Friday, 22 June 2018

Vengeance

The children were intrigued by the naval museum that was half a ship.  Ships and the sea were not things they had grown up with.  The occasional visit to the Dead Sea was as far north as they usually ventured.  Our two grandchildren were children of the desert.
You see, when I came to settle in Israel late in 1949, it was way down south in the Negev that I started a small business, taking my Hebrew name from the most important town in the area.  So it was as Avraham Ramon that I was shortly afterwards married to a girl I'd known as a child in the old country.
When our grandson, Eli, reached his twelfth birthday in 1988, I wanted to give him and his little sister, Shula, the biggest treat I could.  A week’s holiday in Haifa was something the children had never experienced – they’d never been so far north before in their lives. 
It was on the second morning of our holiday that my two grandchildren and I, walking up a steep side­-road that ran at an acute angle from the main coast road, came across the odd‑looking building with a rather unusual sign outside.
“What do those words mean, Grandpa?” asked Eli.
I spelled them out for him.
““Illegal Immigration and Naval Museum.”
“What’s illegal immigration?” asked Shula.
“It means coming into the country unlawfully.”
Eli knew what I was talking about.
“It’s all those stories you used to tell us, about when you were young.  Let’s go in, Grandpa." 
"Look, Shula," I said, "the museum’s half a ship. They must have brought an old ship up here, and made it into a sort of living story book."
We walked in, and instantly the glare of the morning sun was transmuted into a shadowy, greenish light, and the heat into air-conditioned comfort.  As I bought the tickets, I asked the man at the desk the name of the ship that had been integrated into the museum.
Grizzled, bearded, he looked at me intently before pointing at the ship’s side. 
“The Af Al Pi Chen,” he said, “one of the vessels that used to bring illegal immigrants into the port of Haifa under the noses of the British.  During the Mandate, of course.”
“Can we go and explore, grandpa?” asked Eli.
“Yes, off you go.  I’ll never keep pace with you.  I’ll go round in my own time.”
They raced away and I turned to the man at the desk, his face half in shadow. 
“It seems like a very good place to bring children.”
“Oh, kids like scrambling about the ship.  For them it’s an adventure.  But the story we tell here – that’s a different matter.  That’s no fairy tale.”
“I know,” I said.
“I was in the middle of it all,” said the man.
“Is that how you came to work in the museum?”
“Partly.  Yes, I was well qualified, I suppose.  The Haganah, first in the '30s and then after the Second World War, and then a spell in the Israeli Navy.  But by that time I was already searching for someone – someone I wanted to find very badly indeed.  When I left the Navy I looked for a job where I could go on searching.  This was ideal.”
“Sounds intriguing,” I said.   “Who are you searching for?”
“I'll tell you.  Have you got time for a chat?”
“Why not?  The children seem happy enough.”
I took a seat and he paused, as if seeking the best way to break into the narrative.
“Where to begin?  After the War our people, the pitiful remnants who had survived Hitler's camps, were still in camps – refugee camps – and yearning, as Jews had yearned for two thousand years, to come here.  For them, at that time, it was the only possible haven.  We had to bring them in.  The Haganah bought, borrowed, chartered, whatever vessels we could from wherever we could.  We brought them across the sea – to within sight of the land.  And then we faced the British blockade.  So we had to smuggle them in – or try to.
“It was in the autumn of 1947 that I was appointed leader for one particular voyage.  We were about to set sail for Haifa, when I received instructions by radio that a co‑leader from the Palmach had been assigned. 
“I was uneasy from the moment the man arrived on board – tall, thin, fair‑haired, blue‑eyed and clearly a native German speaker.  He looked like the archetypal Aryan – and he aroused in me the strongest possible antipathy.  I didn't beat about the bush.
" 'I don't trust you,' I said.  'Understand?’
“ ‘Couldn't be clearer,’ he said.  ‘From now on I'm just one of the refugees – OK? – and you’re sole leader.  All right?’
            The man at the desk paused, and looked across at me.  I said nothing.
“But in the end I wasn't able to do without him.  When we were just over the horizon from Haifa, the radio packed up.  That meant we couldn't contact the reception committee, back on the mainland, waiting to organise the run into shore and the disembarkation.  So I just had to turn to the man from the Palmach.
“ ‘You'll have to row for the shore,' I said, 'and contact the reception committee.  There's no other way.  You'll set out at 5 p.m..  You'll have two hours of daylight and four of our precious night hours to row to the shore and make contact.  Precisely six hours after you've left, at 11 p.m., we'll begin to edge towards the coast.  I expect to see the current Haganah welcoming message by Morse lamp from the top of Mount Carmel during the night – in good time for us to get to the beach and disembark our passengers.   Now, is that all understood?'
“ ‘Aye, aye captain’ he said.  ‘Now, when you say the current Haganah message ...?’
“ ‘Yes?’
“ ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I'm Palmach.  How do I know the current Haganah code?’
I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.
“ ‘Are you telling me that you were sent as co‑leader on this trip without being told the coded reception message?’
" ‘Strange as it may seem.’
            “This put the seal on the suspicion I’d nurtured from the start.
“ ‘Well, if they didn't trust you with it, neither will I.  They'll know on shore.  All you have to do is to make contact.’
            “But he wasn’t prepared to take that. 
“ ‘Understand this – if I'm not given that message, I don't leave this ship.’
            “So I gave him what he wanted.   ‘The coded message I expect to see is: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.’
