Jerusalem in those days was a bright beautiful city with a lively street life and bright beautiful people, many of them university students. It had fine cafes, restaurants and bookshops as well as art galleries, museums, and the magnificent Palestine Symphony Orchestra. There was always something of interest happening; always plenty to do and see, for the city was surrounded by sites of biblical interest that had to be visited; the Wailing Wall, the Via de la Rosa where one could find grooves cut into the paving slabs where, one was told, Roman soldiers played a variation of noughts and crosses with marbles. There were the enormous caves beneath the West Gate and opposite, the site of Golgotha, The Place of a Skull as mentioned in the Bible; one of the many authentic sites of Christ's burial, depending upon one's own branch of Christian faith. And yes, with the sun at the right angle the the shadows cast on the rock face did suggest a skull!
There were of course Arabs in Jerusalem as well, but Arab and Jew appeared to rub along together pretty well and there were no nationalistic conflicts. At least not on the surface; but they must have been quietly simmering beneath. There were also British administration troops and many of the larger office buildings had been requisitioned for the use of PAIFORCE, the headquarters of the military command that covered a large area of the Middle East.
And that's where I found myself.
Why? I don't remember. Nor do I know where I had come from. It could have been the convalescent depot up the coast at Nathanyia, for my left arm was in a plaster cast and cradled in a sling.
But why? A total mystery then - and even now. I have previously mentioned the wonderful cathartic effect that amnesia can have. And this, I suspect was what had happened to me. Fortunately, apart from a plastered arm I felt perfectly fit. But some Army doctor had decided I was not yet well enough for active service and had down-graded me for light duties.
So here in Jerusalem I shared an office with another sergeant, a Fischer Gersehovitch, three or four years my senior. He was a multiethnic Jew, being part Russian, part Polish, part Somewhere Else and part Palestinian. But better by far was his wild enthusiastic sense of humour. His friendship was to be one of the deepest and most lasting I made during my military service, and we even continued to correspond after the end of hostilities. It was through him that for a short time I became an honorary Jew.
No roll-calls or morning parades were required of us, if my memory serves me, and our hours of work were also undemanding. This was possibly because of the climate - or (dare I suggest it) to suit the convenience of the cadre of polo-playing senior officers! We worked from early morning and with short breaks for breakfast and lunch were usually finished by four o'clock, thus leaving us free for the rest of the day.
Jewish hospitality is legendary, and I was about to enjoy it in full measure. Early in our acquaintanceship Fisher invited me to his home for dinner and to meet his wife. The influx of military personnel in Jerusalem had resulted in a severe shortage of accommodation. Thus their flat was miniscule, leaving barely enough room for a sofa that opened out into a double bed, a table, three or four chairs, a small alcove for cooking and a similar space for a loo and shower. Rows of books lined the walls, from which also hung personl possessions. The decor was miniature Vogue, as was Lea, Fischer's wife, a petite blonde of breathtaking beauty. She too was poly-linguistic and could cook like an angel. I had been a guest for three or four evenings; the food delicious; the conversation lively and far ranging, with an occasional game of chess when I learned from both of them, to my dismay that my skill had advanced little beyond the opening moves!
Then one day I badly boobed. Never before having enjoyed such hospitality, my conscience began to worry me, and so one evening I asked if they would care to join me for dinner at the King David Hotel; the elite dining trough in the city.
Lea turned on me like a wildcat. "You English just don't understand friendship," she stormed. "You feel you've got to reciprocate. You think you must even things up. Can't you understand that we might just happen to enjoy your company? That you make this tiny room seem larger? That your views on life are worth hearing and arguing about; and that you make us laugh?"
I probably grovelled, for I was totally and rightly shamed. But my solecism was soon forgotten, for our friendship continued as before, and I soon had many more Jewish friends.
