Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Case of a Most Reluctant Witness

PINE BLUFFS ̶ In 1990, just weeks after I set up Mutual Investigative Services, I received a call from a lawyer in Towson, MD,[1] asking me to locate the missing sister of his deceased client.[2] I didn’t realize that soon I’d be figuratively rubbing elbows with Richard Nixon, Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, and members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Nor did I know that this case would set off a three-nation search to settle an estate. But that’s exactly what happened.

After leaving the lawyer’s office, my first task was to read the voluminous file he’d let me borrow, to determine what had - and what had not - already been done. Information gleaned from those folders showed that Alvin Zelinka’s only known relatives were his sister Minna Zelinka Lieber and her two young children. So if I were going to find Minna Lieber, I’d need to interview Alvin’s friends and acquaintances to see if Alvin had ever mentioned where his sister might be living. Judicious use of internet and telephone books turned up addresses and phone numbers. But after several days, I’d drawn a blank. All his friends knew he had a sister. None knew where she was.

Although not yet experienced in my new calling, I’d heard that investigators must open up many avenues of inquiry and follow each to its conclusion, never knowing in advance which will be fruitful and which will not. So, simultaneously, because Winkler had told me that Alvin’s sister’s last known address had been in Brockett’s Point, a town near Branford, CT, I attempted to locate a person there who might be helpful.

Also from Winkler’s notes, I learned that after Alvin’s death, his will had been filed for probate[3] by Baltimore County lawyer James Haynes, a close friend of the deceased. But Haynes’s attempt to settle the estate had been thwarted because he didn’t know the whereabouts of Zelinka’s sister. If still living, Minna stood to inherit her brother’s entire estate. If she were deceased, then her kids would inherit. I decided to contact Haynes.

“Alvin told me back in the early ‘50s that his sister had gone to Cuernavaca, Mexico,” Haynes said during our interview. “I tried locating her by telephone, but got zilch. After I’d done all the usual things without any luck, I decided to go down there. It was a shot in the dark. They weren’t there, and I couldn’t find anyone who’d known them.” Shortly after his fruitless trip to Mexico, Haynes traded his law practice for a job with Maryland’s State Accident Fund and turned the case over to Winkler, an experienced estate administration lawyer.[4]

But Zelinka’s file remained open in the Orphan’s Court for two more years as Winkler tried unsuccessfully to find Minna. Finally, out of time and options, he called me. “The Orphan’s court’s beating on me to close this estate and turn the assets over to the State of Maryland under the doctrine of escheat,” Winkler said during our conference. “But I’d like to make one last attempt to find Alvin’s sister.”

Because the Liebers had lived in Hartford County, CT, I decided that a search of the Land Records there was worth a try. That led to my first break. At my request, that reliable person I mentioned, Janet Gaines,[5] did the records search and found that a couple named Larch had bought the Liebers Brockett’s Point property from them in 1956. The deed showed that the Liebers were living in Warsaw, Poland at the time! Surprised, I asked Janet to contact the Larch family while I followed up with the American Embassy in Warsaw.

Janet’s Brockett’s Point interview with Jeanne Larch, the surviving purchaser[6] turned up the stunning news that Minna Lieber’s husband had been an accused spy involved in the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers case.[7] Larch’s information also revealed that on a chilly night in November 1951, an unmarked ambulance had stopped in the driveway of the weathered, cedar-shingle home in which the Lieber family lived. For the benefit of anyone watching, its two-man crew carried a stretcher to the front door, placed a man on it, returned to the ambulance and quickly drove off. The guy on the stretcher was Maxim Lieber.[8] Larch said it was common knowledge that Lieber was an agent for the American Communist Party (CPUS) and the Soviet Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s, who was wanted by the FBI as a witness against former Baltimore native and alleged spy, Alger Hiss. Larch told Janet that the bogus ambulance delivered Lieber to a local airport, but no one knew where he’d gone from there!

Again I returned to Winkler’s file. Among Alvin’s possessions at his death were five newsy letters from Minna, written to her brother from Cuernavaca. They supplied the answer. Minna’s first letter, postmarked at Thanksgiving 1951, said that Max had boarded a pre-arranged chartered plane bound for Mexico City and joined his family in Cuernavaca at Thanksgiving. That same letter also revealed that she and their two children had left Brockett’s Point by car the day before Max’s furtive plane ride and had driven through Baltimore, MD, where they visited her brother in Towson, before continuing south to Cuernavaca.[9] Her last letter was written in 1954. An unexplained silence had then ensued; one that was to last almost forty years. For that, I had no explanation.

