Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills.
One sultry afternoon in the Summer of 1943, a young Jewish journalist called Anna Ginsbourg gingerly entered the imposing YMCA building on Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai, China. The YMCA was by far the largest building in Shanghai, and it was overflowing with European refugees who had found themselves in the Far East while war raged across the world. Ginsbourg informed the receptionist she had come for an appointment with one of the residents, a Buddhist monk called Chao Kung. Ginsbourg, a feisty woman in her early thirties, had been seeking an audience with the monk for months, desperate to interview him for the local Jewish refugee newspaper. Eventually she received word that he had consented to meet her, and the day of the meeting had finally arrived. After a short wait in the chaotic reception area Ginsbourg was shown into a quiet side room. Chau Kung was already there, waiting for her, dressed in his ceremonial robes and a black cloth skullcap that almost completely covered his shaven head. He eyed her up and down, and motioned for her to sit down.
“What language would you like to interview me in?” he asked her in English, his voice high-pitched but soft, “English, German, or Yiddish?”
His crinkled face broke into a smile, and Ginsbourg smiled back at him. For Grand Abbot Chau Kung of Shanghai, the Japanese government recognized Dalai Lama of Tibet, was none other than Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch-Lincoln, the notorious Hungarian-born Jewish fraudster and fugitive, erstwhile Christian missionary, Liberal member of the British parliament, German spy, and political agitator, who had over the previous fifty years been arrested and imprisoned in multiple countries, and whose varied life story was more remarkable than the most imaginative fiction.
The interview with Ginsbourg would be the last interview Trebitsch-Lincoln ever gave, after a lifetime of desperately seeking notoriety and fame. A couple of months later Trebitsch-Lincoln was dead, struck down by a mysterious stomach ailment. There were those who believed he had been poisoned by the Nazis, who had contemplated using him in a scheme against the British. Others simply believed that his unhealthy and frenetic life had hastened his untimely death. Whatever it was, on that July afternoon in the peaceful setting of the YMCA building side-room, as Ginsbourg scribbled notes and sipped green tea, Trebitsch-Lincoln presented her with a final version of his life story, a story so magnificent, so dramatic, and so unbelievable, that it deserves to be retold, even if the man himself does not deserve to be remembered.
Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch-Lincoln began his life as Yitzchak Trebitsch, born in the Spring of 1879 to a devout family that belonged to the breakaway ‘Status Quo’ Orthodox community of Paks, Hungary. The Paks Jewish community was tiny, barely exceeding one thousand souls. Breakaway communities in Hungary were extreme and inflexible, refusing to belong to any government recognized organ, even if it was Orthodox, believing that official recognition inevitably led to assimilation.
Trebitsch’s father, Nathan, was a successful businessman who owned a fleet of barges transporting grain to cities across the Austro-Hungarian empire. His wife, Julia, hailed from the distinguished Freund family. Nathan was a dogmatic and forceful personality fully supported in his strict application of Orthodox Judaism by Julia, who bore him fourteen children, or possibly sixteen, several of whom died in infancy. Trebitsch was the second son of six who survived. The oldest, Vilmos, was a child genius who later descended into mental illness and never recovered. The other boys went in multiple directions, none of them retaining the Orthodoxy of their youth into adulthood.
The rabbi of Paks during this period was a renowned Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Eliezer Zussman Sofer (1830-1902), devoted disciple of Rabbi Abraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (no relation), the ‘Ketav Sofer’ of Pressburg (Bratislava), and an uncompromising traditionalist who rejected any contact with the outside world. Perhaps at Rav Sofer’s urging, Nathan sent his second son to Pressburg at a young age, to study at the renowned Pressburg yeshiva. The experience was formative, not because it brought the young Trebitsch closer to his Judaism, but because it exposed him to the German language, which he mastered quickly and comprehensively, enabling him to widen the scope of his exposure to non-Jewish culture and studies.
In the early 1890’s the Trebitsch family moved to Budapest so that Nathan could turn the provincial family business into something more substantial. But in 1893 the stock market crashed, and he suffered a substantial loss of money. Desperate to rebuild his financial capital, he cashed out his shares at a loss and invested the money in various business ventures, all of which ultimately failed. The once prosperous Trebitsch family was suddenly reduced to struggling for their survival. This change of circumstances had a profound effect on the young Trebitsch, resulting in a lifelong distaste for capitalism, a system that had so dramatically destroyed his family’s life. But rather than turn him into a socialist or a communist, as was so common during that period, the tragic circumstances of his father’s financial ruin turned him into a cynical, amoral crook with an insatiable desire for money.
