Who was the real Eli Pfefferkorn?

Who was the real Eli Pfefferkorn?

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part six.  In earlier profiles, I offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, and a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani.  All of those profiles are available further down this page.  Here, I am profiling another Holocaust survivor, the last on my list.  His name was Eli Pfefferkorn.  He was a born and fantastic storyteller.  He was a professional provocateur.  Nothing got in the way of story, not fact, not common sense, not veracity.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave Pfefferkorn’s storytelling a name.  There was Pfefferfact and Pfefferfiction and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.  There was such a dynamic as the Pfefferization of history.  Let’s jump into that history:

1) I met Pfefferkorn back in 2008.  I had just begun a research project on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  Who was the real Wiesel?  That was the question I had in mind.  How did the persona match the man?  I stumbled upon an anti-Wiesel article by the muckraker Alexander Cockburn on his website, CounterPunch.  Cockburn had an agenda: to put the torch to Wiesel’s story in Night.  The article was downright mean, with echoes of Holocaust denial.  Further, Cockburn had an obsession with Wiesel.  A Google search on “Elie Wiesel” and “CounterPunch” brought up too many articles, all with incendiary titles.  Cockburn’s issue with Wiesel traced to the Levant.  Cockburn took the Palestinian side and saw Wiesel as an Israeli extremist.  Wiesel never used his public platform to criticize Israel.  For that, Cockburn clearly loved to hate Wiesel.

     Yet, despite the general derision, sections of Cockburn’s article contained some merit.  For instance, Cockburn’s writing introduced me to Pfefferkorn.  According to Cockburn, the views cited in his article were “vigorously expressed” to him by Pfefferkorn.  To have met Pfefferkorn was to understand Cockburn’s description.  Pfefferkorn was a bundle of learned energy.

     To Cockburn, Pfefferkorn framed Wiesel as a sell-out.  Naturally, I wanted to know more.  I phoned Pfefferkorn at his home in Toronto straightaway.  My notes from that initial conversation touched on some Pfefferkorn truths.  “Curiosity, intuition and cunning” were the words I used to describe his psyche.  “Charming and smart, learned,” I continued.  “He is very much the camp survivor.”

     That last part cannot be understated.  Pfefferkorn, like most camp survivors, carried a duality within.  His demeanor would change in a heartbeat.  He would go from affable and playful to threatening and curt.  His worldview would be condensed down to one preoccupation.  Sometimes that preoccupation was a person.  Wiesel, as an example.  Sometimes that preoccupation was a wrong done specifically to him.  Sometimes that preoccupation was food.  When Pfefferkorn experienced hunger, he would be transformed back to that teenager in the camps.  He would shut down all activities in an effort to eat.  Once satiated, he would flip back to his more affable self.  I gave this duality a label: the Majdanek Syndrome.  The effect did not fit into the modern psychological profile of bi-polar behavior.  Rather, the effect was a historically based form of survival.  Very raw.  Very needy.  Very animalistic.  Very much the camp survivor.

2) Wiesel, it should be noted, suffered his own form of Majdanek Syndrome.  For instance, he was litigiousness personified.  It’s a little known fact.  He had a pugilist of a lawyer on speed dial, back when speed dial was an exception, and he used that line relentlessly.  The pugilist on the other end of the line was an Auschwitz survivor named Samuel Pisar.  As I traced in my research, Wiesel received a fundamental education from Pisar.  Lawsuits asserted control.  Lawsuits took back the control lost at Auschwitz and other death camps.  For Wiesel, lawsuits became a part of his Majdanek Syndrome.  In his case, there was a total preoccupation over perceived wrongs.  There was then a way of fighting back.

3) More Majdanek Syndrome.  Within the general framework of the disorder, there is a tendency to both idealize the world and to falsify it due to perceived ugliness.  To understand, let’s jump into Pfefferkorn’s biography.  He was born in the Polish town of Radzyń Podlaski in 1930.  He entered the milieu of Hasidism.  If not for the events of September 1939 and its aftermath, his trajectory would have gone towards study, and the family business.  His name suggested a history.  I learned about that history some eight years after first meeting Eli, as I traveled to his home in Toronto upon his invitation. 

     Pfefferkorn had moved to Toronto in the late 1980s, after he landed a teaching position.  Upon arrival, the Pfefferkorns commenced a housing search.  Pfefferkorn and his wife, Sarah, bought a condominium in a fine neighborhood near Humberwood Park.  The condo, at 151 Pfolkes Court, stood out from the rest of the homes in the neighborhood.  The rest of the homes were one-family dwellings.  Pfefferkorn’s two-bedroom condo filled a corner of a 15-floor highrise building.  Never one to own a house – “too much upkeep, Josepher,” Pfefferkorn explained – Pfefferkorn and family moved to Pfolkes Court.  The letter similarity between Pfefferkorn and Pfolkes struck me as comical.  Pfefferkorn didn’t see the humor.

     By the time I visited, nearly thirty years after the family’s purchase of the apartment, Pfefferkorn’s daughter, Vered, had become an adult, gotten married and divorced, and settled in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Pfefferkorn’s wife had contracted Alzheimer’s, gone into a nursing home, and passed away.  Pfefferkorn lived alone.  Except he was rarely alone.  The highrise building on Pfolkes Court included a series of elevators for transporting the residences up to their units.  Those elevators served a secondary function: they provided a social setting.  Pfefferkorn spent a good deal of time riding the elevators, up and down from the 13th floor, kibbitzing with this person and that.  In my three days with Eli, I met the proctologist Bruno, and the editor Markus, and the woman who believes in ghosts, Rita, and the psychologist couple who practiced illegally out of their condo, and Professor Thomkins, who taught English literature at Humber College’s northern campus nearby. 

     Pfefferkorn, being Pfefferkorn, knew intimate details of the elevator cast of characters.  He shared these details with me, immediately after the person departed the elevator.  For instance, Rita apparently lived in a furniture-less apartment.  The furniture, she believed, attracted the ghosts.  No furniture meant no ghosts.

     Pfefferkorn’s unit was nicer than I’d anticipated.  He employed a “putzfrau,” as he called her, or a cleaning lady.  She came often.  Sometimes she would come to clean, and sometimes to cook, and sometimes to just pick up after Eli, and sometimes just to talk, or so it seemed.  Her name was Erma and she also served a function unknown to her.  She provided Pfefferkorn with some sexual fantasy storylines.  Pfefferkorn, as will be discussed in more detail soon, kept his libido in full roar.  How he was able to do that later in life, I have no idea.

     There was no art on Pfefferkorn’s walls.  There were books everywhere.  There were piles of papers filling his office space, which also served as the guest bedroom.  There was perfectly serviceable, though nondescript, furniture.  Pfefferkorn, like most men, had his favorite chair.  That chair, positioned near the window, looked out toward the park. 

     Our three days together were spent near that window, or riding the elevator, or walking in Humberwood Park.  We both had topics we wanted to talk about.  I realized, shortly into my stay, that Pfefferkorn had a proposal to make.  I wasn’t there for my sake.  I wasn’t there for a visit.  I was there as part of Pfefferkorn’s agenda.

     I did, however, get Eli to talk about something he never had before.  Despite a life as a storyteller, despite the writing of his own memoirs, Eli had never talked about his family history.  His daughter, for instance, did not know her grandfather’s first name.  Pfefferkorn simply couldn’t talk about it.

     Except, in a moment perhaps of candid trust, he did to me.  Actually, he talked about borscht.  Unknown to most of us in the West, different regions in Eastern Europe favored different borscht recipes.  Polish borscht, for instance, was more spicy and more sweet than its counterparts in Lithuania and Belarus and Russia and Romania and Armenia.  Polish borscht used more pepper and less vinegar.  Someone should do a study.

     The Pfefferkorns of Radzyń Podlaski became suppliers to the borscht industry.  This occurred hundreds of years before Eli Pfefferkorn came down his mother’s birth canal and out into the world.  According to Pfefferkorn, the family took its name from the business.  “What was the name before the business?” I asked.

     Pfefferkorn shrugged.  There wasn’t a family name.  If family names grew out of location, like Isaiah Berlin or Jerzy Petersburski, or biblical figures, like Joseph and Abraham, the majority grew out of profession.  There was only Pfefferkorn.

     The Pfefferkorns were never wealthy.  While they may have cornered the pepper market in Radzyń Podlaski, pepper did not have the profitability of either vanilla or safran.  Pepper was a cheap commodity.  Further, Poland maintained cordial relations with those countries on the trade routes from India through Turkey or the Caucasus and up to Poland.  Pepper was accessible.  The Pfefferkorns lived in the middle class spectrum.  “We weren’t the Potockis,” Pfefferkorn said.

     The reference, I later learned, would be like an American saying, “We weren’t the Rockefellers.”

     The last Pfefferkorn to sell pepper was Eli’s father, Avraham.  The pepper business ended for the Pfefferkorns at the end of 1939.  Months later, Avraham Pfefferkorn was shot and killed.  What was he killed for?  He made a business transaction, illegally.  The Germans, along with their Polish sympathizes, had just decreed that Jews could not own businesses.  The government of Poland, by the way, made it illegal to even write such a sentence in the year 2018.  Those blaming the Poles, even in part, for Nazi atrocity face a heavy fine and a jail term.  I’m not going to Warsaw any time soon.

     Eli Pfefferkorn didn’t want to talk about his father’s last business transaction.  He didn’t want to talk about what happened next.  The Germans shot Avraham Pfefferkorn dead on the street.  There was a witness.  “I was there,” Pfefferkorn said.  “I know.”

     Silence followed.  Pfefferkorn needed a moment to collect himself.  I stared out the window, at the park.  I thought about fathers dying brutally, and sons watching.  I thought about the sea change that produced.  The immediate and radical new direction.  The unrecovery.  Pfefferkorn’s next words then went to the nub of my visit, at least for him.  “Will you write about me?” he asked.

     “What?” I asked.

     “It doesn’t have to be a book,” Pfefferkorn laid out the parameters.  “It doesn’t have to be the Gospel According to Eli Pfefferkorn.  You could write a fiction.  You could create a character based on me.  I just want you to use my name and my story.”

     What Eli wanted, I realized then, was for a different death than his father.  His father died without any sort of memorial.  His father didn’t leave a record.  Only Eli carried him, and Eli wouldn’t talk about him.  Eli wanted to be remembered, and he wanted a colorful memorial.  He died in October 2018.  Hopefully, in Satan’s Synagogue, I provided a colorful memorial.

     Let’s get back to the Majdanek Syndrome.  Like all camp survivors, Pfefferkorn recognized two birthdates.  The first, naturally, had to do with biology, or when the person came down the birth canal and into the world.  The second had to do with camp life.  The day the survivor entered the concentration camp universe became a birthdate.  Pfefferkorn traced his second birthdate to 1940.  He entered that universe through the ghetto of Miedzyrzec-Podlaski.  That portal led to the death camp Majdanek, then to the slave labor ammunition factory in Skarzysko-Kamienna, then to the Czestochowa labor camp, then a death march to Buchenwald, then to the satellite of Rehmsdorf, then to another death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt.  He was liberated by the Soviets in May 1945.

     Something fascinating happened to this history.  When he moved to Israel in 1948, following a period in Britain, Pfefferkorn concocted a false biography for himself.  He made himself a flight survivor.  According to his false biography, he escaped from Europe at one of the last possible moments, on a 1939 Kindertransport to Britain.  This fiction became his standby.  He told it to his wife and daughter.  He only came clean in the 1980s in America.

     Why did Pfefferkorn concoct a fake history?  He answered with one word.  Pity.  To be a survivor in Israel in the years following liberation was to be viewed as a passive, cowardly victim who did nothing to fight the swarm of the Hitler nation tidal wave.  “Pity is an ugly word,” Pfefferkorn would answer.

     But let’s take a wider look.  Pfefferkorn’s fake history highlighted what became known as the Israelization of the Holocaust.  The Israelization did not dwell in victimization, in the Jeremiah aphorism of sheep to the slaughter.  The Israelization emphasized heroism.  The original enabling legislation underscored that dynamic.  In 1953, the Knesset created the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.  That body created Yad Vashem.  The Knesset also passed Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah, or the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.

     Upon immigration, survivors were expected to Sabra-ize.  Those valued characteristics of Israeli society revolved around the muscular build, tanned, ready, proponents of strength, of action.  The Sabra stood in direct opposition to the scholar of the European diaspora.  The Sabra didn’t flinch in the face of the enemy.  For survivors like Pfefferkorn, the survival mode learned in the camps kicked in.  In a way, his Kindertransport story became the denouement to his Holocaust journey.  He had learned to survive in the ghettoes and the camps.  He called himself a rough elbower.  When he immigrated to Israel, he rough elbowed a fake story.  That fake story became his preoccupation, his Majdanek Syndrome.

     Why did Pfefferkorn come clean in America?  The Americanization of the Holocaust contained none of the bravado, none of the musculature of the Sabra.  Unlike Israel, survivors didn’t comprise a large part of the overall population.  They weren’t needed in the army, or the work force.  Their history meant nothing to the national narrative.  Survivors then didn’t need to alter their personage to fit their location.  The Americanization of the Holocaust followed the traditional Jewish dictate.  Be a Jew in your home and a man on the street.

4) More Majdanek Syndrome.  In December 2008, only a few months after our initial phone conversation, Pfefferkorn came to New York.  Over the course of two interviews, we formed a unique bond.  Pfefferkorn, I soon realized, spent his post-Holocaust life identifying ironies.  He saw me as an irony.  I won’t go into my personal history here, as this profile is not entitled “Who was the real Brian Josepher?” but suffice it to say that a Colorado kid, like myself, living in New York is most definitely ironic.

     Anyway, while our conversations focused on Elie Wiesel, and Pfefferkorn, I had another subject in mind.  Years earlier, back in graduate school, I wanted to write about sex-as-fantasy in the death camps.  I think the prisoners created a vivid fantasy life.  What would they fantasize about?  Revenge comes to mind.  Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush.  But revenge is only the half of it.  I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex.  I think sex became a preoccupation.

     I soon learned, in the 1990s, that any sort of fantasy talk was taboo amongst survivors.  Nobody wanted to talk about any subjects related to fantasy, revenge for instance.  Starvation, deprivation, slavery: these were the foundational plot lines of the survivors’ narrative.  These were the comfort foods, so to speak, as the decades passed and the survivors became a platform presence. 

     But as Pfefferkorn opened up, sort of, and as we developed a kind of friendship, I touched on the subject that has gnawed at me for nearly thirty years.  “What about sex?” I asked Eli.  “Do you think that prisoners in the camps thought about sex as a form of revenge?”

     “You’re talking about rape?” he replied.

     “Yes, rape as a weapon,” I answered.  “In the camps, Eli, did you fantasize about raping a kapo, or a German, or anyone with authority?  I’m not talking about a sex act.  I’m talking about power and control and a way of abusing the abuser.”

     “I don’t know,” he answered.  “Listen, Josepher, why would we fantasize about rape when we could fantasize about pulling the trigger of a gun?  Why would we fantasize about ejaculation when we could fantasize about murder?”

     “Because murder with a gun has some distance to it,” I answered.  “There’s separation.  Rape is intensely personal.”

     “I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he answered.

     I knew what I wanted from Eli, and really, it wasn’t rape-as-revenge.  I’d gotten sidetracked.  I took a moment to think things out.  We were sitting at a Starbucks in Harlem (talk about ironies) and I noticed two police officers sitting nearby.  Neither of them seemed to notice their surroundings.  It dawned on me: cops are typically oblivious to their surroundings.  Shouldn’t the opposite exist?  Shouldn’t the surroundings be a cop’s total preoccupation?  Talk about ironies.

     I came back to the subject at hand.  “Eli, I want to know what you fantasized about during your imprisonment in the camps.”

     “Food,” he answered.  “Always food.  We were starving.”

     “Yes, I understand.  But that’s the stock answer.  Wasn’t there anything else?”

     “Anything else?” he replied.  “Food wasn’t enough?”

     “I’m not arguing with you,” I said.  “And to alter one of your lines, ‘I wasn’t there.  I don’t know.’  But, I’m wondering if camp inmates didn’t fantasize about sex.”

     Pfefferkorn took a second.  His attention went to a napkin, idling on the tabletop.  “There was sex,” he said, when he came to it.  “A lot of homosexuality.  You know we were divided, right, the men from the women?”

     My mind at that point made a connection.  In my research, I had recently spoken to the survivor Siegmund Kalinski.  He’d spoken about “homosexual friendships in camp” and “zärtlichkeiten,” as “caresses were exchanged.”

     His reflections caught me off guard but I wondered, as I spoke to Pfefferkorn, if Kalinski offered a self-reference.  Was he admitting to his own behavior?  Did he have homosexual relations in the camp and did that continue later in life?
     I also realized that homosexuality was easier for survivors to talk about then sex-as-fantasy.  Even if they disdained such a sex act – and most of them did, coming from that generation and reared in an orthodox, homosexuality-as-deviant mindset – they could register such sexuality without being personally touched.  Sex-as-fantasy, of course, had a different construct to it.  There was a personal involvement.

     To Pfefferkorn, I corrected my thoughts.  “Not sex per se.  Not the act.  I’m not interested in that.  I’m interested in sexual thoughts.  Where did the mind go?  You were a teenager, Eli.  It wouldn’t have been abnormal for you to fantasize.”

     Pfefferkorn answered with a dismissal.  “I didn’t fantasize about sex.  I fantasized about food.  I fantasized about potatoes.  I fantasized about onions and carrots.  I fantasized about Kielbasa.”

     The potato reference didn’t strike me in that moment.  The sausage reference did.  “Kielbasa?” I answered.  “Not exactly kosher.”

     “Well, what exactly was kosher during the Shoah?”

     Food as the total preoccupation: this was the standard line.  In nearly every memoir written by nearly every camp survivor, in nearly every interview given over the decades, the storyteller describes the moment.  Two prisoners lie in a bunk in a death camp late at night.  They’re talking about a Seder table, in whispers.  They’re talking about the specific foods on that table.  They’re not talking about candles and lighting the lights of Shabbat.  They’re not talking about the Kiddush.  They’re not talking about the Ha-Motzi.  They’re talking about challah.  The color, the texture, the way the bread melts in the mouth.  They then go into incredible detail about each and every dish on that table.

5) More Majdanek.  Back at the Starbucks, I noticed a presence overtake Pfefferkorn.  His surroundings closed in on him.  All that noise, the hustle of a coffee rush, New York in its relentless ebb and flow, seemed to attack him.  I saw Pfefferkorn on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 

     “Are you okay?” I asked.

     “I need to eat,” he said.  As I didn’t know the area, we asked the police officers for a “meat” restaurant, as Eli termed it.  He wanted steak.  They recommended something nearby.  The food was terrible, cheap, gristly.  Pfefferkorn loved it.  He picked up the bones and chewed on them.  He ate my bread.

     This was all a part of his Majdanek Syndrome, I learned.

     Two different meals at two different restaurants over that weekend with Eli, and the visit to a Starbucks, permitted a window into Pfefferkorn’s psyche.  Here’s what I noticed.  Pfefferkorn picked the tables in all places.  He picked a back table, against a wall.  He chose his seating place in an instant, with his back to the wall, facing the room.  He did not consider his companions’ needs and desires.

     Another observation.  Walking with Pfefferkorn was another form of the Majdanek Syndrome.  He started slowly.  It took him awhile, for instance, to zip his coat.  But then something kicked in.  He picked up the pace.  He zoomed.  He didn’t talk while walking.  He didn’t pay any attention to his companion.  His companion had to keep up.  If he wanted to say something while walking, he slowed down.  Actually, he stopped his forward momentum.  He said whatever was on his mind, then he picked up the pace again.  He didn’t wait for his companion’s response.

     “Where were we?” he asked, over cheap steak.

     I had no idea.  “Tell me about your childhood,” I said.  “Tell me about Poland.”

     Pfefferkorn didn’t talk about Poland.  He talked about Israel.  He immigrated in the spring of 1948.  He arrived in the immediate aftermath of independence.  I asked why he went after the war.  With Israel about to form a nation-state and with war clouds hovering, wasn’t there a call, a pressure, to go to Israel to fight? 

     “Pressure?” Pfefferkorn responded.  “From those in Israel?  Yes.  In Europe, not so much.  I was in England.  I was told, ‘You’re a Holocaust survivor, why would you fight in another war?’”

     My thoughts drifted to 1967 and the run-up to the Six Day War.  I asked about that pressure.  “Totally different scenario,” Pfefferkorn responded.  “Jews were arriving from everywhere – Europe, America.  The pressure was enormous.  Israel couldn’t have lost that war.  We wouldn’t have survived.”

     Who was “we” in Pfefferkorn’s recollection?  Israeli Jews?  Diaspora Jews?  Would there have been an Israel had the Six Day War gone sideways?  New research, on the 50th anniversary of the war, suggested a contingency plan of action, had the war looked lost.  According to the retired brigadier general Itzhak Yaakov, Israel put in place a “doomsday operation.”  That operation called for an atomic device to be detonated on top of a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula.  Yaakov’s reference shed some light on Israel’s nuclear program, a long-held secret.  Apparently, Israel had atomic capabilities then.  But Yaakov commented on the doomsday approach, “Look, it was so natural.  You’ve got an enemy, and he says he’s going to throw you to the sea.  You believe him.  How can you stop him?  You scare him.” (William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “‘Last Secret’ of 1967 War: Israel’s Doomsday Plan for Nuclear Display,” The New York Times, June 3, 2017.)

     “Where did you serve?” I asked Eli, half-expecting him to say the Sinai.