Armed with information about Lieber’s alleged spying, and wondering if Lieber had ever been summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), on a rainy spring morning in 1990 I drove to Johns Hopkins University’s Federal Records Depositary in Baltimore and entered Shaffer Hall, a foreboding, gray stone building. Interestingly, Hopkins was the same college that Alger Hiss had once attended.[10] There in a basement room, I devoured microfilm transcripts of HUAC hearings during 1948, 1950, and 1951, mesmerized by what I read.

Perusing these records produced one discovery after another.

1) That Richard Nixon, then a little-known Republican Congressman from California and a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, had played a significant role in Max Lieber’s defection.

2) That in 1948, while investigating communist activities in America during the ‘30s and ‘40s, HUAC had subpoenaed Whittaker Chambers, a Time and Life Magazine contributing editor and confessed former spy, to
appear before it. Chambers revealed that he’d known Lieber and Hiss in Baltimore, and he outlined their activities as Soviet agents.

3) Later, studying Chambers’s testimony, Nixon concluded that Lieber possessed information that might be helpful in prosecuting Hiss for treason. Nixon then encouraged HUAC to pressure Lieber into testifying. That’s what prompted Lieber to defect.

All well and good, but none of this led me any closer to Minna Lieber. I decided to research newspaper articles about the Hiss-Chambers case, to see if they’d reveal anything more about Max and Minna Lieber. From those articles, plus HUAC transcripts, here’s what I was able to piece together.

· Summoned before HUAC in early 1951, Lieber repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. But he did answer several questions. What he revealed, together with what HUAC
already knew from other sources, sealed his fate.

· With public exposure imminent, Lieber must have realized he faced a hard choice; either go to prison or cooperate with authorities as a government witness. Reluctant to provide evidence that might send his
friend Hiss to prison, and loath to go there himself, he decided to sever his ties to the United States. He began an odyssey that took him to Cuernavaca, Mexico and Warsaw, Poland.

Why Mexico? For that answer, I needed to learn more about Cuernavaca. So I hit the books in the County library.

By the late 1940s, Cuernavaca, located in the state of Morelos west of Mexico City, was home to numerous American leftists sympathetic to the Soviet Union and the International Communist cause. Because Mexico had no extradition treaty with the U.S. at the time, Lieber apparently felt he’d be safe there. He and Minna stayed in Cuernavaca until winter 1954, when the Soviet Communist Party obtained housing and jobs for them in Warsaw. Then, without notice to Minna’s brother, they relocated behind the Iron Curtain.

After several unfruitful days of waiting for those previously-mentioned avenues of inquiry to produce something, during which time I searched telephone books in Brockett’s Point, Branford, CT and the New York City area for listings of persons with the names Maxim and Minna Lieber, my feelers reached a woman named Rhoda Loeb,[11] once a Brockett’s Point neighbor of the Liebers. She confirmed that Max had been a Communist spy, and told me that Minna had been Max’s third wife. She speculated that although not married to Max when his espionage activity was at its height, Minna probably knew about his unsavory past and understood that someday her husband might be forced to either flee to avoid prosecution, spend time behind bars, or become a government witness. “In 1951,” Rhoda said, “with the FBI breathing down their necks, Minna, Max, and their two children quietly ‘slipped outta Dodge.’”

Significantly, Loeb was acquainted with a New York lawyer who had represented Alger Hiss. A few days after our conversation, Rhoda decided that my inquiry was legit. She contacted her lawyer friend. He apparently communicated with Hiss. A week later, Minna Lieber telephoned me.

In our two phone conversations, I found Minna to be intelligent, articulate, and friendly. I asked how she’d found out that I was looking for her.

“Alger called Maxim’s son, and he asked his wife to call me,” Minna said. “[I was] told 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.” Until then, Minna had not known of her brothers’ death.

Minna also filled in some gaps for me. The Liebers had remained in Poland 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’d abandoned, settling in East Hartford.[12]

The decision to leave America had not been made lightly. Max Lieber could have testified against Alger Hiss in exchange for a grant of immunity. What had shaped his thinking?

Prior to my hunt for Minna Lieber, the Iron Curtain had tumbled and Soviet Communism had been destroyed. In a spirit of openness, historians were allowed access to previously secret records, among which were facts about Alger Hiss. Newspaper articles have kept the public apprised.[13] In one such article, Hungarian researcher Maria Schmidt[14] revealed events about Lieber’s friend, Noel Field, which probably convinced Lieber he should leave.