" ‘Right," he said, gazing at me intently. 'And that's what you'll see.   That I promise you.’
 “And that's the message I did see.  About 2.30 a.m., when we were lying about 8 kilometres from the coast.  And a terrible dilemma it placed me in.  Because it was the wrong message.”
For the first time since he’d begun his story, I interrupted him.
“But wasn’t that the message you’d asked to see – that you’d expected to see?”
He thumped the desk in front of him
“No, no, no!  I hadn't trusted Hans Utterman, not from the start – he could have been a spy infiltrated by the British, and I was damned if I'd let him have the current Haganah code.  So I gave him the code used in the previous 17‑day period. 
            “It all seemed so simple.  If Utterman was genuine, the reception committee would know the current code and use it.  If he was a spy he’d go straight to the British, so if I saw the message I'd given him, the thing to do was to turn round as quickly as possible and head straight out for sea.”
            “But good God!” I said.  “Didn’t you consider a third possibility?”
            “Not till he’d gone.   Only then I realised in what a dilemma I might have placed our friends on shore.  Suppose this Utterman was genuine, and suppose he told the committee that I was expecting to see the message: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord – that he’d promised me faithfully that this would be the message I'd see.  What would the committee do? – flash me the code I said I was expecting?  Or flash the one I ought to be expecting?”
“And you got…?”
            “The wrong one,” he said.  “The wrong one.  The one I’d given to Hans Utterman.”
            “So what did you do?”
            The old man looked anguished.
“The wrong thing.  To my eternal shame.  I never trusted that damned German spy, but I convinced myself that he’d argued with the reception committee, that he’d insisted they flash the message I'd told him I expected to see.  That message, shining out from the top of Mount Carmel over the calm sea – wrong though it was, it seemed like a beacon of hope.  Surely our own people were out there in the darkness, only a little way away, waiting for us. 
“I gave the order to move forward the last few kilometres.  We inched ahead in the darkness, closer and closer.  Suddenly ...  lights, brilliant, brilliant lights, flooding the ship from stem to stern.  And that voice, that British voice I hear still in my dreams, my nightmares...
“ ‘Stand to, the Miriam.  You will be boarded shortly.  My men have orders to fire if there is any resistance.  Keep calm and no‑one will be hurt.’
“Motor vessels burst into life and roared towards us.   Within minutes we were surrounded.  We offered no resistance when they came on board.  
“We were all interned, every last one of us, first on shore, then in Cyprus, for over a year.  For myself I didn't care.  But those people, so close, after so much tribulation – only to have the cup dashed from their lips.  It was heart‑breaking.  As soon as I got back, I set myself the job of tracking down that German spy.  Years passed, and I never saw or heard of him.  Then I took this job in the Illegal Immigration Museum because I felt that, if he was still alive, one day the museum would draw him.  For twenty years I've sat here, searching the faces – always in vain.  Until… “
“Until today,” I said.  “That's right isn't it, Uzzi?  You recognised Hans Utterman the minute he walked through that door.”
“Of course,” said Uzzi Tal.  “Age, weight, an accent – what are they?  The man is in the eyes.  At last.”
A second later a revolver was pointing directly at me.
“I'm sorry about your grandchildren, Herr Utterman.  They're innocent.  But the time has come to pay for your betrayal.  As you see, I'm prepared.  I've been prepared all these years.”
I made no move of any sort.
“Put your gun away, Uzzi.  Listen to what I have to say.”
“You think you can talk your way out of this?” he said.  "One of the great betrayals of the Jewish struggle?”
“But you've got it all wrong.  Do you want to hear the truth?  Can you bear it?”
Uzzi Tal kept his gun pointing straight at me.
“Tell me.”
“That night,” I said, “I got to shore about 1 a.m., beached the boat¸ and walked across the sand – straight into the arms of a British patrol.  I was taken to British headquarters, and it was quite clear that they knew the Miriam was out there.  She'd been tracked halfway across the Mediterranean.  They'd also broken the Haganah code – or so I’d believed until just this moment.  Now I realise that all they had was the old code – they didn't know it had been changed.
“They decided to make things easy for themselves by flashing out to the ship what they thought was the reception message.  The closer to shore the Miriam came, the more likely they could board her and intern the passengers without much trouble. 
“You, my dear Uzzi, made two classical errors: you under‑estimated the enemy, and you were too suspicious of your friends.  If only you'd given me the right code in the first place, the whole tragedy would never have happened.  You’d have known the message was wrong.  You might have got away.”
Tal lowered the revolver.  In the dim greenish light, I could see that his hand was shaking.
“How have you turned up after 40 years?  Why could I never find you?”
“I was shipped by the British straight back to Germany,” I said.  "I didn’t manage to return to Israel till ’49.  I got married, and settled down in the Negev.  I took a Hebrew name – but Avraham Ramon or Hans Utterman, I'm quite innocent of the crimes you've been charging me with in your heart all these years.  If there is any guilt for the extra misery heaped upon those hapless refugees – where does it lie?  You tell me. 
“Uzzi, you’ve been nurturing vengeance in this place for twenty years.  Vengeance is a plant that thrives in the shadows.  Pull back the blinds, let in the light, and it will shrivel away.  No, Uzzi, vengeance isn’t for us mortals.  Remember – “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord”."
“Vengeance is mine.”
                        Deuteronomy 32:35
 “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 
                        Romans 12:19

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