AN OLD NAZI HUNTER
As Yankele was leaving., I noticed an almost invisible figure sitting on a wooden crate in the black shadow of a storage shed. The secret of successful camouflage at night is not so much dark clothing or blackening one's face as simply getting into a shadow if there is a moon shining, and remaining motionless, which was exactly what the man on the crate was doing until Yankele left. I myself would not have noticed him if I were not an old soldier, and familiar with the surroundings. At first I thought it might be a bodyguard of Yankele; but when the motionless figure on the packing crate waited it out until Yankele drove away, I stepped into the wheel house, took the Colt .45 automatic from the drawer, slipped a cartridge into the chamber, and held it behind my back while the man got up and slowly approached the boat.
He was shortish, slim, elderly, and slightly stooped, and, when he raised his face, I recognized Goldberg The Nazi Hunter and slipped the Colt back into its drawer.
"Captain Ehrlich?" Goldberg called with deference. "Could you spare me a few minutes if it's not too late and if I am not otherwise disturbing?"
"Not at all, Mr. Goldberg; please come on board."
He came up the gangplank gingerly, holding onto the side ropes, without Yankele's pretense of being at home on boats, and we shook hands rather formally. Both of us were old-timers in Eilat but, although we knew each other by sight and exchanged occasional "shaloms", we had not really spoken before.
Goldberg The Nazi Hunter was known as a harmless madman, one of the "characters" of Eilat. Every picturesque, out-of- this world, get-away-from-it-all place with a warm climate and an easy-going atmosphere accumulates in due course its share of those characters. Some who stay for good have found the place they have always dreamed of. Eilat may be overdoing the summer heat with its temperatures in the forties centigrade, but the water is always cold and a quarter of an hour's dip without a wet suit leaves you slightly shivering and ready for the sun again. There is the sea, with all the shades from dark blue over the deep to light yellowish green over the shallows, the white beaches, and the jagged desert mountains, buff during the day and purple at sunset; and a few steps from the shore the simple mask and snorkel open up another, even more fantastic world, even to non-swimmers. Down along the Sinai coast there are the Bedoui with their camels and an occasional army patrol in a dusty jeep with a machinegun over the bonnet; and, on the beaches, the regular tourists thirsty for the sun, and also young men and women, mostly from northern Europe, living on the beaches in airy shelters of canvas or tarpaper, swimming and sunbathing in the nude, tanned dark brown, the men bearded and the girls longhaired, another desert tribe in their own right. And at night, from Eilat, the lights of Akaba across the bay, officially an enemy port, but with an uninterrupted record of peaceful coexistence with Eilat.
But it is not always just the charm of the place. Some of the characters have also reached the end of their road, with nowhere else to go anymore. Goldberg The Nazi Hunter was one of them.
His first family was killed by the Nazis, and he himself barely survived a concentration camp. After the war he came to Israel, married again, and had several children, saying, at the birth of each: "This one is for Hitler", "This one for Himmler", "This one for Goebbels", and so on. The children grew up and set up families of their own, and then his wife died, and he reached the retirement age free to do as he liked within the limits of his pension plus compensation payments from Germany. He came to Eilat with a few books about the Nazis and started operations from a small rented flat. His intended quarry were the surviving SS-men who might have the audacity to come to Eilat for a bit of tropical sun and sea, assuming that the past was past and nobody would bother them now, adding the insult of setting foot in the Holy Land to the injury of having murdered one-third of the entire Jewish people in the world. The identification of an SS-man on the beach was easy because they had those little tattoos under their armpits, clearly visible when they raised their arms. Mr. Goldberg's method was to patrol the beaches disguised as a tourist complete with a pair of sunglasses - an old trick which makes it possible to observe people sideways without their being aware of being watched - plus a small camera in case a snapshot might help. Most of the time Mr. Goldberg could be found in Eilat, but he also made occasional trips farther south, to the shore oases of Nueiba, Dahab, Na'ama, and Sharm-el-Sheikh. He had been at it for the past five years, without success so far, but not losing hope.
All this he told me now, in the dining room of the Sinbad, over a glass of beer, in a quiet gentle voice.
"You see," he added with a sad little smile, showing me the inside of his forearm with a pale-blue concentration camp number, "both sides in this story wore a tattoo; they branded us as if we were animals, but they also branded themselves of their own free will."
"Mr. Goldberg," I asked, "are there no methods, especially nowadays, with the advances in plastic surgery, of removing a tattoo?"
He hesitated, and then said, firmly:
"No, I haven't heard of any. A tattoo is impossible to remove. If you try, it leaves a scar, even more tale-telling than the original mark. "
I understood that Mr. Goldberg did not want the Nazis to be able to get rid of their self-inflicted mark of Cain, and if there was such a possibility he preferred not to know about it.
"'How old would they be by now?"
"The youngest could have been just under twenty by the end of the war, and that was about thirty years ago, so I am taking a good look at anyone over fifty. Now, Captain Ehrlich," he cleared his throat, "I was wondering whether I could, so to say, mobilize you part-time - it would be a very slight and occasional effort - in this worthy cause. I understand you operate this yacht mostly for foreign tourists, some of them from Germany?"