In 1949, word of Field’s[15] double life had leaked out through Whittaker Chambers and Hede Massing.[16] Dedicated Communists, Field, his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law, fled to Hungary. While poring through records of her country’s secret police, Schmidt found transcripts of statements made by Field upon his arrival in Hungary. Field had told Hungarian authorities that Hiss was a Soviet spy who, in the late 1930s, tried to recruit him only to find that he was already working for another Soviet apparatus run by Massing.

Had the FBI been able to arrest Field prior to his defection and obtain his testimony against Hiss, he would have corroborated revelations about Hiss by Chambers and Massing, thereby enabling prosecutors to bring treason charges against Hiss. But after Field defected, unable to locate a second, constitutionally-required witness to try someone for treason, the government was forced to content itself with prosecuting Hiss for perjury. Hiss’s first trial ended in a hung jury.[17] He was re-tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for four years.[18] But because the Government still wanted to try Hiss for treason, Max Lieber, a source for that information, assumed center stage. It was then that he elected to defect.

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

Maxim Lieber died on April 10, 1993 in East Hartford. He was ninety-six. Although a death certificate was filed, no estate was opened and no will was probated. Minna buried him quietly, without publishing an obituary. The literary community, of which he’d been a member, although waxing eloquent over the death of Alger Hiss later, was silent when Lieber died.

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

When Bob Winkler’s initial efforts to locate Minna Lieber failed, he could have simply turned the Zelinka estate assets over to the State of Maryland and been done with it. Instead, he pursued the matter because, in the finest tradition of the American Bar, he sought to carry out the wishes of his deceased client. His decision presented me with the opportunity to learn that spies are not merely people one reads about in a Le Carre novel.

Perhaps my experience will add another small piece to the puzzle of the Hiss-Chambers case. Even if it goes unnoticed, it does confirm that spying has been around for eons, and barring a change for the better in human nature, will continue with us into well the future.


[1] Robert N. Winkler, Esquire, 606 Baltimore Avenue, Towson, MD 21204.
[2] Alvin Raymond Zelinka, a former U.S. Government clerk with the Department of Defense, who had died on April 15, 1987. The missing sister was Minna Zelinka Lieber.
[3] Office of the Register of Wills for Baltimore County, MD. File # 61552.
[4] Winkler was appointed successor Personal Representative on January 19, 1988.
[5] Gaines, an elderly woman, had lived in Branford, CT her entire life, worked at the local Historical Society, knew just about everyone in that small town, and was possessed of an inquiring mind. An investigator’s dream helper.
[6] Interview with Jean W. Larch, surviving co-tenant of Riptide Cottage, Lieber’s former home in Brockett’s Point, CT.
[7] Whittaker Chambers, Witness; Random House, Inc. New York, NY. 1952.
[8] Lieber, a successful New York literary agent whose client list contained the names of Erskine Caldwell, Carey McWilliams, and Robert Coates, was born October 15, 1897 in Warsaw, Poland.
[9] Anthony J. Sacco, Little Sister Lost; iUniverse, Inc., Lincoln, NE. 2004.
[10] Hiss, a Cum Laude graduate of the Class of 1926, went on to Harvard Law School.
[11] Rhoda Loeb, Esquire, a retired lawyer and part-time Workman’s Compensation Commissioner in New Haven, CT at the time I contacted her. For years after leaving Brockett’s Point, she’d maintained her
“summer cottage” there. It was Rhoda who confirmed that Max Lieber had been accused of spying, and set
me on the path toward finally unraveling this case.
[12] Sacco, Little Sister Lost; Ibid.
[13] See Sacco, Little Sister Lost; the Appendix contains an extensive compilation of newspaper articles
appearing between 1992 and 1997 regarding Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers and HUAC.
[14] A Hungarian historian at work on a study of her nation’s secret police, who was allowed access to formerly restricted files in Budapest’s Interior Ministry.
[15] Noel Haviland Field, a State Department official then working in the West European Division.
[16] Anther confessed former Soviet spy, who had operated a Communist cell for the Soviet union, along with her husband.
[17] Begun on May 31, 1949, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Judge Samuel H. Kaufman presiding. Lloyd Paul Stryker, Esquire, a giant of the defense trial bar defended him, and two Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court testified for Hiss as character witnesses. This first trial was concluded
July 7, 1949.
[18] Hiss’s second trial began November 17, 1949 and ended January 21, 1950.

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