by Guy Hasson
He wears the story of his life on his face. That first second, looking at him in person, is a rehashing of everything I know about him: the hardships, the killings, the fight for freedom, the struggle against the British Mandate, the wars with the Arabs, and the cruel battles against traitors within. I can see four decades on his face: the 1930s all the way to the end of the 60s. Decisions and fates had been carved in the stone of his skin, more than fifty years ago. So much of a person’s face is not captured on a TV screen.
His eyes move past my face, scan the large mirror behind me, then come to rest on the conference table between us.
“My name is David Sanderson,” I offer my hand. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“I’m sure,” he mutters, and rather than to shake my hand moves to sit down. A ninety-year-old body moves slowly and it still takes me a couple of seconds to notice that although he did not deign to give my organization the respect of a handshake, he had seated himself in front of the mirror.
I sit opposite him, making sure not to hide any part of him.
“You’re recording this, I suppose.”
He shrugs and moves his head as if he’s lived through this dozens of times before. “How many times do I have to be right,” his mouth curls up in a slight smile, “to be right?”
“This is the last time, sir.”
Something in the way I said this makes him look at me. He scans me up and down.
“How old are you?” he says. “Twenty-six? Twenty-seven?”
He looks down and laughs. “I have granddaughters older than you.”
“I know. They’re two very beautiful women.”
“Their children are even more beautiful.”
“That’s right, sir.”
He nods. He’s got five great-grandchildren, two grandchildren, and two children – a boy and a girl, all from marriage to Dinah Shamgar, his devoted wife. She was the one who helped him dress before he came here, no doubt.
I saw pictures of her when the two of them had met, two twenty-three-year-olds in the middle of a war for freedom. Oh, she was something. They met by accident. British Intelligence decided that Aryeh Shamgar had been the man responsible for the assassination of Colonel Tanner at the King David Hotel. Shamgar needed an apartment in which to hide, and the Underground ordered him to lie low at Dinah Gat’s apartment. She was a bike messenger for the Lehi, the smallest and most militant of the resistance groups, passing notes from one officer to another and, of course, ready to lay down her life for our independence. Aryeh lived on the floor of her bathroom for six months, keeping quiet lest the neighbors hear. When she was out, he would store his feces and piss in glass jars in fear that someone might hear or smell the toilet. When it was dark, he would occasionally wander the streets of Jaffa wearing a false beard, dressed as an Orthodox Jew.
After the Nazis were beaten in ‘45, after the British left ‘Palestine’ in ’48, and after the Independence War was won in ’49, they were married. They have been married now for sixty years.
“Would you like some tea, sir? Coffee? We have mineral water here for you.”
“Just get it over with. I won’t be here more than ten minutes.”
“Yes, sir. For the record, this is October 16th, 2010. My name is David Sanderson.” As I talk, I see his eyes glaze over in impatience. “I am sitting here with Aryeh Shamgar in Tel Aviv. The time is …”
“You’re a leftie, aren’t you?” he cuts me off.
“Sir? I don’t know what that has …”
“You’re a leftie,” he states.
“My job here has nothing to do with …”
“Your job here is to find out the ‘truth’ about how we drove the British occupation forces out of our country, how evil we were and how good they and the Arabs were.”
“My job is to find out the truth about what happened, Sir.”
“And you happen to be a leftie.”
“That has nothing to do with …”
“Why afraid to admit to the truth? Show some guts, show some balls. This is what our meeting is all about, isn’t it? Guts. Guts and truth. Come on, tell me the truth.”
I look into his eyes. He’s sharper than the hi-tech geniuses I work with. He put me on the defensive on something I shouldn’t be defensive about. The facts are on my side.
“Yes, sir,” I say, not moving my gaze from his. “I’m a liberal.”
“And lefties like you have been coming after me since the Seventies. Every two years I’m invited to see another set of ‘facts’ or ‘papers’ that show that the assassination of Colonel Tanner was unjustified and cold-blooded. Every time they come in all cocky. And every time they are proven completely and utterly wrong.”
“Yes, sir. That’s right, sir.”
“And every last one of them is a leftie. Imagine that. When they try to undermine my heroic act, they are actually trying to undermine the footing and legitimacy of the fight for this nation.”
“Yes, sir. And although I am a ’leftie’, I would like nothing better than to realize that everything I learned about you in school was right. You are my hero, sir.”
He thinks of answering, but after a second he closes his mouth and locks his arms around his chest.
He is my hero and has been my hero since childhood. He has been a hero for more than sixty years. A hero of the nation, given countless honors and citations, all because of this one assassination, the one that turned the tide of the British Mandate, the one that got the British government to decide they should relinquish their control over ‘Palestine’ and leave it for the Arabs and the Jews. On the waves of his public adulation, he was a Minister of Defense for ten years. When he left that office, he received countless offers from lucrative business companies. The successes he had had with the five he chose to run made sure he and his family would be set for generations.
This is the man whose life I have to crumble. This is the man whose heart may be too weak to withstand it. And I have to break his heart as a ‘courtesy’, as requested by my bosses, before the news is released and the press does it to him.
“And like I said, sir,” I continue, my voice even, “this is the last time.”
