Otto Warmbier’s family hid his Jewishness to aid negotiations with North Korea


(JTA) —The family of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student imprisoned by North Korea who died after his release last week, hid his Jewishness from the public as negotiations for his release took place, a family spokesman said.

Warmbier, 22, a Cincinnati native, was traveling on a student tour of North Korea last year when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster. After international outrage and over a year of imprisonment, North Korea released the comatose student last week, saying his health had deteriorated after a bout of botulism. Warmbier’s doctors said he suffered extensive brain damage. He died June 19 in Cincinnati.

The family chose not to disclose his Judaism as negotiations went forward so as not to embarrass North Korea, Mickey Bergman, who worked on negotiations for the student’s release, told the Times of Israel. North Korea had announced that Warmbier had stolen the poster on orders from the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio.

“If that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” Bergman told The Times of Israel. “When you realize he’s Jewish, you realize how ridiculous that claim is.”

JTA reported last week, before his death, that Warmbier became active at the University of Virginia campus Hillel after a 2014 Birthright trip to Israel. His mother is Jewish, but the family is not observant, according to Bergman.

Anat Cohen at The Sheldon

A public memorial for Warmbier was scheduled to be held Thursday morning at Wyoming High School, officiated by Rabbi Jake Rubin, the University of Virginia campus Hillel director who traveled with Warmbier to Israel, Times of Israel reported.

He will be buried at a non-sectarian cemetery. While the family will receive visitors at their home, they will not be observing shiva, the visitation period that follows a Jewish funeral, according to the Times of Israel.


Otto Warmbier, American student released from North Korea, was active in Hillel