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David Gershator





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    PROSE


This piece seemed to write itself. It started in the aftermath of rockets falling on Haifa in 2006.
 


ROMMEL AND THE MAGIC CARPET  

                                                 I

General George Patton in North Africa referred to Rommel’s Infantry Attacks published in 1937 with soldierly admiration: “Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” I can only think: “Good for you George. I’m glad you read what that s.o.b. had to say--and used it against him.”

I never read Rommel’s book. Why bother...I don't plan to attack anyone with infantry, tanks or peashooters. The days of toy lead soldiers are long gone and I have no lingering desire to be a five star armchair general with 20/20 hindsight. But when I was a young boy, enthralled by shiny military stars and buttons, I played war on Mt. Carmel, wearing my beloved Eisenhower jacket with the four exciting gold stars on its epaulets. 

Years after I learned to read, I dug into the front lines of El Alamein from the safety of a New York public library. Those two Arabic words for a  blood soaked killing ground meant everything: for a couple of weeks in the autumn of 1942, my family’s future and the future of Palestine and WW II was being decided somewhere out in the howling wastes of the North African desert. I was too young to understand much then, but the mental pictures are still there and the feeling--a feeling of dread and tension and, later, as the war came home, a feeling of desperation. 

Our family of three lived in a four story concrete building built into the slope of Mt. Carmel. This working class apartment building had an old olive tree in the front and a fig tree in the back that didn’t make many figs--too much shade cast by another building looming over it. The most intriguing plant in the garden was a night blooming cereus snaking up the front wall near the entrance. I saw it bloom once. I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime for the event. It was a full moon night--was that good or bad for bombing?--just me and my mother hanging around the snaky cactus in the moonlight watching the bud, twice the size of my fist, opening slowly for the moon. We called it malkat laylah--Queen of the Night. Its fragrance left me moonstruck: vanilla and cinnamon and some unknown spice. The pretty perfumed woman who lived upstairs passed by with her uniformed British escort. She said no perfume could match it.

II

I like the air raids--the scary excitement of near and distant sirens, quickly followed by raised voices and footsteps rushing down the steps. Our ground floor apartment is the nearest to the cellar, our bomb shelter, and we’d always be the first into it and the first to choose a bench. Everybody in the building joins us, people we don’t even know.

Somebody brings a couple of dogs. Not allowed. I don’t like dogs with cold wet noses. Flashlights shine here and there before the warden’s order--“lights out”--and people telling people to put out cigarettes and keep quiet, everybody sitting in the dark hush, breathing the mustiness together. Almost like waiting for a movie to begin.

After a few dark minutes, the two little girls who live in the apartment next to ours start to giggle, people whisper and sneeze. lots of sneezing. Easy to  catch a cold down there. Everyone’s getting itchy twitchy and bored. Sometimes we hear explosions and concussions. When we don’t, people speak up, wondering, “Why are we still sitting here--it’s over.” The air raid warden warns, “Did you hear the all clear yet?”

The all clear sounds and the cellar door inches open--why they had to shut out the daylight I didn’t know--and people blink their eyes and stretch and complain about wasting time and everybody goes back to doing what they were doing, including the dogs that aren’t allowed...until another day and another round of warning sirens.

Meanwhile, Rommel’s Afrika Korps is rampaging across the desert beating the crumpets out of the British and spoiling afternoon tea and tennis for officers at the Nile clubs and resorts. Most likely, before you know it, Rommel will step on the gas and Egypt will fall. The pyramids will stand at attention and the Sphinx will be saddled by its new master--Rommel of the Nile: Liberator of Cairo and Lord of Suez. The Fuhrer Pharaoh will call the shots in the Near East. And the cradle of civilization will turn into its tomb--or a mass grave of the kind that was so popular among German armies dedicated to an Aryan Europe.

