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Dan interviews Aviva Kempner, Director of The Spy Behind Home Plate

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by Dan Skip Allen

Aviva Kempner Interview: The Spy Behind Home Plate Director

Dan Skip Allen: I did not know a lot about Moe Berg before a movie that I saw last year called The Catcher Was a Spy. After watching The Spy Behind Home Plate ,I can say how much better of a film The Spy Behind Home Plate was. We got a glimpse of Moe Berg’s life in the Catcher Was A Spy but you go in depth on his entire life. Is that what you were going for? Going from the beginning to the end?

Aviva Kempner: Right! I have done other biographies before. It’s always important to show the roots of where someone is from. Where their parents are from. How they got involved in baseball. With Moe it’s such an incredible story. He led such dangerous mission as a spy so we wanted to add as much as we could about those years.

Dan: I am such a big Boston Red Sox fan. To see that this man led such an incredible life, I was flabbergasted. You did a documentary about “Hammerin” Hank Greenberg, what is it about these people? Are you interested in doing a movie about Sandy Kofax?

Aviva: I do films about unknown Jewish heroes. Way back in time, my first film was about Jews fighting Nazi’s, then there was Hank Greenberg, Gertrude Berg who had a TV show The Goldberg’s in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Then there was Roosevelt a hundred years ago. A friend approached me who helped me on my other films. He said I want you to do a film about Sid Luckman, the Jewish football player but I don’t like Football. Then he said Barney Ross the Jewish boxer, I said I like boxing less. When he said Moe Berg, I knew. He had led a life of brawn and brains. Also, he led a dangerous life of finding out whether the Nazi’s had nuclear capabilities. If they did, we wouldn’t be having this interview today.

Dan: Absolutely not, Germany would have sent those bombs everywhere they could so they could rule the world. The other thing that fascinated me was the fact that we thought the Germans were ahead of us in nuclear proliferation. Moe was so friendly to everyone that people didn’t suspect that he was a Spy. Can you go into that?

Aviva: I had the advantage of two filmmakers; Jerry Feldstein and Neal Goldstein that 30 years ago they had tried to make a film about Moe Berg. They interviewed the people he played with and he talked a lot about the political climate. They also interviewed the people he spied with. They said how cool he was under the greatest dangers. He read a lot and learned about nuclear capability. We were developing the nuclear bomb here, but we didn’t know where the Germans were at. We knew they had this great nuclear physicist there; Heisenberg. Ironically the Jewish physicists had to leave. Moe was sent on this mission to see how advanced the Germans were. He was on an assassination mission, he had a gun in his pocket and a cyanide pill in his other pocket. If Heisenberg said anything in his lecture Moe was instructed to kill him. I think Heisenberg would never had been tabled to go to Zurich if the Germans had been that far advanced. We had to verify it. If they were ahead of us, I guess we would have sped up the Manhattan project. Moe’s message back was that they were two years behind us.

Dan : Yeah! Obviously in the film that’s what happened. You just don’t know! Moe was such a nice guy. He was an easy person to infiltrate that world using Wick.

Aviva: It was way before he went to Switzerland that he was already interviewing Italian scientists that could give him info on Heisenberg. A big catch, as FDR put it. Finding Antonia Ferri and getting him to the states. When Italy fell, the Germans wanted him to continue his research. When Moe sought him out, he was in the mountains fighting with militia and Moe convinced him to come to the States to work with us.

Dan: The other thing is, a lot isn’t known about his romantic life. You touch on it a little bit in the film. Why is Moe such a guy’s guy? There wasn’t a lot known about his female companions.

Aviva: He had a 13-year relationship with Estella Huna. There were interviews with her son that can corroborate this. The guys on his team’s said that he would go out with girls. The real find for me was getting to interview Babe Ruth daughter at 101 years old. Moe tried to seduce her on the trip to Japan.

Dan: That’s right, she liked to dance with him because he was such a good dancer. You do talk about that in the film. Since you brought up Japan, the aspect that he learned all of these languages? Why did he think learning all these languages was important? He learned Japanese in two weeks on a Train trip.

Aviva: At Princeton he was a linguist. The first year he had time, he was in France at the Sorbonne studying Sanskrit. What it really helped him with, was talking to the Germans. He fooled them into thinking he was a great student, but it also helped him become a great spy.

Dan: I work for a website site called Cinesportstalk.com where we know two things; sports and movies. Why baseball? What is it about baseball that you love?

Aviva: Growing up in Detroit my father would bring my brother and I to games. It’s a thinking man’s game. I love the strategy and the surprises in it. I live in Washington DC now, so I follow the nationals and I like the Red Sox as well. It’s the only sport I really follow.

Dan: I’m a fan of sports in general. Moe Berg is a Red Sox legend. Another Red Sox legend Joe Cronin sought out Moe when he was with the Washington Senators, he wanted him to come to Boston, but he went to Cleveland instead.

Aviva: Not only did he speak him out as a player he sought him out as a coach. Cronin really admired Moe and they really got along.

Dan: Yeah that’s the thing when you watch the entire documentary, he has the innate ability to get along with everybody. That’s what is interesting about the guy. The fact that he was this baseball player turned spy is a story you can’t believe. You have so many great interviews and footage in the documentary. It’s phenomenal what you were able to capture in this documentary. I really appreciate that you gave me the time to talk about this film.  

Aviva: Check Spy Behind Home Plate website to see when and where the film is playing.

Dan: Thanks for giving me the time today!

Interviewer:  Dan Skip Allen

Interviewee:  Aviva Kempner – Director of The Spy Behind Home Plate