I was taken to parties and to Lea's parent's house on the seafront at Tel Aviv. And from there we organized large noisy barbecues on the beach, for although my left arm remained in plaster, I could still reach far enough to master the chords of my guitar.
As you may imagine, life among so many lively young people was hectic and at times a little irresponsible. So I was probably tempting providence with a stunt that was to bring me close to harsh military reality.
Encamped outside Jerusalem on the Jaffa road was a contingent of the Polish Brigade, due shortly to serve in the Western Desert. Their warring compatriots had already shown us that Polish troops, though numerically small, were the most awesome fighters among the Allied forces. And for good reason. Poland was occupied by Germans and already lay in ruins, while the Russians were threatening from the east. Few if any of the Polish Brigade had homes or relations to return to, for many of them were Jewish.
As a result their only over-riding ambition was to slaughter Germans! The presence of such a unit near Jerusalem and often in the city itself, particularly in the evenings, caused apprehension among British Military Police. Our own King's Regulations and A Manual of Military Law didn't concern the Poles. They lived by their own harsh self-imposed disciplines. Their uniforms were olive green and made of a better material than our own khaki.
Their distinctive appearance in the city streets sent a warning to our MPs to keep well out sight, for like soldiers everywhere they would occasionally get drunk and fight each other. But any such outbursts were quickly handled by the Poles themselves, for they were seldom seen in groups of less than three or four and would rebuff any friendly approaches made by British troops to ensure for themselves the seclusion and anonymity they seemed so desperately to demand. I had visited their sergeant's mess with Fischer, who of course was himself part Polish and spoke their language. So possibly the better to help me disguise my identity I was given a Polish uniform. This, naturally, I wore only when off duty, and as an apparently Polish Jew I became even more integrated among Fischer's friends. I was invited to more social gatherings, attended a lavish Jewish wedding and other semi-religious celebrations, but I never of course, entered a synagogue, nor did I ever wear the yarmulke skull-cap.
But eventually I became too presumptuous and casual. One day returning from a quick lunch, wearing of course, my British Army uniform I was stopped in the street by a military policeman.
"Sergeant," he demanded. "Give me your number, rank and name. You are improperly dressed; your buttons are undone," as indeed they were. Without thinking I had rested my plastered arm inside my unfastened tunic. "I am therefore reporting you," he continued, "and you will attend the defaulters' parade at the Provost Marshal's office tomorrow morning at 10.00 hours."
Wow! Nabbed for the first time.
What stupidity impelled me to wear the Polish uniform for my appearance before the Provost Marshall, I cannot imagine. But that's how I reported the following morning - to an overweight major.
"Well, sergeant, I see you were stopped yesterday for being improperly dressed. What excuse have you?" This was routine questioning, for everyone had an excuse. Indeed, an excuse was always expected, however implausible. Bad news from home. A troublesome war wound. Food poisoning. The list was endless.
"None, sir," I answered.
This reply was unprecedented, for he hesitated. "And, um, why are you wearing a Polish uniform?"
That was a stinker. So I decided that a big lie was my best defence.
"Well, sir," I started. "You'll see from my cap badge that I'm in the Royal Engineers. I am also trained in explosives. You'll also know, sir that the Polish unit on the Jaffa Road are a rough crowd and don't encourage strangers in their camp. But I've been asked, in a semi-official capacity, to teach them what I've learned in Egypt about the German anti-personal booby-traps they're likely to meet there, as well as a few tricks of my own which they might find useful. For as you know, sir, they're a bunch of ruthless, unforgiving men, with nothing to lose."
Steady on, I told myself. For God's sake don't overdo it!
For a few moments he was silent. '"Well, right then, sergeant," he said, eventually. "You can dismiss for now. But don't let us catch you doing it again."
A week or so later my plaster cast was removed. I was pronounced fit for active service and ordered to rejoin my unit. It was a wrench leaving this lotus-land and so many friends, but the next morning I packed my kit, said goodbye to Fischer, and was soon on my way.