     Pfefferkorn answered with a story.  While he served in the Navy, he wasn’t on the call-up list in the spring of 1967.  When war broke out, he went to see Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly in Tel Aviv.  He stayed for two more Bergman movies, all dealing with themes of God and faith.  After the war, a child came up to him on the playground and asked what it was like to operate a submarine.  According to Pfefferkorn, he was caught by surprise.  In that instant, he looked at his daughter, age six or so.  Vered Pfefferkorn winked at her father.  Acting as the good father, Pfefferkorn played along with Vered’s tale.  But as he interpreted, Vered was embarrassed.  While other children were bragging about their fathers as soldiers, Vered’s father watched the Bergman triptych.

6) More Majdanek.  Sometime after his visit to New York, Eli called with a proposal.  He knew I needed to visit the archives of the Holocaust Museum down in Maryland, to conduct my research.  He offered to be my guide.  In the 1980s, during the building of that museum, Pfefferkorn held a title of cache.  Under the chairmanship of Elie Wiesel, he was the director of research.  Back then, Pfefferkorn was Wiesel’s right-hand man.  In fact, he was Wiesel’s alter ego.  Unlike Wiesel, he could say what he wanted.  He had no ambition to be the Man of Conscience, no ambition to win a Nobel, no ambitions to hold a Presidential appointment, no ambition to have people stand when he entered a room, figuratively speaking, and therefore Pfefferkorn was not beholden to an audience.  He was the wild card, the schemer, the operator, the rough elbower.

     I took Pfefferkorn up on his proposal.  For the full story of that trip, in a section entitled “The Pfefferization of History,” please see Satan’s Synagogue.  But in that archive, I heard a most surprising line.  Hours into the day, I decided to go for a walk in the huge warehouse.  I wandered for some time, slowly, just getting some headspace away from the records.  Near the bathroom, I came across Pfefferkorn.  He was talking to a young intern.  Her name escapes me all these years later.  She was pretty and tall, and she was interested in the archivist profession.  That landed her a position at the warehouse.  She did not know a detail about the Holocaust upon arrival.  But, having spent some time in the archive, she’d learned certain things, like names of death camps.

     Eli had his back to me, but I noticed he inched toward her, almost imperceptibly.  He leaned into her, even if she stood a foot taller.  When he spoke, his mouth was below her neck.  “I survived Majdanek,” he said.  “If you’d like, I could tell you about it.”

     I walked away at that point.  I was amazed.  I couldn’t believe that Pfefferkorn would use the death camp as a pickup line.  Hours later, as I drove Pfefferkorn back to his daughter’s apartment in Silver Spring, I asked if the line worked.  “You heard that?” he said with feint surprise.  “Yes of course it worked.  It always works.”

     The intern gave out her phone number.  That was Pfefferkorn at age 80, and all the years before and the years after.  He was prurient as could be.  He slept with his students, his colleagues, the beautiful stranger in the elevator (if she was interested, Pfefferkorn was not about sexual harassment).  It was the hedonism in him talking.  Maybe it, too, was a part of the Majdanek Syndrome.  The preoccupation.

7) More Majdanek.  Pfefferkorn broke with Wiesel sometime in the mid-1990s.  By a circuitous way of explanation, he told a story.  A conference was held at Haifa University with the literary critic George Steiner serving as the keynote speaker.  Pfefferkorn and Steiner maintained a professional friendship, as both served the field of literature.  Following Steiner’s talk, he and Pfefferkorn stood outside the hall together.  According to Pfefferkorn, Wiesel came hobbling out.  An injury was bothering him.  “He limps like Goebbels,” Steiner remarked.

     Such a sinister remark: that was my initial reaction.  But then again, wasn’t that Pfefferkorn’s point?  Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of betrayal.  Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of corruption.  Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of turning his back on his core constituency, the survivors.  Edging Wiesel up against Goebbels, who unquestionably walked with a limp, played into Pfefferkorn’s accusations.  Not only was he trying to be provocative but he could then talk betrayal.  Which he did.  “It’s close to a tragedy,” he remarked.  “By turning against the survivors, he was turning against himself.”  Pfefferkorn then threw out a statistic.  “He became a eulogist of the dead, but he didn’t raise his mellifluous voice against the wrong done to survivors, thirty-five percent of them below the poverty line in the U.S.”

     That statistic came without corroboration.  Nor could I corroborate the Steiner commentary.  But Pfefferkorn’s point spoke to the fall.  He wanted a Wiesel rooted to Holocaust-specific causes and history.  He got a different Wiesel, a persona that I termed a “one-man State Department” in Satan’s Synagogue.  He couldn’t reconcile the two Wiesels.

     But it dawned on me at some point in our time together.  Pfefferkorn needed justice.  That was a part of his Majdanek Syndrome.  That was a part of the slavery experience in the concentration camp universe.  Of course, he couldn’t find justice.  What was done to him in the 1940s was embedded, engorged, and nothing could cure the infection.

     But that didn’t stop Pfefferkorn from trying.  He sought justice everywhere he turned.  Wiesel, who did indeed want to play world politics, got in Pfefferkorn’s sightlines.

     But it dawned on me.  Pfefferkorn was Job.

8) Well, let me rephrase.  Pfefferkorn was Job, as rendered and reimagined by Elie Wiesel.  Back in the 1970s, Wiesel wrote a book of portraits aptly entitled Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends.  He ended his portraiture with a chapter on Job.  As Wiesel readily admitted, he was “preoccupied” with the character, particularly in the years following the war.  Job “could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel portrayed.  “Wounded, robbed, mutilated.  Certainly not happy.  Nor resigned.”

     That was Pfefferkorn, for sure.  That was the Majdanek Syndrome explained, partially.

     Wiesel continued.  He rendered Job as an innocent: “Job, friend of man, tested by God, did not deserve his punishment.”  He noted the “startling” speed in Job’s downfall.  “In no time at all, he lost his fortune, his possessions, his children, his friends, all his reasons to live.”  He was pushed into a role, the “hapless victim drawn into the abyss.”

     The same could be said of all Jews who entered the concentration camp universe, Pfefferkorn and Wiesel included.

     Wiesel continued.  He imbued Job with the push and pull between guilt and innocence.  Job “would have preferred to think of himself as guilty.  His innocence troubled him, left him in the dark; his guilt might give the experience a meaning.”

     The same could be said of all Jews who entered the concentration camp universe and survived, Pfefferkorn and Wiesel included.  The guilt of survival, while witnessing the senseless deaths of all those surrounding, could not be overcome.  To be a camp survivor was to wade forehead deep in guilt.

     Wiesel continued.  In Job’s celestial debate with God, Wiesel found a hero.  “Job had nothing left in this world except words,” Wiesel narrated, “but he knew how to use them.”  He made his words “quiver.”  He made his words “scream.”  Words became Job’s rebellion.  In words, Job “reversed the roles.”  God became the “defendant.”  Job “spoke his outrage, his grief; he told God what He should have known for a long time, perhaps since always, that something was amiss in His universe.”

     Coming from Wiesel, the rebellion had a haunting quality, as if he longed for such a celestial encounter.  Job’s indictment accused God of turning His back on His creation, in losing interest, in absenting Himself.  This was Wiesel’s indictment, too.  This was Pfefferkorn’s indictment, as well.  This was also Pfefferkorn’s indictment of Wiesel.

     Wiesel continued.  God responded to Job’s indictment with a series of question.  If Wiesel found God’s explanation amiss – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals” – Wiesel found Job’s response inexcusable.  Instead of exasperation or aggravation, Job “declared himself satisfied.  Vindicated.  Rehabilitated.”  The “fierce fighter,” as Wiesel rendered Job in his rebellion, “abruptly bowed his head and gave in.”

     For Job, such action led to restoration.  He recovered all that he had lost.  He died an old, satisfied man.  For Wiesel, such action became a “hasty abdication.”  In Job’s resignation and restoration, Wiesel registered an “insult to man.”  Wiesel wanted Job to protest further.  Wiesel then reimagined the ending by putting words in Job’s mouth.  “What about my dead children,” Wiesel wanted Job to ask God, “do they forgive You?  What right have I to speak on their behalf? …  Now it is my turn to choose between You and my children, and I refuse to repudiate them.  I demand that justice be done to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue.”

     That reimagined Job, that “fierce fighter” until the end, that justice seeker, that rough elbower, was Pfefferkorn.  He continued the trial until the end.

9) More Majdanek.  In the immediate aftermath of our visit to the archives of the Holocaust Museum, I drove Eli to Silver Spring and his daughter’s apartment.  Unfortunately, our timing was awful.  It was late afternoon.  I hadn’t considered Maryland traffic during my planning stage.  Further, Eli needed to stop for a sandwich before the drive.  That put us onto I-95 after five p.m.  Essentially, we pulled into a parking lot of an Interstate.  It took us almost two hours to drive the usual twenty minutes.  I was annoyed, to say the least, but the time proved invaluable, as Pfefferkorn touched on some history that would have been the focal point of my Ph.D. dissertation had I encountered Pfefferkorn back in the early 1990s, while I was a graduate student and looking into the sex-as-fantasy thesis.  He talked about a woman named Maddalena Mainz.

     In German, Maddalena means magnificent and descends from Magdalene, conjuring Mary of Magdala.  For the prisoners of Majdanek there was no escaping her magnificence, her ferocity, and her sexuality.

     Maddalena Mainz, according to Pfefferkorn, stalked the death camp.  “There was no bigger persona,” he declared.  “Himmler himself could have shown up and he would have been overshadowed.  She was a rock star.” 

     Struggling with the wrapping on his sandwich, he looked over at me.  “Who is the greatest female rock star of all time?” he asked.

     “I don’t know,” I answered.  Then I listed some names that popped into my head.  “Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Debby Harry.”  Then a name dawned on me: “Tina Turner.”

     Pfefferkorn replied, “Roll ‘em all into one and she wouldn’t come close to the seductive capability of Mad Mainz.”

     “Mad Mainz?” I interrupted.

     “That’s what we called her,” Pfefferkorn answered.  “She was a sadist.  Whips, a holster with a pistol on her hip, the most outlandish cruelty streak.  And at the same time, Josepher, she made your heart race.”

     “How is that possible?” I asked.  “I mean, she was a psychopath, right?  She was a murderer.  She stalked her prey.  They were defenseless.  How does attraction get conflated with sadism?”

     “You would understand if you saw her,” Pfefferkorn replied.  “She transcended what you call a psychopath.  She was sex walking.”

     Here’s what we know about Mainz up to this point in history: a few Majdanek survivors referenced her, in sparse detail.  Her history essentially went missing.  However, with the uncovering of new records, and with Pfefferkorn adding color, we can now track her story.  Let’s start with the big picture and work our way inside. 

     Majdanek, in a suburb of Lublin, like Dachau in a suburb of Munich, was established as a POW camp in 1941.  In March 1942, Heinrich Himmler reclassified Majdanek as a killing center.  The previous German policy of “evacuation” of the Jewish population gained a macabre word: “liquidation.”  Majdanek joined three other camps specifically built for liquidation purposes: Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.  The means of murder was gas, Zyklon B, and mass shootings by firing squad.

     How many Jews died in Majdanek?  Originally, Polish researchers working at the end of the 1940s placed the dead around 350,000.  That number fell to 235,000, as the site became a museum with a crack research arm.  Today, the death toll wades around 80,000. 

     Majdanek stopped operation in July 1944, with the Soviets nearby.  But, unlike Auschwitz, the Germans did not have time to destroy records and infrastructure.  They fled.  When the Soviets arrived, they found a well-preserved camp.  News of Majdanek filled the wires and newsreels.  For a moment, it became the epicenter of the Holocaust.

     That didn’t last long.  Six months later, the liberation of Auschwitz took place and, then, camps in Germany began to fall.  American soldiers rushed into places like Dachau and Buchenwald and, most famously, a satellite of Buchenwald called Ohrdruf, where General Eisenhower visited with cameras in tow.  Majdanek lost its place.  Further, the records disappeared.  We now know that those records traveled east.  The conquering Red Army took them back to Moscow and apparatchiks buried them in boxes and stored them in a basement.  If some of those boxes are now being opened, with more to be opened in the coming years, one box in particular came to my attention.

     This is an instance when some personal history mixes with much wider history.  On a trek to Russia in December 2016 – I went in a research capacity, as I had information that a former CIA operative with personal knowledge of the dealings behind the October Surprise of 1980 was holed up in a Siberian town, but more on that in a future book project – I stayed in Moscow for a few days.  There, I met up with my first girlfriend, who went to Russia to manage an orphanage back in the 1990s.  She stayed.  Today, she runs a non-profit that administers to orphanages all over Russia and the ex-Soviet Union.  She listened to my research on the death camps in Poland during World War II and suggested a contact.  That person worked in the Russian State Library.  That person, whose identity cannot be revealed for fear of compromising his or her safety, opened a box of documents on Majdanek.  Apparently, those records are stored somewhere in the basement complex.  The files of Maddalena Mainz, and other dossiers, were passed to me.

     Who was Maddalena Mainz?  She was born in the German town of Magdala.  Her ancestors, though, originally came from Russia, and that language served as the language of the home.  Her ability to speak Russian would become an important part of her history, a gateway so to speak.

     Her ancestors settled in the Rhineland town of Mainz, adopting the town name along the way.  The Napoleonic wars left the economy in tatters, and the family decided to make a move to more fertile farming ground.  They crossed east in 1819 to the town named after the Jesus disciple near Weimar.  If that explains her name, experiences during that crossing might help to explain why she became the Mad Mainz of Majdanek.  Her ancestors crossed from Mainz to Magdala through the kingdom of Bavaria.  They entered the town of Würzburg, where they encamped for the summer.  That summer saw the Hep Hep pogrom with Würzburg as its epicenter.  Maybe something of that pogrom entered the DNA structure of the Mainz family.  For if we spin this story one hundred and twenty-three years later, we find Maddalena Mainz entering the SS Aufseherinnen.  As part of the SS Waffen, some 3,500 women served as camp guards all over the wider Reich. 

     Mainz’s training began at the Ravensbrück camp.  There, she met the infamous doctor, Karl Gebhardt.  The key markers of his personality – the fundamental disbelief in the sanctity of human life, the racial superiority, the drive to lord over others, the sexual promiscuity – can be found in her.  Mainz must have become some kind of protégé.  She also gained a reputation there as a “sexual deviant,” so perhaps there was a sexual relationship between the two.  Certainly, Mainz had sexual relations with multitudes, as did most SS stationed in camps.  Their superiors encouraged sex as both recreation and procreation of the Nazi ideal.

     In Mainz’s case, there were multiple abortions.  She seemed to use sex as her weapon, a power grab, and her first targets were SS officers.  At Majdanek, that would continue.  She may have also taken her “sex walking” further afield.  Did she sleep with the prison population, both men and women?  The “sexual deviant” classification suggests so.

     Mainz arrived at Majdanek during its POW classification.  That made sense, given her Russian language background.  She gained enormous power during the camp’s reorganization to death camp.  She became the matriarch, and the starlet.  Pfefferkorn remembered, “I caught sight of her in my first days in the camp.”  That would have been in April 1943.  “I remember my first roll call.  Hours passed and we just stood there.  If someone stepped out of line, that was it.  You would be shot.  Then a woman in an SS uniform rode by on a bicycle.  I would later learn that this was a regular routine.  She liked to ride her bicycle during the roll calls, when everyone was watching.  She didn’t wear underwear.  She wore a skirt with a slit cut up high, into her hip.  Is there a name for something like that?”

     “I don’t know exactly,” I replied.  “A peek-a-boo?”

     Pfefferkorn nearly choked on a pepper.  He tilted his head back, clearing his throat.  “Well, you get the picture,” he said.  “You could see all the way up into her softer regions.”

     “Was that weird for a prisoner?” I asked.  “I mean, I’m sure you wanted to stay far away from her.  Yet, at the same time, from what it sounds like, she set the camp on fire.”

     “I would daydream of her,” Pfefferkorn told his story.  “I would imagine the two of us, alone, in some private corner.  I would imagine taking that slit of her skirt, the peek-a-boo, and ripping it into shreds.  I was thirteen then, bar mitzvah age.  The image got the best of me.  I felt guilty.  She was responsible for thousands of deaths and I daydreamed about her.  I wasn’t the only one.”

      Guilt.  Sex-as-fantasy produced an overwhelming sense of guilt.  This example had to do with a pinup girl, so to speak, a seductive overlord.  But let’s consider smaller fantasies, fantasies with more common women in mind.  In the concentration camp universe, where murder was all-surrounding and always closing in, wouldn’t the momentary pleasure associated with those fantasies lead to guilt?  Wouldn’t that then be shunted to a corner of the survivor’s mind and get buried under the layers of more acceptable behavior?  Was talk about sex-as-fantasy for the survivor too revealing of behavior, too self-accusatory, too searing?

     Pfefferkorn looked down at the sandwich on his lap.  I’ve never seen anyone look so lost.  That image has stayed with me since.  Here was a man with a raging libido.  Here was a man who would go to lengthy extremes for sex.  Here was a man who used a death camp as a pickup line.  And yet, the guilt of a fantasy left him emasculated.  Pfefferkorn, I realized, had a psychache.  That, too, was a part of his Majdanek Syndrome.  But maybe that look could best be described as the Mad Mainz effect.  She emasculated men in the archaic sense.  She left them castrated.  Even to fantasize about her had a sense of castration to it.

     The Mad Mainz effect, though, did not prevent the human side from showing.  Guilt or no guilt, psychache or no psychache, she left the imprint of a rich fantasy life on Pfefferkorn the prisoner.  She made him yearn, and imagine.  In that way, she humanized him.  It sounds strange.  Here was a sadist.  Here was an overlord with no sensitivity for those around her.  Yet, her presence sparked sexual fantasy, and somewhere in that mix, Pfefferkorn the prisoner could be Pfefferkorn the teenager, Pfefferkorn the lust.

10) A sad thing happened at Pfefferkorn’s memorial service.  Well, maybe not a sad thing.  Maybe something ironic.  Pfefferkorn blasted his eulogizers, while he was alive of course.  To me, and perhaps to me alone, he called those men “placebos.”  Notably, he did not know that those men would go on to be his eulogizers.

     Let me explain.  I did not attend the memorial in Toronto.  I was in Israel.  A week before Pfefferkorn’s death, we talked on the phone.  He had lost the power of his voice, I noticed.  I had to strain to hear him.  I had to press the receiver of the phone hard against my ear.  He wished me a good trip and we said goodbye.  Those words would be our last.

     From Jerusalem, I scanned the list of speakers at his memorial.  They made me guffaw.  I knew most of them, and I heard Eli’s voice in my head, telling me that the lot of them suffered from “the placebo effect.”

     What was “the placebo effect?”  Back during our first meeting in New York, Pfefferkorn told a tale.  God was building the human race.  All of humanity stood before Him, in a line.  His assistant stood in front of a cauldron, stirring the mix within.  “These were the brains,” Pfefferkorn described.  “One by one, people walked by.  The assistant poured a heaping ladle of brains into each cranium.  Quickly into the proceedings, the assistant realized that they were running out of brain matter fast.  ‘What should we do?’ he asked God.  God replied, ‘Get another cauldron.  Fill it with placebo.’  The assistant did as told.  Less than ten percent of humanity got the brains.  The rest live under the placebo effect.”

     Pfefferkorn spent his post-Holocaust life identifying ironies.  His memorial service would have been his last.  Certainly Pfefferkorn would have put himself near the front of the line, as God’s assistant doled out brain matter.  He would have received a heaping ladle.  His eulogizers would have received the placebo.  In Pfefferkorn’s way of seeing, his big brain would have been eulogized by those inert substances.

     Had Pfefferkorn listened to the eulogizers at his own memorial service, he would have sought justice.  Justice as remembrance.  That was Eli Pfefferkorn.  That was his Majdanek Syndrome.

Who was the real Mordechai Shushani?

Who was the real Mordechai Shushani?

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part five.  In the first three parts, I offered critical evaluations of three famous chroniclers: Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles are all available further down this page.  In part four, I broke with the chronicler motif.  I profiled a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and, in contrast to the typical traits of a survivor, he displayed shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, and optimism.  His profile included a major reveal.  I hold Lazar’s “secret stash,” or explosive documents that reach back to the first century, and before.   An article or two in that “secret stash” unveils new information on our next character.  Let’s move away from famous chroniclers, and kind Holocaust survivors, to profile a great enigma.  His name was Mordechai Shushani and he was a mystery unlike any other.  Here are ten brushstrokes to demystify the Shushani mystique:

1) Mordechai Shushani (or Ben-Chouchan, as he was first identified in an article in Maariv back in 1952) did not offer a written account of his life.  He did not settle down at a university somewhere, with a student population who might document his teachings, his beliefs, his politics, his experiences and expectations.  Nobody who came across him in the years before World War Two or after ever noted Shushani with pad and paper.  He was not a diarist.  He was not a letter writer.  Only Elie Wiesel noted “manuscripts” written by Shushani.  But Elie Wiesel, as I’ve documented in different places, including a profile on this blog (https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/04/11/who-was-the-real-elie-wiesel/), is an unreliable witness.

     Without a written record, the evaluation process becomes hazy.  The written record stands as a crucial barometer.  Without one, the life and legacy of a subject depends upon the whim of the storyteller.

     In Shushani’s case, that haziness turns into a dense fog, as the first and primary writer to document his life was Wiesel.  He did so in four chapters spanning thirty years.  But let’s be real about Wiesel.  He liked his mysteries.  In a library’s worth of volumes on and by Wiesel, he promoted a great unknown, his own enigma.  Notably, he wrote predominantly about subjects who did not write on themselves (his father, a character named Moché, the Besht).  That gave Wiesel a clear playing field to profile as he saw fit.

     In Shushani’s case, it’s also noteable: the biographer (Wiesel) of one the most enigmatic characters of the 20th century (Shushani) tried for his own enigma.  What did he create?  Let’s jump in.