His eyes watch me sharply, then, rather than be confrontational, he leans back calmly. “Dispense with the formalities, then.”
“Ummm … all right, sir. This,” I put my hand on a folder and spin it around so that he can read it, “contains information about our institute, Past Intelligence.” He no more than glances at it. He doesn’t have his reading glasses with him. “We are not a liberal organization. In fact, most of our work is done for military intelligence and the Mossad.” He raises an eyebrow with surprise and respect. “Though we are an independent foundation. This particular project, pertaining to you, is not military in any way and therefore whatever facts we discover are not classified as Top Secret. The manner in which we uncover these facts, however, is so classified.”
I move the folder to his side of the table. “What we do is, we use a new technology, developed at the Weizmann Institute, and available only in Israel so far.” He squints at me, trying to see where I am leading him. “The technology deals with … Well, receiving information through time, from … the past. Basically, what it means is we can ‘hear’ things that happened during a small window of time, between sixty-five and seventy years ago, and record them on …” I almost say a fancy word, and then I remember that I am talking to someone from a different era, “on tape.”
“You can hear things from the past?”
“Yes, sir. Basically, we have a spy satellite … into the past. But always sixty-five to seventy years ago.”
“And you… record those things?”
“Yes, sir. And everything’s real. We are sanctioned, as I said, by the government and the military and the …”
“Sixty-five to seventy?” he cuts me short again, leaning forward. “Sixty-eight years ago I assassinated Colonel Tanner.”
“Yes, sir. And we have that recording. In fact, we have the recording of each and every conversation in British military circles that led to the conclusion that it was you who had been behind it and to the decision that you must be hunted down …”
“That can’t be true,” he says, but his eyes glisten with the memory of the past, a memory he has been living again and again every day, I’m sure, since it had happened. That long-lost past is his present still. He lives it daily. He breathes it. He speaks of it and people speak to him about it. He is invited to other countries to speak of it. He makes the headlines when liberals like me try to discredit him. “You can’t hear the past!” In this instant I see in his eyes that the past I’ve listened to is his present.
“It is possible, sir, and we have put all the DVD’s, uh … the tapes …”
“I know what a DVD is and I know how to work it!”
“Yes, sir. We put all the DVDs of all the recordings in this folder for you. You can listen to them at home. They also include all the discussions in the top echelons of the Lehi that led to your hiding away, and even the first time you met Dinah at her apartment. We hadn’t known that that would be what we would hear and we thought you would like it, so we put it in for you. We didn’t listen to anything else between you two that came later.”
He puts his finger on the folder. “All that is here?”
“And this technology is real? This is not a joke?”
“No joke, Sir. Latest technology. Only we have it. And I trust you to keep it a secret.”
He nodded, for an instant a dutiful soldier again, serving the interests of his nation, “Of course.”
“Now … we also happened to record – and that is what we were actually looking for – everything that led up to the most famous assassination of a British soldier that the Lehi has ever carried out. We have the recording of the orders you were given.”
His eyes widen. “You do?”
There is war in his eyes now. Something new appears there. It’s as if he is fighting some urge. Then, in less than a second, it disappears and age-old anger reappears. “If your recording does not match my version, word for word, then your entire institution is a sham!”
“No, sir. Our recording corroborates your version, word for word. It corroborates the version you’ve retold in dozens of documentaries and inquiries here and abroad about the orders you were given and how you carried them out. All that is now corroborated by irrefutable facts.”
His anger abates slightly. “Good.” Then a sparkle appears in his eyes, “Can I see it? Is it on the DVDs?” That sparkle: It’s young. It’s like he’s 23 years old again, talking to me with the energy of youth.
“Yes, sir. Of course we put it on the DVDs.”
He takes a breath and that breath feels cleaner and fuller than all his previous breaths. “Excellent.”
“In fact, I’d like to play it for you right now, if you don’t mind.”
“No, no, not at all.”
I nod and take the remote into my hand. There is a big HD screen to my right and his left. The HD is redundant, since there is nothing to look at. We only capture sounds, so we only play sound.
I press PLAY and the recording I have heard so many times before begins to play.
It begins with the sounds of the street. They aren’t muffled by a closed window. This was the second floor in a stone building in Allenby Street, the temporary hiding place of Nathan Burnstein, one of the three Lehi leaders. The Tel Aviv weather was unseasonably hot and this was in January of 1942. As Ben Gurion had said, we were fighting the Nazis alongside the British as if there was no British occupation of our land and we were fighting the British occupation as if there was no world war with the Germans.
You can hear the market outside: chickens, a donkey and the occasional car engine sound – a sound that does not exist anymore today.
His entire body perks up. “That sounds exactly like …” He looks at me. “You do have that technology?”
I nod and point to my ear, urging him to listen.
“Shamgar, come here,” a man’s voice urges.
Shamgar’s mouth drops and he slams his aged fist on the conference table. He immediately recognized the voice of Nathan Burnstein, his commander, the man who at that time led the military arm of the Lehi and would later lead a great political movement that would change the nation’s history.
His voice doesn’t sound like it was recorded sixty-eight years ago, because it wasn’t. What we hear is the cleanest sound one can achieve with today’s technology, because it was recorded by us only two months ago as if we had a microphone in the room.