At the time Montgomery and Rommel are busy collecting artillery, trucks, and tanks for a showdown, I’m collecting Egyptian stamps, among others, getting to know the faces on each stamp, each face surrounded by little teeth. If the stamps are to have any value, the teeth have to be perfect. King Farouk is perfect; he’s young with a red fez and puffy cheeks. He became king of Egypt in 1937, the year I was born. A memorable year--we have something in common.

The Egyptians look forward to a grand reception for their Nazi liberators from English rule. Welcome banners stretch out across the streets and balconies of Cairo. Shopkeepers stock up on Nazi flags.

Allied Headquarters is burning its vital documents, causing a steady flow of smoke to darken the Cairo sky and rain ashes over the city. The Brits mockingly call this Egyptian darkness “Ash Wednesday.” Among those dependent on British rule, the plague of panic strikes quickly, triggered by word of mouth that the Royal Navy has withdrawn its fleet from Alexandria and dispersed it to Port Said, Beirut, and Haifa. Egyptian policemen and troops vanish. British supply dumps are promptly looted for food and emptied of anything portable. Railroad stations are mobbed. Roads out of Alexandria and Cairo are clogged with refugees trying to flee to Luxor and further south to the Sudan. Others head for points East, including British Mandated Palestine, where the British could still organize an orderly retreat.

The Reich is now busy stamping medals for the Egyptian campaign and printing occupation currency. Mussolini himself is ready and waiting to ride his white charger at the head of the Axis victory parade in Cairo.

The Egyptians can’t wait to celebrate.

Aren’t they Semitic, Hamitic? Doesn’t Nazi racism apply to them as “non Aryans”? But it’s not hard to understand their enthusiasm. The age old Arab dictum--the enemy of my enemy is my friend--seems good enough at the moment to sway the crowds. Rommel is their man, their hero.

If the Nazis break through, they could easily hook up with the Wehrmacht coming down from Southern Russia and win the Near East petroleum lottery. What a bonanza! They’d be swimming in oil. Next, they’d go on to India, meet up with the Japanese in Burma, and the British would be lucky to escape a second Dunkirk in a hasty retreat to Australia. And how could they do that if Japan controlled the seas? The Allies would be forced to think the unthinkable and sue for terms.
                                       
 III

Mother worked in the offices of the Iraq Petroleum Company at the Haifa Bay oil refinery. The grounds of the IPC refinery supplied me with matchboxes full of ladybugs, thanks to an Arab gardener. And from its offices I would get a steady supply of cancelled stamps from around the world. It was also a major depot for supplying the British Mediterranean fleet, which made the refinery and storage tanks a prime target. First the Vichy French threat from Syria after the fall of France, then the Italian long range planes coming in with their bombs from Bari, Italy. One bomb missed the refinery and knocked me flat. No one knew when the bombers would appear. I recall one showing up at night. It got caught in the cross beams of searchlights and all hell broke loose as it tried to evade ack ack fire from the anti-aircraft batteries around Haifa Bay, the refinery, and the top of Mt. Carmel.

Though an American citizen, mother was paid native scale and treated like a native. To the British, with their rigid class and status consciousness and not so deft colonialism, she wasn’t quite on a par with the English staff, even though they relied on her English language skills. But for her, far worse than bureaucratic discrimination at work was never knowing if she’d make it back home alive.

  IV

In those intense Mediterranean days I was fascinated by carpets. I liked to help beat on a carpet if I had the chance. Some of our neighbors had carpets and they’d beat them on Thursday or Friday before the Sabbath. I can still hear the rhythm of carpet beating on the balconies of the town. I couldn’t help wondering which of the multihued and reddish rugs might be magic. Magic carpets were known to exist from Cairo to Baghdad and beyond--I’d had it on faith from a neighbor lady with a beautiful Persian carpet. One only had to know the secret words to make a Persian carpet rise up and fly. Maybe the Shah of Iran knew the words. I also collected stamps with his moustached portrait. Shah Pahlavi looked fierce, as though he ate a cactus for breakfast.

