by what I read.

             In 1948, HUAC began investigating communist activities in America during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Whittaker Chambers, a Time Magazine contributing editor and confessed former spy, had been subpoenaed to appear before the Committee. Questions put to him revealed that he’d known Lieber and Hiss in Baltimore. His answers exposed their activities as Soviet agents. Studying Chamber’s testimony, Nixon concluded that Lieber possessed information that might be helpful in prosecuting Hiss. HUAC apparently pressured Lieber to testify. That set in motion the chain of events culminating in Lieber’s defection.

            When summoned before the Committee, Lieber repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. But, he did answer a few questions, inadvertently revealing certain information. That, coupled with what HUAC already knew, sealed his fate.

             Back in 1951, the actual reason Max and Minna Lieber made their fateful decision to leave the country was known only by a few. When Whittaker Chamber’s named him publicly, Lieber realized he’d soon be faced with a hard choice; either go to jail or coöperate with authorities as a government witness. He was reluctant to provide evidence that might send his friend Alger Hiss to prison, and loath to be sent there himself.

            Prior to my hunt for Minna Lieber, the Iron Curtain had crumbled. The irresistible force of freedom blowing in the wind had finally destroyed Soviet Communism. In a new spirit of openness, historians and researchers were allowed access to previously secret records. New facts about the Hiss case came to light. Occasional newspaper articles have kept the public apprised. In one such article, Hungarian researcher Maria Schmidt revealed Max Lieber’s motive for leaving America.

            Schmidt studied records of her country’s secret police. While searching transcripts of statements made by American defector Noel Field, who had arrived in Hungary in 1949, she discovered that Field had told Hungarian authorities that Hiss was a Soviet spy who, in the late 1930’s, tried to recruit him only to find that he was already working for another Soviet apparatus run by Hede Massing and her husband.

             In 1949, word of Field’s double life leaked out through both Whittaker Chambers and Hede Massing. So Field gathered his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law, and fled to Hungary. Fear of exposure and prison, dedication to the Communist cause, and loyalty to his friend Alger Hiss, manifesting itself in a desire not to permit the Justice Department to use anything he knew to convict Hiss, motivated him to leave.

             By the end of 1948, it was clear that Whittaker Chambers’s information about Hiss’s espionage activities was stale because a Statute of Limitations then in force regarding that crime had expired. Hiss could not be prosecuted for treason unless more current evidence was produced. Had the FBI been able to arrest and coerce Field into testifying, his more recent information would have corroborated revelations by Chambers and Massing about Hiss, and might have enabled prosecutors to bring treason charges against Hiss. But Field defected, and because of what was then known, the Justice Department was forced to content itself with only prosecuting Hiss for perjury.  His first trial ended in a hung jury. He was re-tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for four years. Max Lieber was soon recognized as a source for information that could help prove a treason charge against Hiss.

            In the spring of 1990, after several unfruitful weeks of putting out feelers, my inquiries reached Rhoda Loeb, an elderly lawyer and former acquaintance of Minna Lieber, who still lived in Brockett’s Point, Connecticut.  Rhoda was acquainted with a lawyer in New York who had represented Hiss. She contacted him. The lawyer telephoned Hiss who called Lieber‘s son by his first wife. After that call, Lieber‘s son’s wife called Minna and put her in touch with Rhoda, who gave Minna my phone number.

             In the two telephone conversations I had with her, I found Minna Lieber to be intelligent, articulate, and friendly. In one, she told me she had not known her brother had died. “When Alger called Maxim’s son, he asked his wife to call me,” Minna said. “She told me to call Rhoda Loeb. I couldn‘t remember who Loeb was at first. But I called her. She told me why you were looking for me.”

            In our second conversation, I ventured the question whether she and Max had known Alger Hiss. “Yes. Very well. In fact, Alger kept up with us for quite a while after we left.” Did Alger Hiss maintain contact with them as the years passed because he felt a debt to Max Lieber, one he could never fully repay?

            Maxim Lieber died in April 1993. He was ninety-six. Although a death certificate was filed, Minna buried him quietly, without notifying the press or publishing an obituary.

            Considering probate and non-probate assets, Alvin Zelinka’s estate was small. But to an elderly couple in the winter of their journey through life, the money Minna received from her brother’s estate probably spelled the difference between comfortable final years and an austere ending to their eventful lives.

            Alger Hiss died in December 1996 at the age of ninety-two, still denying involvement in espionage activities. Left unexplained were the many pieces of information pointing to his complicity that have come to light since the Soviet Union‘s demise.

            The Hiss case, like the Lindberg and Sheppard cases has had a life of its own. Opinions have hardened. Objectivity and open mindedness have been casualties over the years. Newly discovered facts probably won’t change any minds. People will cling to their beliefs regarding Hiss‘s guilt, and the motives of Chambers, Nixon, and the Un-American Activities Committee.

            Back in 1990, Bob Winkler had known that if Minna Lieber were not found he could simply turn the Zelinka estate assets over to the State and be done with it. He pursued the matter because, in the best tradition of the Bar, he believed he was carrying out the wishes of his deceased client. His decision presented me with the opportunity to search for Minna Lieber.

           The experience taught me that spying is not merely something one reads about in a Le Carre novel. It’s been around for eons, and barring a change for the better in human nature, will continue with us well into the future.

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