Past Perfect

Turning for a moment from the wisdom of Louis XI and the lovers of Catherine the Great, the venerable Prof. Michael Har-Segor offers a 'history hour' - as his popular Army Radio program is called - about himself.

If he were not a historian for whom accuracy and truth are beacons, one might suspect that Prof. Michael Har-Segor invented his own private history in order to compete with the juicy tales with which he regales listeners on his weekly program on Army Radio, "History Hour." But those suspicions would be unwarranted. Har-Segor is a historian who encounters history on every street corner and grabs it by the lapels.

At the age of 85, he finds time to do an interim summing up; his own personal "history hour." It's a journey that begins early in the last century in the mists of St. Petersburg, a port city seething with international plots. At every station afterward, history unfolded before his eyes, as though by invitation.

These days, Har-Segor spends most of his time in his Kfar Sava home. His legs can no longer carry him; he needs a wheelchair. But the twinkle in his eyes is the same as ever, mischievous and warm, and on his lips there is a never-fading cordial smile. Especially when he takes wing into remote centuries with his stories.

"One can love women, wine and champagne," he says from the heights of his experience, "but to see a 500-year-old document that no one before you has seen - that is love that is not dependent on anything. An unrivaled pleasure."

Har-Segor was born in Bucharest in 1924, but his story begins long before that. His father, Boris Goldberg, was born in Libau (now Liepaja), Latvia, on the Baltic Sea. Har-Segor's upbringing was steeped in German and English culture. He was born into an affluent merchant family, which because of its wealth was permitted to settle in St. Petersburg, the aristocratic capital of the Russian Empire.

"Jews were permitted to live in the city only if they were physicians or nobles," Har-Segor notes. His father sold fine fabrics, imported from England, to the delight of the local nobility and the czar's court.

His mother, Vera, the daughter of a notary public, was born in Moldova, and her education had a strong French cultural emphasis. Her dream was to attend a school for midwives in Finland.

Why there, of all places?

"One day, my mother saw pictures of Scandinavian physicians, which impressed her deeply," Har-Segor explains. "Tall, erect Nordics in white robes. She was looking for a husband, and Finland was then under Russian rule."

While Vera was wondering how to get to Finland, a historic event in Goldberg's city changed his destiny. "In December 1916, Rasputin was murdered," Har-Segor says, "and a new era threatened the Russian Empire." The empress - the wife of Czar Nicholas II - was fond of Rasputin - a bizarre, melancholy monk who claimed to possess supernatural healing powers. He alone was said to have stopped the bleeding of the heir apparent, Prince Alexei, a hemophiliac. Members of the aristocracy, appalled at Rasputin's influence in the czar's court, assassinated him and threw his body into the Neva River. The murder heralded the start of the disintegration of czarist rule.

"And then the telephone entered the picture," Har-Segor says, "the pioneering invention that played a central role in the life of my family. That morning, when my father heard about Rasputin's murder, he understood that the sun would soon set on the empire, that anarchy was at the doorstep and that this was not the time for English fabrics. At that very moment he got a call from the port saying that a ship had arrived from England with goods for him. He took a cab to the port and ordered the drunken Swedish captain to return the merchandise to its owner."

In the meantime, Vera had arrived in St. Petersburg on her way to Finland, but, like Napoleon before her and Hitler later on, she was defeated by the Russian winter. The trains to Finland were canceled and she looked for temporary employment until the snow thawed. An acquaintance found her a job as a cashier in a fabrics shop, but warned her to avoid being conspicuous and to ensure that the big boss did not learn of her existence: Jews were not allowed to live in St. Petersburg.

"But one day the phone rang," Har-Segor relates, "and no one picked it up. So my mother went over and said: 'Hello.' Just then the boss - my father - happened by and saw her. 'Who are you?' he asked her. A week later he asked for her hand in marriage, and they were married in April 1917."

In the fall, the Bolshevik Revolution broke out; chaos reigned. Goldberg was arrested for being a rich bourgeois and his wife was driven to distraction with worry. "My parents had a friend, the commercial attache of Switzerland, a neutral country," Har-Segor continues. "My mother called him and pleaded. He went to the prison in an official vehicle and informed the Communists that if my father was not released, Switzerland would declare war on Russia. It worked. The ignorance saved my father. The next day he went to the town hall and asked for work as a carpenter so that his hands would become bruised and calloused and no one would suspect him of being anything other than a member in good standing of the proletariat. Father was right: After the revolution, not many Russians went around in English clothes."

