'Skating on Thin Ice'

Shmuel Finkel began suspecting 20 years ago that his brother Sterik was not really his brother.

Shmuel Finkel began suspecting 20 years ago that his brother Sterik was not really his brother. He believed that his real, biological brother had been murdered in a Soviet prison and replaced by a KGB agent, who stole his identity and immigrated to Israel. Shortly before his death, Finkel claimed that his brother was trying to poison him. Such paranoid thoughts were only one symptom of the schizophrenia with which he was afflicted.

Finkel was born in Czernowitz in Ukraine and immigrated to Israel alone in the early 1970s. He earned a master's degree from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa in electrical engineering and worked in a civilian capacity for the Israel Defense Forces. In 1975 his brother, who was two years younger than him, also immigrated to Israel. Their parents and other relatives remained in Ukraine. In 1979, Shmuel married his wife Dorit and they moved to Pardes Katz. A year later, their daughter Taliya was born.

Shmuel's illness made ordinary life difficult for his family. One day they would be running around to different psychiatric wards, another day they would find him wandering the streets, or would repay debts to charlatans with whom he had entered into business partnerships. Mostly, they just had to accompany him as he straddled the gray area between reality and fantasy.

When he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, in 1987, his wife Dorit decided that his illness would be kept secret. "It will harm the girls' chances of finding a husband," she reasoned. But the three daughters rarely brought friends home and explained away their father's strange outbursts by saying they stemmed from the heart disease and epileptic attacks he suffered from. People bought the cover story: Finkel was a witty man with an unusual sense of humor. It was impossible to know where the joke ended and the mania began.

The eldest daughter, Taliya, now 29, was fascinated by his complex personality and in 1999, while studying filmmaking at the Hasifa School of Communications, Television and Multimedia Arts in Ra'anana, decided to document him on film.

"Sterik is not my brother," Shmuel says in the movie. "He's an impostor who was sent here by the old Soviet regime. Sterik doesn't have the birthmark my brother had. Now he doesn't know anything about Dad, about Mom. With all the questions I ask him, he's silent and has nothing to say."

In 2001, Finkel was admitted once again to the Geha Mental Health Center in Petah Tikva. The next day they found his body twitching, hanging from a towel in the shower. His daughter decided to continue with her documentary, and to investigate whether there was any truth behind her father's obsession. She hired a private investigator who followed her uncle and also accompanied her to Ukraine, where they tried to obtain information at the prison where Sterik was incarcerated from 1973-75 after being arrested for involvement in an altercation. Her film, "Kosot ruah l'aba" ("Over My Dad's Body"), which will be broadcast on Channel 8 today and was also accepted for screening at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), helped her come to love and accept her father anew, she says.

Like another child

He made everyone laugh. He was a real leader, says Dorit, his ex-wife. "He was my support, he was a strong person." But he was also subject to sudden mood swings, to hallucinations, disturbed thinking, faulty judgment. Once he left the house and didn't return for two days, coming back very confused.

"I didn't know where he had been," Dorit recalls. "A year before that he had confrontations at work. He got involved in battles, wanted to expose cases of corruption. I drafted the letters for him. He was such a Zionist and they fired him on the grounds of incompatibility."

Once when he seemed completely confused Dorit took him to the hospital. In the emergency room they asked him questions and decided to admit him. In his medical file, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

You can't quite grasp it at first, explains Dorit: "You say: This just can't be. I thought it might be connected to his epileptic seizures. A few years before that we were in a serious car accident and during the Yom Kippur War his vehicle drove over a mine and he survived."

Dorit felt she was slowly losing her husband. "I suddenly went from being his spouse to his mother. Whenever the illness erupted I felt like I was born and died all over again. It was like a knife in the heart, but you always cling to hope."

Do you remember his first hospitalization?

Dorit: "It was a trauma. I entered the psychiatric hospital and it was scary. Someone was yelling. One guy fell down right next to me. I was in shock. I panicked. Suddenly I was facing insanity. After the first hospitalization I came to visit him often, I wanted to connect him to reality. I decided to bring the girls."

Taliya had trouble accepting her father's illness. "I don't remember him as a father, but more like a child in the family," she says. "I thought he was an egoist. I chose to be a militant vegetarian. He was always putting meat on my plate to see if I'd touch the food. Our talks were made up of teasing: about the food, about my appearance. I'd leave the table and lock myself in my room. I considered his behavior cruel and abusive."

Taliya says that her father's illness also affected the way others treated her: "When I would pass through the neighborhood, kids would throw stones at me. Once our dog even got hurt. It was a very strong feeling of being all alone. A recognition that no one can really help you. The family didn't understand my distress."

