La Rue Sans Joie (Pt. 2)

I’ve decided to post a second favorite excerpt from Dr. Bernard Fall’s nonfiction masterpiece Street Without Joy for you to read:

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“A last chapter of the of the Foreign Legion’s colorful history in Asia was written, in, of all places, the drab surroundings of an Israeli Navy court-martial in May 1958.

The defendant was a 25-year old man, in the neat white uniform of the Israeli enlisted seaman. Eliahu Itzkovitz was charged with desertion from the Israeli Navy, but this case was not an ordinary one, for he had deserted from a peacetime hitch in Haifa to a twenty-seven months ordeal with the Foreign Legion in Indochina.

Eliahu had grown up in a small town in eastern Rumania when the country threw in its lot with the Nazis at the beginning of World War II. Soon, the Rumanian Conductorul (the “Leader”) Antonescu began to emulate all the tactics of the Nazis, his own version of the Brownshirts calling itself the “Iron Guard” and practicing mass murder on a large scale. In fact, according to the British writer Edward Crankshaw in his book Gestapo, they “offended the Germans on the spot by not troubling to bury their victims; and they offended the R.H.S.A. (Reichs-Sicherheitshauptampt, the administrative section of the Nazi police in charge of mass exterminations) by their failure to keep proper records and by their uncontrolled looting.”

The Itzkovitz family did not escape the collective fate of the Rumanian Jews. Eliahu and his parents and three brothers were sent to a concentration camp, no better and no worse than most Eastern European camps; one lived a few days to a few weeks and died from a wide variety of causes, mostly beating and shooting. Rumanian camps were not as well equipped as their German models, the “death factories” of Auschwitz and Treblinka with their sophisticated gas chambers. Again, according to Crankshaw, “the Rumanians showed a great aptitude for mass murder and conducted their own massacres in Odessa and elsewhere,” and the Itzkovitz family paid its price – within a short time, only Eliahu, the youngest boy, survived.

But he had seen his family die, and he had remembered who killed it. It had been one particular brute, not the coldly efficient SS-type but a Rumanian from a town not too far away from his own home town and who enjoyed his new job. And Eliahu swore that he would kill the man, if it took all his life to do it. More than anything else, it was probably that hatred that kept him alive; he was a skeleton but a living one when the Russians liberated him in 1944. Eliahu then began his patient search from town to town. Of course, Stanescu (or whatever name the brute had assumed in the meantime) had not returned to his hometown for good reasons, but Eliahu found his son there and took his first revenge; he stabbed the son with a butcher knife and in 1947, a Rumanian People’s Court sentenced him to five years in a reformatory for juveniles.

Eliahu served his time but did not forget. His family’s murderer was still at large and he had sworn to kill him. In 1952, he was finally released and given permission by Communist authorities to emigrate to Israel, where he was drafted into the Israeli army in 1953 and assigned to the paratroops. Training was rigorous in the sun-drenched barracks and stubby fields south of Rehovoth, and thoughts of revenge had become all but a dim memory. There was a new life to be lived here, among the people from all corners of the world who still streamed in and who, from Germans, Poles, Indians, Yemenites, or Rumanians, became Israelis. To be sure, Eliahu still met some of his Rumanian friends and talk often rotated back to the “old country”, to the war and the horrors of the persecution. Camps and torturers were listed matter-of-factly, like particularly tough schools or demanding teachers, and Stanescu came up quite naturally.

“That s.o.b. made it. He got out in time before the Russians could get him,” said a recent arrival, “then he fled to West Germany and tried to register as a D.P. but they got wise to him and before we could report him, he was gone again.”

Eliahu’s heart beat had stopped for an instant, and when it resumed its normal rhythm, he had shaken off the torpor of peacetime army life. The hunt was on again.

“Do you know where Stanescu went then? Do you have any idea at all?”

“Well – somebody said that he had gone to Offenburg in the French Zone, where they recruit people for the French Foreign Legion, and that he enlisted for service in Indochina. The French are fighting there, you know.”

