Isaiah Oggins

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Isaiah Oggins (also known as Ysai or Cy) (July 22, 1898 - 1947) was an American-born communist and spy for the Soviet secret police. After working in Europe and the Far East, Oggins was arrested, served eight years in the GULAG detention system, and was summarily executed on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

Early life[edit]

The third of four children, Oggins was born 1898 in Willimantic, Connecticut, the son of Simon M. Oggins and his wife Rena, both Jewish immigrants from the David "Reuben" Abolnik shtetl near Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania. Oggins's parents arrived in New York in 1888.

He entered Columbia University in February 1917 under current Jewish quota policies. Classmates included publishers Bennet Cerf, Donald Klopfer, and Richard Simon; historian Matthew Josephson; novelist Louis Bromfield, critic Kenneth Burke, and author William Slater Brown. Professors included John Erskine, George Odell, Robert Livingston Schuyler, and Charles A. Beard. After receiving his B.A. in History, he began a doctorate in History while working at history reader there, then night school in the New York Public School system.

In 1923, Oggins became a Communist by joining the Workers Party of America. The same year, he changed jobs to work for Yale University Press as a researcher. On April 23, 1924, he married Nerma Berman (1898-1995), a Rand School student and Communist activist, originally born in the Skapiskis shtetl (also near Kovno). She became secretary of the New York division of the National Defense Committee of the Rand School for Red Scare victims Scott Nearing and other professors.[1]

Soviet underground espionage[edit]

As of August 26, 1926, when he applied for his U.S. passport, Oggins had joined the Soviet underground and was readying for his first overseas assignment, probably in Germany and France. In April 1928, Nerma applied for her first U.S. passport. The couple departed from New York on May 5, 1928, for a villa in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin, Germany. Their job was to maintain a low profile and inhabit their residence, so that other Soviet agents could periodically use it as a safe house for various espionage related activities. To accomplish this mission, Cy and Nerma had to avoid any appearance of being interested in Communist politics; they had to avoid even reading Communist newspapers. Friend Sidney Hook spotted Oggins in the Gendarmenmarkt, as described in his autobiography Out of Step (1984). Oggins had to resist the temptation to have meetings with his old friend, although he did not always resist this temptation fully.[2][3]

The Ogginses moved from Berlin to Paris in the Spring of 1930. In Neuilly-sur-Seine, they watched White Russians, Trotskyites including Trotsky's Paris-based son, Lev Sedov, and the family of Michael Feodorovich Romanov. After exposure l'affaire Switz (1933-1934, involving Robert Gordon Switz, Lydia Stahl, and Arvid Jacobson[4]), the Ogginses left Paris (September 1934) and returned to the States with their young son Robin (b. 1931). After a brief stint in New York, they left for San Francisco. Leaving his wife and child behind, Cy Oggins set off for China in September 1935—never to return to the United States.

In Shanghai, Oggins reported to Grace and Manny Granich (brother of Mike Gold). In 1936, he worked in Dairen during the Manchukuo and traveled to Harbin. He reported to Charles Emile Martin (AKA George Wilmer, Lorenz, Laurenz, Dubois—born Matus Steinberg of Belgorod-Dnestrovsky) and wife Elsa Marie Martin (AKA Joanna Wilmer, Lora, Laura). (Martin later served in the Red Orchestra, spying on Nazi Germany.) By October 1937, the Martins and Oggins fled separately after Chiang Kai-Shek attacked Manchuria in July.

Oggins met his wife and son in Paris in February 1938, only to leave again in May. Nerma Berman Oggins left Paris with their son in September 1939 and returned to New York.[5]

Detention, arrest, imprisonment, and death[edit]

On February 20, 1939, the Soviet NKVD arrested Oggins at the Hotel Moskva and took him to the Lubyanka. His case received a hearing on January 5, 1940. Ten days later, he received a sentence of eight years.

On the next day, Oggins shipped out to Norillag where fellow inmates included Jacques Rossi. He became known there as "The Professor." Nerma Berman Oggins requested the U.S. Department of State to investigate her husband's disappearance. On December 8, 1942, Oggins received visits from American diplomats at the Butyrka prison in Moscow. By May, 1943, the Soviets reneged his release.

In the summer of 1947, Oggins was taken to Laboratory Number One (the "Kamera"), where Grigory Mairanovsky injected him with the poison curare, which takes 10–15 minutes to kill.[6]

FBI investigation[edit]

An FBI investigation into the Oggins affair commenced in March 1943. After the defection of Igor Gouzenko, the name "Oggins" arose again in 1945-1946.[7] On February 10, 1949, FBI investigators questioned Esther Shemitz Chambers, wife of Whittaker Chambers, about the Ogginses. Mrs. Chambers and Mrs. Oggins had both attended the Rand School and had worked at the ILGWU and The World Tomorrow magazine.[8]

Joint Russian-American investigation[edit]

In early 1992, the U.S. and Russia formed the U.S - Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. Overseeing the investigation was Dmitri Volkogonov. On September 23, 1992, Boris Yeltsin handed an Oggins case dossier to American diplomat Malcolm Toon: Oggins had been liquidated on Stalin's orders.[9][10][11][12][13]

Wife's later life and death[edit]

Nerma Berman Oggins drifted from job to job and lived in the New York City area. She retired in 1965 and lived for a time in the Lower East Side at the Henry Street Settlement. She later moved to Vestal, New York to be near her son. She died in Vestal on January 27, 1995.[14]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 17–89. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 
  2. ^ Hook, Sidney (1984). Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century. Harper and Row. pp. 94–101, Chapter 8, "Encounter with Espionage. ISBN 0-06-015632-5. 
  3. ^ See Meier's book about their time in Berlin
  4. ^ "Two Blonde Hairs". TIME. March 26, 1934. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  5. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 90–127, pp. 143–166, 189–223, 224–267, 289–. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 
  6. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 273–288. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 
  7. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 224–267, 289–300. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 
  8. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 224–267, 289–300. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 
  9. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 273–288. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 
  10. ^ "Missing Americans segment on ABC Evening News". Vanderbilt Television News Archive. September 23, 1992. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  11. ^ "Russian Tells of Americans' Fate". New York Times. September 24, 1992. Retrieved 2011-04-09. 
  12. ^ Bohlen, Celestine (September 25, 1992). "Advice of Stalin: Hold Korean War P.O.W.'s". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  13. ^ Fireman, Ken (September 26, 1992). "Deadly Fate Of 2 Cold War Victims". Seattle Times. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  14. ^ Meier, Andrew (August 11, 2008). The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. W. W. Norton. pp. 289–300. ISBN 978-0-393-06097-3. 

External links[edit]

Reviews of The Lost Spy[edit]