There’s tension in the air. The radio is on every evening for the latest news. And now there’s the ominous sound of approaching thunder: ROMMEL ROMMEL ROMMEL ROMMEL.

My always cool and stoic mother comes home from work one day, and
she’s upset. I’ve never seen her so upset. 
      “What’s wrong, Mary?” 
      “It looks bad,” she tells my abba. “They’re leaving. They’re starting to load up the lorries. Files, documents, all the important records....”
      “Where are they taking them?”
      “To Baghdad, then on to India. I don’t know what’s to become of us. Seems they don’t give a damn. Only English citizens will be evacuated.” 
      “They can’t leave you just like that! If you’re needed here, they need you there. Somebody has to straighten out the company files. Those bastards. They’ve got to help us out!”
      “What if they don’t!”
      “You’ve got your American passport. What’s the American embassy doing? There must be some way to get to Baghdad. Anything with wheels will do. Talk to them, Mary, do something. Any papers will do. Anything. Something in writing. Get friendly with one of the drivers. Charm one of the bosses.”
      “Listen to you! I’m not Queen Esther and this isn’t Purim.”
      “Maybe we can bribe someone to get on a lorry, any lorry.”
      “And after Baghdad then what?”
      “I’d better withdraw our savings before they freeze the funds. Talk to the people at work. Talk to the drivers.”
      “I will, I will.”

We don’t go to Baghdad, even though mother got an offer, or maybe a proposition. Her boss offered to take her. I can imagine the conversation:
      “With my child?”
      “Hmmm. An added difficulty...but I suppose so.”
      “And what about my husband?”
      “Dreadfully sorry, Mary, but you know we have only so much leeway, and he’s not American is he? We have to draw the line somewhere. Nothing personal, simply a matter of protocol. Think about it, Mary.”

 V

Between Field Marshal Rommel and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and ally of Hitler, the Promised Land is a death trap and everyone knows it. The only hope is to flee on a carpet to Baghdad. My family doesn’t have a Persian carpet. We don’t have any carpets. None at all.

At the start of the battle there’s a blackout on information. More lorries are packed and sent off across the Syrian desert to Baghdad. Later the battle would be called El Alamein after a village not far from Alexandria. El Alamein, meaning “two worlds,” a fitting name for worlds in collision--and very possibly a new world order: the Hitlerian world, the Nazi world. In the first round--June and July, summer of ‘42--Rommel drove the British back to the El Alamein line, just seventy miles west of Alexandria. The second confrontation in the Fall of ‘42 was the Allies last stand in North Africa.

The battle, actually a series of battles, lasted for approximately eleven days, October 23rd to November 3rd. But in Mary’s diary not a clue, just “sunny day” or “first rain” or “D has an ear ache.” She was terribly stoic. Couldn’t even confess her anxieties to a diary. 

Troops from all over the British Empire as well as European units were gathered for this do or die mother of showdowns: kilted Scots and swarthy Sikhs, Aussies, New Zealanders, Irish, Welsh, Gurkas, Greeks, Sudanese, South Africans, Canadians, Poles, Czechs, Free French, even Egyptians--a virtual United Nations. How we all loved the Aussies with their jaunty hats--brim turned up on one side, the Scots with their bagpipes, and the Sikhs with their turbans! America too was involved, managing to deliver 330 new Sherman tanks to add to Montgomery’s array of armor.

There was an aura of mythological prowess around Rommel. Hadn’t he faced difficult odds before and defeated the British decisively in the Battle of Gazala and then incredibly took the port of Tobruk which assured Axis supply lines? Dash and daring helped him beat an army more than twice the size of his own. No telling what might happen next.... What happened next? Churchill appointed Montgomery head of the combined allied forces.

