Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Obsession

The Obsession
Hagai Cohen
October 10, 2009

This is a story about an obsession. My obsession.

Over five decades from December 28, 1947, I was preoccupied with the disappearance of my friend, Yehuda. One sunny winter’s day, he was yanked out of my life. He had simply vanished. To find him and to understand what had happened became my obsession.

Three months before Yehuda disappeared, on the first day of fifth grade, the headmaster walked into the class holding the hand of a very strange looking boy. The boy wore blue short pants with braces, socks up to his knees and a plaid shirt. He carried a leather backpack and matching lunch box, that seemed expensive. He looked out of place and out of time.

"This is Yehuda Noymark", announced the headmaster, "a new immigrant from New Zealand." At that time, we saw many ‘new immigrant boys' whom we called refugees, or holocaust survivors. They were usually very thin, wore torn or patched clothes, were frightened and looked around for potential enemies. They were always hiding from any official looking person, as many of them were illegal immigrants in the eyes of the British government. However, this boy looked healthy. He was tanned, well dressed and athletic. I asked myself, why would anyone emigrate willingly from a peaceful place to Palestine, where war is imminent and the future obscure? To me it was an unexplained mystery.

I was still studying the new boy when the headmaster pointed at me and said: "You, Yakov - I am assigning you to help Yehuda with his homework and teach him Hebrew.” I was proud to be 'the chosen' and took to my assignment with all seriousness and devotion. I spent two to three hours a day helping him with his homework and his Hebrew. During these visits I met Yehuda's parents and his brother, David, but I never had any conversations with them as they always seemed preoccupied.

Three months later the family mystery became even more mysterious. "How was it that the new immigrants from New Zealand had found jobs so quickly, rented a large apartment and paid tuition for both of their children? In the Jerusalem of 1947, it was inconceivable. Unfortunately, my English and his Hebrew were too poor to conduct a real conversation so I could never discover the secret of the family’s success.
One Sunday morning, on my way to school, I heard sporadic automatic machine gun fire, the sound of police vehicles, whistles and sirens. In the classroom, from time to time, we heard the whine of bullets but the heavy stonewalls and high windows provided enough shelter for classes to continue as usual.

During the class, the headmaster burst through the door and ran straight to our surprised teacher. He whispered in his ear. The teacher’s face whitened. Without waiting for any response, the headmaster went to Yehuda, took him by his hand, said, "Come with me," and led him out. After they had left, we found our teacher in a faint on the floor. "Call the nurse," someone screamed and I dashed out. While running to the infirmary, I looked around for Yehuda but he was gone.

Class was dismissed, and we were sent home without knowing what it was all about. Although I had standing orders to go straight home, my curiosity got the better of me and I walked towards Yehuda's home. At the intersection near Yehuda's house a concertina wire police barrier blocked my way. A two-seater armored vehicle was parked in the middle of the intersection, and there were about fifteen spectators milling around.

"What happened?" I asked one of the bystanders. “The redheaded police sergeant in that armored vehicle shot the boy with the fancy bicycle.” I knew only one boy with a fancy bicycle, David, Yehuda's elder brother. "Was he killed?" I asked. "We don’t know. They took him away." He replied flatly.

I was still reeling from the shock when I saw Baruch Noymark, Yehuda's father running with a long barrel Parabelum handgun. The redheaded sergeant ducked into his armored car just as Noyman jumped over the concertina fence and shot at him. At that moment, I had the strange feeling that the two men knew one another. The redhead, realizing the danger, ducked into his turret and the armored car drove away in haste.

I went to where David had been shot, and a chill passed through my bones. David's bicycle was still there. I learned David had cycled down the street and when he was about 400 yards away, the police officer spotted him. David was apparently unafraid, as he had no reason to be scared. The sergeant opened fire when David was slowing down in front of the grocery store about 40 yards away. At that distance, the sergeant must have known David was unarmed and presented no danger to him or to the armored vehicle. So why would he have targeted David? I felt sick. I could not get rid of the notion that Baruch Noymark and the officer knew each other. Did the sergeant also know David? "This is murder," I said to myself.

The next day, the newspapers told a strange story:
"In yesterday’s Lechi attack on an Arab stronghold, several people were killed. British police officers accidently shot David Noymark, a boy of 15, who was caught in the crossfire." I could not believe what I read. It was no accident. This was an execution. The police sergeant ambushed David and, after a positive identification, shot to kill. Just as if he was foxhunting.

It still did not make sense to me. How could a new immigrant, such as Yehuda's father, who had only been in the country for three months, be in possession of a handgun, charge at a police officer equipped with a Bren machinegun and manage to chase him away?

