September 7, 2009

A Book Review: Terror and a Murder Mystery

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:48 am by yisraelmedad

Terror and a murder mystery

Sep. 3, 2009

Major Farran’s Hat: The Untold Story of the Struggle to Establish the Jewish State

By David Cesarani

DaCapo/Perseus 320 pp., $26

(published in the Jerusalem Post)

The outlines of the story David Cesarani unfolds are not complicated. On May 6, 1947, teenager Alexander (“Haim”) Rubowitz left his home in Jerusalem for a rendezvous with Yael, his liaison in the Lehi underground, with a packet of leaflets to be distributed. He never arrived. He was snatched by a special counterterrorist unit recently formed by the British command of the Palestine Police Force, and presumably taken to Wadi Kelt, where he was tortured and killed.

Evidence shows that the killer was Roy Farran whose hat was found at the kidnapping scene, Rehov Ussishkin, and who admitted to his superior officer that Rubowitz had been killed by blows to his head with a rock, according to the documents Cesarani reveals for the first time in English.

Farran’s wartime experiences as a decorated commando and having escaped several times served him well once he was arrested in Jerusalem. As the case against him grew, he fled to Aleppo, Syria, and reportedly a second time into the desert. Eventually he was court-martialed. His past as a war hero assured him world headlines. After he was acquitted following a cover up, he returned to Liverpool, where he received a hero’s welcome.

Lehi took revenge by sending him a book bomb the following year. It was opened at the Farran household outside Wolverhampton by his younger brother, who was killed. Roy Farran died in 2006 denying his role and never revealing where the body was buried.

Farran was a commando, imperial soldier, buccaneer and adventurer. He was brave, flamboyant, swashbuckling and assuredly heroic. He was also a philandering lady’s man, a frequently inebriated lout, at times a ill-disciplined commander and, most horrifically, it seems, a cold-blooded torturer and a killer of a defenseless 16-year-old. He was exceptionally good and he was exceptionally bad.

David Cesarani, the author of Becoming Eichmann who was recognized in the Queen’s New Year’s Honors list in 2006 for services to Holocaust education, has written a wonderful book, riveting, persuasive, based on newly released 60-year-old archival material as well as a wealth of other books, documents and newspaper reports that were disconnected and lost. He zooms in on his subject and leaves the reader without a doubt of the guilt of Farran. Nevertheless, he inexplicably gets dates wrong, fails to include crucial and readily available archival material, skips over important subject matter, seems to be uncomfortable with Hebrew sources and has a nasty habit of using “pedantically” ad nauseam. He is exceptionally good and he is exceptionally bad.

A research professor could and should do better than to allow silly items to slip through a book loaded down with references to Public Record Office papers, books, academic papers, stashed-away memoirs and personal correspondence of British officials and soldiers. He writes that Rubowitz was tied to a tree, but his source, the Hadingham Report, does not include this fanciful situation. He refers to the activities of Rabbi Baruch Korff, but fails to acknowledge Korff’s own 1953 book, Flight from Fear, which reproduces hundreds of documents on the period which, incidentally, can be found on an Internet site. He suggests that Chaim Weizmann “led no party of his own” when, in truth, he was the head of the General Zionist faction. He records the day of the UN partition resolution approval as being November 28 when it was the 29th. He records the date of an Irgun attack in Tel Aviv when flamethrowers were used to set alight parked vehicles as January 7, 1947, when it was January 3. And was Lehi really “positively delighted” to assassinate British Mandatory officials and security personnel?

Then there is the victim’s name. Cesarani inexplicably adds to Alexander Rubowitz’s name the notation sic perhaps a dozen times despite it being transliterated from the Hebrew. But worse is his interpretive prose. It is here that Cesarani injects an unsubstantiated political and ideological backdrop to the unfolding events in Mandatory Palestine, one that is highly subjective and biased.

For example, he misleads the reader into thinking the Land of Israel was empty (“forced dispersion of the Jews and depopulation of the land”). Even the position of Zionism’s international legal justification is faulted by Cesarani. He could have done more investigating the historical record and providing his readers with a more comprehensive work. What was the identity of “X” who passed on a detailed letter to the Rubowitz family on what happened to their son? Why was Franciscan monk Eugene Hoade, the Roman Catholic chaplain to the Palestine Police Force, not even mentioned by Cesarani? He might have hidden Farran during his second escape and even helped dispose of Rubowitz’s body. Why does he fail to mention the Acre Prison breakout on May 4, 1947, two days prior to Rubowitz’s kidnapping, as a possible motive for the perverse wrath of Farran and his fellow policemen?

What happened to the members of the “Q Squads” other than Farran and were they contacted to elicit further information? Why did the most senior British government officials who knew the truth keep mum for decades? Was Rubowitz’s snatch truly coincidental or had there been a tip-off about his whereabouts as he had been under Hagana surveillance for over a year? And was Rubowitz the sole victim of a snatch-torture-murder scenario or were there additional victims, as Farran himself claimed in an intelligence document I have read?

A detective, Steve Rambam, is still seeking information on the whereabouts of the remains of Alexander Rubowitz. If he is successful, then the sorry tale will truly be brought to closure and with it, perhaps further details of the comprehensive historical record. The writer lectures on the history of Zionism and the underground resistance struggle against British Mandatory rule.

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