     In his last chapter on Shushani, his autobiography from the 1990s, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel documented the first sighting.  The visual occurred in the summer of 1945, or weeks after Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald.  Wiesel, then a stateless teenager living in a French orphanage, traveled to Lyon.  There, amongst other activities, he attended a lecture by the philosopher André Neher.  An informal professor/pupil relationship developed.  Neher offered a unique doctrine.  His ways of interpreting circumvented conventional Jewish thinking.  “He didn’t explain through a narrow, Jewish perspective but rather a worldly scope,” Benjamin Gross, who did his doctoral work under Neher, explained.  Gross saw the effect as “revolutionary” for Wiesel.  The narrow vision of a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania began to expand, Gross proposed. (Author interview with Benjamin Gross, January 2009.)

     One evening, someone pointed out the “strange man” named Shushani.  Wiesel described, “Dressed like a vagabond, a tiny hat perched on his enormous head, he stood in a corner, lost in his thoughts.”  Meanwhile, the talk of the room centered upon the man.  Was he a genius?  A madman?  Wiesel hesitated to approach.  The combination – “I was wary of geniuses and drawn to madmen” – left him in a state of vacillation.  As Wiesel vacillated, Shushani vanished.  “Too bad,” Wiesel concluded, “but our paths would cross again.”

     If this was Wiesel’s first visual of Shushani, only Wiesel served as the source.  Benjamin Gross, while present at the Neher lecture, knew Shushani from the war years.  Both had been in Limoges.  For at least part of the war, Shushani gave lectures on the Talmud.  “Big ones that lasted a few hours,” Gross recalled.  But if he recalled the lectures, Gross couldn’t place Shushani in Lyon in the immediate aftermath of war.

     Some thirty years before Wiesel wrote his autobiography, he chronicled a different first sighting of Shushani.  In a story called in “The Wandering Jew,” published in Legends of Our Time, that visual turned into an encounter.  Wiesel set the time and place as post-war Paris.  He set the tone, “Our first meeting was brief and stormy.”

     According to Wiesel, he attended a synagogue to welcome in Shabbat.  After prayers, a dialogue ensued between the “old man, repulsive in appearance” and “the foreigner,” as Wiesel described himself, “the refugee… from over there.”  A code for the concentration camp universe. 

     In their brief dialogue Wiesel rendered himself as bashful, diffident – “I bit my lips” – and Shushani as irritable, cutting, brilliant.  Shushani gave a lecture.  “He closed his eyes,” Wiesel told his tale, “and went into an explication, the brilliance and rigor of which dazzled me.  I was already his, I entrusted him with my will, my reason.  He spoke and I could only admire the extent of his knowledge, the richness of his thought.”

     Following the lecture, Wiesel attempted a compliment.  He called the lecture “beautiful.”  According to Wiesel, Shushani derided.  He described beauty as a “façade,” a “decoration,” as “nothing more than illusion[.]  Man defines himself by what disturbs him and not by what reassures him.”

     A pattern emerged.  In the educational process of Hasidism, or the milieu in which Wiesel was raised, mentorship meant everything.  Every young Hasid needed a master.  Wiesel found his.  That relationship lasted for three years, according to Wiesel.  Shushani came twice a week to Wiesel’s tiny rented room in Paris, never at the same time.  He stayed for hours, speaking on whatever subject “preoccupied him that day.  And each time,” Wiesel continued, “I felt the same sense of amazement.”

     That sense of amazement, as Wiesel expanded his first story on Shushani into a wider narrative, gave way to a figura.  Shushani became a mystery, a riddle.  Wiesel nurtured the mystery.  He built stories on top of stories, or “tales in tales.  Tales of tales of tales.  Like a concentric circle.”  If there were contradictions in the tales, so be it, for they not only served the mystery but they allowed Wiesel to control the flow of information.  Contradictions in the world of Wiesel became a form of control.  As noted earlier, Wiesel even contradicted the notion that Shushani didn’t add to the historical record.  He identified “indecipherable manuscripts” written by Shushani, “some of which are in my possession.”

     If that is accurate, there is no record.  Wiesel’s life’s work can be found at Boston University, where Wiesel taught from 1976 to 2013.  Joel Rappel, the founder and director of the Elie Wiesel Archive, characterized Wiesel basically as a packrat, or someone “known for meticulously saving almost every piece of paper on which he wrote.”  Still, there are no Shushani manuscripts in the holdings.  (https://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Elie-Wiesels-first-book-574677)

2) From the first line in his first chapter on Shushani, Wiesel imbued his narrative with enigma.  “No one knew his name or his age,” Wiesel wrote in 1966, “perhaps he had none.”  For the length of that first chapter Wiesel kept the identity of the man a mystery.  Wiesel solved that mystery in his second chapter.  “If I reveal his name now,” Wiesel wrote in 1970, in a story called “The Death of My Teacher” in One Generation After, “it is because he is no longer alive.”  Shushani died in 1968.

     According to Wiesel, his attempt at safeguarding Shushani’s identity in his first chapter didn’t work with those who knew him.  “Others recognized him despite my efforts to disguise the image,” Wiesel wrote in “The Death of My Teacher.”  “His disciples of one year, or one night, took pains to tell me they were not fooled.”

     Wiesel responded, “I myself thought I had exaggerated; yet I had told the truth.  Yes, he did visit faraway countries; yes, he did received unusually high fees for his lectures, fees he then gave to charity; yes, he did behave like one of the hidden Just Men who enter exile and anonymity before offering salvation to their fellow men; yes, he was greater than the legend surrounding his person.”

     Note the heavy brushstrokes: the intrepid wanderer, the generosity, the comportment.  Note the legend building.  Wiesel equated Shushani’s code of conduct to the Just Men, known in Hebrew as the Lamed Vov.  According to Talmudic tradition, thirty-six Lamed Vovnik walk the earth at any one time.  As righteous individuals, they carry the weight of mankind.  But they are not saints or holy men.  They are too humble to even believe in their function.

     Wiesel furthered the humility aspect in another source.  “In the Hasidic tradition,” he related, “before the Just Man could be revealed he had to become a Navenadnik, wandering about and hiding his own identity so as to attract and help others anonymously.” (See Lily Edelman, “A Conversation with Elie Wiesel,” in Robert Franciosi, ed., Elie Wiesel: Conversations.)

     If Wiesel hinted at Shushani as a Navenadnik in his second chapter, he used the term outright in his autobiography from the 1990s.  The brushstroke then attributed high moral standards to Shushani: modesty, humility, nobility. 

3) Let’s interrupt these brushstrokes to ask a question.  In his biography of Shushani, did Wiesel subtly present a grandiose image of self?  Consider the tone presented in his Shushani legend and promoted in his own narrative: humility.  In that tone, Wiesel removed himself from the forces of ambition.  He shaped his own character upon the solitude of work, to study and to write.  Meanwhile, his credits piled up.  He wrote indefatigably.  He won literary prizes in France.  He served two presidents as the Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.  He won the highest prizes bestowed by the U.S. government: the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  His crowning achievement occurred in 1986 with the Nobel Peace Prize.

     Wiesel developed a distance between himself and his accomplishments.  The world fame and import fell to him.  He played no role in his accomplishments.  Rather, he expressed wonder at his success.

     This incredulity found a champion in Wiesel’s longtime literary agent, Georges Borchardt.  Wiesel met Borchardt in the late 1950s.  Borchardt then represented the French publishing house Les Editions de Minuit in New York.  Through Borchardt’s efforts, Wiesel’s first memoir, the iconic Night, found an American publisher.  A confidential, trusting relationship grew from these roots.

     Asked about the promotion of Wiesel during the long width of Wiesel’s career, Borchardt responded, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself.  People just came after him…” (Author correspondence with Georges Borchardt, May 1, 2009.)

     Borchardt’s statement held some merit.  In July 1966, for instance, the 92nd Street Y contacted Wiesel.  His lecture series began with the Y’s outreach.  But Borchardt missed the wider story.  Wiesel hired a promoter, the B’nai B’rith lecture bureau, in the spring of 1967.  The bureau, then and now, represents renowned Jewish public figures and scholars.  Lily Edelman became Wiesel’s publicist.  In many different sources over the years, Edelman interviewed and wrote about Wiesel.  Never does she acknowledge her role as paid publicist.  Never does Wiesel acknowledge that role.

     Wiesel’s incredulity then expressed a kind of purity.  The advance of Wiesel’s brand, however, developed through a more active, assertive role.  To hire an agency did not remove Wiesel from self-promotion.  Rather, it added a layer.  A similar dynamic played out in Wiesel’s campaign to win the Novel Prize.

     Notably, the lack of self-promotion as a defining characteristic paralleled the New Testament.  “He stayed outside in remote places,” the Gospel of Mark detailed Jesus’ movement.  “Yet people kept coming to him from all quarters.” (Mark 1:45.  Oxford Study Bible.)  Was the framing coincidental?  A lack of self-promotion, an overwhelming tone of humility, promoted Wiesel as modest, somber, interior.  The Gospels of Jesus imbue the figure with similar characteristics.

4) Let’s circle back to Wiesel’s framing of Shushani as a Lamed Vov.  If Wiesel subtly presented a grandiose image of self as a disciple, did he go further?  In his wider narrative of Shushani, did Wiesel mold a Wiesel-like character?  Did he build a mythology of Shushani to parallel and promote a mythology of Wiesel?

     To find answers, let’s expand the probe.  In addition to Wiesel’s epic narrative, a smattering of investigations and eyewitness accounts accumulated over the years.  How did those sources describe Shushani in relation to the legend perpetuated by Wiesel? 

     As Wiesel began his narrative with name and age, that seems like an appropriate jumping off spot.  In his final chapter on Shushani, Wiesel gave the man’s birth name as Mordechai Rosenbaum.  According to Wiesel, he based his conclusion on information sent to him by other eyewitnesses.

     An Israeli journalist, Yair Sheleg, weighed in with different theories in his own investigation.  Sheleg speculated that Wiesel saw one of Shushani’s passports, bearing the name Mordechai ben Shushan.  Shushan in Hebrew means lily or a lily-like flower.  Sheleg, wrongfully, named rosenbaum as the German word for lily.  (see Yair Sheleg, “Goodby, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, September 26, 2003.)

     In contrast, a journalist named Salomon Malka interviewed a New Jersey man who met Shushani’s nephew.  Malka was then writing his book, Monsieur Chouchani.  In that book, Malka interviewed Wiesel extensively.  In fact, the Wiesel interview comprised the first part of the book.  I am calling that interview Wiesel’s third chapter on Shushani.

     According to Malka, Shushani’s nephew passed on Shushani’s real name as Hillel Perlman.  That name found corroboration from another source.  Shalom Rosenberg, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University who studied with Shushani late in Shushani’s life, told a story.  He credited Shushani as the source.  In the 1920s Shushani traveled to America.  He carried with him letters of introduction.  The letters, written by Rabbi Abraham Kook, named “Perlmann” as a “brilliant, highly knowledgeable rabbi, who has a wide breadth of learning and profound wisdom.”

     In Shushani then, identity confusion formed.  Mystery stoked the confusion.  The uncertainty added to the legend.  Did Wiesel, in helping to build the identity confusion, do something similar with his own?

     His birth name, according to a copy of his birth certificate, was Lazar Vizel.  His Hebrew name was Eliezer.  In the 1950s he changed the spelling of his family name.  The copyright to his Yiddish manuscript of Night reads: Eliezer Wiesel.  Two years later, he adopted another name.  With the publication of La Nuit, the world was introduced to Elie Wiesel.

     If the alteration westernized and de-Judaized his name, Wiesel added layers.  In his autobiography from the 1990s, Wiesel claimed that he wrote under pen names, Elisha Carmeli and Ben Shlomo.  In those layers Wiesel created his own identity confusion.  Mystery and uncertainty built from the confusion.  A legend emerged.

     Wiesel did something similar with Shushani’s birthplace  He  named a series of possible birthplaces, from Marrakech to Vilna to Kishinev to Safed to Calcutta to Florence to Shushan in modern-day Iran, a city mentioned in both the Book of Esther and the Book of Daniel.  That place-name, of course, possibly explained the origin of Shushani’s name.

     In his two later chapters, Wiesel reduced the possibilities down to one: Lithuania.  According to the tale he told to Salomon Malka, Wiesel met with a rabbi who claimed to be Shushani’s nephew.  Wiesel even noted that the nephew resembled his once master in appearance.  The nephew offered a portrait of Shushani as a child, including Lithuania as his birthplace.

     Wiesel then picked up the thread of Shushani’s childhood.  He offered a profile in his autobiography.  As a child, Shushani “dazzled relatives and teachers with his prodigious memory.  He retained everything he read.  Even before his bar mitzvah he could recite the entire Talmud by heart.  People came great distances to listen to him, and his father took him even further afield, exhibiting him, for a fee, in various communities.  That was how he got rich, and how he traveled the world.  Everywhere he went he stunned and enchanted his audience, becoming a formidable acrobat of knowledge.”

     Note the effect.  What Wiesel began in his first chapter with the “brief and stormy” meeting in a Parisian synagogue reverberated.  Shushani as an ilui, or prodigy.  Shushani as a maggid, or an itinerant orator, sparkled.  Lost in the sparkle was Wiesel’s profile of himself and the similarities between the two.  Wiesel did not portray himself as a child maggid, but he did become a maggid as a young adult.  First, he turned to journalism.  Thanks to that profession he “explored the world and went to North Africa, Africa, South America, India and elsewhere.” (Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.)  Later, his emissary career took him to such places as Moscow, Kiev, Thailand and Ethiopia.

     Wiesel’s framing of Shushani as an ilui found a variant of himself in his narrative.  Wiesel told a story in his autobiography.  The date was sometime in the early 1960s.  According to Wiesel, he received an urgent phone call from a cousin.  Gravely ill, the cousin needed an operation.  Before going under the knife, however, he wanted Wiesel’s blessing.  Wiesel rushed to the hospital.

     Days after the surgery, Wiesel went to visit the cousin.  Wiesel had an ulterior motive for the visit.  Why did the cousin want Wiesel’s blessing?  In answering the question the cousin related a prophecy.  The prophecy took place when Wiesel was 8 years old.  The year, ostensibly, was 1936.  Wiesel went with his mother to see the Rebbe of Vishnitz.  This was a regular routine.  The Wiesels belonged to Vishnitzer Hasidim.  The Rebbe received both mother and son.  After a time, he asked the mother to leave the room.  He then tested the child on his knowledge.  Afterward, he asked to see Wiesel’s mother alone.

     Wiesel waited in an antechamber.  When his mother emerged from the private audience, she was a “changed woman,” according to Wiesel.  “Violent sobs shook her body.  People stared at her in commiseration.  The Rabbi must have said terrible things to her, terrifying, painful things – about me.”

     Flash forward to the 1960s and the cousin in his pre-operative state.  Why did he crave Wiesel’s blessing?  The cousin, it turns out, was in the antechamber that day back in 1936.  When he saw Wiesel’s mother emerge in tears, he rushed to comfort her.  He walked with her awhile.  She confided in him.  The cousin then relayed the Rebbe’s words to Wiesel in the hospital room.  “Know that your son will become a gadol b’Israel, a great man in Israel, but neither you nor I will live to see the day,” the Rebbe told Wiesel’s mother.

     Unlike Wiesel’s profile of Shushani’s childhood, Wiesel downplayed the prophecy story.  By adding layers – a cousin relating a tale that occurred thirty years earlier – he removed himself and subtly reduced the effect.  In essence the effect framed the gadol b’Israel as a man of humility.  What got lost?  Wiesel created a legend that fit both his ambition and his aesthetic.

5) How did Shushani enter Wiesel’s life?  In his autobiography, Wiesel chronicled the encounter on a train from Paris to Taverny.  According to Wiesel, his head was in the Book of Job, as he had to prepare for an upcoming presentation.  In Wiesel’s description, he felt confident that he knew the subject.  The scene was then set up for disturbance, degradation and restoration.

     Wiesel’s first chapter on Shushani some thirty years earlier moved along similar lines.  In both versions of the story, Wiesel unexpectedly heard a voice on the train.  When he looked up, he saw Shushani as “slovenly, and his ridiculous tiny hat and dusty glasses made him more than a little conspicuous.”

     Shushani immediately embarked on a “veritable examination” of Wiesel’s knowledge of Job, “strewn with traps and trick questions.”  Wiesel failed miserably.  Shushani then excoriated Wiesel for having the “chutzpah to give a speech on Job in public.”

     In his autobiography Wiesel described his reaction.  “I was eager for this ordeal to end” but the “train moved with agonizing lethargy.”  The “ordeal” did not end at the Taverny depot.  According to Wiesel, Shushani followed him to the orphanage where he lived.  Shushani spent the weekend.  Wiesel described that Shabbat as “a punishment.”  Shushani allowed Wiesel to give his presentation.  “He didn’t speak during the discussion either,” Wiesel detailed, “but an ironic smile fluttered on his lips.”

     That ironic smile turned into a “real” lecture on Job to “rehabilitate” him.  Wiesel called that lecture “a dazzling, stimulating, provocative, enriching exposition the likes of which I had never heard.”

     If his first chapter on Shushani moved along somewhat different lines – Shushani had no patience for Wiesel’s presentation, he interrupted and took the class on an “unforgettable experience” – the framing stoked the legend building.  Note the figure of Job.  As rendered by Wiesel, the power relationship between Shushani and Wiesel paralleled the power relationship between God and Job.  Was Wiesel actually studying Job on that train ride or did he use the character as a literary device?  Further, by the time Wiesel offered his first chapter on Shushani, he had come to be recognized as a Job-like figure.  Alfred Kazin, writing a review of Night in 1960, found Wiesel’s “embittered interrogation of Providence” analogous to “the ever-human Job.”  The framing lit a fire.  In 1966 Maurice Freedman, the biographer of Martin Buber, labeled Wiesel as a “modern Job.”  Nearly three decades later, Freedman altered the label to the “Job of Auschwitz.” (See Alfred Kazin, “The Least of These,” The Reporter, November 1960.  See Maurice Friedman, “Elie Wiesel – The Modern Job,” The Commonweal, vol. 85, October 14, 1966.)

     In between these pronouncements Wiesel wrote a book of portraits aptly entitled Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends.  He ended his portraiture with a chapter on Job.  As Wiesel readily admitted, he was “preoccupied” with the character, particularly in the years following the war.  Job “could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel portrayed.  “Wounded, robbed, mutilated.  Certainly not happy.  Nor resigned.”

     The description seemed to ask something of Wiesel.  Did he have himself in mind?  In his wider portraiture of Job, did he mold a Wiesel-like character?  Did he highlight those characteristics of the Jobian legend to fit with his own biography?  By telling his tale, did he subtly parallel and promote himself as a Jobian figure?

     Let’s take a brief detour from Shushani to consider certain brushstrokes in Wiesel’s portrait of Job.  Wiesel labeled the character as “our contemporary.”  He asserted, “Whenever we attempt to tell our own story, we transmit his.”  If immediately Wiesel created a link between himself and a Biblical counterpart, he solidified the connection.  The character belonged to the “most vulnerable part of our past.”  Job was “a mirror a thousand times shattered reflecting the image of a solitude bursting with madness.”

     The image in the mirror circled back to the end of the Night story, when Wiesel looked at himself after a year in the concentration camp universe.  The shattering conjured a different ending.  At the end of Wiesel’s Yiddish version of Night, he shattered the mirror.  The madness spoke to the overall effect of the concentration camp universe.  It also linked to Wiesel’s chronicle of Shushani, as madness played a vital component.  Madness wasn’t the only connection to Shushani.  Wiesel rendered Job as a Just Man, stateless, a wanderer through provinces and centuries.

     In Wiesel’s overlap of stories, in his “concentric circle,” Job, Shushani and Wiesel all orbited and intersected.  But unlike Wiesel’s biography of Shushani, his portrait of Job focused on that “vulnerable” past.  Wiesel rendered Job as an innocent: “Job, friend of man, tested by God, did not deserve his punishment.”  He noted the “startling” speed in Job’s downfall.  “In no time at all, he lost his fortune, his possessions, his children, his friends, all his reasons to live.”  He was pushed into a role, the “hapless victim drawn into the abyss.”

     How did Job react to these circumstances?  He asked “no questions, not even of himself.”  He “believed.”  He “accepted.”  “He did not, he could not, understand what was happening to and around him.  He was being pulled and pushed in all directions and he did not know that it was all part of a plan.”

     If his description essentially followed the story as told in the Book of Job, note the connections to another story.  Substitute the 1940s for the ancient period.  Substitute Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet for the land of Uz.  Substitute Wiesel for Job.  Wiesel’s description paralleled his prelude to his arrival in the concentration camp universe.  Job’s belief and acceptance sounded like Sighet’s in the days when deportations trains meant “work.”  The staggering speed sounded like Sighet’s sea change, as the town moved from thriving shtetl to ghetto to Auschwitz in rapid succession.  If Job did not understand the master plan, if Job did not revolt, neither did Sighet.  But Job, like Wiesel, was pushed to the brink.  When he finally spoke, according to Wiesel, Job asked the “eternal question” of the persecuted: “Why?  Why me?  Why now? … What is God doing, and where is His justice?”

     Those questions echoed the torment found in the most pivotal scene in the Night story, as three prisoners were hung in front of the entire prison population of Monowitz.  Behind him, Wiesel heard another prisoner utter, “‘Where is God?  Where is He?  Where can He be now?’”

     The echoes reverberated further.  Wiesel imbued Job with the push and pull between guilt and innocence.  Job “would have preferred to think of himself as guilty.  His innocence troubled him, left him in the dark; his guilt might give the experience a meaning.”

     Did the description suggest something of Wiesel?  Did he find his own innocence as a survivor troubling?  Did he form his guilt to find some meaning?  Forming guilt was hardly a reach.  For Wiesel, self-recrimination pervaded, in the way Wiesel could not aid his dying father, in the very act of survival while the surrounding pastoral was littered with bodies.  A question then forms.  In Wiesel’s telling of the Job story, where did Job end and Wiesel begin?