On the next day, Eliahu’s mind was made up. He reported to his commanding officer and applied for a transfer to the Israeli Navy; he liked the sea, had learned something about it while in Rumania, which borders the Black Sea, and would be happier aboard ship than as a paratrooper. A few days later, the request was granted and Eliahu was on his way to the small force of Israeli corvettes and destroyers based in Haifa. A few months later, the opportunity he had been waiting for came true; his ship was assigned to go to Italy to pick up equipment.

In Genoa, Seaman Itzkovitz applied for shore leave and simply walked off the ship; took a train to Bordighera and crossed over to Menton, France, without the slightest difficulty. Three days later, Eliahu had signed his enlistment papers in Marseilles and was en route to Sidi-bel-Abbès, Algeria, the headquarters and boot camp of the Foreign Legion, and again three months later, he was aboard the s/s Pasteur on his way to Indochina.

Once in the Foreign Legion, Stanescu’s trail was not hard to pick up. While no unit was made up of any single nationality, each unit would have its little groups and informal clans according to language or nation of origin. It took patience, but in early 1954, he had located his quarry in the 3d Foreign Legion Infantry. The last step was the easiest; the Foreign Legion generally did not object if a man requested a transfer in order to be with his friends, and Eliahu’s request to be transferred to Stanescu’s battalion came through in a perfectly routine fashion. When Eliahu saw Stanescu again after ten years, he felt no particular wave of hatred, as he had somehow expected. After having spent ten years imagining the moment of meeting the killer of his family eye to eye, the materialization of that moment could only be an anti-climax. Stanescu had barely changed; he had perhaps thinned down a bit in the Legion; as for Eliahu, he had been a frightened boy of thirteen and was now a strapping young man, bronzed from his two years of training with the Israeli paratroopers, the Navy and the French Foreign Legion.

There was nothing left to do for Eliahu but to arrange a suitable occasion for the “execution;” for in his eyes the murder of Stanescu would be an execution. Stanescu (his name was, of course, no longer that) had become a corporal, and led his squad competently. The new arrival also turned out to be a competent soldier, a bit taciturn perhaps, but good. In fact, he was perhaps better trained than the run of the mill that came out of “Bel-Abbès” these days. He was a good man to have along on a patrol.

And it was on a patrol that Stanescu met his fate, in one of the last desperate battles along Road 18, between Bac-Ninh and Seven Pagodas. He and Eliahu had gone on a reconnaissance into the bushes on the side of the road, when the Viet-Minh opened fire from one hundred yards away. Both men slumped down into the mud. There was no cause for fear; the rest of the squad was close by on the road and would cover their retreat. Eliahu was a few paces to the side and behind Stanescu.

“Stanescu!” he called out.

Stanescu turned around and stared at Eliahu, and Eliahu continued in Rumanian:

“You are Stanescu, aren’t you?”

The man, the chest of his uniform black from the mud in which he had been lying, looked at Eliahu more in surprise than in fear. For all he knew, Eliahu might have been a friend of his son, a kid from the neighborhood back home in Chisnau.

“Yes, but…”

“Stanescu,” said Eliahu in a perfectly even voice, “I’m one of the Jews from Chisnau,” and emptied the clip of his MAT-49 tommy gun into the man’s chest. He dragged the body back to the road: a Legionnaire never left a comrade behind.

“Tough luck,” said one of the men of the platoon sympathetically. “He was a Rumanian just like you, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Eliahu, “just like me.”

The search had ended and the deed was done. Eliahu was now at peace with himself and the world. He served out his time with the Legion, received his papers certifying that “he had served with Honor and Fidelity” and mustered out in France. There was nothing left for him to do but to go home to Israel. The Israeli Armed Forces attachè in France at first refused to believe the incredible story, but the facts were soon verified with the French authorities and a few weeks later Eliahu was on his way to Israel. At Haifa, two Israeli M.P.’s, perfect copies of their British models with their glistening white canvas belts and pistol holsters, took charge of him and soon the gates of Haifa military prison closed behind him.