From villa to prison

Har-Segor's future parents decided not to rely further on the ignorance of soldiers who thought the nonexistent Swiss navy would go to war against Russia over Boris Goldberg. They fled to Moldova, which had been annexed to Romania after the revolution. The family settled in Bucharest, where Michel Goldberg was born. Years later he would change his surname to Har-Segor (Hebrew for "hill of pure gold"), though to his friends he is still Michel.

In Bucharest, Papa Goldberg returned to the fabrics trade and grew wealthy once more. The English merchants with whom he had done business in Russia invested in him again. "He was made the local representative of the English firm that supplied clothes to the royal house and opened a chain of stores in Central and Eastern Europe. He became a millionaire again," Har-Segor says. "But my parents wanted to leave - my mother said that their child had to be raised in the West."

Vera wanted to move to France, but Har-Segor's father preferred England. "My father thought the French were too loud," Har-Segor says. "My parents visited England and saw children fighting while people stood around and cheered. 'My boy will not grow up in a wild country,' my mother declared, so we moved to France. My father bought a 20-room villa outside Paris."

Har-Segor added French to his fluency in German and Russian and fell in love with France, the French people and Frenchness. "My parents were friends with all kinds of Russian exiles - princes and counts - and were very proud of that. I said to my father: 'But daddy, now they are not aristocrats, they are nothing.' He took umbrage and replied: 'You don't understand the first thing about history.'" Har-Segor did not take offense. In the meantime, he collected coins. "I had a collection of hundreds of coins," he recalls. "They were my best friends. I especially liked to decipher the inscriptions on the coins in different languages. That's what made me decide to become a historian."

The economic depression that began in 1929 hurt the family business and in 1933 they returned to Bucharest, where Har-Segor quickly learned Romanian. Even though the family had little to do with either Judaism or Zionism, he joined a Zionist youth movement. "It was a Jewish home only in theory," he says. "When we lived in France, my mother and the maid installed some things on the doorposts and explained to me that they would help the doors open better. In fact, they were mezuzahs, installed in honor of my grandparents from Romania, who came to visit. My parents did not know Hebrew, and every year we had a Christmas tree.

"After the start of World War II, my father's shops were shut down, because he was Jewish. There was an anti-Semitic atmosphere in Romania. The fascist government allied itself with Germany, and I started to take an interest in Zionism and Judaism. I did a market survey, visited each of the branches of the Jewish youth movements, which then operated in the underground, including Betar [a right-wing movement]. I decided to join [the left-wing] Hashomer Hatzair. Already then they maintained that the two peoples in Palestine had to solve their problem together and not by means of narrow nationalism which is contrary to the spirit of the Jewish people."

His activity in Hashomer Hatzair was fateful for Har-Segor. "Three Jewish youngsters who were Communists joined the movement in order to recruit members to Communist youth. They carried out acts of sabotage against the fascist regime and printed slogans against the war on bank notes, which they signed as the 'Popular Front of the Youth.' Instead of scattering the money on the street at night, they bought cakes with it and were arrested. In their wake, all the members of Hashomer Hatzair were arrested in March 1942 and sentenced to 20 years in prison with hard labor."

The three young Communists were executed. "They were 17 years old," Har-Segor says. "One of them said to me: 'Balzac wrote 103 books and I have read only three of them and now they are going to kill me.'"

Too thin for handcuffs

Har-Segor spent two years in prison, working in its printing house and teaching a Romanian army officer English. "He wanted to visit his relatives in America after the war," Har-Segor recalls. "In return, he allowed my parents to visit me. The prison was monstrous. The only amusement was funerals. About 50 people a day died and the warden preferred to bury them in his private garden, to fertilize the soil. What saved us was the protection we received from the big Jewish thieves, who were the ruling class of the prison. They intervened on our behalf and ensured that we had a reasonable life."

Yaakov Blumer, the father of National Security Council head Uzi Arad, was Har-Segor's closest friend in Hashomer Hatzair and in prison. "They were friends, and taught each other history, music and languages," Arad says. "My father told me that Michel was so thin it was impossible to put handcuffs on him, so they did not send him to do forced labor, but kept him in the printing house. My father had a paternal attitude toward him; he always looked after him, because Michel was an intellectual type, detached from reality."

During his time in prison Har-Segor taught himself Hebrew. His friends from Hashomer Hatzair stuffed a Hebrew newspaper under his mattress. The paper had been printed a few days earlier in Tel Aviv and reached Bucharest via the Jewish Committee in Constantinople, which bribed a sailor en route to Constanta in Romania to smuggle the paper into the prison.