The more the illness progressed, the more Taliya had to suppress her anger and cope with the routine. Her mother would make her accompany her father on shopping trips, to make sure he returned home. In the shops, he would engage in embarrassing conversation with the employees. Once, he ate food off the shelves. "I never introduced him in public," says Taliya. "I didn't bring friends home. Including guys I dated. I kept my home life a secret."

Meanwhile, her younger sisters, twins Galia and Yael, now 26, had a good relationship with their father. "Unlike Taliya, I accepted his illness as a given," says Galia. "There was just one time when I was hurt - when I was asked to give a speech at the eighth-grade graduation party and two minutes before I was supposed to go up on stage, he got up and left the auditorium. I loved him tremendously. We had an amazing connection. There were no limits to this love. I used all my money to buy him gifts. It was impossible to get mad at him. I was incredibly angry at Tali for not visiting him in the hospital. I saw him sitting there totally lonely. He loved her and wanted to see her. I think she thought of him as a normal person and therefore couldn't forgive him."

Finkel's powers of judgment steadily eroded. "He would take up with homeless people and the like," says Taliya. "They'd sit for hours smoking compulsively. He had a friend who looked disgusting - fingers yellow from nicotine and a head like a rat. He compulsively collected papers. He went to a courtroom and stole all kinds of files. He stole mail from the neighbors. If you asked him why, he'd say, 'I know what I'm doing.'"

What other sorts of difficulties were there? Galia says that when she'd bring friends home, he would chat with them and laugh, and then "suddenly ask the same question 50 times. Once I was sleeping over at a friend's house and he called there at five in the morning and asked for me and said, 'How are you? I missed you.' It was so moving, but at the same time I was wishing the earth would swallow me up. When he saw an ugly woman on the street, he gave her his social security money and said to her: 'Here's NIS 700 for a haircut and food.'"

Dorit says he also had bouts of euphoria. "He would say to me, 'Give me a rocket. I'm flying to the moon.' But the toughest part was dealing with the everyday problems that derived from his impaired judgment. I had to try to stop a hurricane with a feverish brain, to try to find new ways every time to rein in his sick energy, which could be destructive to him and to us. And when I couldn't prevent it, I repeatedly found myself having to get him out of trouble." So it went when he was taken in by criminals, when he was arrested, when he escaped from the hospital and didn't make contact, and when he was sued.

How was he able to fool people?

Dorit: "He had incredible powers of persuasion. For instance, once he collected money for a friend's business. He told people he had nothing to eat and they believed him and gave him money. I kept hoping that people would learn not to believe him."

In 1991, four years after the diagnosis, Dorit decided she wanted a divorce. "I saw that I couldn't cope with the burden," she explains. "I felt that we had to separate. I had to decide whom to save: It was him or the girls. I had to let Shmuel go. I felt like I had four children and one of them was draining all my energy."

Still, until his death, Shmuel Finkel continued to come to the house several times a day to eat and to visit his daughters. Once every few months he would have some sort of episode and be hospitalized for several weeks. Even during those times when he seemed okay, everyone knew the illness could erupt again at any time.

"Shmuel was an analytical person," recalls Dorit. "During the calm periods, he was clever and sophisticated. I consulted with him on everything. One time we even took a vacation together abroad and it was wonderful. He didn't make me feel that he was sick. In the good periods, he went to look for work. But he was always skating on thin ice. One more step and it would break."

Brotherly suspicion

After the separation, Sterik took his brother under his wing. "He didn't want to be hospitalized. I'd promise him that I'd come to visit every day, that I'd bring him cigarettes and other things. But he tricked everyone with the pills. So once a month I gave him an injection of medicine. Shmuel would say, 'I don't want a shot. You want it so you pay.'"

But the closer contact with his brother also increased Finkel's paranoia. "He was certain I was an undercover agent," says Sterik. "He wanted us to have a tissue analysis done. And I would say, 'Nu, Shmuel,' and remind him of events from our childhood together."

Sterik says he didn't get angry at his brother because he understood that his behavior was part of his illness. "It pained me that my brother was sick. It's a pain that's hard to describe, especially because he thought that I wanted to kill him. I told myself that maybe a miracle would happen and the illness would go away. Whenever I met him I would kiss him. He pushed me away. He developed a hatred for me. It was awful. Once he said, 'You deserve to die.'"

Sterik's own family began to get worried. His wife Asya relates how Sterik once left his pouch with his gun at Finkel's house. When he went back for it he discovered that the gun had been stolen. For two days, Finkel denied having anything to do with it, and then he finally confessed, she says. "I told Sterik: 'He's going to kill you.' It caused big arguments between us. I said: 'You have a family, children.' Sterik said: 'My brother is not violent.' And I felt like I was causing a rift between them."