“Yes, sir, I’m here.” This is Shamgar’s voice. He sounds like a different person, his voice higher, his words faster, his rhythm different.
Shamgar doesn’t react to this as powerfully as he did to his commander’s voice. His body is frozen with intensity.
“Sit down, soldier.”
There is some scuffling of a wooden chair dragged on the floor tiles. Another car passes in the background.
“That’s exactly what the street sounded like,” Shamgar whispers, a tear in his eye. “I’d forgotten how much I remember.”
I nod. The recording continues. “I have dire news and a great task, for which I need my best soldier.”
“There is news from our intelligence about the latest plans of the Mandate Government.”
“Colonel Tanner has sent his recommendations to Churchill.”
“That’s exactly his voice,” Shamgar’s voice is a whisper. I press PAUSE. “How did you do that?”
“It’s the technology, I told you. I …”
“Turn it back on.” He raps his fingers on the wooden desk. “Continue!”
I press PLAY and Burnstein continues to speak, “Our intelligence has intercepted a copy of it. The colonel believes a harder hand is required with the Jews. He requests full authority so that, following any violent action on our part, he will have complete freedom to arrest any Jew, guilty or not, and let them rot in jail. Guilty ones will be sent to prison in British East Africa. And the ones he deems most guilty will be executed.”
Shamgar points at the screen. “Yes! That’s right!” – I press PAUSE immediately – “That’s what he said! That’s exactly what he said! I remember! That was it!”
I nod and wait.
He looks at me. “Did you stop it? Go on! Go on!”
I press PLAY.
“But that goes against every principle the British claim to believe in.” Shamgar’s young voice booms. He was agitated and appalled.
“Yes, I would have said that!” the older Shamgar in front of me is riveted.
“Churchill would never approve!” The young Shamgar half shouts, sounding like a teenager whose voice was still breaking.
“Yes,” Nathan Burnstein says. “These were my sentiments. But we have evidence, irrefutable evidence, that Churchill has sent word that Tanner’s initiative is to be followed.”
“What!” shouts the young Aryeh Shamgar.
The old Aryeh Shamgar nods. “That’s right.”
“Calm down, soldier.”
There was a sound of a wooden chair moving on a stone surface. Shamgar had apparently jumped out of his chair and was now getting back into it.
“Churchill is busy with the Germans and has no patience for us anymore. Are you following me?”
I look at Shamgar’s eyes. It is as if he is having an epiphany.
“Churchill’s message is so sensitive and he was so afraid that it may find its way to us, that it has been entrusted to one man alone, a confidant. But in spite of Churchill’s attempts we had intercepted that message and received it before it got to Colonel Tanner. The confidant will deliver the message personally to Tanner. In fact, it will be delivered later today.” There is a slight pause. I always assumed Burnstein was letting Shamgar absorb the news. “We can stop this. It is up to you, Shamgar, to stop this. Colonel Tanner must die tonight. By your hands. Alone. Immediately after he receives the message. We will be sending a message of our own to Churchill that the Jews can be even more trouble than they have been so far and that this new policy is unacceptable.
“I need a brave, fearless soldier. I need someone who can walk into the King David Hotel, into a ballroom full of British personnel, cool enough to appear as one of the help, cool enough not to be intimidated by anyone he sees there. I need someone brave enough to walk up to Colonel Tanner when he goes to the loo, put a bullet through his head, then walk out calmly through a room full of enemies. Are you that man, Shamgar?”
Every time I listen to this part of the recording, I keep thinking that the main difference between Shamgar’s voice today and his voice then is that nowadays you can hear the past, you can hear the battles, the decisions, and the decades with which he had to live with those decisions. But back then, you couldn’t hear any of that in his voice. His past was a child’s past, a teenager’s past, devoid of scars.
Burnstein continues. “Am I making the right choice by letting you take on this mission on which our independence hangs?”
“Good man. Go home, then. Prepare yourself. In an hour, a man will drop by with the plans. Open them when you’re alone. Read them, memorize them, then burn them.”
“An hour later another man will drop off your escape plans. Open them when you’re alone. Read them, memorize them, know them by heart, then burn them. This mission will be just you … alone.”
I press PAUSE.
“Basically,” I say. “That ends this part of the recording. There are some noises, and you leave the room.”
Shamgar is looking at me. He can hardly breathe.
“That’s it!” he says, his voice filled with air. “That’s the proof right there! You have the incontrovertible truth right there! That’s just the way it happened!”
He’s looking around, trying to get a hold over his excitement, maybe even looking for more witnesses. “Every time I’ve claimed this was the reason we killed Tanner, the lefties and the British would say that that couldn’t have been the case, that the British would never behave like that, that there was no such order. But there was and they did! They did! That’s the proof of everything I’ve been saying for decades!”
“Yes, sir.” I want to add an ‘however’, but he continues…
“Oh … Oh … That is unbelievable. I can’t believe it … I was there again … I was there inside the room … This technology … I’m never going to have to prove the justice of my deeds again. I can go to my grave without a scandal hanging over me.”
“Sir, I just …”
“You said I can have recordings of all of this?”