Har-Segor also found a Hebrew name for a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz that was about to be established in the Negev and which he dreamed of joining when he reached Palestine. "I translated a quote from Pushkin into Hebrew: 'From sparks shall come a flame.'" The kibbutz was named Zikim ("sparks").

In 1944, while Har-Segor was still in prison, his father was arrested by the Romanian fascists. "After my father was arrested, my mother came to part from me. She wore a ring on every finger, in the hope of being able to bribe someone to release me or my father. But two days later she was arrested, too. They were force-marched 10 kilometers at night and then shot."

In August 1944, two and a half years after his imprisonment, Har-Segor was released in the wake of an amnesty granted by the king to the country's Jews. "The king's mother, Helena, who was a Danish princess, interceded on our behalf and was afterward cited as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing Jews. One morning the commander of the prison called us and said we were free." But Har-Segor had to wait to taste freedom. A Romanian cabinet minister objected to the amnesty and the group was sent to a concentration camp in western Romania for several months.

After the war, most of Har-Segor's friends immigrated to Palestine, but he, as a member of the Hashomer Hatzair leadership, was asked to remain in the country and prepare young people for immigration. He gathered 3,000 youth movement members who sailed with him in two ships that left Romania together in 1948. But the British intercepted the ships and the 15,000 illegal immigrants they were carrying were sent to detention camps in Cyprus. It was there that Michel Goldberg became Michael Har-Segor.

Something special

Har-Segor finally reached Israel in 1949. He was certain that from the port he would travel directly to Kibbutz Zikim, together with his group from Hashomer Hatzair. But the movement had other ideas. "It was a scandal," he says. "We wanted to get to Zikim, but in the first Knesset elections, which were held a few days before we arrived, five votes for the Communists were cast in the kibbutz. The Kibbutz Artzi movement decided it would be wrong to abandon the newly arrived, innocent youngsters to the clutches of the Communists and sent us to Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek. I took it as a great affront."

Har-Segor left the land-settlement movement and moved to Jaffa. In protest at the way he had been treated, he joined the Communist Party, wrote for its newspaper and edited its Romanian-language edition. At the beginning of the 1950s, Har-Segor met Tamar, the woman he would marry. She died five years ago. A few years later, disillusionment about the Communists set in, not least thanks to a visit he paid to Moscow in 1957 for the newspaper. Around this time he also started to teach history at a Tel Aviv high school. "The principal was a Mapai man [referring to the longtime ruling party, forerunner of Labor] and wasn't so enthusiastic about me, because I was a Communist," he recalls. But at the beginning of the 1960s, his work in the school led to his love affair with academe.

"I had a student with ties to Prof. Zvi Yavetz, and she told him about me. He invited me and suggested that I do a doctorate in Paris. I was surprised and delighted by the idea." Prof. Yavetz, a historian who was one of the founders of Tel Aviv University and is an Israel Prize laureate in the humanities, remembers the meeting with Har-Segor. "He impressed me very much when he taught in high school," he recalls. "He started his B.A. studies, but I awarded him the degree after his first year. The university gave him a scholarship and I sent him to the Sorbonne to obtain a degree of 'docteur d'etat' [a state doctorate]." This is a degree unique to France, with an emphasis on profound research, and considered far more prestigious than a regular Ph.D.

Why did he do that degree?

"A regular doctorate would have landed him a post of senior lecturer," says Yavetz. "I wanted to give him a professorship, because I felt there was something very special about him. When he deals with a subject related to the history of a particular nation he learns its language in two days, because he feels compelled to grasp everything thoroughly."

In 1966, Har-Segor went to Paris with his wife and his daughter, Niva. In his program, the state publishes the dissertation at its own expense. In Har-Segor's case there were four volumes ("I sent them 10 but they abridged it," he explains). Har-Segor was the first foreigner to obtain the degree and he received it summa cum laude. France even offered him citizenship, but he passed it up. The subject of the dissertation was "The King's Council of Charles VIII and Louis XII, 1485-1515."

Who was interested in that?

"It explains the power and political centers of an oligarchy, which apply everywhere and at all times. I was sorry that I received the doctoral degree. I wanted to go on doing research. Among other subjects, I found tremendous material on the Jews of Paris in the 14th century. They hired the services of a lawyer and fought the queen, who was out to steal their money."

What was the outcome?

"Despite the lawyer, they were expelled from the city."