Good old Monty. What if he lost? I can hear my mother muttering in her adopted English accent, “Oh, for pity sakes alive, this Montgomery, what in heaven’s name can he do? He better be better than the incompetents he’s replacing!” What if he were forced to retreat? Would he use some ringing rhetoric like Churchill or promise to return like MacArthur or simply say to one and all as he retreated through Palestine: “Cheerio and good luck. Of course, you Palestinians (meaning Jews and the Jewish community in those days) are free to defend yourselves as you see fit, but we must evacuate our positions. There’s no holding Jerusalem--we can only hope and pray for your salvation. Awfully sorry we can’t give you any weapons. We simply cannot spare them.” Monty was no lover of Zion, unlike General Allenby, who liberated Palestine from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, or Captain Orde Wingate who gave military training to Jewish fighters in Galilee in the mid-Thirties.

How fortunate for everyone that after days of ferocious combat Rommel finally ran out of gas, literally, and that the resupply didn’t arrive until it was too late and his retreating forces dumped and burned the gas in the desert. The overwhelming logistics--men, arms, equipment--were on Monty’s side. He was cautious to a fault. Some claim he moved too slowly, in the manner of a WWI general, letting Rommel retreat with the remnant of Panzer Army Afrika to fight another day. He certainly was no risk taker like Rommel, but when he moved he moved en masse. Alamein was a strategic success, and along with Stalingrad (the bloodiest battle in history) a pivotal turning point for the Allies. From then on the Axis powers were on the defensive.

King George, whose handsome face was on many of my stamps--stamps with perfect teeth, never smiled. But he must have smiled after El Alamein, somewhere in his bomb shelter in England.

VI

Half a century later, I wake up to trivia on the radio one morning--and discover that it’s happy anniversary El Alamein! It seems like a fable, or a desert mirage. Rommel rides again. The name itself still conjures up a rolling though faded thunder. He wasn’t our friend like King George or mysterious Uncle Joe with the thick black mustache. Rommel was our nightmare. He had over 100,000 men and 500 deadly tanks. And his panzer tanks were as fast as desert foxes. 

But what if...? If his Italian Korps would have held the center line, if gasoline for his tanks had arrived a day earlier...he might have won the battle of Egypt, and if Rommel had routed the British a second time, it’s obvious that my parents and I would’ve been toast on the Carmel.
Field Marshal Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel, the priest of Ba’al, would’ve sacrificed children and driven adults to concentration camps and slaughter. Panzer tanks would’ve rolled up to Haifa and Mt. Carmel.

The prophet Elijah himself couldn’t have saved the day. Only one flaming chariot against all those tanks? Hopeless. The Carmel of Elijah would have been the Nazi’s Aryan altar. And the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem would have given his enthusiastic Islamic blessing to the bloodbath.

The Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, never had his face on any postage stamps. According to German archives, he met several times with Adolf Eichmann to prepare for the genocide of half a million Jewish inhabitants of British Mandated Palestine. That half million, including my immediate family, would add ten per cent to the sum total of the Holocaust. What a coup for the Nazis to raise their swastika flags over a judenrein Jerusalem!

Haj Amin al-Husseini, Hitler’s “honorary Aryan”--thanks to a red beard and blue eyes inherited from his Circassian mother, was slated to become the titular head of a Muslim fascist state and most likely would have had a portrait stamp issued in his honor. A stamp I’d be unable to collect.

The actual overseer of the prospective liquidation process was to be SS Obersturmbannführer Walther Rauff. The designated mass murderer had previous expertise in using mobile gas chamber vans in Russia and was posted to Athens in the summer of ‘42. Since the killing centers of Europe were too far away, Rauff was ready to deploy his “Einsatzgruppe Egypt” to Palestine, hot on the heels of Rommel’s anticipated victory over Montgomery’s Desert Rats. Smashing the 8th Army and hurling it back for a second time would leave the road to Jerusalem wide open. Rauff’s mobile death squads and the Mufti’s recruits would be free to implement a slaughter that would make the massacres carried out by the 11th century Crusaders look like child’s play.