     In Job’s celestial debate with God, Wiesel found a hero.  “Job had nothing left in this world except words,” Wiesel narrated, “but he knew how to use them.”  He made his words “quiver.”  He made his words “scream.”  Words became Job’s rebellion.  In words, Job “reversed the roles.”  God became the “defendant.”  Job “spoke his outrage, his grief; he told God what He should have known for a long time, perhaps since always, that something was amiss in His universe.”

     Coming from Wiesel, the rebellion had a haunting quality, as if he longed for such a celestial encounter.  Job’s indictment accused God of turning His back on His creation, in losing interest, in absenting Himself.  This was Wiesel’s indictment, too.

     At this point in the legend, according to Wiesel, God “chose to make Himself heard.”  God responded to Job’s indictment with a series of question.  If Wiesel found God’s explanation amiss – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals” – Wiesel found Job’s response inexcusable.  Instead of exasperation or aggravation, Job “declared himself satisfied.  Vindicated.  Rehabilitated.”  The “fierce fighter,” as Wiesel rendered Job in his rebellion, “abruptly bowed his head and gave in.”

     For Job, such action led to restoration.  He recovered all that he had lost.  He died an old, satisfied man.  For Wiesel, such action became a “hasty abdication.”  In Job’s resignation and restoration, Wiesel registered an “insult to man.”  Wiesel wanted Job to protest further.  Wiesel reimagined the ending by putting words in Job’s mouth.  “What about my dead children,” Wiesel wanted Job to ask God, “do they forgive You?  What right have I to speak on their behalf? …  Now it is my turn to choose between You and my children, and I refuse to repudiate them.  I demand that justice be done to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue.”

     Wiesel’s trial continued.  Unlike Job, restoration was not an option.  Those murdered during the Judeocide were not coming back.  The town of his childhood was gone.  The boy he was, and the man he would have become under a different history, left a lasting, staggering impression.  The words Wiesel put in Job’s mouth speak to Wiesel’s adult life.  As a messenger to mankind, he built his tug with God into a less celestial, more earthly, protest.  He became a voice of conscience.

     Where did Job end and Wiesel begin?  Here, with Job’s renunciation and Wiesel’s repudiation.  But Wiesel’s break with Job did not discount or nullify the overall resonance of the tale.  A Job-like figure emerged.  For followers of Wiesel, the connections were unmistakable.  A Biblical, or prophetic, counterpart became incorporated in what would be known as the “Elie Wiesel Phenomenon.”

6) The figure of Job then, in Wiesel’s chronicle of Mordechai Shushani, appeared multifaceted.  But from Shushani’s enigmatic appearance in Wiesel’s life, a choice presented itself.  Two directions beckoned.  One direction led toward piety, rooted in tradition.  The other direction led toward the cult of iconoclasm.  If we know the direction Wiesel chose, some evidence suggests that a close friend and adviser attempted to lead Wiesel away from Shushani.  Menashe Klein, like Wiesel, grew up in the Orthodox environment of Northern Transylvania.  Klein came from Ungvar.  As the son of the Ungvar rabbi, he followed a most prestigious line.  His future, like Wiesel’s, appeared set.

     That future came crashing down in the spring of 1944.  Like Wiesel, Klein’s Holocaust journey passed from Auschwitz to Buchenwald to orphanages in France to America.  Judith Hemmendinger, a counselor at those orphanages, remembered Klein as “special.”  Aside from his cantorial voice, he looked “after the religious life” of the boys.  “He was like a rabbi then.”

     Wiesel agreed.  He called Klein, “Our guide, our spokesman” in the orphanages.  “When there were matters to discuss with the management, he did it.”  Wiesel credited Klein with constructing a real Shabbat, “so that the service would be dignified and the study room similar to those we had known in our childhood.”

     Klein immigrated to America in 1947.  He settled originally in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and went on to found a yeshiva in Borough Park.  He became the spiritual leader of the Ungvar community and, according to Wiesel, “one of the great Halachic arbiters of his generation.”  When he died in 2011, he had thousands of disciples.  In many ways he fulfilled the demands of his prestigious lines of heritage, with the flatlands of central Brooklyn substituted for the mountainous region of Northern Transylvania.

     Before emigrating, Klein met with Shushani.  According to Wiesel in his autobiography, Klein felt “threatened in his presence.”  He didn’t have specific reasons for the threat, just “instinct.”  He counseled Wiesel to “leave him as soon as possible.”  He pleaded, “Do not see him again.  The welfare of your soul is at stake.” (Author interview with Hemmendinger, December 2008.  For Wiesel’s description of Klein in France, see Elie Wiesel, “Friendship,” in Irving Abrahamson, ed., Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, vol. II.  For Wiesel’s description of Klein in America, see Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.)

     Klein chose the piety path.  Wiesel, who had followed the piety path up to this point in time, submitted to Shushani.  If piety represented old patterns, a world of fathers, Shushani shook his “inner peace.”  He “overturned certainties.”  Wiesel declared, “I needed to be forced to start all over.”

     In Shushani, Wiesel seemed to abandon the governing forces of his upbringing.  He seemed to abandon friends.  He became a very lonely person, according to eyewitness reflection.  He seemed to abandon God, according to more eyewitness reflection.  He denied God’s very existence.  He became a renegade.  His interrogation of God, found on the pages of Night, can be charted to the period spent with Shushani.

     Shushani seemed to come at Wiesel as a deconstructionist.  He abolished established doctrine.  He made Wiesel think, not only theologically and textually but creatively.  He made Wiesel imagine.  Wiesel in his psychological state welcomed that kind of instruction.  Shushani became his rebellion.

     But recognize how Wiesel rebelled: through a master, or through an old model.  Wiesel saw Shushani as a maggid.  There was a comfort to this mooring.  “I used to go to the synagogue every Sabbath and listen to the maggidim,” Wiesel recalled.  “They were wandering storytellers who used to go from one village to another.  They were the link between villages, the witnesses from one culture to another.” (Edward B. Fiske, “Elie Wiesel: Archivist with a Mission,” The New York Times, January 31, 1973.)

     In Shushani the maggid, Wiesel seemed to find a piece of his childhood, a flicker.  Shushani then wasn’t strictly a deconstructionist.  A wider evaluation identifies Shushani as both an iconoclast and a link back to Wiesel’s childhood.  For Wiesel, Shushani was an extraordinary find.

7) For Shushani, Wiesel was just as extraordinary.  Whoever Shushani was, and the historical record struggles to define him, recognize what he became in Wiesel the biographer.  Wiesel established himself as the bearer of Shushani’s tikkun, or restoration.  In such a role the bearer carried enormous weight.  Wiesel determined the outline and color of the past.

     Wiesel’s tikkun, however, wasn’t the only reflection of Shushani from the era of liberation in France.  Other boys and their counselors from the French orphanages retained some vivid memories.  Perhaps the most vivid belonged to Judith Hemmendinger, for her father studied the Talmud with Shushani in the pre-war years.  Those studies began in Strasbourg in 1936.  According to Hemmendinger, Shushani “came every night for dinner at our place and my father was crazy about him.”  Hemmendinger’s mother felt differently.  She “didn’t like him so much because he was a schnorer and he stank,” Hemmendinger revealed.

     These recollections spoke to a polarizing enigma.  Hemmendinger’s mother saw a beggar.  Her father saw a genius.  Both views held sway.

     Hemmendinger also placed Shushani in Paris right before the war, where her father continued his studies.  “The apartments in Paris were not heated,” Hemmendinger recalled, so Shushani and her father studied the Talmud in the metro, “because it was warm there.”

     When war broke out, Hemmendinger’s father was put in a vulnerable position.  Philippe Feist was an engineer from Berlin.  He’d never gained French citizenship.  As a German national living in Paris, and therefore a citizen of an enemy combatant, he was arrested by the French.  When the Nazis conquered France, Feist became a prisoner of the Third Reich.  As a Jew, he was deported to Auschwitz in September 1943.  He did not survive.

     The memory of Philippe Feist, though, worked in Shushani’s favor.  Judith Hemmendinger recalled, “I was in Taverny [an orphanage] and he [Shushani] came and said he wanted a place to stay in the home.  I told him I couldn’t.  He said: ‘You can’t tell me that after I was so close to your father.’  So I capitulated.”

     Hemmendinger’s reflection contained a strain of Shushani’s manipulative tendencies.  She also contradicted Wiesel’s encounter story.  Did Shushani enter Wiesel’s life on a train to Taverny as he studied Job, or as a guest invited (by coercion) by Hemmendinger?

     Hemmendinger continued with her reflections.  “Because he smelled so bad he got a room on his own.  A very small room.  He never ate with us – only on Friday night because he was never hungry.  He was studying all day.  A few boys were meshuggah with him like my father was….”

     Hemmendinger went on to describe the boys’ enchantment.  On Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples, Shushani “spoke from morning to night.  The boys would sit there listening to him!”  The exclamation and surprise that boys could sit for so long, and so engrossed, were hers.

     Other sources confirmed Shushani’s eating patterns.  A lack of hunger, though, was not the driving force.  Moshe Schweber, who originally met Shushani in Strasbourg in the 1930s, offered housing to Shushani years later in Jerusalem.  He recalled, Shushani “would never let people pass their hands near his food, because he was afraid of contamination.”  Zwi Bachrach, later a Jewish history professor at Bar-Ilan University, met Shushani on a kibbutz.  He recalled, “He would never sit with us in the dining hall.  We had to leave a tray with his food outside the door of his room and he would eat by himself.  The first time I offered him a cup of coffee, he threw it out the window.” (Yair Sheleg, “Goodby, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, September 26, 2003.)

     If paranoia was the driving force for his abstinence, Hemmendinger reflected further on Shushani’s eating pattern.  He typically ate “in the middle of the night” when “he’d get hungry for bread and sardines.”  To accommodate, Hemmendinger gave the storage key to one of the boys.  “You have the key only for Mr. Shushani,” she told the boy.

     To a paranoid, manipulative behavior pattern, Hemmendinger also described a hoarder.  “He never threw anything away.”  His stash of papers and books reached “so high the cleaning woman couldn’t get into his room!”  Hemmendinger ordered the cleaning woman to throw away Shushani’s materials.  To his credit, he “never complained.”

     Shushani remained at the orphanage at Taverny for two to three years, according to Hemmendinger.  Ostensibly then he lived at Taverny for the life of the home, arriving sometime after October 1945 and departing before September 1947.  Did Hemmendinger’s detail contradict Wiesel’s?  Did Shushani’s tutoring of the young Wiesel take place at an orphanage in Taverny, not in a tiny rented room in central Paris?

     Regardless, both Hemmendinger and her colleague, Gaby Cohen, wanted Shushani to leave Taverny.  But Hemmendinger felt trapped.  Out of loyalty to her father, she allowed Shushani to stay.  “What can you do?” Hemmendinger asked rhetorically.

     To Hemmendinger’s detail, Gaby Cohen added broad strokes.  “The man who did not sleep and did not eat…  How to describe him?  Mysterious, strange, special.  Present in our world?  Just that kind of never seen before.”

     A great phrase: “Just that kind of never seen before.”  Another boy from that time offered a similar description.  Jacques Ribons did not study with Shushani.  To Ribons, Shushani was inaccessible.  “You couldn’t talk to him,” Ribons described in his patent phraseology. (Author interview with Jacques Ribon, January 2010.)

     Ribons then segued to a story.  One day he was traveling to Paris.  Shushani occupied the same car.  According to Ribons, Shushani always carried a suitcase.  At the train station in Paris Shushani’s suitcase fell open.  It was full of money.  Dollars, British pounds, French Francs.  “Where did you get the money?” Ribons asked.  Shushani replied that he went on tours of the United States.

     Ribons’ story found corroboration from Wiesel.  He, too, witnessed the suitcase filled with money.  He also told Salomon Malka that Shushani earned his keep by giving lessons.  How did Wiesel pay for his?  According to Wiesel, he didn’t.  Living far below the poverty line at that time, Wiesel couldn’t offer remuneration.  Counselor Mireille Warshawski contradicted Wiesel.  The agency that governed the orphanages, known as the OSE, paid Shushani.

     According to Wiesel, Shushani also made money in another fashion.  During the 1920s, he made a mint in the stock market.  He lost that money in the crash.  According to Wiesel, Shushani then swore to never “again set foot on American soil…”

     The parallel to Wiesel is striking.  He lost a fortune in the Bernard Madoff scandal, with estimated losses reaching as high as 37 million dollars.  As Wiesel offered the detail of Shushani and the stock market crash years before the Madoff scandal, real life seemed to reflect storytelling.  If Shushani lost a fortune, Wiesel served as the only source.  But in the telling of that tale, Shushani became a prefiguration for Wiesel.

     Consider another prefiguration.  In 1950, according to Salomon Malka, Shushani was in a car accident while living in Israel.  The details of that accident remain sketchy.  Where did the accident occur?  Was Shushani hurt?  What were his injuries?  Malka couldn’t answer, nor did he know the source of the information.  In an author interview Malka added a postscript, “I hadn’t thought of it before, but Wiesel had a similar accident in New York in the 1950s, if I’m not mistaken.”

     Malka was not mistaken.  According to Wiesel’s narrative, a taxi driver hit him as he crossed a Times Square intersection in July 1956.  Here again, the Shushani accident seemed to prefigure the Wiesel accident.  A question lingers.  Was Wiesel the source behind the Shushani car accident?  If Wiesel didn’t spread the story in his biography, did he offer the information in a more covert way?  Was the car accident a prefiguration or a story spread subtly by Wiesel to parallel his own epic narrative?

8) In his autobiography, Wiesel charted the last decades of Shushani’s life.  Shushani abruptly left France for Israel.  He lived on a kibbutz.  He returned to Paris.  He then settled in Montevideo.  The framing left the imprint of the Just Man wandering in exile, returning to the image Wiesel created in his second chapter on Shushani, from 1970.  “I knew of no country he hadn’t visited,” Wiesel described.  “He had been seen in Algiers, heard in Casablanca, spotted in Nepal.”

     Notably, on those same pages, Wiesel spun a similar timeline of travel for himself.  He moved to Israel, but he didn’t find what he was seeking.  He returned to Paris.  Meanwhile, he trekked to North Africa and Morocco.  He traveled to India.  He even stopped at the port of Montevideo, allegedly.  Though, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, that last trip was a part of Wiesel’s apocrypha.

     What then did Wiesel’s narrative of Shushani suggest?  Was he blurring the lines?  Was he overlapping the epics?  Did he build a mythology of Shushani to parallel and promote a mythology of Wiesel?  Where did Shushani end and Wiesel begin?

9) Shushani, indeed, settled in Montevideo.  He died in 1968.  Wiesel’s second chapter on Shushani told the story of his master’s death.  He related an eyewitness’s account, “Sitting on a lawn, surrounded by students, he was teaching them Talmud when suddenly he paused in mid-sentence; a moment later he had stopped breathing.  In Jewish tradition, such death is called mitat neshika: the angel comes and embraces the chosen one like a friend and takes him along without inflicting pain.”

     Mitat neshika, or death by a kiss, derived from an old rabbinic legend.  At age 120, Moses did not want to die.  Told by God that the time had come, Moses fought the decree relentlessly.  He enlisted all forces available to him, the earth, the sun and stars, to intercede on his behalf.  But God proved adamant and Moses had to accept his fate.  And so God came down to take the soul of Moses to the heavens.  Aided by attending angels, God had Moses close his eyes, cross his arms over his chest and put his legs together.  To herald death, God kissed Moses.  With that kiss God took Moses’s soul.

     The kiss connoted a mystical death, pure and soothing, peaceful to Moses’ initial struggle.  Wiesel’s conjuring of a mitat neshika in Shushani’s death edged Shushani up to saintliness.  Notably, according to Wiesel, a series of his masters died in the same pure manner.  If his masters died in purity, did that suggest something of the pupil?

     In his autobiography, written over twenty years after the second chapter, Wiesel told the same story of Shushani’s death.  However, in the later source, Wiesel established the time of death: “one Friday afternoon in 1965.”  In both renderings, Wiesel’s attention then went to himself.  Apparently, Shushani carried Wiesel’s first chapter, “The Wandering Jew,” in his pocket.  As it was found on Shushani at the time of death, Wiesel was asked to compose the Hebrew inscription for the tombstone.  According to Wiesel, the tombstone reads, “The rabbi and sage Mordechai Shushani, blessed be his memory.  His birth and his life are bound and sealed in enigma.  Died the sixth day of the week, Erev Shabbat Kodesh, 26 Tevet 5726.”

     That date converts to January 18, 1966 in the Gregorian calendar.  To these contradictory details, Salomon Malka offered a completely different history.  Only Wiesel’s day of death found corroboration: a Friday.  According to Malka’s investigation, Shushani attended a conference for South American teachers in Durasnes, a village in the middle of Uruguay.  The participants finished dinner.  Shushani had eaten alone in his room.  A participant at the conference passed by Shushani’s room and heard him cry out for a doctor in Hebrew, “Roffe! Roffe!”

     According to another participant at the conference, Shalom Rosenberg, Shushani felt like he couldn’t breathe.  He refused at first to see a doctor.  But he relented.  He was taken to the village hospital.  The doctor there diagnosed a heart attack.

     If Shushani died of a heart attack, Malka found contradictory information.  The body was brought to a rabbi in Montevideo, who washed Shushani before the burial.  According to that rabbi, Shushani died of a brain hemorrhage.

     In either case, Shushani might have died a gentle death, as per Wiesel’s story.  But the eyewitness reportage suggested otherwise.  The reportage suggested a patient in distress, either calling urgently for a doctor or, at the very least, suffering enough to consult one.

     According to the death registry, verified by Salomon Malka, Shushani died on January 26, 1968.  The registry offered the Hebrew date: 25 Tevet 5728.  Malka visited the grave.  While confirming the epitaph as written by Wiesel, Malka wondered why Wiesel did not mention the misdating in their interview.

     The misdating remains a part of the enigma of Shushani, as chronicled by Wiesel.  Another inaccuracy disappeared.  “He was buried in Jerusalem,” Wiesel wrote in his second chapter.  That canard vanished in his later autobiography.

     In an author interview, Salomon Malka related the “great disappointment” of his book.  He anticipated translations into English and Hebrew, the two most prominent languages of Jews in the modern era.  Through a wider readership Malka hoped to gain additional information.  But the book remained in its original French, with translations in Greek and Spanish.  No further discovery came across Malka’s desk.

     Malka connected his disappointment to Wiesel.  “My feeling is that Wiesel knows more than he is telling,” Malka confessed.  “Or that he likes keeping up the legend that surrounds this figure.” 

     By holding on to information, spinning legend, or adding disinformation (the deathdate as example) or contradictions, consider the pivotal role played by Wiesel.  He distinguished himself as the bearer of the Shushani legend.  Malka, for instance, sought out Wiesel as the key source.  Subtract Wiesel as a source and Malka’s book loses half of its pages.  Subtract Wiesel as a source and the stories of Shushani exist predominantly in oral form.  What happens when the generation who knew Shushani passes into history?  The future of Shushani belongs to Wiesel.

10) Or does it?  Early in my research on Wiesel, I met a legendary scholar.  His name was Moshe Lazar and he had spent his life’s work preserving the Sephardic heritage.  He had learned Ladino, the language of Jewish Spain, back in the 1950s.  He’d then begun to translate the major volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library.  During his scholarly pursuits, he’d discovered and amassed a treasure troves of documents.  Some of those documents spoke to the Inquisition period.  But other documents traveled thousands of years back in time to the Roman Empire period.  I hold some of those documents.  I was, perhaps, the last writer to truly know Moshe Lazar.  Moshe then was in the process of giving his collections away.  He gave me cherished documents, or what he proudly called his “secret stash.”

     Moshe hadn’t shared the contents of his “secret stash” with anybody.  He claimed that he would be “excommunicated by the rabbis” if he did.  Excommunication bothered him.  Moshe had a muddled relationship with his religion.  He’d rejected God, as his years in the concentration camp universe had taught him.  But he’d formed a fervent commitment to his Jewishness, to the culture and the history, to the people and the literature, to the memory.  Judaism gave him hope.  He could not leave hope behind.

     We had a handshake agreement.  I would not go public with the contents of his stash in his lifetime.  Moshe Lazar died on December 13, 2012.  The question for public consumption then became: What was in his secret stash?

     That is a large question.  One that I began to unravel in Satan’s Synagogue.  One that I will continue to unravel in future book projects.  But something in Moshe’s “secret stash” caught my eye upon first sight.  It was a siddur, or a Jewish prayer book.  Aside from being old and stained, it seemed quite ordinary.  The kind of book a davener might find in any place of worship.  What was the siddur doing in Moshe’s collection?

     I asked the man.  Moshe was a small man, as most Holocaust survivors were.  He’d entered the concentration camp universe at the age of fifteen.  Like nearly all Jewish prisoners, he’d been starved by his captors.  Without proper nutrients, his adolescent body didn’t develop.  But when I asked about the prayer book, Moshe seemed to grow in stature.  He seemed to fill the room.  We sat in his office at the University of Southern California and Moshe took on the height and girth of a member of a USC basketball team.  This from a man who stood about five foot six and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty pounds.

     The siddur was a keepsake.   In his mind, Moshe was transported back to 1943, to a prison camp in France named Rivesaltes.  That camp, in historical terms, was a waystation.  Prisoners at Rivesaltes and other prisons were transported to the Drancy internment camp, or Gurs.  From there, all railway lines led to Auschwitz.

     Moshe did not go to Auschwitz.  He was rescued by the French Underground.  He was placed in a Catholic school, as per French Underground protocol.  He survived the rest of the war with his head in the New Testament, not the siddur.

     Moshe remembered the “strange” man he met at Rivesaltes.  “Shushani” the man called himself.  “Only Shushani,” Moshe continued, “as if he didn’t have a forename. 

