Notes From the Underground

Was it pure coincidence that particular pages of the book `Revenge of the Patriarchs' were used by Uri Ilan to convey messages from his Syrian jail cell, where he ended his life 50 years ago?

Generations of soldiers and young people in Israel have grown up on the story of Uri Ilan, encapsulated in two words: "Lo bagaditi" ("I did not betray my country").

The story goes like this: On the night of December 8, 1954, a force of five Israel Defense Forces soldiers - three from the Paratroops and two from the infantry - crossed the armistice line between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, entrusted with a secret mission: changing the batteries of a wiretapping device. The mission was never accomplished. The men were surrounded by Syrian troops. Outnumbered and under fire, the commander of the force ordered them to surrender. They were taken prisoner by the Syrians and incarcerated at Al-Mazza prison on the outskirts of Damascus.

On March 29, 1956, after 475 days of imprisonment and excruciating torture, Israel's diplomatic and military efforts secured their release. But one had already come home in a box: Uri Ilan of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, a soldier in the Golani brigade, who committed suicide in his jail cell on January 13, 1955. That same evening, his body was handed over to representatives of the state. The following day, January 14, 1955, he was laid to rest in Gan Shmuel.

Before that, however, Uri's remains were examined. Upon removing his shoes, a little scrap of folded paper fell out. OC Northern Command Major General Moshe Zadok noticed it. Reading it, the doctors and military officials realized that other notes were hidden in his clothing. They found 10 notes in all. The most famous of them bore the message: "Lo bagaditi, hitabaditi" ("I did not betray my country, I committed suicide"). Then-chief of staff Moshe Dayan read aloud the first half of the message at the funeral, skipping the second half. The contents of several other notes were published later, but the note in which Uri calls for revenge on representatives of the United Nations was kept under wraps for years.

"The original notes will be stored in the IDF archive," the chief of staff wrote to Uri's parents on February 7, 1955. The parents were given photocopies of nine of the notes, which appeared in the media. The one that received most coverage was the "I did not betray my country" note, which Uri inscribed on a page torn from Yitzhak Shami's book "Nikmat Avot" ("Revenge of the Patriarchs"), forming the letters by pricking the paper with a sharp object.

Now, 50 years later, the Uri Ilan archive has opened at Bar-Ilan University. On loan to the university from the Ilan family, the archive contains an abundance of material about Uri, his parents Shlomo and MK Faige Ilanit, and his great-grandfather Rabbi Simeon Shkop, the head of the Grodno and Telse yeshiva.

Missing notes

Following the opening of the new facility, it was discovered that the original notes were not in the general IDF archive after all. It took the intervention of journalists and public figures for the defense minister to order an intensive search. Finally, the missing notes turned up in the Military Intelligence archive. The fact that the famous note was on a page from Shami's "Revenge of the Patriarchs" is mentioned by Dan Margalit in his book "Paratroopers in a Syrian Jail." Was it pure coincidence that this particular page of "Revenge of the Patriarchs" was used by Uri Ilan to convey a message from his Syrian jail cell?

The message was inscribed on page 103 of "Revenge of the Patriarchs" (in the 1928 edition published by Mitzpe, Jerusalem). The memorial booklet put out by Kibbutz Gan Shmuel shows the note that says "Farewell, Uri Ilan, revenge!" This message is inscribed on page 40 of Shami's book. The note that reads "Search clothing for my will, Uri" - the one apparently hidden between his toes, is on page 72 of "Revenge of the Patriarchs." The title page of the book, which was preserved along with the notes, bears the imprint: "Jerusalem library, Masada books." Another note contains the serial number 0030.

These are clues that could tell us where Uri Ilan obtained the book. Did he have it with him when he was taken prisoner, as his mother, Faige Ilanit, suggested? Was it given to him while he was in prison, as the newspapers of the time speculate and Margalit wonders in his book? Could it have come from the prison warden, a UN emissary, a representative of the Red Cross? Did he receive it from the chief rabbi or some member of the Damascus Jewish community - a possibility raised by Meir Moses-Maor, who was with Uri in prison? Could it have been taken by the Syrians during a looting spree before the War of Independence?

Uri Ilan left the following notes:

Note 1: "Revenge on their delegate to the cease-fire conference, Uri."

Note 2: "Search clothing for my will, Uri."

Note 3: "Last will and testament, Jan. 3, 1955, they're going to kill me. Revenge! Bury me on my back."

Note 4: "Revenge on people with UN, Dec. 15 / UN officer knows them."