Witty and articulate

Har-Segor was in Paris during one of the most tumultuous events of recent times: the students' revolt of May 1968. "The students removed the casket of Cardinal Richelieu from the Pantheon and wanted to throw it into the Seine. I was vehemently against that," he relates. "I told them it was a disgraceful idea which would not serve our cause and in any case it was far from de Gaulle's bureau and wasn't worth the effort. Daniel Cohn-Bendit ["Danny the Red"] didn't want to talk to me when he found out I was an Israeli. He wanted to be French or German, but not Jewish, and he couldn't abide Israelis." In the end, at the conclusion of the debate in the Pantheon, Har-Segor was able to prevent the casket from being tossed into the river.

Back in Israel, he embarked on an academic track that Yavetz organized for him at Tel Aviv University, and became known among the students for his vast knowledge. Har-Segor became a popular lecturer because of his penchant for emphasizing the seemingly irrelevant, for telling anecdotes instead of teaching dates and processes, and for his special fondness for the bastards of the French aristocracy.

"History without stories is like food without sauce," he says. "Through the little stories behind the figures who made history, one can learn about the major processes."

For example?

"How do we know that Charles VIII was stupid? He died from a door: He didn't notice that the door was low and smashed into the lintel with his head. And how do we know that his father, Louis XI, was smart? He established a strong army, and when he was asked why he needed a strong army, replied: 'In order not to use it.'"

In 1983, Har-Segor and the presenter Alex Ansky launched "History Hour" - a weekly program on Army Radio that can still be heard every Friday evening. Each program deals with a different historical subject. One of the episodes that Ansky (who is no longer Har-Segor's counterpart on the program) liked best was "The Scepter and the Bed."

"What was a long, varnished wooden pole and a secret opening in the ceiling doing in the bedroom of Catherine the Great?" asks Ansky Har-Segor related that the bureau of one of the members of the imperial guard was located above the empress's room and that at night he would slide down the pole straight into her bed. Har-Segor: "Catherine the Great saw a handsome officer named Grigory Orlov and told her lady-in-waiting to bring him to her, blindfolded. Apprehensive, the officer acceded to the request, and found himself lying in a bed with a naked woman. The next day there was a feast and he realized the woman was the empress. The result was that he became one of the richest men in Russia. Orlov's successors in Catherine's bed always resided in the apartment above her bedroom."

The connection between Ansky and Har-Segor had begun years earlier, in a slot the historian had on Ansky's flagship morning show on Army Radio, "7:07." "He was witty and articulate, which made him a first-class radio personality," Ansky says. "He was always available for Army Radio to discuss current affairs. If someone said in a report that all peace agreements were signed immediately after a war, for example, we checked it out with Har-Segor and he said, no, some peace treaties were signed without any connection to war. He knew everything before the Internet came along, and for a broadcasting station that was an asset."

The chemistry between Ansky and Har-Segor behind the microphone was steeped in wine and food. "We laid out a big table with meat, eggs, pickles and good wine," Ansky says. "That created a relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes you could hear that we were eating and we had to re-record the program." The two did 420 shows together, until Ansky left Army Radio in 2005 to pursue an acting career. For the past three years his partner on the program has been a young woman, Liad Mudrik.

The only truth

The light, laid-back tone of Har-Segor and Ansky and their preference for piquant stories brought the program semi-academic prestige and a large listening audience. But these same qualities led some faculty members at Tel Aviv University - who decline to be identified by name - to argue that Har-Segor is a corner-cutting populist. Anksy is outraged by this. "I think academe should applaud him," he says. "They are driven mad by envy, because he succeeds in doing what they cannot. 'How can one deal with Garibaldi in 45 minutes?' the professors ask, and I agree, but thanks to those 45 minutes more students will enroll in the history department."

Prof. David Katz, from the Department of History at Tel Aviv University, met Har-Segor when he came to the university in 1978 from England. "He was different from the old yekke [German-speaking] professors who taught in the department. He was more like Yavetz and could tell a story like him. But he isn't just a storyteller. He has a foundation and a record in the deepest, most boring yekke sense. He is very serious, and his doctoral dissertation is an important contribution to research. He is a vanished breed."

Nevertheless, others among Har-Segor's academic colleagues are of the opinion that his approach to history is peculiar at best and childish at worst. "He is definitely not routine," Yavetz says, "but his way is interesting and people in academe speak from envy - and no wonder."

"The academic world is filled with imbeciles," says Prof. Zvi Razi from Tel Aviv University's history department, "and what difference does it make what they think? His doctoral dissertation is a monumental work. What he did afterward is less important, but that's how it is with every professor after he gets his appointment. The students liked him because he was a good storyteller and he was funny."

What is so beautiful about history?

"That you bring the dead back to life. It's like giving birth."

And what is the connection between history as it is told and what really happened?

"History is the true and only truth."