     The one name didn’t define the man as “strange” in Moshe’s recollection.  Nor did his appearance or smell or vagabond ways.  Instead, the word spoke to the man’s “daily life.”  He “recited” the “siddur shalem,” or the complete siddur.  Every morning he “read” the siddur “aloud,” beginning with the “Shema Ysrael and the Priestly Blessing and moving through the other sixteen blessings.”  This, Moshe marvelled, in a place where scripture and religious life “had been banned.”  And, being caught with a prayer book or “reading” from it aloud would “end in a transport train to the East.” 

     “East,” of course, meant Auschwitz, where all life ended and though Moshe put the word “reading” in quotations, he didn’t really meant it.  The “strange” man knew the siddur by heart.  Moshe continued, “I began to read with Shushani.  I would sit with my eyes on the pages of the book and he would correct my pronunciations.  I never once saw him consult the book for content.  He had pitch perfect memory.”

     A great phrase: “pitch perfect memory.”  The phrase reminded me of Gaby Cohen’s description of Shushani: “Just that kind of never seen before.”

     The scene as described by Moshe left an indelible image.  While everyone around them foraged for food, Shushani and Moshe recited prayers to each other.  Moshe went on in life to think little of food, and other daily cares.  The Moshe Lazar I knew lived a life based on the conditioning he’d learned at Rivesaltes.  Food, weather, traffic, noise; they did not seem to exist in his head.  Ironically, he lived in Los Angeles, where food, traffic and weather are the preoccupations.

     As noted, Moshe did not go to Auschwitz.  He was rescued by the French Underground.  “Did Shushani go to Auschwitz?” I asked Moshe.

     He didn’t answer directly.  Instead, he remember the post-war years in Paris.  Moshe lived there until 1948, when he went to Israel to fight in the War of Independence.  He saw Shushani again, or a “reflection” of Shushani.  “The man had changed,” Moshe remembered.  His words tailed off.  He couldn’t put his fingers on the change. 

     Moshe did not study with Shushani in Paris.  He no longer wanted to recite the daily prayers, or comb through the Torah and Talmud.  He had changed, too.  But, he did show Shushani a keepsake.  Back at Rivesaltes, when the Underground rescued as many children as possible, Moshe parted with Shushani.  As a gift, Shushani gave Moshe the siddur.  “Shushani didn’t need it anyway,” Moshe reasoned.  “You’ve never seen anyone with such a memory.”

     In post-war Paris, Shushani didn’t “acknowledge” the prayer bookin any way.  Moshe showed him the copy.  Shushani didn’t “remember the siddur, or me.”  Moshe called it “strange,” and perhaps part of Shushani’s particular “psyche.”

     Our conversation on Shushani ended there.  After Moshe’s death, I discovered the truth.  Moshe, it turns out, had looked into Shushani’s life.  He’d discovered a history never before uncovered.  It is a startling story never before told.  But, let me save that for another project.  I will, however, leave a hint. 

     As noted earlier in these pages, there was a New Jersey man who met Shushani’s nephew.  That man passed on Shushani’s real name as Hillel Perlman.  Shushani’s real name, if accurate, isn’t the hint.  The New Jersey man claimed to be Shushani’s nephew.  That meant that Shushani had at least one sibling.

Who was the real Moshe Lazar?

Who was the real Moshe Lazar?

(My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part four.  In the first three parts, I offered critical evaluations of three famous chroniclers: Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles are all available further down this page.  Here, I am breaking with the chronicler motif.  I am profiling a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and the brushstrokes used in his portraiture would tend toward shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, and optimism.  Contrast those brushstrokes to the typical traits of the survivor: tightly wound, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  Let’s jump into that question, and much more.  What follows is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) First, some biography.  Nicolas de la Garde was born in Satu Mare, Romania in 1928.  His father, Hermann, moved the family to Belgium the year after his birth.  Nicolas grew up speaking Yiddish in the home, and Flemish on the street.  The move to Belgium would have devastating consequences for the family some twelve years later.  The German blitzkrieg drove the family further west.  They didn’t wait until the Germans, along with their Belgian collaborators, ramped up the systematic persecution against all Jews in 1942.  Nicolas’s father piled his family into their Chevy truck and drove into France immediately after the Germans paraded past the Royal Palace in Brussels.  The family barely escaped the German army, but more on that in a moment.

     Freedom in France was, of course, short-lived.  Nicolas and his family were arrested near Toulouse.  They were transported to the prison camp of Rivesaltes.  Beginning sometime in 1942, the French developed a road to Auschwitz.  Prisoners at Rivesaltes and other prisons were transported to the Drancy internment camp, or Gurs.  From there, all railways led to Auschwitz.

     Something unexpected occurred.  The French Underground helped the family escape.  Nicolas and his siblings were placed in Catholic schools, as per French Underground protocol.  So many Jewish boys survived the war in France in Catholic schools.  Some of them, like the historian Saul Friedländer, nearly became priests.

     Those are the nuts and bolts of Nicolas’s war years.  His intimate stories of survival are lost.  Why the Underground rescued the family, for instance, is unknown.  Nicolas was not the Elie Wiesel of survivors.  He did not document his past, and billboard it for the world to read.  He was a quiet survivor, introspective, private.  As an adult, Nicolas had a daughter.  Even she doesn’t know his full history in France.

     After the war, the family reunited.  Amazingly, the entire family survived.  How did both parents, and their four children, endure four years in the prison of German-occupied France?  Again, the history has been lost.

     Here’s where Nicolas began to tell his story.  He entered the Sorbonne in 1946, working initially toward his bachelor’s.  He spent the next decade pursuing those things he couldn’t during the war years.  He studied.  He traveled the world.  He learned languages.  In 1948, he joined the Palmach to fight in the Israeli War of Independence.  He, in fact, would serve in some capacity in all of Israeli’s early wars.  In 1977, he took a teaching position at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  So his war history ended before the Lebanon War.  That’s an important detail in studying Nicolas’s life.  He didn’t have to answer questions of Israeli’s justified wars.  Would he have defended Israeli’s occupation of Southern Lebanon had he served there?  Or, would that service have cut at his optimism?

     But let’s not jump too far ahead in our story.  After fighting in Israel in 1948, he entered Hebrew University.  He gained his Masters in 1951.  Something of great consequence occurred during his studies in Jerusalem.  His mentor, the scholar of romance philology, Hiram Peri, urged Nicolas to devote his life to preserving the Sephardic heritage.  Nicolas listened.  He returned to the Sorbonne.  In 1957, Nicolas gained his doctorate, writing his dissertation on the literature of courtly love.  That detail right there should set off the bells of surprise.  Nicolas was probably the only survivor in the war’s entire history to write on courtly love.  He was a romantic.

     He landed a teaching position immediately.  That position took him back to Jerusalem and Hebrew University.  I hold an interesting document.  It’s something Nicolas gave me late in his life.  The document is a contact signed by Nicolas, as he began his teaching career.  He didn’t sign his name, though, as Nicolas de la Garde.  He took on a Hebrew name: Moshe Lazar.

     Lazar became a legendary scholar.  In Israel, he developed the department of romance languages at Hebrew University.  He moved on to Tel Aviv University, where he founded the school of visual and performing art.  Along the way, he taught at the University of Salamanca.  Two major events occurred there.  He began the quest that Hiram Peri had charged him with.  He learned Ladino, the language of Jewish Spain.  He then began to translate the major volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library.  Secondly, he discovered treasure troves of documents.  Some of those documents spoke to the Inquisition period.  But other documents traveled thousands of years back in time to the Roman Empire period.  I hold some of those documents.  I was, perhaps, the last writer to truly know Moshe Lazar.  Moshe then was in the process of giving his collections away.  He gave me documents.

     In 1977, Lazar moved to the University of Southern California, where he taught until his retirement in 2011.  Students at USC described Lazar as a “rock star” professor and a “one-man humanities department.”  Lazar spoke thirteen languages.  (See Jordan Hurder, The Windbag Litwag, http://chancepress.wordpress.com category/marc-chagall/.  See also Allison Engel, “Bibliophile Lazar Plans Special Tome,” USC News, May 2, 2007. http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/stories/13801.html.)

     Late in life, his language turned erratic.  During the first decade of the 21st century, Lazar began to suffer from Alzheimer’s.  It’s a horrible irony.  Alzheimer’s took away his speech.  Lazar died in December 2012.  The world lost an icon.

2) How did I meet Moshe?  In 2006, I began a biography project on Elie Wiesel.  I wrote to Wiesel, hoping to gain his participation on my project.  “This is a book proposal,” I presented.  “I would like to write a biography on you.  A different kind of biography, perhaps, from the books already published.  The biography I propose would not be a blow-by-blow accounting of your life….  I aim to write an intimate portrayal.  And for that, I need your assistance.  I would like access to you, to interview you, to walk a little with you.”

     An “intimate portrayal”: what did I mean?  Words came to mind: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical yet objective, sympathetic, balanced.  That last word reverberated in my head: a balanced biography. 

     Wiesel responded with a question.  He pointed out the many books on his life and work.  Did the world need another?  His question was pertinent.  Visit a library.  There are enough books on Wiesel to fill many shelves.  There are theological studies.  There is much hagiography.  There is an abundance of literary critique.  There are volumes written as part of youth literature.  A literary scholar, Irving Abrahamson, compiled the complete, uncollected and unpublished works of Wiesel, in three volumes.  Wiesel himself wrote over a thousand pages of autobiography, in multiple volumes over many years.  But to study the voluminous work is to find a fascinating dynamic.  Wiesel served as the central source.  His story, as he laid it out, dominated.  Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, is nonexistent.

     There’s another fascinating dynamic.  To trace the evolution of Wiesel’s career is to identify a smattering of Jews and Christian theologians who became Wiesel’s early disciples.  Academics followed, literary critics, students.  His disciples began to extol him, to write about him.  A canon was born.  As the years went by, an autocatalytic phenomenon occurred, or an increasing on itself.  The canon exploded.  With rare exception, there were no contributing authors to the canon outside of Wiesel’s inner circle.

     What did that mold?  Wiesel, despite a library’s worth of volumes, remains a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endure.  How did a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania become the face of the Holocaust?  How did a yeshiva bocher, or a young man in a religious school, evolve into a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

     For me, a smaller question lingered.  How did my proposal, back in 2006, strike Wiesel?  Had others in my position, outside his circle, submitted similar proposals over the years?  Had he reacted to those proposals as he did to mine?  The record remains hazy.  While Wiesel responded to my proposal with kind words of rejection, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that he attempted to shut down my research.  Repeatedly, he put up roadblocks.  But since Wiesel did not participate, and since he closed off those in his inner circles from participation, I had to find another way in.  I turned to another form: a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Ironically, this form proved invaluable.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  (For the full story, please see Satan’s Synagogue.)

3) Flash forward three years.  I found Moshe Lazar in 2009.  He was the one source on Wiesel I knew I had to find.  In those three years of research, or from 2006 to 2009, I studied Wiesel’s life.  I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school.  I interviewed his closest friend from Buchenwald.  I interviewed his friends from France and the period following the war.  I interviewed his French tutor.  I interviewed the counselors who guided him.  I interviewed theologians and thinkers who knew Wiesel in America.  I interviewed Wiesel’s key lieutenant during the building of the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.  I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview.  I interviewed Wiesel’s first cousin, whose Holocaust journey paralleled Wiesel’s.

     To everyone I came across from Wiesel’s period in France, 1945 to 1956, I asked a question.  Do you know the whereabouts of Nicolas?  At that point in time, I didn’t know his family name.  I didn’t know his history.  I didn’t know his Hebrew name.  All I knew was that Wiesel had written about him in one of his autobiographies.  I also knew that I didn’t trust Wiesel’s telling of that story.  Nicolas, as a witness, could corroborate or contradict.

     Everyone had Nicolas in a different place.  One source said he had died.  Judith Hemmendinger, a counselor in the orphanages in France after the war, had Nicolas in Tel Aviv, at one of the universities.  Benjamin Gross, a philosopher and scholar, had Nicolas in South America.  Someone else, I forget now who, had Nicolas in Paris, back at the Sorbonne.  There was a dead end at every turn.  Then, I asked Katy Hazan, the historian of the orphanages in France and the parent organization that governed them, known as the OSE.  She had Nicolas in California.

     I scoured the websites of all the major universities in California.  I checked the departments of history, languages, performing arts.  This took weeks.  I didn’t find a Nicolas who matched the biographical details of Nicolas de la Garde.  But then, on the USC website, I found a professor with a description that matched my Nicolas.  I first wrote to Moshe Lazar, “I believe you are that Nicolas.  It’s ironic to me because in searching the world for you I’ve found you at the very university where I began my college studies.  I attended USC back in 1990.  I dropped out because USC wasn’t for me.”  I continued, “I am hoping to have a conversation with you, to get inside certain truths of Elie Wiesel that you alone, I believe, know.”

     I was right.  Moshe Lazar knew Elie Wiesel like no other.  His first email in return suggested his cheerfulness.  “Brian,” he wrote, “I have written a long page and had it ready to email it to you, but a devil blew it out!!!”  The three exclamation points were his. 

     He suggested that I call his office.  I did.  That autumn I spent three months with Moshe.  The Alzheimer’s that took his life had begun to really take hold.  As a counter to possible misremembering, Lazar’s wife sat in on the interviews.  Sonia Lazar had heard the stories for years.  She could corroborate or contradict.  But I also found a lucid Moshe.  We developed an immediate friendship.  Our time was short.  Moshe’s mind was going, and he knew it.  He needed to pass on some of his towering knowledge.  I became a repository of sorts.

4) What did Moshe think of Elie Wiesel?  He held a good deal of animosity.  He held a good deal of frustration.  For an optimist, for a positive, cheerful thinker, the effect was jarring.  Moshe felt betrayed.  Why?  As Sonia Lazar explained, “In the last years, as things piled up, Moshe began to examine the earlier years and the unkind tricks played on him” by Wiesel.

     Moshe and Sonia Lazar went into the history of unkind tricks.  The first stemmed from the translation job of Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night.  Wiesel wrote the manuscript in Yiddish.  Although perfectly fluent in French at that time, Wiesel didn’t feel comfortable doing the actual translation.  He asked Moshe Lazar.  I won’t go into too much detail here as I documented that history in detail in both Satan’s Synagogue and a profile written on this blog called “Who was the real Elie Wiesel?”  (https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/04/11/who-was-the-real-elie-wiesel/)  But, according to Lazar, he didn’t receive a word of credit publically, or even a token of remuneration.  At the time both Wiesel and Lazar were dirt poor.  But later, when Wiesel became a millionaire due to Night’s commercial success, Lazar felt cheated.

     He did receive a signed copy of Wiesel’s La Nuit in June 1958.  Wiesel inscribed the book in Hebrew.  Wiesel framed Lazar’s friendship as a blessing and, in his inscription, he asked what he would have done without that friendship.  To Lazar, the meaning was clear.  Without him, who would have translated the Yiddish into the French?

     Moshe and Sonia Lazar jumped to the last unkind trick, occurring sometime in late 2005 or early 2006.  Wiesel wrote a letter to Lazar.  In a “sentimental” way, according to the Lazars, Wiesel wrote about “getting older.”  He identified Lazar as his “oldest friend.”  He wanted to spend more time with Lazar.  In fact, the two men hadn’t had contact in years.

     Lazar’s initial reaction was to reply in kind, with a sentimental response.  He delayed.  Some weeks later the news broke.  Oprah Winfrey had selected Night for her bookclub.  The question immediately struck Lazar: Did sentimentality drive Wiesel to write the letter, or something else?  Did Wiesel write his letter of friendship to protect the secret history of Night’s coming of age?

     Only Moshe Lazar knew that secret history.  Only Moshe Lazar knew that the story Wiesel told in his memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, was bunk.  Or, “strange, contradictory tales,” as Moshe called them.

     In Satan’s Synagogue, I set the record straight.  Wiesel was a storyteller.  He was not rooted to fact.  He set forth a false personal history.  But he did more.  Wiesel and Moshe Lazar sailed to Brazil together back in the mid-1950s.  Moshe Lazar did much of the translation work on Night during that sailing.  According to Lazar, the two young men traveled in style, in first class accommodation.  As neither Wiesel nor Lazar had any money, how did they wrangle the tickets?  Lazar reported, Wiesel “had been paid to take two luxurious Cadillacs to Brazil.”  The Cadillacs were contraband.  Lazar found out about the cars upon disembarkation.  One Cadillac had been registered in Wiesel’s name, the other in Lazar’s name.  If accurate, Wiesel then made Lazar a trafficker.  What would have happened had the authorities in Brazil learned of the smuggling operation?

     Lazar was ripe for such schemes.  His wife described him as “naïve” and “optimistic.”  She told a story to demonstrate.  In the 1970s Wiesel interviewed Lazar for a film.  Wiesel couldn’t believe the “great optimism” flowing from Lazar, “despite his experiences in the camps!”

     Sonia Lazar described her husband as an “optimistic Holocaust survivor,” or a rare breed.  “Contrast that to Elie Wiesel,” Sonia Lazar concluded.

5) To further highlight the contrast, the Lazars detailed another incident in the history of unkind tricks.  In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, a Rothschild came to Israel to view the war zone.  Israeli authorities named Lazar as translator, due to his eloquent French.  In the course of their time together Rothschild became interested in Lazar.  A friendship developed.  Rothschild even referenced Lazar in a newspaper article appearing back in France.

     Soon thereafter a woman called the Lazar household.  She knew Lazar from their time together at the orphanages in Versailles following the war and she couldn’t believe that Lazar was alive.  She had heard that he’d died in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence.

     How did she come to that misinformation?  According to Lazar, Wiesel told her the false death story.  Both Wiesel and Lazar had crushes on this woman.  She, in turn, had a crush on Lazar.  After the War of Independence, Lazar theorized, Wiesel fabricated the death of his best friend to improve his chances with her.

     If the fabrication led to a romance between this woman and Wiesel, no record exists.  Over forty-five years since the phone call, the story has gone cold.  Lazar could not identify the woman.  His anger over the incident, however, did not wane despite the time passed.  He felt wronged.  He felt double-crossed.  He felt a similar breach over the Cadillacs.

     If accurate, what did Lazar’s recollections reveal about Wiesel?  In his narrative, Wiesel created an image.  He formed brotherhoods, or durable, loyal friendships.  In All Rivers Run to the Sea, he wrote of friendship as a “necessity, an obsession.  Later I would come to love Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who posited friendship as an ethic.”

     Were his words hollow?  Lazar’s history of unkind tricks turned the ethic on its head.  To believe Lazar is to accuse Wiesel of a wider sanctimony.  While his narrative promoted a gospel of brotherhood, Wiesel used his friendship with Lazar for personal advancement.  Ambition, not camaraderie, served as the driving force.

6) Ambition segues to another character trait.  In All Rivers Run to the Sea and other sources, Wiesel developed another image.  This one spoke to his behavior in the death camps.  “Logically, I shouldn’t have survived,” he reported.  “Sickly, timid, fearful, and lacking all resourcefulness, I never did anything to stay alive.  I never volunteered for anything, never jostled anyone to get a tin of soup.  Coward that I was, I preferred to eat less and to let myself be devoured by hunger rather than expose myself to blows.  I was less afraid of death than of physical suffering.”

     Wiesel fashioned a coward survivor.  From there, he built a persona.  Naomi Seidman, a theologian who did insightful research into Wiesel, described that persona as: “spiritualized, passive, victimized, silent, sad, still somehow dead.” (E.J. Kessler, “The Rage That Elie Wiesel Edited Out of ‘Night’,” The Jewish Daily Forward, October 4, 1996.)

     Note the characteristics not found in the persona: vengeful, angry, hostile, cunning, manipulative.  How would a persona based on those characteristics have played to a wider audience?  Wiesel seemed to have struggled with the question in the 1950s and 1960s, as he wrote his first few books and grappled with his own role in the world.  At some point he found an answer.  He took a word with French origins: rapprochement.  Wiesel didn’t choose an adversarial relationship with the world.  He chose reconciliation.  When he won the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee issued a press release, calling him “one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.”  Egil Aarvick, chairman of the Nobel committee, took the words in the press release further, labeling Wiesel a “messenger to mankind – not with a message of hate and revenge but with one of brotherhood and atonement.” (Press Release for the Nobel Peace Prize for 1986, October 14, 1986. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ peace/laureates/1986/press.html.)

     That persona, molded decades before the Nobel, gained Wiesel a toehold in the American imagination.  The toehold of authenticity.  The toehold of legitimacy.  The toehold of consequence.  The face of the Holocaust then formed upon a physiognomy of reconciliation, not a physiognomy of anger.

     Contrast Wiesel’s coward survivor to the “law of self-preservation” as described by another Auschwitz survivor, Gisella Perl.  According to Perl, prisoners “who in their former lives were decent self-respecting human beings now stole, lied, spied, beat the others and – if necessary – killed them, in order to save their miserable lives.”

     Another camp survivor, Eli Pfefferkorn, offered a related description.  “Securing a spot in a desirable labor, for instance, involved shoving to the head of the line, seen as a risk worth taking.  Upon encountering opposition, however, one had to know when to retreat into the chameleon-pajama-like background of the concentration camp.  This was also true about lining up for soup.  Finding the right spot in the line could mean a thicker bowl of soup – which may add a week’s longevity, but this entailed rough elbowing, as well as timing.” (See Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz.  New York: International Universities Press, 1948.  For Eli Pfefferkorn, see Alexander Cockburn, “Did Oprah Pick Another Fibber?” Counterpunch, March 31-April 2, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/04/01/truth-and-fiction-in-elie-wiesel-s-night -is-frey-or-wiesel-the-bigger-moral-poseur/.)

     Gisella Perl’s law of self-preservation and Eli Pfefferkorn’s rough elbowing fit within a wider concentration camp tenet.  “Eat your own bread,” the tenet stated, “and if you can, that of your neighbor.”