“Yes, sir. This and all the other stages of the assassination and the escape. Of your and your wife’s meeting. Of …”
“Amazing!” He is ecstatic. Suddenly his entire life seems vindicated.
It hurts me that much more to bring him down from such a high to total abjection. “Sir, there is one more recording I need you to listen to.”
“Yes, yes!” He is too excited. He is too happy. His guard is down.
“The following is a recording of events that took place thirty hours earlier, in Nathan Burnstein’s hideout. In this recording …” I am losing nerve. I phrase it as delicately as I can, letting the recording bear the brunt of the blame. “In this recording we can hear how Burnstein made the decision to assassinate Colonel Tanner.”
“All right,” Shamgar is energized. “Play it!”
“Yes, sir.” I switch to the next track on the DVD and it begins to play.
The street noises are different. They’re quieter. There is no hustle. A muezzin is heard in the background – a call for the morning prayer from sixty-eight years ago. There is scuffling of a chair.
“Sit.” This is Burnstein’s voice. His tone is friendly, not at all the commanding tone used with Shamgar.
Another wooden chair moves on stone. The muezzin’s voice grows softer. A man is beginning to set up shop right underneath the window and calls out orders to his helper.
“What have you found out?” Burnstein asks.
“I followed the subject since yesterday afternoon until she went to sleep.” This is another voice. Young – everyone was young in the Lehi – and serious and idealistic-sounding.
Shamgar straightens at the sound of that voice. “I know him! Who’s that…?”
I don’t press PAUSE. The recording continues, “What did you find out?”
“The subject’s day was quite routine, spending it …”
“Tsootsik!” Shamgar shouts. I press PAUSE. “Zalman Berg! We called him ‘Tsootsik’!”
That’s right. Zalman Berg, a.k.a. ‘Tsootsik’ (which means ‘pipsqueak’) had been charged a year earlier with creating the Lehi’s intelligence service from scratch, a task performed magnificently well, and was soon to become one of the Lehi’s legendary leaders. Berg and Shamgar would be friends, though not close ones, for most of the 1950s, until Berg developed cancer and died in 1962.
“Go on,” Shamgar orders me. “This is unbelievable. Go on, go on!”
I rewind a bit, and press PLAY.
“The subject day was quite routine, spending at her home …” Berg was saying.
“Don’t call her ‘the subject’,” Burnstein interrupts. “She’s got a name and this isn’t about the resistance.”
“Elisheva,” the young Berg amends his statement, “was at her home all day and all the previous night.”
“ ‘Elisheva’?” Shamgar whispers to himself. It sounds familiar to him, but he hasn’t put the pieces together yet.
“At six she began to dress for a night out,” Berg continues to report.
“Yes?” Burnstein said.
“What are they talking about?” Shamgar whispers to me.
“Listen!” I say.
“At seven she met with Colonel Tanner at Haled’s fish restaurant on the Jaffa pier.”
“She met with him?” Burnstein’s voice was tight.
“They stayed there for an hour,” Berg continues the report. “They seemed … amicable. Smiling a lot. Intimate in nature.”
“Yes?” It is as if Burnstein was gritting his teeth.
“They left together, and took a long walk on the beach to his home.”
“Colonel Tanner’s home?”
Shamgar squints and looks at me. “There were two Elishevas?”
I shake my head and raise a finger, indicating there was only one.
“She stayed the night at his place … At their place.”
Shamgar touches his cheek. “Why were they following the woman and not Tanner?”
“Listen,” I say.
“At eight twenty-seven p.m. I took a risk and looked through the window. They were in the middle of a … sexual act. Then I …”
“All right, all right,” the young Burnstein interrupts him. “Thank you. We got the data we wanted.”
“We certainly did.”
There is silence for a long time, then a chair is pushed back on the floor quickly. Burnstein got up suddenly, no longer able to sit down. “She told me she was never coming back to him. She told me it was over. She said she felt revulsion when he was near her. I felt she was …”
Shamgar looks at me, horrified. “Are you saying they had an affair?”
“I’m not saying anything. What we’re hearing is what happened.”
Shamgar listens. “Why am I not hearing anything?”
“They’re quiet,” I said. “Listen.”
All we can hear is more and more vendors setting up shop in the street. The muezzin had finished his call for prayer. The silence lasts for more than a minute, in which I can see Shamgar’s impatience growing.
Then, finally, we hear Burnstein’s voice. “Tsootsik, Tsootsik … I can’t let this happen. I can’t lose her. I can’t lose her to him. I can’t let her do that. I can’t have him … This is unacceptable …” There is another short silence. “I’m going to kill him! I won’t let him be with my woman!”
“No,” Shamgar, in front of me, says.
“You know I’ve always thought we should kill high-profile British officers,” Berg says. “And who’s more high-profile than Colonel Tanner? You’re too fearful of killing the British.”
“No no no,” Shamgar shakes his head.
“Yes … yes …,” Burnstein says. “We should kill them. You’re right. This will send a message to the Brits!”
“That we’re powerful.”
“No!” Shamgar shouts. His eyes are screaming.
The recording continues, “That we’re not to be messed with.”
“All right. All right. Let me think. I need a devoted soldier, one who’s willing to die for the cause. A brave soldier.”
“No! False! No! False!” Shamgar is shaking his head almost uncontrollably.