The three Israeli Navy judges rose. Seaman Itzkovitz stood stiffly at attention as the presiding judge read out the judgement.

“…and in view of the circumstances of the case, a Court of the State of Israel cannot bring itself to impose a heavy sentence…. One year’s imprisonment.”

*  *  *

I believe that this excerpt illustrates something not only about seriousness, but about commitment, dedication to family, and selflessness.

And honor as well… he carried his dead enemy’s body back to friendly lines because he was a Legionnaire, and it simply is not done that one Legionnaire leaves another behind, living or dead; he turned himself in at the end of his quest and faced the legal consequences of his desertion, no matter how justified it may have been morally for him to have done it, because it was still a violation of the law of a government that he had sworn allegiance to and of a solemn commitment he had made.

There is something in this story about what it means to be a man that should be deeply considered.

La Rue Sans Joie

I was recently contemplating why history’s winners win, and why history’s losers lose. It cannot be simply size and strength of armies, nor amounts of money or political influence they hold, nor momentum from long periods in power, because those with less of all of these things than their opponents have often ended up as the winners. I wonder if perhaps the secret ingredient is most often not these, nor intelligence, nor leaderly charisma, nor even (in the clichéd words of football coaches) “wanting it more”, but is instead seriousness. We live in a superficial age full of unserious people with unserious desires who cling to unserious ideas, and it may be difficult for native-born sons of Modernity (as we all are) to fully understand such a quality. To try to illustrate it, I will here reprint (without anyone’s permission, for I am a rebel and an outlaw) a short passage from my personal favorite non-fiction book, Street Without Joy – Dr. Bernard Fall’s firsthand account of his experiences during the early 1950s traveling among French expeditionary forces fighting in the First Indochina War, while he was doing research for his doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University. The short vignette he relates took place only a few months before the decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu that resulted in the French withdrawal from its Indochinese colonies.

(As a short aside, if any readers perceive any similarity between Dr. Fall’s narrative writing style and my own, it is because his writing has been a strong influence on me ever since I first read Street Without Joy during middle school).

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“Sometimes, there occurs an almost irrelevant incident which, in the light of later developments, seems to have been a sign of the gods, a dreamlike warning which, if heeded, could have changed fate – or so it seems.

One such incident occurred to me in October 1953 in Cambodia, at Siem-Reap, not far away from the fabulous temples of Angkor-Wat. I has been in the field with the 5th Cambodian Autonomous Infantry Company and was now in need of transportation back to Phnom-Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Siem-Reap, a quiet and pleasant little place with two hotels catering to the tourist trade and a few French archaeologists working around the ruins of Angkor, might as well have been a small garrison town in southern France, such as Avignon or Nimes.

A few French officers were still around, mainly as advisers to the newly-independent Cambodian Army. Their chores were light; there were no Communists in the area and the handful of obsolescent Renault trucks and World War II-type weapons needed a minimum of maintenance and care. An assignment to Siem-Reap was as good a sinecure as could be found in Indochina in October 1953 and the officers made the most of it.

When I went to the Transportation Office that afternoon at 1530, the Cambodian orderly told me apologetically that “le Lieutenant est allé au mess jouer au tennis avec le Capitaine” and that they might well stay there for the rest of the afternoon. Since a convoy which I expected to catch was supposed to leave at dawn, I decided to stroll over to the mess in order to get my travel documents signed there.

The Siem-Reap officers’ mess was a pleasant and well-kept place; with its wide Cambodian-style verandahs, its parasol-shaded tables and the well-manicured lawns and beautifully red-sanded tennis court, it was an exact replica of all the other colonial officers’ messes from Port Said to Singapore, Saigon, or even Manila, wherever the white man had set his foot in the course of building his ephemeral empires.