In early 1897 Trebitsch was accused of stealing an expensive gold watch in Budapest. At around the same time accusations of petty theft emerged in the Italian port of Trieste. In both instances he evaded arrest, as by the time the accusations were made he was nowhere to be found. His restless nature had by now resulted in his traveling frequently from one country to another, not so much because he was heading towards a particular destination, but rather he seemed to enjoy the constant journey. He restively flitted around Europe, and possibly North and South America, never staying anywhere for too long. Indeed, the nomadic bug would become a lifelong hallmark, and he always seemed to be on the move.
In the Summer of 1897 he arrived in England, probably to attend the widely advertised Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria. There he fell in with Christian missionaries through the efforts of an indefatigable Jewish convert to Christianity, Reverend Chaim Lypshytz of the Barbican Mission to the Jews. The missionaries in London’s East End district were extremely active among foreign Jewish immigrants, offering them free lodgings and food in exchange for attending classes in Christian theology. Whether Trebitsch had any interest in conversion at the time, or whether he was simply looking for a free place to stay, is hard to know. What we do know is that some months later he left the hostel simultaneous to the disappearance of a gold watch and chain belonging to Mrs. Lypshytz, along with a passport belonging to a fellow resident.
Trebitsch reappeared in Hungary, but didn’t stay there for long. With his family in disarray as a result of Nathan’s financial problems, he tried unsuccessfully to find work. Accused yet again of stealing a gold watch, in late 1898 he left Hungary and went to Hamburg, where he found refuge in the Irish Presbyterian mission house. This was a Christian facility run by another convert from Judaism, a former bank clerk turned pastor called Arnold Frank. Under Frank’s influence Trebitsch began studying for conversion to Christianity, and in December 1899, a few months after the sudden and unexpected death of Nathan, Trebitsch was formally baptized into the Christian faith.
The conversion idea was no doubt enhanced by his introduction to a young German gentile woman called Margarethe Kahlor. She was an unlikely match for the restless young Trebitsch. The daughter of a retired sailor, she was two years older than him, and had given birth to an illegitimate child in 1897. Perhaps it was this factor that made the idea of Trebitsch courting Margarethe more acceptable to her parents. Whatever it was, he became a frequent visitor to their home. Every visit would apparently end with Trebitsch leading the family in passionate prayer, on their knees, eyes closed, arms raised, as he cried out ‘deliver us from all sins and purify our hearts!’
The Kahlors were fairly wealthy and this was certainly an important factor for Trebitsch, whose desire for money was boundless. It was agreed that the young couple would marry once he found a way to make a living, and the plan was for him to become a Christian minister after having trained at a theological seminary. So, after his conversion Trebitsch joined a Lutheran college in a small town called Breklum, near the Danish border, to train for the ministry, but he found college life exceptionally boring and was soon back in Hamburg. For some reason Trebitsch now hopped onto a boat and sailed to Canada, where he spent a few weeks at an ailing missionary church in Montreal before traveling to New York. But within a couple of months, following an intense exchange of correspondence, he had convinced the presiding minister of the Montreal mission, Revd. John McCarter, to engage him as his assistant, and he returned to Montreal and began trying to convert Jews to Christianity.
Among his Christian friends Trebitsch could not have been more popular. They found his enthusiasm infectious, and his zeal inspiring. But the Jews of Montreal found this opinionated, insidious convert, who regularly knocked on their doors to missionize, and who tried to hand out Yiddish translations of the Gospels on the streets of the Jewish neighborhoods, repulsive and annoying. Not that the hostility towards him diminished Trebitsch’s commitment to his new calling. He frequently gave public speeches on street corners, and was ready to debate any Jew who engaged with him. And while he continued with his missionary work he also concluded his theological studies at McGill University, and within a year he had graduated as a fully-fledged Lutheran cleric.
In the early summer of 1901 he wrote to Margarethe and asked her to join him in Montreal. Within weeks she had arrived, and in July of that year they were married by Revd. McCarter. But all had not gone according to plan. Although Margarethe’s father had made promises of a dowry, the amount of money he sent with his daughter was woefully insignificant in the eyes of the greedy Trebitsch, and it soon became evident that no more money was on the way.