“I’ve got just the man for you. Aryeh Shamgar.”
“He’s young, isn’t he?”
“Not as young as the others. He’s been around. He has nerves of steel. And he’s been begging me for some real action. And … he’s expendable.”
“Lies! Lies! Lies! Lies!” Shamgar slams his open hands on the table, and then buries his face in them.
“Yes … yes …” Burnstein is excited. “All right. I’ll start making plans. I want Colonel Tanner’s complete itinerary for the next few days. I need to know where and when would be the best place to strike.”
“I’ll have it for you in two hours.”
“We are not going to rest until that man is dead.”
“No, we’re not.”
“No, we’re not. Now go. You have a job to do.”
There are noises of people walking on stone, and then a door closing. Shamgar is looking at me. I look down. The recording isn’t over.
Without warning, we hear Burnstein scream, “Whore! Whore! Whore! Whore!”
Shamgar’s mouth opens in horror. “No! No! No!” And then Shamgar shouts at the screen: “What are you doing?!”
“Whore! Whore! Whore!” the screen shouts back, joined by the clear sound of furniture being thrown against the walls and then kicked around. “Whore! Whore! Whore!”
I press PAUSE. “This goes on for a while. Then there’s a long silence. And then he begins to plan the assassination.”
Shamgar’s mouth is puckered tight and he is shaking his head. He looks to the right. He looks to the left. His fingers begin to drum on the table. “It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It must be a lie. There is no way … You fabricated their voices somehow. You …”
“I assure you …”
He raises his hand to silence me. “I want to hear it again,” he says.
His cheeks are red and puffy. I keep my calm. “All right.”
I press a few buttons, and the recording is played all over again.
As he listens to it again, his eyes seem to sear through whatever they are focused on. I follow their gaze, but they are not focused on anything in the room. They are focused on the past. They are searing through to the past, just as our technology does.
“Again. I want to hear it again,” he says once the recording has played through.
He listens again. And he listens again. And he listens again.
The more he listens, the more awake he seems. The more he listens, the shorter his breath becomes. The more he listens, the redder his cheeks become. A vein in his neck I haven’t noticed before is making its presence known: His pulse is rising. I try to time it, in my head. Around 130 a minute. Not good. Not for a ninety-year-old man.
After three times, in the middle of the fourth playback, he raises his hand and says: “That’s enough.”
Immediately, I fumble with the remote, find the button and press PAUSE.
He looks at me. His body is shaking. His fingers are shaking.
He looks away from me and at the table. He looks at his trembling hands. He reaches into his pocket. For a second I think he’s reaching for a gun. But of course he isn’t. He takes out his clamshell cell phone, opens it, is about to push a button – probably to call his wife –, but he hesitates. Then he throws the cell phone at the wall. “Traitors! Fucking traitors!” he yells.
He looks down, gathering his breath.
Then he looks up, straight at me. His eyes are clear, not trembling, sharp – even sharper than when he had come in. Without moving his eyes, I can see that he is no longer looking at me but at the mirror behind me. “You’ve had your fun. You took your pound of flesh and now you have your victory. Do you really need to keep filming this?”
I look behind me, at the mirror, and get a chill. It’s true. Why do we need to film an old man losing his life cause? What historical purpose does that serve?
“Cut the feed,” I say. “Stop the camera.”
I hear voices on the other side.
“Stop the camera,” I say.
A tiny red light, still seen through the one-way mirror, vanishes.
I turn to face him. “The camera is off.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I tell him. “There was no reason to record this in the first place. I’ll make sure it never gets used.”
Shamgar looks at me with the eyes of a man who is lost. “It doesn’t matter. You have won the battle. Take your victory lap and enjoy the applause …” He looks down and there is a tear in his eye when he says, more to himself than to me: “While it lasts.”
He puts his hands on the table and it seems clear that he is about to pull himself up.
“Wait,” I put my hand next to his, but do not touch him. “Stay. You don’t have to go immediately.” He looks at me. “Please. I meant what I said earlier and back then I had known what I was going to show you. You are my hero. You are still my hero. Take a couple of minutes to calm down. Drink some water. Have some coffee or tea. Breathe. Just … Stay here a couple of minutes more.”
For a long time, he just thinks. Then he says: “I’ll have some tea.”
Even before the tea arrives – Wissotzky, no sugar, just the way I know he drinks it – Shamgar closes his eyes and sinks into his own world.
Within a minute, he begins to bang his open hand against the conference table in small baby slams. “The traitors …” – slam – “The traitors …” – slam – “The traitors …” – slam – “Such traitorous …” Dis fingers curl. “Such destructive … That something so filthy should be the cause for … The excuse!” He raises his voice on this last one. “Everyone who followed them … Everyone who believed in them … For sex?! Sex! … Such … traitors …”
Then he sinks into silence again, his eyes closed.
He drinks his tea in silence, his eyes far away from here. Suddenly anger flares up again. “He was my friend! My friend! For thirty years after we won our independence! For thirty years, until he died! Lied to me, embraced me, told me how brave I was. Looked me in the eyes. And never … never … said … anything …”
He takes another sip of his tea. “The traitorous bastard. Traitorous bastard!”