I went to Yehuda's apartment and found the doors and windows shuttered, the place abandoned. None of the neighbors could tell me where the family had gone. "They will probably return later," they said. "This is their home. They have no place else to go." I walked there daily, but they never returned. I talked to my teacher and the headmaster, but they knew nothing.

In the days after David was killed, I looked in the obituaries for some mention of funeral arrangements and found nothing. Four days after the shooting, I read that the victims killed on Dec 28 were laid to rest in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. The funeral procession had been under heavy police protection. In fact, this group of people, David among them, whose names were not published, were the last Jews to be buried there until 1967.

With the disappearance of the Noymark family, I looked for them in every official publication. I checked every telephone book, every Board of Education report. I went from one school to another and asked for him with no luck. Where was this family? Why had they come to Israel in wartime? How did they manage to settle so quickly? How did a new immigrant warrant a 9mm handgun? Were my suspicions correct that the police officer knew Baruch and David Noymark? I could not stop thinking about them. No answers were forthcoming and life moved on for me, with Yehuda and his family pushed to the back of my mind.

Thirty-six years later, in the summer of 1983, while driving a truck in the Sinai desert during my army reserve duty, I urged the man by my side to ask me questions and to demand answers to keep me awake. The topic we discussed was the disappearance of people. The example he gave me was of a Yehuda Noymark, who changed his name to Noy after his father became the military governor of Acre in 1949. Though the name Yehuda Noy intrigued me, I dismissed it as irrelevant. A new immigrant becoming the military governor of Acre two years after landing in Haifa seemed a bit too farfetched. I could not believe it was the same Yehuda and I did not pursue the information.
Fifteen years later I started to write up my childhood experiences and decided that it was time to check the Acre story. I called the Acre city hall and asked about the first mayor of the city. The city spokesperson confirmed Baruch Noy was the first military governor, who was re-appointed mayor as a civilian, but lost the elections in 1953. She did not know any details about the family but she said, "Hassan, the administrator of Algazar Mosque worked for the family and he might know more."

Excitedly I called Hassan, who immediately confirmed that the Noy family for whom he had worked was Yehuda's family. He told me about Yehuda’s brothers, Bennie, Oded and Yehi’am. He named a street in Acre dedicated to David Noy. He told me also that the family had immigrated to Toronto, Canada. A street named after David Noy? This prompted me to search into David's background. What I found surprised me. David Noy, even at 15, was a member of the Hagana and was listed in the "memorial for fallen soldiers” book. It also mentioned that he had not been on duty when he was shot. Only three months in Israel and already a member of the Hagana? This information compounded the mystery.

Isaac Shelf, a classmate of mine with whom I had kept in contact, was, at that time, the Israeli ambassador to Canada. When I called him, he remembered Yehuda Noy and was aware of my research on the family. With Isaac’s help, we found ten Noy's in Toronto. I struck it lucky on my first call. A woman, D. Noy, told me she did not know Yehuda Noy personally, but that she often got phone calls asking for him. "Yehuda Noy worked for the U.J.A.," she said. "He was their fundraiser, and I understand that he returned to Israel."

"Well, back to square one," I said to myself with a sigh. (Had I not stopped with D. Noy I would have talked to Yehi’am Noy, David and Yehuda’s brother. His name was down my list and he lived in Toronto at the time.)

Endless phone calls followed that lead, yet I only ever found traces. The search sent me to the stock exchange, where I found that Yehuda's company was traded on the market. Then I followed a lead to the 'Medals and Coins Authority,' where he used to work. I found many tracks, but no Yehuda. Finally, in desperation, I read the names of all the Noys in the telephone book and found a Ricky and Yehuda Noy.

On the second ring, a young girl answered the phone and was reluctant to talk. I begged her to answer only one question "Was Yehuda Noy's father Baruch Noy, the first mayor of Acre?" Her answer was, “Yes.” "Ok," I said, "please write down my phone number and ask Yehuda to call me." I waited and waited for his call. It came two days later. After explaining to Yehuda who I was, I quickly cut to the chase. I reminded him of the day he had disappeared from the school; I told him of my passion to find him during all those years. Yehuda remembered nothing - neither me nor the events of that day. He did not want to talk. To him I was a total stranger invading his family and his privacy.

"Look Yehuda," I said before he could put the telephone down, "you were important to me. I was assigned to teach you Hebrew and to help you with your homework. You were my first responsibility. I can understand you're not remembering me, as it must have been very traumatic for you." I rapidly continued, "After only a few months in Israel and still adjusting, your brother was murdered, you had to leave school and even your home. However, your family remained a mystery to me from the first day we met. With your disappearance, I was left with many unanswered questions. All I want are a few moments of your time." Yehuda finally agreed to meet me.