They say the Carmel might have been the last Masada, another site for future tourists to visit or ignore. There are still signs of siege preparations on the mountain. Torn up railroad tracks, barricades and fortifications--remnants of just another potentially apocalyptic last stand. A momentous moment in secular Holy Land time impossible to deduce or reconstruct from an almost blank maternal diary, a little black book with indications of health, weather, visits to friends, and the appearance of the first wildflowers--cyclamen and anemones--after the rains. There's even one desiccated anemone of 1942 stuck between the pages, but nothing, absolutely nothing about Rommel and El Alamein.


 EPILOGUE


Field Marshal Rommel saw the handwriting on many ruined walls and advocated a negotiated surrender before Germany was destroyed and overrun by the Allies. A furious Hitler rejected Rommel’s realism as defeatism. Once Hitler’s favorite general, Rommel was forced to commit suicide by the Fuhrer for his alleged involvement in the Hitler assassination plot. At Rommel’s funeral Hitler sent the biggest wreath.

Haj Amin al-Husseini, Jerusalem born Muslim cleric and jihadist, mixed Islam with Nazism to become the godfather of Muslim extremism. From 1941 to the war’s end he was in Berlin on the Nazi’s payroll as Hitler’s protégé. Himmler gave him the title SS Gruppenführer (Major General). Upon his urging, Adolf Eichmann stopped ransom negotiations to save 5000 Jewish children and sent them to Auschwitz instead. Responsible for the mass killing of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, Haj Amin al-Husseini was indicted by Yugoslavia as a genocidal war criminal but was never held to account by the Allies. He found asylum in the Cairo of King Farouk. His distant relative (some say cousin), born in Egypt, was Yasser Arafat.

SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Walther Rauff escaped to Ecuador--and from there to Chile--with the aid of the Vatican’s notorious Nazi sympathizer, Bishop Alois Hudel, who helped many high ranking Nazis, including the commander of Treblinka, evade capture. Later, Rauff had a protector in Chilean dictator Pinochet and was never extradited.

The author celebrated his eighth birthday in Marseille, December,1945, en route from Alexandria, Egypt, to New York on the Gripsholm, the first civilian ship to cross the Atlantic after the war. He no longer collects stamps.






And to continue the tale with a haibun, a Japanese form of storytelling that mixes prose and poetry:


NIGHT IN ALEXANDRIA

Last night I fell asleep with a heavy book on my chest. Flashback to Alexandria, Egypt. Dingy Hotel LeRoi. Right after World War II and in transit to the New World. American mother eager to see her family and introduce her child to her sisters and relatives after nine years and repeated Axis bombing of her place of work. 

“Oh, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” was the song in the air and also “Three Blind Mice” and we were a family of three and New York might as well be Tipperary--someplace special, even fabulous with the world’s tallest building which I’m promised I’ll see and eggs the size of a fist ( I don’t care for eggs), but the size is impressive and to top it off I’m promised a set of electric trains. With smoke. I’m crazy for trains.

My parents had gone out for the evening. It was late November. The air in the city was very mild. Autumn in Egypt. They’d left me with a book revealing the sacred secrets of the Pharaohs and the pyramids. I was almost eight years old. Very impressionable and overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Alexandria. I was bone tired but so engrossed by the book about ancient Egypt that I fell asleep with the book on my face. The book spread open forming its own pyramid over my eyes and nose.

Groggy, I regain consciousness. My eyes open to an oppressive weight-- and darkness. I freeze in a flash panic. Trapped in a tomb! 

I hear voices... deliverance! My parents are back. The light goes on. My mother says with a smile in her voice, “Look how he fell asleep!” She lifts the book off my nose and laughs. “There you are!”

The room is lit by a garish bare bulb. Oh, the light, the wonderful light! But my heart's pounding and my arms seem to weigh a ton. I’ve slept under a pyramid.

half a century
after falling asleep
waking up in Egypt

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