He raises his cup but his hands shake and some tea spills onto the table.
“I’m sorry.” He looks aside, abashed.
“I can’t believe it!” Five minutes later, he claps his hands together and gives me the look he had given me when we had met an hour ago. “I can’t believe it! Not true! Fabricated! Great fabrication, but inconceivable.”
“I assure you, the tech …”
“I don’t need your words,” he silences me. “Play it again. Then, after that, I want to hear something else. Play something else, something that can’t be faked. I want to hear the time I met Dinah.”
I nod. “All right.”
I reach for the remote.
The track begins to play.
“Louder,” he says.
His old ears probably heard only half of what I heard.
I turn up the volume.
A few more words are said by Burnstein, and Shamgar screams again: “Louder!”
And a few seconds later: “Louder!”
Then, almost at max volume, he is content. And he listens to the conversation again, to its very end.
I was prepared to play for him all the segments we had prepared, but it is his meeting with Dinah that breaks him. He listens to it, head bent over, following every sound. Then, once it is over, he raises his hand and says, “Enough.”
I look at the remote and press STOP.
When I look back up at him, he is holding his chest and leaning back. “Ow. Ow.”
I leap up and run to the other side of the table.
“Is everything alright?”
I grab his hand to feel his pulse. He shoves it away.
“Stay away from me!”
“Shall I call for an ambulance?”
He shakes his head. Maybe he isn’t able to speak. I reach for my cell phone.
He slaps it out of my hand.
“Enough,” he says, still holding his chest. “Sit down.”
I look at him. He looks straight into my eyes.
“Sit down. It’s just pain. It will go away.”
I freeze in place. I want to do what he said, but I am unable to move.
He looks away, and takes a deep breath. With apparent effort, he lowers the hand that held his chest. I still don’t move. He doesn’t look at me.
His hand reaches down to his pocket, then up again. “I miss cigarettes,” he says. His hand is at his pocket a second time, searching for something that hadn’t been there in ten years. “I could use one right now.”
Trembling, he brings his hand up. He leans forward, elbows on the desk. “This is a good time to start again.” Without looking at me, he says, “Sit down.”
Warily, I sit down.
His fingers are on his forehead. He is licking his lips. Fifteen minutes have passed and he is still hungry for cigarettes.
He hasn’t looked at me in a few minutes. That’s all right. I’m here for him, not the other way around.
“We died for them …,” he suddenly whispers, maybe forgetting that I am there. “We bled for them. I killed for them …”
He stares into space. Then he sighs. “No. We died for the nation. We bled for the nation. We killed for the nation. I killed for the nation. I killed … the wrong man for the nation.”
A small, hollow laugh escapes him. “Ridiculous.”
“You!” he aims an accusing finger at me. “You’re probably happy. This fits so neatly into your political theories. We were all liars, weren’t we? The entire nation is based on lies … That’s what you think!”
“No, I …”
“Our entire nation is not based on lies. It’s based on ideals and a need. There were a few bad apples … Some rotten, rotten apples. But they can’t ruin it for the rest of us. The dream is just. The dream is true. And you can go to hell if you think that you can make a leftie out of me.”
I shake my head. “No, no, I don’t!”
“Rotten apples and that’s it!” He growls through his teeth.
Music begins to play.
He looks immediately sideways, I realize it’s his cell phone and then I remember it is on the floor where he had thrown it.
He tries to bend down to reach it.
“I’ll get it for you,” I leap up.
I grab the phone and give it to him, not looking at the caller.
He answers without looking at who was calling him. “Yes, Dinah …”
I’m sitting back down and a sigh escapes me when I hear the name. This will not be over for him when he leaves this place.
“Yes, I’m all right. It’s just taking too long … I promise, nothing bad … It might take a few hours. Go to sleep, I’ll take a cab.”
“I’ll pay for a cab,” I say.
He shushes me with a finger. “I’m going to stay for a while, that’s all. … Go to sleep. … Great… Thanks… Yes, yes, I’m all right. … Tell you all about it later. … Good … Good night.”
He closes the cell phone, causing it to disconnect and puts it on the desk.
His hand rests over it.
“Dinah …,” he says softly and looks at me with soulful, twenty-three-year-old eyes. “I never would have met her if I wasn’t on the run, if I hadn’t assassinated …”
He looks down. His fingers touch the cell phone softly and I imagine how he had touched his wife when they were young and had just met.
“I met his daughter, you know,” he says after a ten-minute silence. He had been drinking one cup of tea after another for the last three hours.
I look up, the question in my eyes.
“His wife wouldn’t meet with me. But I met his daughter.”
“Colonel Tanner’s,” he says. His eyes are elsewhere again. He’s reliving a meeting that had taken place decades ago. “He had a family, you know. A daughter. A wife. Who, apparently, he was cheating on. But a family, he had a family. I killed a man with a family for the Cause, not for a …” He trails off.
“I met his daughter, you know,” he says again after a while. “Back in, uh, ’64. She was just getting married, in her early twenties. I, uh … She wanted to meet with me. I immediately agreed. There were concerns she would try to kill me. I said: No, don’t worry about it.” He stops for a while. This is where he would have taken a great gulp of smoke.
“How was she?” I say.