"Yes. Of course, it will be no trouble at all to check whether any guest over fifty happens to have an SS tattoo under his arm, and should I see anything of the sort I shall immediately inform the authorities and you. By the way, what does this tattoo look like and which side is it on?"
"Under the armpit, er... on the left, so as to be near the heart. It's a double "S", somewhat angular, and a number." He said this with a slight hesitation, as if, apart from the fact that it was under the armpit, he himself were not quite sure what the SS tattoo looked like. "And of course if you could keep your eyes open on the beaches as well..."
"No problem at all. Personally I doubt whether anyone would have the cheek to come to Israel to flaunt an SS tattoo on the beach, but should he be stupid enough to do it then of course he should get his due."
"Thank you very much, Captain Ehrlich," Goldberg said, getting up and solemnly shaking my hand," in the name of the six millions who did not live to see justice done and their murder avenged."
I did not go into the logic of that last sentence with him, nor into the right, often claimed, of every survivor to speak in the name of all the victims, and I saw him to the gangplank and watched him go down gingerly, holding onto the ropes as before, and then shuffle away towards the port gate; a lone stooped figure with a concentration camp number on his arm, trailing behind him a black shadow cast by a tropical moon shining over a coral sea.
Finally Maria and I were alone; for good this time, it seemed, because it was getting too late for anyone else to visit the boat. The squid, cut into rings and deep-fried were delicious, and the bottle of wine we drank with it left us lighthearted and slightly dizzy. Instead of going to my cabin we made love on a mattress on the sundeck, under the full moon; there was nobody nearby, and the port was silent and fast asleep. We lay there afterwards naked, smoking cigarettes while a light breeze cooled our sweaty bodies. A flying fish took off and went over the silver path made by the moon, dimpling it with its tail, for all the world like a low-flying bird, or, at his hour, perhaps a bat. Maria's hair was warming my cheek and neck, and some great silent peace was settling all around and inside me. It was not just the warm lazy content that follows sex, enhanced by the moony night and the beautiful, or at least very pretty girl by my side. It had something to do with her being Maria and it was not the first time it was happening to me with her. I had had many girls on such nights under such a moon, some of them more beautiful and brighter than Maria, and I had been badly in love with a couple of them, but somehow only Maria - and I was not in love with her - could bring on this deep peace afterwards. There was something puzzling here which I would have to figure out; but such was the warm and lazy peace that I felt there was no hurry, and I would sort it out one day in my own good time.
Maria was a simple German girl from Frankfurt who worked hard for her living, liked swimming, diving, and good food, and enjoyed sleeping with handsome men without being anything of a nymphomaniac. She was of that young European tribe leading a simple and often idle life wherever the land is unspoiled and picturesque, the weather kind, and living cheap, even on a dole - South Europe, Greek islands, India, South America - and where, if required, drugs and a simplified meaning of life are available without too great an effort, risk, or expense. Along the Sinai coast, they are a sort of Bedouin tribe with a difference, living on the beach in tents, cardboard or tar paper huts, or just something stretched over sticks for a shade. Some stay only a few weeks, others for months and even years, living on their unemployment money or whatever they send them from home, or working part-time in local hotels, cafes, or diving clubs, and even learning some Hebrew in the process. Maria had worked in a motel in Nueiba before I engaged her as a cook, maid of all work, and a diving guide on board Sinbad.
"Is it true what they say about the gentleman who was here tonight?" she asked; "That he is looking for Nazis on the beach?"
I told her about Mr. Goldberg, not without some hesitation because Maria was German, although born after the war. I avoided discussing politics and the past with German tourists, and they usually cooperated, saving both sides some embarrassment, because Israel was no longer the original underdog with untarnished reputation, if it had ever been one. There were the two massacres of Arab civilians, many of them women and children: one in 1948, by Begin's Irgun and the smaller Lekhi, in the village of Dir Yassin, near Jerusalem, with over two hundred and fifty dead; the other on the eve of the Sinai Campaign in 1956, in Kafr Kassem, by half a dozen Israeli border guards, with about fifty victims. The precipitators of the latter were tried and condemned to long prison terms which were then quietly and gradually reduced by one competent authority after another - the President, the Chief of Staff, the Military Appeals Tribunal, and the Probation Board- to about one-tenth of the original sentence. The Six-Day war with its spectacular victory has finally done away with any remaining underdog image.
"Suppose he catches one", Maria said. "The man will have had thirty years of good life behind him since committing those crimes; good food, a nice car, wife and children, perhaps a mistress, vacations by the sea in summer and skiing in winter, all in reasonably good health. If you catch him now and hang him like Eichmann, you may be saving him in the nick of time from cancer or impotence or senility; is it worth it?"
"Mr. Goldberg seems to think it is."
"Yes, I can understand him, poor man, with all his family killed like that by the Nazis. Cobi, why do people do these things?"
"I don't know, Maria; and if I did, it would be probably too complicated to explain."
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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