We met at his Tel-Aviv home. Yehuda was pleasant, friendly and answered all of my questions, however he insisted he did not remember the school or me. I began to realize how traumatic this event must have been for Yehuda when he related what had happened. I started with the question, “How is it that a ‘normal family’ decides to immigrate to a war zone?

"What do you mean immigrate?” he replied. “I was born in Israel. My father was a civil engineer who specialized in bridges and harbors. He volunteered to the Jewish brigade, became an officer and was sent to Christchurch, New Zealand to build a harbor for the Pacific war. I was very young and simply forgot my Hebrew." “Fine,” I said, “That explains how he became an officer in the IDF so quickly. But how come your brother, David, at the age of fifteen, was a Hagana member?” "Simple," said Yehuda. "The school we went to in New Zealand was a special school for children of army personnel. It was located within the perimeter of the British camp. We received military training as part of our curriculum. David was a full-fledged soldier at the age of twelve.”

It was my turn to fill in the gaps for Yehuda. I told him how frightened he looked when the headmaster pulled him out of his chair. I told him about his father charging at the police sergeant and how he had shot and missed. "No," said Yehuda. “That couldn’t have happened. My father was a sharpshooter. He could never miss.” "Look," I said, “I saw your father shoot at him and, believe me, the police officer’s head was already within the armored vehicle when he did. I believe the officer knew your father, as he spotted your father long before he was in range." Yehuda confirmed my suspicions. "The redheaded police officer,” he said, “was part of a unit similar to the FBI or the Israel Shabak. He was investigating my father. He came to our house twice when my father was not at home. He was not friendly. We believe he knew who David was and shot him in revenge for what he called my father's treason. He believed that for a Major in Her Majesty’s Engineering Corps, to become a member of the Hagana was treachery. My father told me they never found any evidence to support the fact that he was a member of the Hagana. The police sergeant was furious that he could not make his accusations stick and thus took his anger out on David.

David was an easy target, identified by his unique bicycle. “My Father was on the other side of town when he got the message. It took him half-an-hour to get to the site. According to my Dad’s report, there was something between him and the police sergeant, but he never mentioned any shooting.”

"Where did you go after David was killed?" I asked. “For a few months we lived in the Palace hotel. My uncle who owned it, kept us under assumed names for a few months. All this time hiding in our claustrophobic room was very difficult for me, for my Mom, and for my brother who became depressed. We could not go to school. We did not go out even to shop. It was in fact a prison sentence. I could not believe this kind of life after our peaceful existence in Christchurch." “While still in hiding, my father was assigned as commander of the Mount Scopus Hebrew university campus, which was under Arab siege. Being a remote place and, like all other university campuses under British rule, it was out of bounds for the Police and the military. and very safe for my fasther. The hotel on the other hand was unbearable for me. It felt like losing my father. I had nothing to keep me occupied, no English books, and the Hebrew books there, I could not read."

“Later we moved to another hiding place, very close to the Schneller army camp. At that time, we got fake Id's and it became a little better. The sergeant in charge of the investigation had returned to England and no one else in the investigating unit pursued the case. We came out of hiding on May 15, 1948 when the British mandate ended. We moved with my father's unit to the Galilee. He became a staff officer in the Carmeli Division and was a member in the group planning the Yehi’am supply convoy. However, the convoy was ambushed and 46 of the 90 people, who comprised the convoy, died. My father took it as a personal failure and became depressed, which affected us all. When my youngest brother was born, my father named him Yehi’am, after that unfortunate convoy.

“After the Israeli Defense Forces captured Acre, my father was assigned as military governor. Later he became the first civilian Mayor. During his term, he created a model town in which Jews and Arabs lived peacefully side by side.” With that the 50–year-old mystery was solved, and I felt lucky and grateful to be a minor player in the story of Yehuda Noy and his extraordinary family.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Hagai,
I read your story with a great deal of interest and wonderment that your ‘obsession’ has persisted for so many years. Your blog goes back in history to a time when a state was born out of chaos and there were numerous personal stories of intrigue. I am glad that you have solved the long-standing mystery.
I thank you for sharing this story, which I found very moving in a personal sense. I was only 3 months old when my brother, David z”l, was killed and although I have no direct memory of it that death has had a profound influence on all of our lives ever since that fateful day.
With much appreciation for sharing your personal account,
Yehiam Noy
(Boston, MA)