Theatre of the Real: a question of guilt - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 15. Theatre of the Real: a question of guilt

On a hot summer’s night in Jerusalem, I am sitting in the house of Michael Elkins the American broadcaster, who worked first with CBS, then for seventeen years with the BBC. I had gone to him because, like millions of my generation, I’d grown up in the company of his stentorian New York growl, delivered in perfect sentences, usually from some inhospitable war front; but also, in another part of my head, because I was on the lookout for two fictional Israeli intelligence officers I had arbitrarily named Joseph and Kurtz. Joseph was the young one, Kurtz the old hand.

What precisely I hoped to find in Elkins I can’t say from here with clarity, and probably I couldn’t have said at the time. He was in his seventies. Was it a bit of my Kurtz that I was after? I knew that Elkins had done more than his share of this and that, although I had yet to learn quite how much: worked for the OSS; and, while he was about it, run illegal arms shipments into Palestine for the Jewish Haganah before the creation of Israel; which was how he came to be fired from the OSS and go to ground in a kibbutz with his wife, whom he subsequently divorced. But I hadn’t read his book, which I should have done: Forged in Fury, published in 1971.

I knew also that Elkins, like Kurtz, was of East European stock, and had grown up in Lower East Side New York where his immigrant parents had worked in the garment trade. So yes, maybe I was looking for a bit of Kurtz in him: not for his appearance or mannerisms, because I already had a perfectly good physical image of my own Kurtz and wasn’t about to let Elkins steal it, but for the odd pearl of wisdom that he might let fall as he reminisced about vanished times. In Vienna I had sat at the feet of Simon Wiesenthal, the celebrated if controversial Nazi hunter, and although he had told me nothing I didn’t already know, the memory had never left me.

But, mostly, I wanted to meet him because he was Mike Elkins, owner of the toughest, most beguiling voice I had ever heard on radio. His vivid, carefully structured sentences, told in a deep-brown Bronx drawl, made you sit up, listen and believe. So when he called me at my hotel and told me he had heard I was in Jerusalem, I leapt at the chance to meet him.

The Jerusalem night is unusually oppressive and I’m sweating, but I don’t think Mike Elkins ever sweated. He has a lank, powerful body and a physical presence as strong as his voice. He is large-eyed and hollow-cheeked and long-limbed, and he sits in silhouette to my left side, whisky glass in one hand, the other fastened over the arm of his deckchair, and a huge moon behind his head. The radio-perfect voice is as reassuring and carefully phrased as it always was, even if the sentences come a bit shorter. And sometimes he breaks off and considers himself, as if from afar, before taking another pull of Scotch.

He’s not talking directly at me, but ahead of himself into the darkness, to a microphone that isn’t there, and it’s clear he still cares about syntax and cadence while he speaks. We started indoors, but the night was so beautiful that we carried our glasses on to the balcony. I’m not sure when or how we began talking about Nazi hunting. Perhaps I had mentioned my visit to Wiesenthal. But Mike is talking about it now. And he’s not talking about the hunting, but about the killings.

Sometimes we didn’t have the time to explain our business, he says. We just killed them and walked away. Other times we’d take them somewhere and then we’d explain. A field, a warehouse. Some wept and confessed. Some blustered. Some implored us. Some couldn’t come out with anything much. If a man had a garage, maybe we’d take him to his garage. Noose round his neck, fix it to the rafters. Stand him on the top of his car, drive it out of the garage. Then we’d go back in and make sure he’s dead.

We, I am hearing? What kind of we is this exactly? Are you telling me that you, Mike, personally, were one of the avengers? Or is this a general sort of we, like we Jews, and you’re just counting yourself among them?

He describes other ways of killing, still using the we that I’m not entirely understanding, until his thoughts wander to the moral justification of killing Nazi war criminals who, because they have concealed their identities and gone to ground - for instance in South America - would not otherwise face justice in this life. From there he drifts to guilt in general: no longer the guilt of the men who were killed, but the guilt, if any, of the men who killed them.

Too late, I dig out Mike’s book. Its publication caused quite a stir, particularly among the Jews themselves. In tone and content it is as fearsome as the title suggests. Mike was exhorted to write it, he says, by one Malachi Wald, in a kibbutz in Galilee. He describes his own Jewish awakening, prompted by American anti-Semitism in his childhood, and then made absolute by the monstrosities of the Holocaust and his own experiences as a member of the OSS in occupied Germany. The style of writing is one minute intensely personal, the next scathingly ironic. In meticulous detail, he describes unthinkable acts of Nazi savagery perpetrated against Jews in the ghettos, and in the camps: and just as vividly the heroism of the martyrs of the Jewish resistance.

But most significantly - and controversially - he reveals for us the existence of a Jewish organization named DIN, Hebrew for judgement, of which the founder was the same Malachi Wald who, in the kibbutz in Galilee, had urged him to write the book in the first place.

In the years 1945 and 1946 alone, he tells us, DIN hunted down and killed no fewer than a thousand Nazi war criminals. Its work, which continued into the seventies, included a plan, mercifully never completed, to poison the water supply of 250,000 German households with the aim of killing a million German men, women and children in recompense for the six million murdered Jews. DIN, Mike tells us, enjoyed the support of Jews across the world. Its original membership of fifty came from all walks of life: businessmen, men of religion, poets.

But also, Mike adds without comment, journalists.