     Wiesel’s coward survivor ran counter.  Did running cars to Brazil alter the image?  Did it suggest a different camp history, with instances as a rough elbower?  Did it suggest a different post-war history?  The young man who moved contraband, and who placed his friend in an illegal position, suggested scheming, cunning, risk, ambition, self-absorption.  The young man who moved contraband suggested a psyche of manipulation.  Notably, the persona of Wiesel shunned the brushstrokes of a rough elbower, both during the war and in the many decades that followed.  Doesn’t the Cadillac detail call for a reevaluation?

7) Moshe Lazar was very much the coward survivor.  Still, that doesn’t explain his post-war persona.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  I took this question directly to Moshe Lazar.  He answered with one word: fate.  He then told a supportive story.  His father was a truck driver in Belgium.  He drove a Chevy.  Lazar emphasized the make of the truck to be clear that his father would not have driven a Ford truck, as Ford was a virulent anti-Semite.  As the Germans stormed through Belgium in the early part of the war, his father packed up the truck.  Seeking safety, he drove his family, and some other friends, to France.  Their path was just ahead of the blitzkrieg.  At the River Oise, marking the border, they crossed a bridge into temporary safety.  Some moments later, a series of bombs went off, destroying the bridge.

     The Germans blew up the bridge, Lazar emphasized.  Had their timing been different, the Chevy might have been on the bridge.  Or, they might have arrived at the river after the destruction of the bridge, with no way to cross and with imprisonment or death staring them in the face.  As happened, they made their way to Toulouse.  While they would become prisoners of the Germans, and spend time in French concentration camps, the episode left a defining mark on Lazar.  Fate became his guide.

     But fate as explanation, I think, missed some fundamental facts.  Moshe Lazar did not lose any members of his immediate family to the Holocaust.  Four children and both parents survived.  Nor were the Lazars sent east, to the death camps of Poland.  That’s not to say that life in the camps of France was easy.  Lazar described the starvation in the camps, and his reaction to it.  He learned not to eat.  He learned not to drink.  Food was the currency.  If a prisoner could go without, Lazar reasoned, he didn’t have to deal in the economy.  Lazar starved.  He tunneled inside in his conditioning.  The Moshe Lazar I knew lived a life based on some of that conditioning.  Food meant nothing to him.  Daily cares such as weather, traffic, noise; they did not seem to exist in his head.  Ironically, he lived in Los Angeles, where food, traffic and weather are the preoccupations.

8) Back in 2009, when I visited with the Lazars in their apartment in Culver City, Sonia pulled me into the kitchen.  “I need to talk to you,” she said, with her urgency engaged.  I quickly realized something about Sonia Lazar that I would later put my thumb on.  She exhibited the traits of the concentration camp survivor: wound incredibly tight, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  While she was born in New York, and spent the early years of her life far away from German-controlled Europe, she took on the persona of the rough elbower.  Moshe Lazar, who married a bit later in life, around the age of forty, found a rough elbower.  The Lazars were a study in psychological role reversal.  What did that suggest about whom Moshe could be comfortable with?

     In the kitchen, Sonia quickly and quietly spoke about Moshe’s “lifelong” ambition.  He had a book project in mind, or an “opus” in Sonia’s words.  He had been collecting materials for decades.  He’d produced an extensive outline.  Still, the book could not get off the ground, and Moshe, then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, needed help in the writing process.  Would I be interested in teaming up with him to write the book, Sonia asked.

     Hours after that initial conversation, Sonia sent me an email with more information.  She explained the idea behind the project.  Taking directly from Moshe’s outline, she wrote about a “synthetic analysis of the origins and development of anti-Semitic typologies through art, theater, and literature.  These are reflections of man’s unconscious and with propaganda imagery, we are dealing with one of the most powerful delivery systems available to men and governments.”

     I liked the phrase “delivery systems.”  The rest felt to me like language meant for a philosophy department.  I interpreted those words into a series of questions: How did anti-Semitism begin?  How did it develop?  How was it shaped into an anti-Jewish persecution language?  How was that language turned into a canned image of Jews and Judaism?  How did that canned image, producing a grotesque and dehumanized Jew, become a powerful propaganda?  How is that propaganda alive today, over many millennia since its initial building block?

     I immediately became interested in the work.  But then Sonia hit me with more information: the project already had a historian attached to it.  A woman named Stephanie had been working with Moshe in an effort to build the materials into that extensive outline.  Sonia and Moshe adored Stephanie, I soon realized.  I did not. 

     Well, that’s not quite correct.  I didn’t have a personal reaction when meeting.  But professionally, Stephanie immediately struck me as one of those scholars who collects materials but has no ability to conceive of story.  That’s not a cut on Stephanie.  The vast majority of scholars are collectors of materials.  They are not writers.  They might become authors.  But there is an ocean between collectors of materials and storytellers.  Stephanie lived on the collector side of the ocean.

     So did Moshe.  The reason Moshe hadn’t written the book project had everything to do with his kind of scholarship.  He was a collector.  Sonia would argue otherwise.  She would point to his many books.  But in those books Moshe served as editor and/or translator, never as primary writer.  Moshe, and Stephanie, needed a primary writer.

     I joined the fray some months later.  Against my better judgment, I agreed to a triangulation.  Stephanie would do the research for the chapters.  I would take her research and form a narrative.  Moshe and Sonia would then edit the work. 

     I immediately felt handcuffed by the agreement.  I was not delving deeply into the source materials.  Those materials were presented to me and as Sonia wanted the project done quickly – in Moshe’s lifetime, she hoped – I didn’t have time to do independent research.  I produced the first chapter in a month.  We’d all agreed that the first chapter would serve as a litmus case.  If everyone liked it, we’d move forward.  If not, then I would be canned.

     I got canned.  I’d conceived of the project as a literary investigation, in the Solzhenitsyn tradition.  Stephanie, and probably Sonia, couldn’t get her head around the investigatory part.  Stephanie wanted history narrated in her scholarly way.  She didn’t want the investigatory, almost whodunit style, that I wanted.  I lost the argument.  In my parting email to Sonia, I argued that she’d made the wrong choice.  To go with Stephanie was the death knell of the project.  It would linger for some time but ultimately remain in outline form, as Stephanie would continue to collect materials without forming a storyteller’s narrative.  The book would never come into the world.

     While the project ended for me, an extraordinary file came into my possession during my time spent with Moshe Lazar.  I spent hours and hours with Moshe, both at his home and at the University of Southern California.  In the privacy of his university office, Moshe handed me what he called his “secret stash.”

     Moshe hadn’t shared the contents of his “secret stash” with anybody, including his wife.  He claimed that he would be “excommunicated by the rabbis” if he did.  Excommunication bothered him.  Moshe had a muddled relationship with his religion.  He’d rejected God, as his years in the concentration camp universe had taught him.  But he’d formed a fervent commitment to his Jewishness, to the culture and the history, to the people and the literature, to the memory.  Judaism gave him hope.  He could not leave hope behind.

     We had a handshake agreement.  I would not go public with the contents of his stash in his lifetime.  Moshe Lazar died on December 13, 2012.  The question for public consumption then became: What was in his secret stash?

9) Let me jump to a second question.  How did Moshe originally come to possess it?  This history dates back to 1952.  After finishing his master’s degree at Hebrew University, Lazar gained his first teaching appointment at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain, not far from the Portuguese border.  At that time, Lazar spoke Spanish and due to influences in that part of Spain, he would learn Portuguese.  During this time, he would also learn Ladino.  He would become the world’s foremost expert in that language.  Ladino led him on a scholarly journey, as he began to find and translate original manuscripts.  His first find was a Jewish prayer book for women, dating to the Inquisition of the 15th century.  Other manuscripts followed.  Most of the manuscripts’ authors, according to Lazar, were burned at the stake.

     But Lazar also found manuscripts and other documents that had nothing to do with Jews of the Inquisition.  He deposited them in his “secret stash.”  His “secret stash” grew into a sizeable box.  The contents are extraordinary.  There are documents that unveil the secret life of the Jewish historian known as Josephus.  There are documents that speak to the 1st century and the growing movement known to the world as Christianity – called the Jews for Jesus movement in those times.  There are documents that detail the lives of Paul the Apostle, and Peter, and Mark the Evangelist.  There are documents on a certain Roman senator, who quietly funded and promoted the burgeoning Christian movement.  Quietly being the operative word.  Had he been exposed in those years, he would have been crucified. 

     Actually, that’s not quite correct.  The Romans didn’t believe in capitol punishment for their citizens.  They believed in banishment.

     There are also documents detailing the true history of the emperor, Tiberius, and his successor, Caligula, and the important emperor of the second century, Hadrian.  There are documents pointing to the Silk Road, and how a certain route came into existence.  The list of documents goes on.  I built my latest book, Satan’s Synagogue, on some of these documents.  My next book will continue that trend.

10) I should say that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Moshe Lazar.  When he died, I lost a friend.  And the world lost a righteous man.  Moshe was not the kind of righteous man who needed to promote his righteousness.  There was no billboarding, no publicity campaign, no hunt for a Nobel Prize.  Moshe was a kind of quiet righteousness.  In a loud world, his voice whispered true decency and wisdom.  The loss of that voice bellows like thunder.

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

(My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part three of five.  In parts one and two, I offered critical evaluations of two famous chroniclers: Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles follow this critical evaluation of Mark on these pages.  Part four will examine a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and the brushstrokes used in his portraiture would tend toward shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, optimism.  Contrast those brushstrokes to the typical traits of the survivor: tightly wound, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  Look for “Who was the real Moshe Lazar?” coming later in July.)

Nearly two thousand years since the Book of Mark went out into the world and scholars remain thoroughly confused.  Who was this Mark?  Why did he put forth his Gospel?  When did this Gospel find its first printing?  Was it the first in line, an original so to speak, predating Matt and Luke and John?  Or, did it fall sometime after Matt, as order in the New Testament suggests?  To add to these questions, scholars believe that one significant book went missing.  Known as the Q or Quelle, German for source, it was a book of sayings and deeds.  When the book was written remains a mystery.  Assuming the book was written during the time of the Synoptics, the scholars’ question became: Did the Quelle help to explain the contradictions found in the Synoptics, and the sea change between the Synoptics and the Book of Revelation?  And speaking of Revelation, why did the Jesus movement of that time need an expansion on their story, an outsized, furiously dramatic, heart-pounding, drums booming, lightning strike of a story that transformed the Synoptic narrative from man into God to God into man?  Maybe John, the supposed writer of the work and apostle allegedly imprisoned on an island, was fighting off sea creatures left and right as he wrote?

     Unfortunately, I have no records to share on Revelation.  The historical record remains thoroughly perplexed.  But something of remarkable consequence got uncovered during my travels and travails.  For the full story, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but let me say here: a truer perception of Mark the Evangelist can now be pieced together.  What follows is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Let’s start with some literary history.  As I uncovered in a crypt in Nazareth, there was a book written during the time of the Synoptics.  This book was not a Gospel.  It was not written in the traditions of hagiography and foreshadowing and allegory.  It did not use biblical figures, like Isaiah, as a latent prefiguration for the Passion story.  Rather, this book was a history, in the Greco-Roman tradition, introducing factual and credible information on its subject.  This book, in the Jewish tradition, was a responsum.  What was it responding to?

     The title gave it away, Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus.  This responsum then firmly established the Book of Mark as the first Gospel.  Against Mark struck out against the Book of Mark.  The Books of Matthew, Luke and John were then necessary to re-establish the Jesus narrative.  As was the suppression of Against Mark.

     Two questions quickly emerge.  What specifically was in the book and who was its author?  Let’s leave the first part of that question for the moment and attempt to answer the second part.  Modern day readers of the Jesus Century will know the name Flavius Josephus (for my portraiture on the man, see https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.)  There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Roman lava flow, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian, a favorite of Emperors, a citizen of Rome.  The latter was unheard of in those days.  Jews did not become Roman citizens.  Josephus apparently gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus.  According to Josephus, he switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.

     This profile of a man has come down to us because of Josephus.  He is the only source we have.  He is not a reliable source (again, see my profile, or my book).  For Christians, though, throughout the centuries, Josephus was a very important author.  In fact, there was a time when his name held quasi-scriptural authority.  In around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people.  Antiquities surveyed the large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.  But a reference in Antiquities made the book particularly relevant to Christians.  For Josephus, apparently, profiled Jesus.  That profile came as a two-part sketch.  The most explosive sketch work came in the first entry, or in volume 18.  Aside from calling Jesus a “wise man” and “a teacher” who “performed surprising deeds,” aside from telling a part of the Passion story (condemned to the cross, appearing to his followers on the third day), Josephus called Jesus the “Messiah.”

     Later scholars pounced on the term, suggesting that a Jew of his time would not have used the reference.  Such a term, for a Jew, would have been blasphemy.  The term then suggested that a Christian came along and interpolated the profile onto Josephus’s pages.  Thus, the Testimonium Flavianum, as scholars called Josephus’s profile of Jesus, seemed flawed.

     The scholars were wrong.  Josephus did, in fact, use the term.  There was no interpolation.  He had two reasons for his word choice.  The first revolved around identification.  Let’s step away from the emotion of the rhetoric.  What seems clear is that Josephus had many men named Jesus in his sightline.  That is to say, Jesus was a very popular name in the Roman Empire period and Josephus needed some way to differentiate between this Jesus and that Jesus.  Rather than identifying Jesus with his birthplace, as the Gospel writers did, Josephus chose what turned out to be inflammatory words.  Josephus did not choose Jesus’s birthplace as identification because Josephus knew the Nazarene characterization to be inaccurate, but that’s a story for another time.  His word choice was not inflammatory to himself, which brings us to the second reason for Josephus’s use of the term.

     Josephus lived a complicated life.  He was a Jew and enforced that identity until the day he died.  But, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, there was pressure exerted on him to become a “Jew for Jesus,” a common term then apparently, an abomination now.  He therefore used the term “Messiah” to quell the pressure.  He had little choice.  He had to satisfy a secret patron in Rome.  Either call Jesus the Messiah or face condemnation on the cross.  Either promote the narrative or find yourself asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.

     It turns out that Josephus’s patron secretly followed the early Church movement.  Who was Josephus’s patron?  His name was Gaev and he was a Roman senator who considered the apostle Paul “a teacher.”  He quietly promoted Paul as the mouthpiece of the burgeoning Christian movement.  This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement, as is evidenced by Paul’s letters.  This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to the Jesus movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist.  So, this senator’s promotion of Paul took on the quietest form possible.  His approach was the antithesis to that in the Book of Revelation.

     This history, as surprising as it may seem, seems conclusive.  It is a secret history never before told.  For more on Gaev, please do see my portraiture on Josephus on this blog, or my book Satan’s Synagogue.  My next book, it should be noted, will form around Gaev’s incredible life story.

2) But there’s more to this particular story.  Apparently unknown to Gaev, Josephus published a history.  He did so without attaching his name to it, but Josephus was the author behind Against Mark.

     The title, it should be noted, fell in line with Josephus’s polemical career.  His final book was called Against Apion.  Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century.  He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus.  Rather, his works centered on important figures like Homer.  But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish, and in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews, rendering Moses as a leper.  Calling Moses a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines.  Unfortunately, Apion’s manuscript has not come down to us.  We only know of Apion’s work through Josephus. 

     The title, Against Apion, promoted the book’s agenda.  Against Apion was a defense of a people, as Josephus took on a whole kettle of commentators who screamed and whistled anti-Jewish invective.  Against Apion was a roundhouse right of a responsum.  Notably, content in Against Apion appeared, in fragmented form, in Against Mark.  Josephus was playing with some ideas.

     But let’s get back to our story.  Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world as the year 70 began.  Sequential order is important here.  Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s.  Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in Galilee, according to his narrative.  He soon became a favorite of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion.  Vespasian made Josephus his translator.  While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book.  Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head.  Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.

     But the book did not die.  We now turn our attention to the destruction of the Temple.  There was a beadle with a saving acumen.  As the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire began in the year 66, and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle removed books from the Temple library.  The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings.  Josephus, who was on scene as translator, perhaps donated the edition himself.

     The beadle, as he did with other books in the library, squired them away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews.  The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, as burial within Jerusalem would have been a heresy in Jewish traditions.  The Jewish cemetery edged up to the City of David, or the first incarnation of the city we call Jerusalem.  The Jewish cemetery, then and now, existed on the Mount of Olives.  To Romans, who most certainly knew of the beadle’s movements, it looked like the deceased wanted to be buried with their favorite books.  In actuality, it was a brilliant scheme devised by the beadle to maintain the lifeblood of a people.  But the beadle took his scheme further.  In the case of Against Mark, he let Josephus know of his exploits.  He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.

     Josephus became a prisoner of Rome.  Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries.  He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative.  That information got passed on.  There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself.  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next.  These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs.  A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts.  I have done extensive research to uncover the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project.  But I will say, notably among the JDDs, one famous and important figure stands out.  He was the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the mid-18th century all the way into the years of the First World War.  His name was Franz Joseph and he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1869.  Unknown to the historical record, Joseph attempted to find Josephus’s book.  He failed, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  This is a rather incredible discovery, for many reasons.  But one reason shines like the halo later painters gave Jesus.  Franz Joseph, the great Catholic, descended directly from Josephus, who descended from Jewish high priests.  The Jewish royalty in Franz Joseph’s bloodlines dated back many millennia.

     This JDD history got passed to me.  I received a particular piece of mail from a relative.  As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD.  In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person.  We met.  I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD.  I am.

     I did something no other JDD had done, with the exception of Franz Joseph.  I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  I found the burial spot.  I didn’t find the book there.  But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground.  This one was Christian.  Meaning: this burial ground would be in the bottom layers of a church.  I found the book.

3) With the authorship of Against Mark firmly established, let’s now turn to our second question.  What specifically was in the book?  And even more importantly, what can be learned about Mark in Against Mark?

     Actually, let’s take one more detour.  To get at those questions, let’s first try to understand Against Mark’s target, the Book of Mark.  Let’s go back to some deeply steeped Jewish traditions.  Let’s identify a force known as a dybbuk.  The concept of evil spirits dates back to antiquity.  Dybbuk MiRuah Ra means a cleaving of the evil spirit.  Dybbukim were disembodied souls who couldn’t find a resting place after death.  They attached to the bodies of living persons.  A possessed person then had souls at war with one another.

     As dybbukim gained a foothold in Jewish tradition, a counterforce arose.  In Jesus’s time, they would have been known as maggidim, or itinerant orators.  They traveled the countryside, preaching and performing exorcisms among their activities.  In Jesus’s time, maggidim were so plentiful, they might have formed a profession all to themselves.  To doubt them and their “babble,” as the Romans referred to the maggidim in Latin, was normal operating procedure.  In the early 17th century, bastardized Latin, in the forms of Italian and French, rendered a new term for the maggidim: charlatanry.

     At about that time, the maggidim morphed into the baalei shem, or masters of the name.  These charismatic preachers traveled the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe, and sometimes far wider.

     At the end of the 17th century a remarkable baal shem was born, though his powers were hidden for decades.  His name was Israel Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht.  The Gospel of the Besht recorded multiple exorcisms, including the expulsion of a dybbuk from a madwoman.  The Gospel of the Besht has tentacles reaching directly back to the Gospels of the New Testament.  But that’s a story for another time.

     To understand the Book of Mark is to focus in on dybbukim, maggidim, and in particular one baal shem.  His name, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth.  In Mark’s worldview, the lands known as the Galilee, Phoenicia, and the Decapolis housed the sick and the decrepit.  Jesus as baal shem then went about exorcising possessed persons everywhere.  But the dybbukim and their possession of individuals were only the starting point for what truly ailed the nation.  As Mark rendered, all rulers, from local landowners to regional Pharisees to Temple Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the vassal king for the Roman Empire, Herod Antipas, to the Romans themselves, suffered from serious affliction.  Power warped their minds.  They acted with deleterious effect.  In Mark’s rendering then, Jesus then moved from Jesus as baal shem to Jesus as seditionist.  His actions forced the hand of the ruling parties.  The seditionist had to die.

     This synopsis brings us to the “Place of a Skull,” known as Golgotha.  In Mark’s rendering, all of Jesus’s suffering on the crucifix formed in the Aramaic words, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Or, as Mark immediately translated, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

     From there, death came for Jesus, with witnesses to document the drama.  The witnesses were women.  Mark will use this device at the tail end of his narrative, as the women visit Jesus’s entombment and note, with amazement and fear, the empty crypt.

     This is the narrative in condensed form.  It went out into the world in the late 60s of the Jesus Century.  It caught the attention of our man, Josephus.  At that time, he was a prisoner of Rome, held by Vespasian’s forces in the Galilee.  As the historical record shows, he immediately embarked upon a criticism.  Did he feel personally bruised by Mark’s narrative?  I believe so.  Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took the work as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Against Mark is a correction.

     Who read Against Mark and how was it received?  There are no records to answer those questions.  If Against Mark established Josephus as a historian of note, there would have been some tremendous irony.  The readership for The Book of Mark would have grown.  Maybe The Book of Mark, and the subsequent Gospels, became famous because of Against Mark as correction.

     Some two thousand years later, Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or Judaism in the Second Temple period.  I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus.  He just never gained the recognition.  Maybe that will start to change now.

4) Let’s now turn to our questions: What specifically was in Josephus’s book?  And, more importantly for this study, what by extension can be learned about Mark?  Let’s be blunt: Josephus rendered a very different Jesus to Mark’s version.  To read Josephus’s full text, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but let me here give a few noteworthy details.

     Mark opened his narrative with the prophet Isaiah as a herald, with John the Baptist and his illuminating words, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark’s very next words then introduced Jesus the Nazarene.  The introduction bothered Josephus.  He criticized in his book, “We learn nothing else of Jesus’s early history in Mark.  We learn nothing of his genealogy, nothing of his origins, nothing of his birth.  We learn very little of his family.  It is a rather curious omission, considering what Jesus will become.”