Shmuel's suspicions weren't confined to his brother. "He would say that people were poisoning his food," Taliya remembers. "When his house was broken into, he changed all the locks and claimed that people had broken in to plant fiber-optic cables in the house. He started learning Aramaic, because he thought it was the code language of the spies who were after him. After that, he invented a secret language of his own."

If he was convinced his brother was a spy, why did he stay in touch with him?

Taliya: "Shmuel thought that he was doing some important security job and saving the world. He wanted to collect evidence against his brother and expose him."

In his moments of sanity, was he aware of the imaginary world he had created?

"Until the day he died, he believed in his stories and was not aware that he was imagining things."

In the movie, he is seen saying: "Even if I'm a schizophrenic, it doesn't mean that what I'm saying isn't true."

Taliya was the one who thought there might really be something to her father's stories about his brother. "His stories seemed logical to me. As a little girl, I didn't think that a spy was a bad thing. It just seemed like a type of job. My father didn't say that his father was Napoleon or that he had snakes in his belly."

You refused to accept that this was a part of his illness?

"I was a cowardly person with a highly developed imagination. I told myself that if I don't know for certain what the truth is, then it wouldn't touch me. Until the end of making the film, I didn't have a sense that he was schizophrenic."

Her mother Dorit says she was stunned by Taliya's decision to travel to Russia to investigate the veracity of her father's story. "She played with fire. I was amazed that she believed the spy story. I was sure she knew that it all came from the disease. And the decision to make the whole story public was also hard for me. But I'm doing it for her and ready to pay the price."

When Taliya is asked whether she was conflicted about what she did - after all, her mother tried to hide things for so many years and here she is exposing the family's biggest secrets - she replies that the exposure was done out of choice. "My father's story affected me in many ways and I thought that something had to be done with it. As soon as we were grown up and responsible for ourselves, my mother said that the decision was up to us."

Is the movie a kind of compensation?

"I realized that I'd missed out on communicating with him and that I had to deal with this in order to get on with my life. I wanted to make a movie about the disease, about the blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. I went from a situation of total alienation, of inability to call him 'Dad,' to a situation in which I was glad that he was my father and loved him."

But not everyone was so understanding about Taliya's journey. Sterik tried to stop the film from being screened. In a letter sent to Channel 8, his lawyer wrote: "Freedom of speech is not supposed to include the public airing of the distorted and sick ideas of a mentally ill person which, unfortunately, is what my client's brother was."

Sterik explains why he resorted to legal means: "I sat for hours with Taliya and she questioned me. I told her I didn't want to be filmed."

What offended you exactly?

Sterik: "She stretched things as far as possible. Why portray me as suspect and make it look as if I killed my brother? Shmuel's delusions didn't stem from malice. They stemmed from the illness. With her it was deliberate."

When asked whether she hasn't picked on the uncle by airing false accusations for the sake of her cinematic ambitions, Taliya Finkel says she was only following her conscience: "I felt that I was doing what my father would have wanted to do. If he had had the money, he would have hired a detective to prove that he was right."

Channel 8 declined to pull the film from its schedule. And, in fact, the film appears to strengthen the claim that the spy story is completely baseless. "I really wanted to believe that the story was true," says Taliya. "I would have been overjoyed to discover that it wasn't all in his imagination. In my travels I came to see that there was no chance of finding anyone who would back up his story."

Were you disappointed?

"I felt despair. I had unrealistic expectations."

Taliya says that it may have been only in Ukraine that she finally came to terms with the fact that her father was a schizophrenic. "I wanted an ending like in the movies - with a father who was right, who was a hero, who was normal."

'Severe state'

In 2001, Shmuel Finkel's condition worsened and the boundaries between reality and fantasy blurred even further for him. "I called him up and said let's go check you into the hospital," says Dorit. "I got there and he wasn't home. We ran around for a week looking for him. When we found him he was anxious, in a state of neglect. On the way to the hospital he tried to jump out of the car. At admissions at Geha he wanted to run away again. I insisted, I pleaded with him. He was in a severe psychotic state. He banged his head on the glass and cut himself. They treated him and restrained him."

After a long period without contact, his brother Sterik came to visit him. "We were left alone in the room. He said to me in Russian: 'I'm tired of suffering, I want to kill myself.' He also said that he had a last request: 'Have a tissue analysis done.' I could tell it was a heartfelt request, so I told him: 'I'll do it.' Then he said: 'Forget it, you don't have to.' I felt that in his subconscious he knew that I was his real brother. That it came from the heart. You wouldn't say something like that to an impostor."

How did you feel?

Sterik: "I felt like Shmuel was a healthy person when he was freed from his fantasies. But that he didn't have the strength to cope with it anymore."

At six o'clock the next morning, another patient found him twitching in the shower. He died a few hours later. The inscription on his tombstone reads: "A brave tilter at windmills. Those who accepted him were privileged in knowing him."W