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September 22, 1989 - Image 58

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-09-22

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

FICTION

A Short Story

The Crazy Old Man

HUGH NISSENSON

.

Special to The Jewish News

T

he old man lives in the
same apartment on
Jaffa Road in Jerusa-
lem. He's in his late 80s and
blinded by a cataract in his
left eye, but when I saw him
last, about a week after the
liberation of the Old City, he
was on his way, alone, to pray
at the Wall. He recognized me
immediately — or so I
thought — but after a few
minutes' conversation on the
street I realized that he con-
fused me with Uzi because he
asked if I still lived in Haifa.
I let it pass, and chatted for
a while. He still lived with his
daughter, he said, who was
married to a captain in the
paratroops, and had two
children. His son-in-law had
fought and been wounded in
the fight for the Old City,
making a dash across the
crest of the Thmple Mount
toward the Dome of the Rock.
"What's his name?" I
asked.
"Seligman."
"Raphael?" I asked, and he
answered in Yiddish, "Yes.
You know him?"
"We've met."
He peered at me with his
good eye; at my unshaven
face and civilian clothes — a
filthy white shirt and blue
trousers I was wearing for an
Intelligence job I'd just
finished in the Old City.
"So you know Raphael," he
said.
"He's a good soldier."
"Is he?"
"Where was he hit?" I
asked.
"In the right arm."
Then he said, "I must go
and pray for him, and ask
forgiveness."
And off he went, wearing a
black felt hat with a wide
brim, a long black gabardine
coat, and those knee-length
white stockings. In his right
hand he carried a ragged blue-
velvet bag embroidered with
a gold Star of David, for his
prayer shawl. He was the
same. Nothing had changed
for him in almost 20 years. I

58

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 1989

The two Israeli intelligence officers
had 12 hours to work over their
prisoners before the Haganah attacked
the Old City. But they had never
anticipated the old man in the
next apartment.

resisted an impulse to run
upstairs to take a look at his
apartment, imagining that
that, too, had remained the
same, with its wicker chairs
and that hideous sideboard
made from teak and inlaid
with mother-of-pearl that he
had bought from some Arab
when he first came to the
country from Russia in 1912.
Instead, I strolled up King
George Street and, to get out
of the sun, had a cup of bit-
ter coffee in the Cafe 'Vienna.
That afternoon, driving
back to GHQ in 1bl Aviv, I
passed Dan buses, private
cars, captured :Jordanian Ford
trucks with Arab license
plates, and even a Russian
Jeep taken from the Syrians.
They were all packed with
people heading for the Wall.
The rest of the Old City was
still closed to civilians
because of snipers and mines.
I thought about Uzi, who
died in 1953 in a car accident
on the 'Ibl Aviv-Haifa road,
and the two Arab prisoners.
At the time, in July 1948,
during the Ten Days'
Fighting just before the se-
cond truce, Uzi. and I were
with the Haganah's In-
telligence in Jerusalem,
assigned to interrogate
prisoners and gather informa-
tion for the coordinated at-
tack that was to be made on
the Old City.
The plan was simple: a
simultaneous breakthrough
from the north through the
New Gate by a unit of the
Irgun, and from the south, by
the Haganah, near the Zion
Gate. The Old City wall is
four yards thick here, but we

had high hopes that we'd be
able to breach it with a new
explosive that we had never
tried before. As it turned out,
the stuff hardly scratched the
wall's surface, and the plan
failed. So, in the end, what we
did was useless.
Uzi and I had been detail-
ed to find out the exact
number and disposition of the
Arab forces around the Zion
Gate from two Jordanian
legionnaires who had been
captured the day before. We
had 12 hours to get the infor-
mation out of them, so we
took them to my apartment,
which I had used as a "drop"
for ammunition during the
Mandate and where I now did
most of my work. It was one
room on the second floor,
right across the hall from the
old man and his daughter.
They didn't bother me much.
The old man was busy pray-
ing, and the girl, who was
about 12 or 13, was very shy.
Only once, in the last month
of the Mandate, the old man
invited me into his apartment
for a glass of tea.
"I insist," he told me. "The
kettle's on the stove. There,
you hear? Already boiling. Sit
down. I have no lemon.
Sugar?"
He blew into his steaming
glass and, with a spoonful of
sugar already on his tongue,
took a sip and smacked his
lips. "Ah. That's a pleasure.
Sugar on the tongue." He
smiled. "For me, it somehow
never tastes as good in the
glass. A habit from the Old
Country. But you, of course,
were born here, weren't you?"
"Yes, in Tel Aviv."

"Thl Aviv. Is that so?" he
said. "You're lucky."
"You think so?"
"I know so. You see, this is
your chance. Not mine. Not
an old Jew like me who came
here to pray for forgiveness
and die, but yours. My
daughter Chanele's and
yours, if you understand me."
"Thanks for the tea, but I
have to go out. It's almost
curfew."
"No, no, wait. Just one
minute. You must listen to me
for just one minute and try to
understand." He began to
sweat. "The Exile, you see the
real Exile is that we learned
to endure it," he went on.
"Rabbi Hanokh, may he rest
in peace, once said that, and
he was right. But it's over
now. I can feel it. I look at you
and even my little Chanele,
my shy little Chanele, who
dreams of becoming a courier
for the Haganah . . . Can you
believe that? It's true. At 12.
That pious child . . . All of
you who were born here have
had enough and will have
your State. For you, the Ex-
ile is over. Not that it wasn't
deserved." He raised a fore-
finger. "Oh, no. Never for one
moment think that. We sin-
ned and were punished for it.
It was just. But He has
relented, you see, may His
Name be blessed forever and
ever,' and, in His mercy, has
given you one more chance.
You must be careful. Very,
very careful.
"When I was ten years old,
there was a pogrom in my
town, near Kiev. len Jews
were killed and three were
wounded. A Russian

blacksmith, called Big Kolya,
murdered his Jewish
neighbor, a woman named
Sarah Effros, with whom he
had lived in peace for 40
years. Then came the po-
grom. He got drunk and
strangled her. When he
sobered up, he went back to
work at his forge, as if
nothing had happened. That's
a goy for you! Goyim are
killers! Not us."
We had 12 hours to get the
information from the
prisoners. It wasn't much
time. We started in about
nine at night, working them
over according to the system
that Uzi and I had found to
be effective twice before. It
was nothing unusual: threats,
alternating with promises,
and, above all, keeping them
on their feet and awake. Uzi
and I took turns, an hour
each, while the other covered
them with my Beretta. We
kept them awake with slaps
across the face. Even so, just
before dawn the older one,
who was a lieutenant, passed
out on the floor.
Uzi slapped him. I hit the
younger one in the mouth
with my fist, and split his up-
per lip. We let him bleed. He
was about 20, a private, still
in his khaki uniform, with the
red-and-white checkered kaf-
fiah, the headdress of the
Legion, wrapped around his
neck like a kerchief. His
mouthful of blood scared the
hell out of him. You could-tell
by the look in his eyes. He
was afraid to spit it out and
mess up the floor. Finally he
took off the kaffiah and,
crumpling it up in his hand,
spat into that. Then he puked
in it. His lip swelled up and
made it hard for him to talk.
"I don't know," he kept
repeating. "I swear I don't
know. I have no idea."
The lieutenant, who had a
swollen right cheek, never
made a sound. He was about
30, and good-looking, with a
deep cleft in his chin and a
carefully clipped little
mustache. The British of-
ficers who had trained him
had done a good job. He was
a professional soldier and

'

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