     Notably, something similar might be said of Mark.  What really do we know of the man?  According to Church traditions, he was born in Cyrene, an important town within the Egyptian Pentapolis in modern day Libya.  The Pentapolis was really a Decapolis, but that’s a story for another day.  Further, according to Church traditions, Mark became a traveling companion of Peter somewhere around Antioch, during Peter’s missionary run to Rome.  Peter died in Rome on the orders of Nero.  He was crucified, traditions purport, as the Great Fire consumed Rome.

     If so, the year would have been 64.  By then, Mark would have turned to the Church movement, fled from Rome, and returned to Egypt, putting down stakes in Alexandria.  There, he founded a church.  According to Church traditions, he then began the writing of his Gospel, using his notes taken during his journey with Peter.  It seems that Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in those churches from Antioch and up into Galatia and Bithynia and over to Corinth and onto Rome.  The Gospel of Mark went out into the world sometime during the years 66-70.

     Let me just say outright.  That entire narrative is wrong.  Except for the birthplace and the publishing of the Gospel.  As I noted in Satan’s Synagogue, there was an epilogue to Against Mark.  A series of letters between Peter and Mark offered essential detail.  Those letters, with Peter in Jerusalem and Mark in Alexandria, established Peter as an authoritative witness and, as Peter granted full access to Mark, established Mark as expert.  Those letters also noted the deteriorating health of Mark and Peter’s hope that Mark would join the one they call the Christ in heaven.  The last letter permitted rare access into Mark.  He called his finished work his “last will and testament” and expressed his final wishes: to die a quiet death and for his testimonium to gain notoriety.  Those wishes have been fulfilled.  Mark died in his bed, not, as Church traditions purport, with a rope around his neck and dragged through the streets.  That’s just plain legend building, martyrdom silliness.

     The last letter between Peter and Mark dated to the year 68.  The year, of course, sets off alarm bells.  If accurate, Peter did not die in Rome during the Great Fire of 64.  He returned to Jerusalem.  He outlived his friend and protégé Mark.

     If all of this is considered some serious heresy to Church traditions, let’s add some more.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I claimed that those letters had gone missing.  They hadn’t.  When I found Josephus’s lost manuscript, I found the full manuscript, epilogue included.  Truth is, I kept the letters for myself.  I plan to use those letters to build the true personages of both Mark and Peter in my next book.  Then, and only then, I will restore the letters to their rightful place as the epilogue to Against Mark.  Selfish, you might say of my plan.  I agree.  Welcome to the world of scholarship.

     Mark and Peter, it should be noted, did not meet in Antioch or any other town in Anatolia.  Their intersection is clear, at least according to their letters.  They met in Jerusalem, in the year 50, during, arguably, the most important conference in the entire history of Christianity.  In a quiet room at a local inn not far from the Temple, Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just welcomed Paul and his fellow traveler, Barnabas, both of whom had just returned from their missionary romp around the Mediterranean.  Mark attended on the invitation of his “cousin” Barnabas.  Cousin here is used in the Latino definition, centuries before that definition came to identify anyone in the neighborhood.  Apparently Egypt and Cyprus, Barnabas’s birthplace, were neighbors.  Mark was a scribe, and a scribe was needed to document the conference.  A bond was formed between Peter and Mark and when the Church elders decided to send Peter out on his missionary tour, Mark went along as scribe.

     With their origin now firmly established, let’s get back to our story.  As Mark introduced Jesus as a Nazarene in his Gospel, Josephus set the record straight.  He wrote, “In my days as Governor General of the Galilee, I heard the people talk of this man named Jesus.  Nearly two score had passed since Jesus walked the Galilee and he was still the talk of the nation.  As I understood that talk, he was born in a place called Beth Lehem Zebulun.  To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the polis in Judea, on the road to Jerusalem, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes.  This Beth Lehem could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth.  It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other.  But as Beth Lehem Zebulun was a place of obscurity, Mark gave Jesus the distinction of a Nazareth birth.  Nazareth, at that time, was the sister city of the famed Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it.  Nazareth had status.”

     Clearly, those reading The Book of Mark across the Empire would have heard of Nazareth.  They would not have heard of Beth Lehem Zebulun.  This accounts for the change in birthplace, according to Josephus.  But what’s also interesting in Josephus’s rendering was the talk of Jesus.  Forty years later, he remained on the Galileans’ mind.  He therefore left some legacy.  Josephus continued, “I now turn to Jesus as he traveled the Galilee whole and beyond, into the Decapolis, over to Tyre and Sidon, and up to Jerusalem, laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word.  Along the way, masses formed around his personage and a new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born.”

     The Galilean section of the work centered around the town of Capernaum.  It centered around Jesus-as-balm, Jesus-as-curative.  It centered around the cleansing of unclean characters.  It centered around a doctrine of silence.  According to Josephus, Mark established a “story-telling device” from the very first unclean character.  The demons knew the true identity of Jesus.  Jesus rebuked the demon, “‘Be silent, and come out of him.’”  The demon obeyed.  As Josephus wrote, “Mark recycled this device again and again.” 

     To the brushstrokes established so far – Jesus-as-curative, Jesus as private of his true identity – Josephus infused more color.  He transitioned to Jesus as lawgiver.  In The Book of Mark, we find Jesus at table, seated beside tax collectors, and sinners, and scribes who were Pharisees.  The scribes questioned his choice of guests.  Mark eventually came to the nub, as Jesus answered, “‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’”  The words and tone must have struck the Pharisees as a rebellion to the old world order.  That seemed to be Mark’s point, as he immediately followed with another.  On a Sabbath, a congregation gathered at the synagogue.  Pharisees comprised the congregants, as did a man with a withered arm.  Jesus cured the man and questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition.  The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death.  They began to conspire with Herod’s court.

     Josephus rendered the story along the line of a “Moses motif.  Mark made Jesus into a lawgiver.  He positioned Jesus as rebel and iconoclast.  Jesus’s actions provoked the powers that be.  These are the foundational traits of Moses in the Exodus.”

5) A question struck Josephus.  The reference to Herod “infused” some historical accuracy into the account.  Remove the oversized miracles and the story of a rebellion against the old world order emerged, with Galileans massing around the central figure who carried the pseudo secrecy of a Messiah identity.  That identity would have been eye-popping and, indeed, would have caught the attention of both the Pharisees and the tetrarch, Herod.  Josephus wondered why Herod didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission, or as he wrote, “When Jesus struck the chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall?”

     As Josephus let the question linger, let’s push on.  According to Josephus, Mark took a “detour” with his narrative.  He focused on Jesus’s family, both the blood relatives and the external characters known as his disciples.  In this “detour,” as Mark rendered the narrative, Jesus made official the appointments of his disciples.  The appointments included Judas Iscariot, “who betrayed him.”  While we learn biographical details of other disciples along the way – James and John were fishermen, so were Simon and his brother Andrew, Levi collected custom duties – Judas carried the mark of the betrayer from first mention.  According to Josephus, “This set the stage for the climactic scene.  It is a loose literary technique, but Mark, at this point in narration, had other biographies in mind.”

     He moved from the disciples as a family of sorts to the reaction of Jesus’s actual family.  As Mark told us, they tried to “restrain” him, as general reaction to Jesus claimed that he had “gone out of his mind.”  According to Josephus, “Familial restraint came across as a saving technique, as if the family attempted to save Jesus from himself.  Such a rendering spoke of a false prophet.  Perhaps owing to the restraint, Jesus rejected his mother and brothers when they asked to see him.” 

     But there’s more to this brushstroke.  As Josephus noted, Jesus-as-rebel posed a serious threat to his family.  Rome and the tetrarch would have eradicated the family after eradicating the rebel.  Mark framed the family as outside the ministry.  He took the framing further with Jesus’s rejection of his own family.  According to Josephus, “Mark’s passage then served as a protective layer for the family against Roman rule.  Mark, writing nearly two score after these events, suggested that Jesus’s family continued on with their lives after these events occurred.”  That may have been the case.  The historical record goes silent on Jesus’s family and what happened following these events.  With one exception.  “That exception formed around James, also known as the Just,” Josephus wrote.  “He was stoned to death in and around the year 62.  The High Priest, Ananus ben Ananus, used the lack of imperial oversight to convene his Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin found James guilty of breaking the laws of Moses.  James offended even the most fair-minded observers.  In Jerusalem, we knew him for his eccentric behavior.  He was mad and considered ‘out of his mind.’  As per Sanhedrin doctrine, he was stoned to death.  Jerusalem did not object.”

     To this rendering of James the Just, let’s be clear.  There has been much scholarship on the question of whether this James was the biological brother of Jesus.  The New Testament seems rather clear.  He was.  Later Church fathers, however, needed to foster the perpetual virginity of Mary and so Jesus’s siblings had to be removed a step or two from his biological line.  They became half-siblings, or cousins.  In Mark’s rendition of events, there wasn’t a question.  Mark did not recognize a human father of Jesus.  Joseph never entered the picture.  Matthew and Luke recognized the hole in the story and introduced Joseph as the husband of Mary.  Much confusion then reigned when considering Mary’s perpetual virginity.  Josephus expressed no confusion, however, in his portrayal of James the Just.  The Jewish world knew him as the biological brother.  They considered him mad.  Later Church fathers would spin this James as beloved by his followers.  Both could be true, of course.  As for the history, Josephus’s writing formed the only known reaction to James’s death.  And, Josephus only recorded the reaction of the Jewish population.  In Antiquities, Josephus returned to the subject.  His colorization of James went out into the world.  It would be interesting to note the other side.  How did early Christians react to his death?  Was he viewed as a madman or a martyr?  Did the martyr framing come later, as builders of the faith needed to further perpetuate Christian martyrdom?

6) Let me now skip over some sections of Mark, and Josephus’s reaction.  To be clear, there is great redundancy in Mark.  The whole “Parable” and “Miracles” section should be cut.  Josephus recognized this.  He wrote to his readership, “I won’t bore you with a recount.”

     Mark then changed the setting to the Decapolis.  He introduced a man named Legion.  He gave Legion distinct characteristics: wild, incredibly strong, uncontrollable.  Even chains, Mark wrote, were useless on him.  When Legion saw Jesus, he rushed to him for help.  Jesus demanded that the unclean spirit come out of the man.  Jesus then spoke to the spirit, who implored Jesus not to send him and the many other unclean spirits out of the district.  Taking a look around, the spirit suggested that Jesus send the spirits into the pigs feeding nearby.  Jesus did as asked.  The herd of pigs then rushed into the lake, where they drowned.  Quickly the news spread and the townsfolk came out to see the scene.  There sat the man, now in health, with Jesus.  The townsfolk reacted in fear and begged Jesus to leave.  The man reacted by asking to go with Jesus.  Jesus opposed the man’s request.  Instead, he gave the man instructions: “‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’”  The man then spread the news throughout the Decapolis.  Mark shifted to reaction, as the residents were “amazed” by the man’s story.  While Mark turned to the next story in his catalog, Josephus examined.  He found it noteworthy that the unclean spirit was given a Roman name.  “Nowhere else in Mark’s account do we come across a spirit with a Roman reference,” he wrote.  Mark gave the spirit incredible strength, suggesting the power of Rome.  Mark then moved to Jesus-as-curative.  “The purification suggested the warrior Messiah ridding the Jewish body of the Roman parasite,” Josephus interpreted.  “Mark had the entire spirit population die in the bodies of pigs.  The pig is a stupid animal.  In Mark’s story, they rushed to their death.  The story then read as an anti-Rome allegory.  Jesus cured the Roman of his Jewish hatred.  He then banished that hatred to the population of pigs.  He then drove that population to their death.  Such is our nation’s reaction to the yoke of Roman rule.  This passage reflects supremely on our current climate, as well as the situation nearly two score ago.”

     This last line is extremely important in evaluating Josephus’s criticism.  Both Josephus and Mark wrote their works in the age of rebellion.  These were incredibly bloody times.  When the Romans conquered the Galilee and Judea, they eradicated towns.  They butchered all citizens.  They left the most important on crucifixes.  They burned everything to the ground.  This is the imagery that Josephus, and Mark, had in mind.  Who then was The Book of Mark written for?  Was the narrative used to show that, indeed, the overthrow of Rome was soon to commence, led by the miraculous General-Governor-Lord known as Jesus Christ?  Was it, in a way, a patriotic call to arms? 

     Maybe Josephus interpreted it as such.  Maybe that’s why his criticism comes off as deeply personal.  He didn’t believe in Jesus as savior.  He didn’t rush into the open arms of Jesus’s new beginnings.  He witnessed the brutality of the Roman landscape.  He could never escape that landscape.

7) Mark next turned to the troubles of a synagogue president named Jairus.  He approached Jesus with desperate news of his daughter’s terminal illness.  He begged Jesus to save her life.  Jesus consented and the two began the walk to Jairus’s house.  Along the way, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years approached.  She touched Jesus’s cloak and was cured.  Jesus felt the “power had gone forth from him” and turned to confront the transgressor.  In the crush of humanity, however, he couldn’t identify the person.  The woman, in fear, came forward.  Yet, Jesus did not reprimand her.  Rather, he rewarded her, claiming that her faith had healed her.  At that time, a messenger arrived from Jairus’s house with the news that the daughter had died.  Jesus responded directly to Jairus, “‘Do not fear, only believe.’”

     That line struck Josephus.  He wrote, “From Torah to Tanakh and the Haftorah, there are references ad nauseam to the words, ‘Be not afraid.’  Beginning in Genesis and flowing through Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, appearing in Joshua and Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, moving to Job and Jeremiah and Daniel and, importantly for this work, Isaiah, ‘Be not afraid’ forms the most common phrase in the large and wide literature.  By speaking them here, Jesus established himself as the representative of the ancients.”

     The party pressed on to Jairus’s house.  There, Jesus claimed that the girl was only asleep.  Those present laughed at Jesus’s words.  With only the girl’s parents present, as well as a few of the disciples, Jesus told the girl to rise.  Mark left those words in Aramaic while the rest of the text is in Greek.  Mark immediately included a translation of the Aramaic.  The girl rose.  Mark emphasized her age of twelve years.  That number conjoined with earlier references (the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, the twelve disciples) to symbolize God’s power and authority.  While those present reacted with amazement, Mark told us, Jesus demanded secrecy.  And so the same themes continued: Jesus-as-curative, a pervasive sense of amazement from those present, Jesus calling for secrecy.  Further, Mark gave Jesus the power of life and death.  Jesus could now raise the dead.  If anyone questioned such a rising, Mark added witnesses.  All of this struck Josephus as “a literary tool.”  Mark needed others present to corroborate the details of the story.  Otherwise, the story “came across as more of an entertainment than a truth,” Josephus commented.

     This last line, in my opinion, comes across as a tell to Josephus’s own writing career.  In the events he alone portrayed at Masada, and in his testimony of his battle against the Romans at Jotapata, Josephus added witnesses.  They survived these events and went on to tell the stories.  If Josephus didn’t add witness account to his tales, would his narratives appear as “more of an entertainment than a truth”?

8) To read Josephus’s full portrayal of the events at Masada, or Jotapata, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue.  Or, for an abbreviated version, see my profile on Josephus on these pages, https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.  But, let’s take a jump in story.  According to Josephus, Mark did “something curious with his story.  He took a break.”  He had Jesus command his disciples to go out into the Galilee and to continue their curative work.  He then used that “dispersion” to return to an earlier story.  What began on the first page of Mark’s narrative ended here, with the death of John the Baptist.  Mark told his tale by noting Herod’s reaction to Jesus.  As whispers of Jesus’s power reached Herod, Herod focused on a past beheading.  While others in Herod’s court gave Jesus a prophetic profile, Herod announced, “‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’” 

     Josephus saw that announcement as “curious.  In turning to the story of John’s beheading, Mark missed what might have been the true story of this character named Jesus.  In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough.  Herod’s murder of John and the subsequent rise of Jesus struck fear in the tetrarch.  He then repeated his actions: arresting Jesus as he did John, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading.  Mark took his story in a different direction.  That story comes across as an entertainment.”

     As Mark wrote, Herod took the wife of his brother.  Her name was Herodias.  John the Baptist took umbrage with this union, as Herod’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Herod.  This turned Herodias against John.  She held “a grudge” against John, “and wanted to kill him.”  She could not.  Herod “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.”  Herod therefore “protected” John. 

     An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose.  During the festival of Herod’s birthday, Herod’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch.  In a mood of elation, Herod promised to give the girl a wish, anything she liked, up to half his kingdom.  The girl consulted with Herodias.  The request of John’s head, according to Mark, caused great distress for Herod.  But he fulfilled his oath.  A soldier beheaded John, then presented the head on a platter at the banquet.  Mark ended this part of the story with his attention on John’s disciples, who took the body away and laid it in a tomb.  Mark ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.

     Josephus hated all of it.  He wrote, “As I am determined to respect the truth of history, permit me to point out the neglect in Mark’s story.  Mark missed the reaction of Herod’s wife before Herodias.  Her name was Phasaelis and she was the daughter of King Aeneas, known as Aretas, who presided over the neighboring Nabataean Kingdom.  Herod did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her.  First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis.  Phasaelis caught wind of Herod’s plan and she managed to escape and make her way back to her father’s kingdom.  King Aretas reacted to the news with enmity.  A further quarrel between Aretas and Herod over boundary issues set the stage for war.  Aretas routed Herod’s forces.  During the siege, Herod had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed.  Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population.  John died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war.  To contest Aretas, Herod had no choice but to call for help from Rome.  Tiberius, who wanted peace in the region, took his umbrage out on Aretas.  He called for the governor in Syria, Lucius Vitellius, to bring Aretas to Rome, either alive in chains or dead with his head on a stick.  Vitellius mustered his legions and moved against the Nabataeans.  However, Tiberius died during the Passover in that eponymous place and Caligula recalled the mission.  By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan.  Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story.  His neglect is glaring.  To call such a story an entertainment is a miscalculation on my part.  With such a story, he enters the underworld, a place of darkness and deception, a place built by artifice, a place that can best be described as Satan’s Synagogue.”

     Wow.  That was my reaction when I first read this passage in Against Mark.  This is, simply, some watershed text.  Let’s start with the last words.  I believe this is the first reference to Satan’s Synagogue.  I believe the author of Revelation took from Against Mark.  Notably, the author inverted Josephus’s phrase, going with the Synagogue of Satan.  Or, at least those are the words that have come down to us in Gospel translations.  Perhaps the original echoed Josephus. 

     To that notable, add another.  What is this reference to Emperor Tiberius dying “in that eponymous place”?  According to the historical record, Tiberius died in the great Roman port of Misenum in the province of Naples.  What did Josephus know that the world did not?

     To that notable, add another.  Earlier I wrote of Josephus’s “bruised” feelings.  I noted that Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took The Book of Mark as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Here, Josephus seemed to get his feelings hurt.  He then lashed out.  Perhaps Josephus’s attack had to do with John the Baptist.  He was Josephus’s hero, it seems, and Josephus could not stand by as a falsification went out into the world.  Notably, Josephus lost the war of words.  His criticism disappeared from view while the Gospels became the book on which much of western civilization is based.

9) To all of this notable, let’s add another.  Jesus died at the prison of Machaerus, beheaded under the orders of Herod.  Josephus came back to that incredible detail.  According to The Book of Mark, Jesus held a conversation with his disciples.  The question on the table concerned identity: who did the people think Jesus was.  He heard various responses: John the Baptist, Elijah or other unnamed prophets.  He asked the disciples for their thoughts.  Mark put important words in Peter’s mouth.  “‘You are the Messiah,’” Peter declared.

     According to Josephus, this declaration acted as “a narrative shift.  In a literary foreshadowing, Jesus replied that the Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected by the ruling hierarchy, must be put to death, and he would then rise three days hence.  With these words, the inexorable march to these events began.  That the climax comes in Jerusalem was necessary, for Jesus had to confront the ruling hierarchy in the Temple.  That Jesus’s words transcended the earthly authority of Rome was necessary too, for this Messiah story moved far beyond the prophetic stories of our ancient past.  Was Jesus the Messiah?  Mark, who took great pains to build a middle passage story for the Messiah in the Galilee section of his work, now moved the narrative to the only place a Messiah could truly be identified.  But, my experience in the Galilee, and most notably during the battle at Jotapata, where all was lost, contradicts Mark’s narrative.  The teaching of Jesus was a story that people still talked about.  But his rebellion was put down.  He died at Machaerus.”

     Let me point out the obvious.  Because people talked about Jesus and his death some thirty-five years later, and because Josephus heard the scuttlebutt, doesn’t mean the history actually played out that way.  Stories tend to get corrupted.  Eyewitness testimony tends to embellish, or omit.  Josephus, though, certainly believed that Jesus died at Machaerus.

10) Did Peter and Mark address such a death in their letters?  They did not.  Did they quietly accept Jesus’s death at Machaerus while loudly, in the form of the Gospel, proclaim the Passion story?  There are no conclusive answers.  But without going into too much detail, as I want to go into depth in my next book, let me say this about the letters: there is an undertone.  There is a sense of building.  The story needed some construction.  Peter and Mark became the chief architects.  They recognized their roles, or as Mark wrote to Peter, “The voice of the Gospel is mine, but you are the sound engineer.”

     As sound engineer, Peter made himself important.  The Romans, in their writing of history, elevated the eyewitness.  They developed a term: thereness.  A history gained greater credibility with eyewitness thereness.  Peter relished his thereness and Mark went along for the ride.  The problem is, there wasn’t a check on Peter’s testimony.  Mark was not a scholar in modern day terms.  He did not seek corroborating sources.  He gave his mentor a gift: free reign.  Peter then grabbed a spotlight and became a kind of co-star.  The thrice denial section of the Gospel speaks to this dynamic.  It feels contrived.  If Mark questioned Peter on his role during the trial of Jesus, there is no evidence in the letters.  What does that say of Mark?

     Here’s what we know.   Mark dictated the Gospel to an unnamed scribe.  Mark was moving ever closer to death and he didn’t have the vigor to actually do the writing.  He spoke the story.  A scribe transferred the narrative to parchment.