“You know … Young … She understood … She wanted to hear it from me … She wanted to hear the why … She wanted to know how he was … how he was during those last minutes … She wanted a missing piece of her father.”
He trails off again, then continues. “I told her he was a great and honorable man. That is why he was a choice target. I told her he died with dignity. I told her I was sorry for her private tragedy and that it wasn’t personal.”
When he trails off again and does not continue I ask: “How did she take it?”
He shrugs. “All right. No anger there. She hardly even knew him. She just wanted to know.”
“Did she say anything important?”
He shrugs. “No. His wife, her mother, never agreed to meet with me. That was all right. It’s understandable.”
“But, the thing is…”
“He had a family. A daughter who is now a grandmother. And a wife who remarried. He had a family. I destroyed his family … for my commander’s shag in the bed. That’s why his family was destroyed.”
I nod. I don’t know what is the right thing to say now.
“Yeah,” he says. “For a shag in the bed.”
“I spent decades on this. Decades.
“These last three decades this is practically the only thing I did. Meetings like this. Invited to lectures and seminars. Answering hecklers and ill-wishers … The documentary film they did on me … following me around for a year … needs to be revised. Nothing is true. No reason for it anymore.” He looks down, ashamed. “I was wrong … I was mistaken … My cause was unjust … No, my cause was just, my deeds were unjust …”
“You couldn’t know. As far as you were concerned you had a just cause to assassinate him and protect your people.”
“A man is dead. A family is dead. Bystanders were hurt. What does that matter?”
“The tide of war turned because of that event. The British Mandate began to lose its spirit.”
“Yeah … That’s good. It’s good that it happened.” He falls silent, no doubt thinking about that point. Then, after a while, he says, “The results were accidental, weren’t they? It wasn’t because …” He shrugs again and puts his fingers to his lips as if he is smoking. “Just a lucky accident.”
His lips curl. “People think I’m brave.”
I look up. He had been silent for something like twenty minutes.
“You are brave.”
“Pfah. I’m not brave. I just like to think I’m brave. No, no, I am brave.” He waves dismissively at his own thoughts. “I’m rambling.”
After five minutes of silence he starts again. “Other people think I’m brave.”
I don’t respond this time. He already knows I’m one of those people.
“Other people …” He holds his forefinger tight against the desk and moves the rest of his hand this way and that, like a child. “Other people … they thought I was brave … I got honors … honors on top of honors … There was a ceremony just last year … Golda had made me a minister. Do you think she would have done that if not for the …?”
He looks down, like a chastened child. “I’m sorry.”
When he doesn’t say anything for a few more minutes I ask him: “What are you sorry for?”
He looks at me with doe eyes. “I should call her.”
“His daughter. Tell her I’m sorry.”
I think about that. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that. It was so long ago. It’s history. We’re just fixing history here, not people.”
“I’m living it still, every day. She’s living it still, every day.”
He purses his lips and tears begin to form in his eyes. “No, I’m not brave. I just like to think I am.”
He sighs and seems to deflate in front of me .
“I was a good minister, damn it!” He slams his fist on the table, suddenly enraged again. Slamming his fist on something is a mannerism he had been famous for doing during cabinet meetings. “I was a good minister!”
“Yes, sir. I …”
“I did good. I helped build the nation! I fought for military acquisitions that saved us in wars, created connections that served our nation …” When he trailed off more light seemed to leave his eyes. “What does it matter?”
And in his chair, he seems to deflate even more.
“No one will remember anything of me. They won’t remember the good I did. They won’t remember I was an accomplished member of the Knesset. They won’t remember I was a successful CEO of four companies.”
“Five,” I correct him.
He squints for a second, then nods. “Yes, five. I brought success to whatever I touched. Burnstein took that away from me. At that moment in time, when I was twenty-three, he handed me my future. But he also took away my future.” His eyes begin to look here and there, as if searching for something. “He took that away from me.”
He shuts his eyes and puts five fingers on his forehead. “I would never have met Dinah if it weren’t for this.”
He opens his eyes, and he seems like a shy sixteen-year-old suddenly. “I wonder if she would have liked me if not for … She stood by me all this time … She believed in what I did … She believed in me … Our entire lives … Together … Together …”
He wipes a tear from his left eye, then looks at me as if he had been caught stealing. I look away.
“Don’t think that makes me a LEFTIE.” He isn’t being aggressive now. It’s four-thirty in the morning. Most of the strength has left him. He is now completely deflated, and his voice is raw. And yet he sits there, unable to leave, running through thoughts in his mind, thoughts and scenarios I couldn’t begin to guess.
“Hey!” he says, snapping me out of my own thoughts.
“You didn’t make me a leftie, you know. Don’t think this takes any of the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, historical basis on which we built this nation, on which I built myself.” I shake my head, about to tell him I didn’t think that, when he looks down, and in an even weaker voice says, “What does it matter? It doesn’t matter.”