I found the two officers at the tennis court, in gleaming white French square-bottomed shorts (no one in Europe would be caught dead in the ungainly Bermuda pants called “shorts” in the United States), matching Lacoste tennis shirts and knee-long socks. Their skins had lost the unhealthy pallor of the jungle and had taken on the handsome bronze of the vacationer engaging in outdoor sports; their wives, seated at a neighboring table, were beautifully groomed and wore deceptively simple (but, oh, so expensive!) cotton summer dresses clearly showing the hand of a Paris designer. Both officers played in the easy style of men who knew each other’s game and were less bent on winning than on getting the fun and exercise of it. Three Cambodian servants, clad in impeccable white slacks and shirts, stood respectfully in the shadow of the verandah, awaiting the call of one of the officers or women for a new cool drink.

Since the men were in the midst of a set and I had little else to do, I sat down at a neighboring table after a courteous bow to the ladies and watched the game, gladly enjoying the atmosphere of genteel civility and forgetting for a moment the war. At the next table, the two women kept up the rapid-fire chatter which French women are prone to use when men are present. The two men also kept up a conversation of sorts, interrupted regularly by the “plop-plop” of the tennis ball.

Then emerged from the verandah a soldier in a French uniform. His small stature, brown skin and western-type features showed him to be a Cambodian. He wore the blue field cap with the golden anchor of the Troupes Coloniales – the French “Marines” – and the three golden chevrons of a master-sergeant. On his chest above the left breast pocket of his suntan regulation shirt were three rows of multi-colored ribbons: croix de guerre with four citations, campaign ribbons with the clasps of France’s every colonial campaign since the Moroccan pacification of 1926; the Italian campaign of 1943 and the drive to the Rhine of 1945. In his left hand, he carried several papers crossed diagonally with a tri-colored ribbon; travel orders, like mine, which also awaited the signature of one of the officers.

He remained in the shadow of the verandah’s awnings until the officers had interrupted their game and had joined the two women with their drinks, then strode over in a measured military step, came stiffly to attention in a military salute. and handed the orders for himself and his squad to the captain. The captain looked up in surprise, still with a half-smile on his face from the remark he had made previously. His eyes narrowed suddenly as he understood he was being interrupted. Obviously, he was annoyed but not really furious.

“Sergeant, you can see that I’m busy. Please wait until I have time to deal with your travel orders. Don’t worry. You will have them in time for the convoy”.

The sergeant stood stiffly at attention, some of his almost white hair glistening in the sun where it peeked from under the cap, his wizened face betraying no emotion whatsoever.

A vos ordres, mon Capitaine.” A sharp salute, a snappy about face. The incident was closed, the officers had had their drink and now resumed their game.

The sergeant resumed his watch near where the Cambodian messboys were following the game, but this time he had squatted down on his haunches, a favorite Cambodian position of repose which would leave most Europeans with partial paralysis for several hours afterwards. Almost without moving his head, he attentively followed the tennis game, his travel orders still tightly clutched in his left hand.

The sun began to settle behind the trees of the garden and a slight cooling breeze rose from the nearby Lake Tonlé-Sap, Cambodia’s inland sea. It was 1700.

All of a sudden, there rose behind the trees, from the nearby French camp, the beautiful bell-clear sounds of a bugle playing “lower the flag” – the signal which, in the French Army, marks the end of the working day as the colors are struck.

Nothing changed at the tennis court; the two officers continued to play their set, the women continued their chatter, and the messboys their silent vigil.

Only the old sergeant had moved. He was now standing stiffly at attention, his right hand raised to the cap in the flat-palmed salute of the French Army, facing in the direction from which the bugle tones came; saluting, as per regulations, France’s tricolor hidden behind the trees. The rays of the setting sun shone upon the immobile brown figure, catching the gold of the anchor and of the chevrons and one of the tiny metal stars of his ribbons.

Something very warm welled up in me. I felt like running over to the little Cambodian who had fought all his life for my country, and apologizing to him for my countrymen here who didn’t care about him, and for my countrymen in France who didn’t even care about their countrymen fighting in Indochina…

And in one single blinding flash, I knew that we were going to lose the war.”