For a couple of years Trebitsch desperately tried to build up his own Christian mission and use his activities to solicit church funds and missionary society funds. But although he seems to have been a very popular public speaker, and was well regarded for his effervescent enthusiasm, his admirers failed to deliver the financial support he needed for even his family’s most basic needs. When Margarethe’s sister died in early 1903, Trebitsch abruptly gave up the Montreal mission, and, without saying goodbye to anyone, returned to Hamburg with Margarethe. He then left his pregnant wife with her parents and traveled to London, where he attempted to get a job with the London based parent organization of the missionary society. But between Revd. Lypshytz’s undisguised disdain for the man who stole his wife’s watch, and slowly emerging information of financial irregularities perpetrated by Trebitsch in Montreal, the London missionaries were reluctant to engage him and turned him away.
Trebitsch was unfazed by his failure with the missionaries, and he now took a job as curate in the parish of Appledore, a sleepy village in the southwest of England. How he got the job is unclear, as he was not authorized as an Anglican minister by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and although it was some months before he took it, he failed the basic priesthood entry test, getting miserable scores, even in the Hebrew section. In July Margarethe gave birth in Hamburg to their second son, their first having died shortly after birth in Montreal. They named this newborn Ignatius Emanuel, and Margarethe joined her husband in Appledore soon afterwards. Things were not going well. His superficial knowledge of the gospels, and of basic church practice, were slowly catching up with him, and had it not been for a lucky break that allowed him to leave the priesthood, he would have been unceremoniously defrocked within a short period of time.
The lucky break, if you can call it that, was the unexpected death of Margarethe’s father, Captain Johann Kahlor. Suddenly, and for the first time in his life, Trebitsch came into some money. He immediately moved to Hampton-on-Thames, a suburb of London, and began to live like a country squire, for the first time using an English last name: Lincoln. He bought a large house, furnished it, and started to buy books on economics and politics, as his focus shifted away from spiritual pursuits to these more temporal interests. Within eighteen months he was actively looking for employment in the political sphere, and eventually applied for a job as director of the Temperance Society, an organization that fought against the evils of alcoholism, and against the distilleries and breweries who underpinned this social problem. He did not get the job, but as fate would have it, as a result of the interview he came to the attention of the society’s principle funders, a wealthy industrialist called Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.
Seebohm Rowntree was a fascinating and decent man, who would later regret the day he had ever met Trebitsch. He was born in York, into a wealthy Quaker family. His father, Joseph Rowntree, started the famous cocoa and chocolate company bearing his name, which by the end of the nineteenth century was one of the largest employers in Great Britain. Benjamin was an indefatigable social activist who over the years funded and was involved in various research projects whose aim it was to reveal the true extent of poverty in Britain at the time, by demonstrating how many thousands of families and individuals were living below what he referred to as the ‘poverty line’, a term he invented to define the minimum amount of money required for people to house themselves, and keep themselves warm, clothed and fed at a basic subsistence level.
For some reason, Seebohm Rowntree took a liking to Trebitsch. He was fascinated by his ability to speak multiple languages, flowing seamlessly from one to another. Trebitsch also impressed him with his wide, if not deep, knowledge of numerous subjects. For Seebohm Rowntree, Trebitsch’s value lay in the fact that he could conduct research for him in European countries, and then convey that information back to him and his team in flawless English, so that it could be examined and analyzed together with similar British data. He appointed Trebitsch as his personal private secretary, and awarded him a generous salary plus a travel allowance that paid for any expenses associated with travel on his behalf. How he could have been so naïve is hard to understand. Perhaps it was Trebitsch’s obsequious middle-European charm, or perhaps Trebitsch was just the right person appearing at the right time, when he had a specific need for a linguist to liaise this particular project. Either way, Seebohm Rowntree’s connection with Trebitsch, although it would last for several years, proved to be a disaster from the very beginning.
In Part Two find out: how Trebitsch generated a massive diplomatic row over books he ‘needed’ from the French government; how he was unexpectedly elected Liberal MP for Darlington in 1910, only to lose his seat in Parliament shortly afterwards; how he later went spectacularly bankrupt, owing fortunes of money to multiple creditors; how he got caught up in a devastating energy commodity scandal; and how he became an espionage agent for multiple countries during the First World War. The story about the Orthodox Jewish boy from Hungary and erstwhile Christian missionary just gets stranger and stranger.