“I remember one of my first missions …”
It’s been eight hours since he had learned the truth. Neither of us has left the room. As he speaks, his eyes are floating, seeing a past that hasn’t been there for more than seventy years. “We were lying down on top one of the hills outside Jaffa’s open-air market …” He speaks softly, dreamingly. “We thought we were snipers … Our mission was to shoot Arabs and cause as much mayhem as possible … I was the lookout. I wanted so much to be the sniper … I wanted to kill Arabs … I remember thinking that: I wanted to kill Arabs … But no Arab adults came when we were there, only children … Then someone ran over, told us the mission was aborted, that we had to leave … I wanted to kill so badly … We were children, playing children’s games.”
He looks at his right arm, deep in thought.
I’m afraid to move my hands or to even shift weight in my chair. He seems so fragile to me, so broken. Any movement on my part might cause him to snap out of it and leave. And then he would go through the rest of it on his own, at home.
I can’t stop looking at him.
Suddenly, he mumbles: “Children’s games … Children’s games … I haven’t been a child in …”, and his eyes are suddenly infinitely fatigued, “…in so long.”
“My father always said … When you grow up … You have to work. Work is food. Work is respect. A man who does not work has no dignity … I kept true to that all my life … The minute the war was over, I got a job … Even during the Mandate, I was working for the freedom of the nation … The Knesset… Building a new nation, a good nation, working for the government …”
Suddenly he squints. “Why did I think of that? Why this talk about everything my father had told me? Why …” And then realization appeared in his eyes. And with it, almost immediately, there is light. A spark of light, for the first time in hours. “Ah! I was going to be a gardener! When I was just a kid, that’s what I wanted to do. Yes!” He smiles sadly. “My mother learned about this, so she waited for my father to get home. She spoke with him, and then he came to talk to me. I needed a real job, he said. Being a gardener, that’s not a real job.” And as he speaks, the spark in his eyes grows slightly brighter. “I’d forgotten about that.”
“I always had a green thumb when I was a kid. I had a small garden plot behind my family’s home … I used to go in and look at it and take care of it every day … I figured out how much shade each flower needed … I figured out when to water the plants and when it was best to keep them thirsty a bit … I took out books upon books from the library, telling me about the different kinds of plants. And when my Dad came to me and explained that I needed to be serious … I dropped everything about gardening … I never took another book from a library. Can you imagine that? Not one book.”
He looks at me and there seems to be a gleam in his eye.
For a second, I start to believe he was beginning to feel better. But it couldn’t be. His world had collapsed.
He had been quiet for fifteen minutes, looking at his fingers as they moved on the table. It looks to me like he is playing a very slow piano or as if his fingers are playing some sort of game. His gaze follows his fingers with mild fascination, as if surprised by their action.
He breaks the silence, “I wanted a plant nursery … wall to wall with roses … daffodils … lilies …” His fingers are still playing on the table and his mildly fascinated gaze follows them. “Persian alliums … the cyclamen, before they became a protected species, were fantastic … I love them to this day …”
He leans back and I could swear that for a minute he was resting.
“I haven’t touched flowers in decades …” He hadn’t spoken about anything that had to do with the assassination in forty minutes. “I haven’t looked at them … No, that’s not true. I’ve looked. From afar, when I happened to come across … I never bothered thinking about it, but I remember my eyes getting stuck on the sight of a beautiful garden and every time that happened Dinah would ask me what’s the matter, why was I day-dreaming …”
He smiles. And there is a longing in his smile. Is that longing not sadness about all that he had lost today? For a split second I think it might be. But no. I’m wrong about this.
He looks at me and his eyes are as sharp as they were when he came in. But they are also different. They are still sharp, but neither aggressive nor defensive. “So what if gardening isn’t a vocation?” His eyes look at me, sharp but not searing. “I mean, so what? Who cares?”
I shake my head. I don’t know what we’re talking about anymore.
He leans back and he seems taller and not as sickly-thin as when he came in. “I loved my childhood, Mr. Sanderson. I loved my childhood.”
I don’t understand what he’s trying to say, but I have to say something. So I smile back at him and answer his words. “Me too.”
“Did you?” he says, smiling. But my own smile cracks.
He slams both hands on the table, not aggressively, but to help him get up. “Well,” he said. “Time to go home.”
I stand up when he stands up. “Are you sure?” It’s ten past six a.m.
He turns to face me with the briskness of a young man. “I’m sure. Thank you for all your work, Mr. Sanderson. And your honesty. And your understanding during this night.”
He offers his hand, for the first time. I shake it heartily. “It was an honor to meet you, sir.”
He shrugs it off. “If you say so.” He doesn’t care about that anymore.
I look at him as he leaves the room. If I didn’t know better, I would say by his gait, from behind, that the man was forty years old. He’s tall, his back is straight and he is no longer dragging his feet. He walks with energy and lightness of foot.
Right before he disappears, as he goes out the door, he looks back at me and nods. And I notice that all his wrinkles have disappeared.
Guy Hasson is an Israeli author and filmmaker. Six of his books have been published, including Secret Thoughts. He is currently working on the Lost in Dreams universe, which follows a girl who is lost in dreams from birth to death. The first book in the series, The Forgotten Girl, comes out September 2022. The podcast (English) follows her life in the Dream between the events of the books is coming out with daily episodes and is already towards the end of its second season. It is called The Squashbuckler Diaries Podcast. In his other podcast Geekdom Empowers Guy interviews geek fans and creators who are often not highlighted.