Note 5: "Uri Ilan" (remainder illegible)

Note 6: "I did not betray my country, I committed suicide."

Note 7: "Search my clothing."

Note 8: "Farewell, Uri Ilan, revenge!"

Note 9: "Jan. 10, 1955. They've killed them all, I await my trial, I know nothing about the rest, bury me on my back, revenge, Uri Ilan, notes in clothing."

The 10th note, recently discovered on the title page of the book, was not presumed until now to be a message from Uri. Cut into the paper is the Hebrew word "or" ("light," or possibly the first letters of his name).

Sometimes Uri's demands for revenge are directed at specific people - the Syrian delegate at the cease-fire conference, the people accompanying the UN officers on December 15 - and sometimes they are general. Interestingly, the last note only consists of one word - "or" - but it is located next to the title of the book, "Revenge of the Patriarchs."

Left behind

It is not inconceivable that Uri, who was well-versed and very much aware of the power of the written word, deliberately chose certain pages for inscribing his messages. To test that theory, we must return to Shami's book, which begins with the pilgrimage of a group of believers led by Sheikh Abu Shuwareb from Nablus to Nebi Musa. The story revolves around retribution, murder and the fear of revenge killings, and ends with the patriarchs' revenge on Abu Shuwareb at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Note 6 - "I did not betray my country" - is written on page 103, where Shami describes the hardships endured by the protagonist as he wanders through the desert. "Stand by the persecuted one," "his secret was guarded in their hearts like a deep well," "his distress mounted," "there was not a soul in sight, not a blade of grass or a well," "he felt a stale, bitter taste in his mouth that absorbed and dried up the juice of life," "his strength ebbed away from hunger and thirst" - the page in question is full of phrases like these.

Did Uri Ilan choose to write "I did not betray my country, I committed suicide" on this page to give those who found his notes some hint of the physical and mental anguish he endured in prison? We will never know, but it is hard to ignore the resemblance between the sheik's ordeal as he flees his oppressors and the painful content of the notes Uri left behind. On the upper right hand side of page 103 are the words "velo lehasgiro" ("never tell"). These words, with their allusion to the interrogation of Uri and his comrades, also have special significance.

Page 40 of "Revenge of the Patriarchs," bearing the message "Farewell, Uri Ilan, revenge!" describes the departure from Nablus to Jerusalem. Crisis has already set in. Abu Shuwareb looks back at the tents he has left behind: "The tarpaulins gave a heave and collapsed, one by one, like the wings of a bird broken on takeoff. A shadow crossed his face." Even if this page was chosen randomly by Uri, it is hard to be indifferent to this metaphor of collapsing tents. Also noteworthy is the contrast between how the journey starts off, "with dancing and drumming," and how it ends, with Abu Shuwareb collapsing and falling on his side, "a hoarse rattle escaping from his frothing lips."

For the note that reads "search clothing for my will," Uri used page 72. This page depicts a short-lived compromise between the pilgrims from Nablus and Hebron. The mufti of Jerusalem forces the two sides to come to an agreement in a dispute involving their flags - i.e., which flag will head the procession alongside the flag of Jerusalem, and which will enter Nebi Musa first. The compromise "satisfies neither side. It does not mitigate the anger. It is insulting and debasing."

In choosing this page, Uri may have been intimating something about his own interrogation. Perhaps they tried to force him to accept a compromise, too. Maybe that compromise was so insulting and degrading that he opted to take his own life rather than cooperate, as he seems to be implying in Note 6: "I did not betray my country, I committed suicide."

Retribution is a central motif in the "Revenge of the Patriarchs." The Nablus pilgrims want revenge on the Hebronites for insulting them, and the vindictive Hebronites hunt down the sheikh from Nablus. In the end, the patriarchs take revenge on the sheikh. It is quite possible that this book affected Uri's thinking, especially if it was the only reading material he had.

At a government meeting in January 1955, then-education minister Zalman Aran turned to defense minister Pinhas Lavon and said: "I would like to ask the defense minister how he understands the obsession with revenge in these notes. Why are these feelings of rage directed specifically at the Syrian delegate at the cease-fire talks?" Lavon said he didn't know, but in response to the "hysteria" he witnessed at the funeral, he ordered that the notes be filed away and barred from publication.

Fifty years later, looking at the original notes, six or seven of them calling for vengeance, it does not seem far-fetched to say that sitting in a jail cell with Yitzhak Shami's book only reinforced Ilan's shrill cry for revenge.