His story begins in occupied Europe in 1944 when Johanna Van Haarlem gave birth to her son Erwin in the Netherlands. His father was a Polish Nazi who was killed soon after in the fighting around Caen.
Johanna was of Jewish background and was shunned by family and friends. Unable to properly care for the young Van Haarlem, she was forced to put him up for adoption through the Red Cross which they did by sending the child to Prague in Czechoslovakia.
Nothing more was heard of Van Haarlem until he appeared in London in 1975 with a Dutch passport to work as a waiter at the Hilton Hotel in Kensington. This was a front and his real role was to act as a spy for the Czech intelligence, specifically to gather information on dissident Jewish groups and later to spy on companies involved in America’s Star Wars programme.
But his reappearance had not gone unnoticed and in 1977 he heard that Johanna Van Haarlem was trying to trace her son with the help of the Red Cross. Then in 1978 he received a letter from her after the Dutch authorities had given her his address. They arranged an emotional reunion and Johanna was a regular visitor for a decade and more, completely unaware of her son’s espionage activities.
Van Haarlem had become purchasing manager at the Hilton until he left in 1985 to set himself up as an art dealer specialising in miniatures, although this was just a front to give him greater freedom to pursue his secret assignment. No-one in the art world had heard of him and yet he had thousands of pounds in unexplained income in separate bank and building society accounts.
He continued his pretence to be Jewish and twice visited Russia with a protest group as well as America to gather information on Jewish affairs and on the National Task Force. Van Haarlem even contrived to visit the Polaris submarine base at the British Admiralty’s Underwater Research Unit, as well as other sensitive military installations.
But the net was closing and in April 1988 detectives raided Van Haarlem’s home where they found him hunched over his radio receiving instructions from his handlers. They also discovered tiny codebooks concealed in a bar of soap, strange chemicals and car magazines later found to contain messages written in invisible ink.
He was held for questioning and continued to protest his innocence until Johanna arrived to support him. She could not believe that her son was a spy and she agreed to provide a blood sample for the DNA test that proved that Van Haarlem was almost certainly not her son.
But who then was he? He refused to say and in March 1989 he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment as probably the first person to be tried at the Old Bailey under an alias and became known as the ‘spy with no name’.
He was held at Parkhurst Prison while outside the world was changing. Communism was overthrown in Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution and the country split into the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, the same year that Van Haarlem was released and deported to the Czech Republic.
Van Haarlem’s true identity did not emerge until 2005 when he published his memoirs. His real name was Václav Jelínek, born in Prague in 1944, one day earlier than the man whose identity he stole. What became of the real Van Haarlem is not known.
The real mystery though is why Johanna Van Haarlem should seek out her son within months of his application for a Dutch passport. Was it coincidence or is it possible that Johanna herself was a spy for MI5 or the Dutch security services? We will never know since she died in 2004.
Meanwhile, Václav Jelínek continues to live quietly near Prague.