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How a Jewish Manhattan Project scientist quietly helped the Soviets get the bomb

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In 1948, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was sharply focused on the Communist Party of the USA to root out Russian espionage — and with his attention concentrated there, missed the escape of a highly accomplished Soviet spy hiding in plain sight.

Born into a Jewish family that had immigrated from czarist Russia to the United States, George Koval habitually joined groups and clubs — a bowling league, bridge-playing circles, an honorary fraternity of electrical engineers. He also joined the US Army and conducted top-secret work at two locations of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that exploded over Japan in 1945.

In 1949, the year after Koval’s return to the USSR, the Soviets successfully and shockingly detonated their own atomic bomb.

Now, Koval’s life is the subject of a new book, “Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away,” by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ann Hagedorn.

“I just think there’s a lot to be learned by George Koval’s story,” Hagedorn told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

“It transcends a typical spy story. Yes, this is a spy story — there are code names in it. It’s thrilling. There’s a handler — a fascinating handler — and surveillance. But it transcends that. It’s really about the psychology of a spy and also about what motivated him. It’s about the backlash of bigotry… He knew the tremendous cost of oppression.”

Koval’s parents were part of a relatively obscure migration of Jews escaping antisemitism in Eastern Europe for the US in the early 20th century — the Galveston Project, named after the Texas port that became a southern alternative to Ellis Island.

After spending his first years in what was then a thriving Jewish community in Sioux City, Iowa, Koval and his family left an increasingly antisemitic America in another arguably obscure Jewish migration as the Soviets formed the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Russian Far East.

Koval’s father Abram Koval was a regional representative for the Association for the Colonization of Jews in Russia, or IKOR — a group that helped coordinate Jewish migration to the Autonomous Region and its administrative center in the town of Birobidzhan.

“These were new parts of history for me, the Galveston Movement and also IKOR and the Jewish Autonomous Region,” Hagedorn said. “It’s a fascinating part of Jewish history, I think.”

George Koval eventually went to Moscow, where he graduated from the prestigious Mendeleev Institute and showed a knack for science. Despite the increasing paranoia of Joseph Stalin, Koval remained a believer in communist ideals, but feared........

© The Times of Israel

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