     Mark was irritable.  Part of his irritability stemmed from ill health.  Part of his irritability stemmed from life experience.  Part of his irritability stemmed from his general makeup.  Mark was an irascible sort of fellow.

     In his letters to Peter, he complained about most everything: the oppressive heat of Alexandria, the lack of Sea breezes, both the tardiness and the earliness of his scribe, the cost.  The scribe did not come cheap and Mark had no money.  Being a major player in the Church did not lead to a life of luxury.  My, how things have changed.

     Mark might have been senile at this point on his life.  In Against Mark, Josephus railed against Mark’s basic misunderstanding of Galilean geography.  For instance, Mark placed Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee.  According to Josephus, Bethsaida resided north of the Galilee, in Gaulanitis.  Bethsaida was a fishing village on the shores of Lake Ram.  Philip the Tetrarch built up a neighboring town to Bethsaida and named it in honor of both Rome and himself, Caesaria Philippi.  Both towns play a role in the first part of Mark’s Gospel.

     Why did Mark move Bethsaida into the Galilee?  Perhaps senility played a role.  Perhaps he had another agenda.   The other disciples all came from the same place, the Galilee, with the exception of Judas.  But then the narrative of Judas is an exception, so that makes narrative sense.  Perhaps Mark simply wanted the origins of the disciples to line up.

     Mark considered himself a “Jew for Jesus.”  He proclaimed it over and over again in his letters.  The term then suggested an evolving sect of Judaism, outside and at odds with the dominant cultures governing the religion.  In Mark’s day, the Christian schism with Judaism had not occurred.  There were no Christians then.  There was, though, a thorough dislike and distrust for the dominant Jewish cultures.  As a Jew for Jesus, Mark railed against the power structure.  This was a part of his irritability.  The authorities in Jerusalem and their tentacles in the Galilee were a bane in Mark’s worldview.  It’s no coincidence then that, in the Gospels, Jesus questions and embarrasses the power structure relentlessly.

     Did Mark develop an inner hatred for the Jewish nation?  Consider his description of Jerusalem in the Gospel.  Decay, corruption, tradition gone asunder: these were the primary markers of Mark’s Jerusalem.  His setting struck a tone of usury, and all debts must be repaid.  The letters between Mark and Peter speak to this characterization.  Both men want Jerusalem “torn down.”  The term didn’t suggest the razing of the city, as the Romans did.  And the city left in rubble for sixty years, as happened between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt.  The term suggested “a new beginning… a shining light.”  To Mark and Peter that light hadn’t existed “since the Hashmona’im.”

     It’s a curious reference to the Hasmonean dynasty.  Begun by Judas Maccabeus and furthered by his brother, Simon the Wise, the dynasty threw off the rule of the Seleucid Empire and formed an independent state.  Perhaps that history accounts for Mark’s and Peter’s evaluation of the Hasmonean years.  But, the Hasmoneans were Hellenized and that must have disturbed the Jews for Jesus movement.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as “pollutants of the soil,” to quote Peter in a letter.  To them, Jesus was the way of “reduction, and restoration.”

     The Hasmoneans were not.  In addition, their independent state survived about fifty years.  The Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospels.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

    But if Peter’s and Mark’s reference to the Hasmoneans comes across as a bit convoluted, their inner hatred for the Jewish nation seems apparent.  To Mark’s description of Jerusalem in his Gospel, let’s consider a second example.  Pilate, as representative of Rome, displayed nothing but forbearance for Jesus.  According to Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish realm pushed Pilate toward capitol punishment.  Mark seemed rather clear in his conviction.  The Jews killed Jesus.  Mark then employed a literary technique.  He had Pilate whip Jesus.  That whipping set up the suffering that would follow.  But the true enemy, as Mark spun his story, formed around the ruling Jewish culture.

     Mark, nor Peter, lived to see the death of that Jewish culture.  But it did die.  The Second Temple period, which began with exiled Jews returning from Babylon, ended essentially with the Bar Kokhba revolt.  A new exile would come into existence, with the Romans booting all Jews out of Judea.

     Bar Kokhba, it should be noted, was ruthless to the Jews for Jesus movement, as those followers refused to fight against the Romans.  Here was the break in history.  The followers of the early Church movement choose to sit out a war against Rome.  They could not support the dominant Jewish culture.  Bar Kokhba punished them for their conviction.  Meanwhile, the emperor of Rome, Hadrian, opened the door of leniency.  And the new movement, known as Christianity, walked right through.  But that’s a story for another day.

     Mark wanted a final letter, to be sent to Peter after his death.  His scribe complied.  According to that death scene, Mark uttered the words Jesus once had at Golgotha, while suffering on the crucifix.  “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Mark uttered them in Aramaic.  His scribe did not translate the words into Hebrew, as Mark did in his Gospel.  His scribe left the words in their original language.

     It would be fascinating to know Peter’s reaction to these words.  Mark’s deathbed cry basically ends their correspondence.  I can interpret… but let me save that for a later book project.

From the Founder of the Faux

Let me say a word or two about this new literary form, the faux history.  Here’s the evolution.  I fell enthralled with the study of history in college.  What enthralled me?  It really wasn’t the story.  In those days, I paid particular attention to British imperialism, and Jewish history, and American migration.  Nor was it the personality of the instructor, and I sat in classrooms led by remarkable minds.  It was the journey to find some truth.  That was the foundation. 

     To build on that foundation, I felt challenged by the historical method.  There was both science and humanities involved.  There was hard data collection and circumstantial evidence and interpretation.  I studied the form.  I rooted through source material.  A question perplexed me.  How were histories written?

     I remember a particular historian called me out.  I had just written a thesis on Jewish Germany, comparing East German Jews to West German Jews since the Holocaust.  This event occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The narrative then described a lost people, hidden under the weight of death camps.  I found the narrative false.  I found vibrant, learned communities, living in the now.  I called for a new history.  The historian made a suggestion.  “Why don’t you write the history you call for?” he said.

     I have never forgotten his words.  They might be the most influential words ever spoken to me.  I still think of those words during my writing process.  I took his words to graduate school.  I had an idea I wanted to pursue.  I wanted to study the fantasy life of prisoners.  Specifically, I wanted to focus on the death camps in Poland during World War II.  I wanted to understand where the prisoners went in their heads when they fantasized.  The narrative holds that they fantasized about food.  They were starving, and food became the total preoccupation.

     I believed then, and I’m sure of it now, that much got shunted in that narrative.  I think the prisoners, and I’m talking specifically about Jewish prisoners, created a vivid fantasy life.  What might they fantasize about?  Revenge comes to mind.  Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush.  But revenge is only the half of it.  I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex.  I think sex became a preoccupation.

     I couldn’t write this thesis.  It wasn’t possible from an institutional perspective.  The study of the Holocaust, in the 1990s, couldn’t branch out in size and scope and imagination.  A conservative nature kept the study small, with tentacles going nowhere.  To talk about sex-as-fantasy would have been a kind of heresy.  The thinking then: How dare we bother survivors with those types of questions.  How dare we intrude upon their inner space.

     Now, such a study might be possible from an institutional perspective, but the demographics no longer line up.  In the 1990s, there were tens of thousands of camp survivors around as potential source material.  They were in their 70s.  Now, they’re in their 90s.  There aren’t tens of thousands remaining.

     I floundered around the history halls of a prestigious graduate program for a time.  But, in truth, something happened to me there.  History became boring.  History became ego.  The scholars in the program were far different than the scholars of college.  Writing history, and publishing it, turned them into megalomaniacs.  It pained me.  To the question “How were histories written?” I asked a second question.  What did the search for truth have to do with power?

     I dropped out of graduate school.  I needed to move away from the ego of scholarship.  I began to write fiction.  I wanted to turn my thesis idea into a novel.  It went nowhere.  Why?  The story idea might have been fine but the execution was terrible.  I couldn’t write.  I didn’t understand anything about the art form, the flow of story, the usage of words.  I simply got in the way of the story all the time.  Maybe I still do.  I don’t know.

     In my early 30s, I wrote a book called What the Psychic Saw.  That wasn’t the original title.  I wrote the story under a provisional title, The Century of Electricity.  Using the 20th century as setting and character, I followed the evolution of electricity.  What began at an event at the world’s fair on the morning of September 6, 1901 snaked through the killing center of Auschwitz and over to the Manhattan project at Alamogordo.  A significant gerrymandering took place with the Alger Hiss case and that turned the century toward the cold war, and class warfare, and race-related eruptions occurring in places like Watts and South Central, Los Angeles.  The century’s evolution of electricity ended on September 11, 2001 in New York City with the bombing of the World Trade Center.

     The publishing house changed the name of the work.  I don’t know why I went along with the name change.  The publisher was, essentially, self-publishing.  I guess I didn’t see it for what it was.  I fell in line with the name change because I had my sights on the bigger picture.  What the Psychic Saw was my first foray into historical fiction.  But, really, it set the stage of what was to come, the faux history. 

     I wasn’t entirely happy with the form in Psychic.  I still had that perplexing question in mind.  How were histories written?  Writing historical fiction didn’t satisfy that journey to find some truth.  I wanted to maintain the shape of a thoroughly researched history.  I wanted source material, and documented reportage, and eyewitness testimony, and footnotes.  I wanted story to follow from a foundation of fact.

     I began the faux history form in a work entitled, The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise.  The story began in Tehran 1979.  When a group of Iranian college students stormed the American embassy and took hostages, it set the stage for world politics of the most damaging kind.  The question became: Did the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring themselves of victory over President Carter?

     There were works that looked into this history.  But to study those works revealed a sad truth: there was so much misinformation and disinformation regarding the October Surprise, as it’s known, that the facts of the case didn’t form a coherent, researchable story.

     For historians rooted to the historical method, this conclusion closes the door on the case.  Without facts, what is history?  I proceeded anyway, though I veered into a different lane.  This is where the faux history gathers speed.  Imagination kicks in.  Fabrication accelerates.  Invention replaces reality.  But unlike earlier forms of historical fabrication – historical fiction or alternative history – the faux history maintains the shape of a thoroughly researched history.  The faux historian fleshes out the players involved, fleshes out the records, fleshes out the truths.  The faux historian presents primary source material, cites experts, annotates, builds conclusions based on facts.  Like a genuine history, the flow of facts dictates the story line.

     Facts, of course, can be easily manipulated.  In French, faux means false.  When are the facts false?  When do facts fictionalize?  These questions lie at the heart of the faux history.

     My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, takes on all of this evolution.  Let’s go back over thirty years to my thesis on Jewish Germany since the Holocaust.  Let’s go back to the historian calling me out with those words, “Why don’t you write the history you call for?”  Let’s go back, too, to my presumed doctoral dissertation on the fantasy life of camp prisoners.  With these foundational moorings echoing in my head, I decided to write a history.  I just did it in a different form.  I wrote a critical biography on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  I challenged his narrative, much as I wanted to challenge the narrative of food as the total form of fantasy.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  I found an excessively ambitious man with a strong narcissism streak.  I found a man moored to self-achievement and self-promotion.  I found a man who promoted a wide sanctimony.  I found a man who could not relinquish control.

     The drive to control wasn’t unusual in camp survivors.  They had all control ripped away during their imprisonment.  But in Wiesel’s case, control issues flooded his psyche.  There were control issues in his transmitting of the Holocaust.  There were control issues in how he framed the survivors.  There were control issues in his writing career, and his advocacy work.  There were control issues in Wiesel the museum builder, and Wiesel the world politics player. 

     My biography on Wiesel did not get published.  One major publisher seemed close to taking it on, but turned away.  The editor told me it would be “fraught for a publisher.”  What he meant specifically, I cannot say.  But as Wiesel had positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors, as he had positioned himself as the face of the Holocaust and a far wider Man of Conscience, and as those titles still held sway, maybe taking on my project would have been too damaging for the publisher’s reputation.

     Left with a large and unpublished manuscript, I decided to build Wiesel’s story into a wider fiction.  I turned to the form I had begun with the October Surprise: the faux history.  I imagined the publication of that biography.  I imagined the results.  I imagined the “fraught” that would have come my way.  Death threats.  The story then spins in an unexpected direction.  The author goes into hiding.  He chooses to hide in plain sight.  He travels to Jerusalem.  There, he discovers a lost manuscript.  That manuscript, originally published in the immediate aftermath of the Book of Mark, would have significant consequences on the writings of the Gospels.  It would call into question the motivations of the evangelist named Mark.  It would expose the legend behind Jesus Christ.  But that manuscript would also shine a light on its own author.  Who really was Josephus and how did he stoke his own legend at the expense of the man?

     Satan’s Synagogue then unearths large histories, and smaller ones, too.  Its aim – to find some truth in the incredible complexity that is history – follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust, from Mark to Jesus to Josephus, from Josephus to Emperor Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, the author chronicles a bicycle ride made through the Galilee and Old Phoenicia, known as “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant.”

     But the story doesn’t end there.  Documents found during the research for Satan’s Synagogue reveal new information on the Silk Road, or that network of trade routes that connected Ancient Rome to China.  My next faux history will unveil a previously unreported route, all the way up into the northern region of the Eurasian Steppe, known to the Romans as the “suprasternal notch.”  That book project will also trace a bicycle ride, made from Xi’an (an ancient capital in China) to Istanbul, and a second Tour de Josephus, this one focusing on Rome, and more criticism on Wiesel, and more interpretation of Josephus, and more on the backstory behind the writings of the Gospels.  But there’s even more.  A former CIA agent, living in one of the towns on the “notch,” presented mind-blowing evidence to me regarding the October Surprise history.  That documentation will be included, too.  If you think Satan’s Synagogue covered a tremendous amount of ground, wait until you read the sequel.

Who was the real Josephus?

Who was the real Josephus?

 (My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part two of five.  In part one, I offered the first of its kind: a critical evaluation of Elie Wiesel.  Criticism of Wiesel, while working off the historical record, has been nonexistent up until this point.  Why?  I even answered that, too.  To read the profile, please see the article below.  Part three will examine another famous chronicler.  Look for “Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?” coming in June.)

For those unaware, Josephus was one of the fundamental chroniclers of the 1st century.  Or, in the time designation used by New Testament scholars, the Apostolic Age, or from the time of Jesus’s rising to the death of the last Apostle of twelve.  Or, better yet, in the time designation used by chroniclers of that era (as I presented documentation with the term for the first time in Satan’s Synagogue), the Jesus Century.  Josephus had, in his sightline, the lands of Judea and the Galilee.  Though he spent the majority of his life in Rome, he never wrote about the center.  He wrote about the periphery.  Of course, Josephus, who was born in Jerusalem, didn’t consider the province of Judea to be peripheral to anything.  In Josephus’s worldview, Jerusalem was the center.

    Three of Josephus’s works have come down to us.  The Jewish War opened Josephus’s oeuvre.  Published around the year 77 of the Jesus Century, The Jewish War focused on the Jewish revolt against Rome in the years 66-73.  Josephus himself played a fundamental role, according to his narrative, as he led the revolt in the Galilee.  Unfortunately, his narrative turns out to be spurious in some fundamental ways.  Writing history, it should always be noted, has much to do with who pays the bills.

     Some two decades later, around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people.  Antiquities surveyed a large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.

     Josephus also included a section he called “The Life of Flavius Josephus.”  We know that section today as his Vita.  Modern scholars theorize that the Vita was an addition to Antiquities, not included in the original but added sometime thereafter.  Some scholars theorize that Josephus took some hits for his low working knowledge of Greek and for the veracity in his chronicles, and he therefore felt obliged to write his Vita as a reputation-saving device.  To some scholars, his Vita comes across as a correction.  Notably, Josephus reviewed his battle against the Romans in the Galilee region.  He’d originally written his narrative in The Jewish War.  In his Vita, he offered some fundamentally different brushstrokes.

     I am reminded now of Elie Wiesel and his 21st century translation of Night, or what I called the Oprah translation in Satan’s Synagogue.  In explaining the need for a new translation, Wiesel first found fault with his knowledge of English at the time of the original translation.  As he didn’t do the original translation work, that explanation seems dubious.  Then, Wiesel concluded that with the new translation he would “correct and revise…”

     Correct and revise: the words couldn’t be more applicable when considering Josephus’s Vita and his framing of the Galilee war.

     The final book of Josephus’s life, according to the official record, was called Against Apion.  Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century and Josephus’s title fell in line with his polemical career.  In the work, Josephus had more than Apion in his sightlines.  He excoriated a series of authors who dwelled in anti-Semitic slander.  Of course, the term anti-Semitic didn’t exist back then, as anti-Jewish thought was entirely appropriate.  But that’s a story for another time.

     Those three works encompass the Josephus oeuvre, as we know it.  The nearly 20-year gap provokes some questions.  Did a work go missing?  Was there a work completed in the decade of the 80s?  If so, what would Josephus have had in his sightlines?

     It turns out that, indeed, there was a book published.  Josephus documented a route on the Silk Road.  If that story sounds strange – why would a Jewish writer, writing predominantly about Judea and Samaria, focus on a China/Central Asia/Constantinople journey? – let me save that story for my next book project. 

     It also turns out that Josephus, indeed, wrote a book that pre-dated The Jewish War.  As I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, his first book was called Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus.  Sequential order is important here.  Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s.  Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in the Galilee, according to his narrative.  He became a prisoner but something unusual occurred.  He gained the favor of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion.  Vespasian made Josephus his translator.  While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book.  Published in the year 70, Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head.  Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.  For the full story of how I found Against Mark, and for the full re-printing of the work, please do see Satan’s Synagogue.  But suffice it to say that with Against Mark and with other documents that I alone possess – for now, I will in due time make them available to the public –a fuller profile of Josephus emerges. 

     Who was the real Josephus?  What follows here is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Let’s start with biography.  This is an excerpt from Against Mark.  He offered some autobiographical sketch work, written during the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  The year was 70.  Josephus was there as part of the Roman negotiating team.  “Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem.  I look upon our fallen city and I see death.  The number of dead in this bloody war totals one million of our brethren, with the enslavement of an additional 97,000 men, women and children.  The streets are lined with bodies.  I see faces in these bodies.  I see the face of my father, Matthias, who descended from the High Priest Jonathan, who was brother to Judah Maccabee.  I see the face of my older brother, Matthias, a priest, a just and learned man.  I see the face of my mother, who descended from Jehoiarub, or the first of the priestly class who served the Temple during King David’s time.  I see the face of my wife and our three sons: Hyrcanus, named after the High Priest in my great great grandfather’s time, Justus and Agrippa.  Yes, I look at the ruined city and I see familiar faces.  The death of Jerusalem is the death of us all.”

     This is such a strange personal biography.  Josephus clearly was haunted by the deaths of those around him and, perhaps, some of his family members died during the siege of Jerusalem.  But we now know that his father committed suicide due to his pact with Vespasian (more on that later).  Josephus’s three sons did not die during the siege, either.  The first son was born in and around the year 73 in Rome.  He survived his childhood.  The other two sons did not.  There are no records of other children produced by Josephus.  Did he have children, and a wife, who all died during the siege of Jerusalem?  That remains unknown.  Did someone add to Josephus’s page some years later, interjecting the death of his sons?  That remains unknown, too.  Did Josephus’s record of loss and grief speak more to his own personal status?  He became a turncoat, in Jewish opinion.  He became a pariah.  He would go on to become an important historian of his time, but in the Jewish world he could never escape his partnering with the enemy.  He could never, for instance, return to his home world.  Was this writing his way of dealing with the guilt of what he had become?

2) That leads to an amazing discovery I made in Rome.  I found the location of Josephus’s house.  I won’t go into too much detail here.  I will in a future book project.  But let me add to my first tour of Josephus, or what I called “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant” in Satan’s Synagogue.  In the autumn of 2018, I completed a second tour.  During that tour, to be entitled “The Tour de Josephus, Part II: Triumph and Churches,” I stood in an area just outside the Portico of Octavia, built by Augustus for his sister.  It’s an historical center of Rome.  From this spot, you can see the portico in all of its splendor.  Just down the road stand the ruins of the Theatre of Marcellus, built by Augustus for his nephew.  It looks like a significantly smaller version of the Colosseum.  Perhaps Vespasian and his son Titus had the theatre in mind when they began the build out in the year 72.  Fast forward some 1,480 years.  The year now is 1555.  Upon this spot, by order of Pope Paul IV, Rome constructed a Jewish ghetto.  Paul IV was a short-lived pontiff.  Four years.  But his four years were marked by terroristic prejudice.  Constructing the ghetto.  Welcoming the Inquisition to Italy.  Profiled as anti-Spanish, his anti-Jewish leanings were far more pronounced.  And the Inquisition came.

     The ghetto, it should be noted, was constructed on the other side of the Tiber.  The italics are mine.  The Vatican didn’t want the Jews near their citadel, so they used the river as a natural boundary.  Ironically, of course, the ghetto went up in the heart of elite Ancient Rome.  Ancient Rome constructed its ghetto on the other side of the Tiber.  Or, what would become the Vatican state.  These are the quirks of history.  They come with windy consequences.

     Those windy consequences blow in brutal gales.  On this spot in 1943, the Germans created a staging ground.  Not trusting the Italians to do the job, the Germans rounded up the Jews of the ghetto.  There were some 1,260 Jews walled in then.  They sent some 1,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz.  Sixteen survived.  There are plaques on the buildings directly surrounding the portico, commemorating the deportation to Auschwitz.

     Let’s go back some 1,940 years.  This area, just over a mile away from the forum, was highly desirable.  Only the fortunate settled here.  Thanks to a document I have in hand, and recorded here for the first time, one of those homes belonged to Josephus himself.  He lived there with his family until his death in the second century.  He died, according to his son, while working on a history of Roman emperors and their attitudes towards Jerusalem.  He died, notably, during the reign of Hadrian.  Though Josephus did not live to see the day, Hadrian ordered the complete demolition of Jerusalem.  He then ordered the rebuilding, to mirror Rome.

     While Josephus did not complete this work, his son did.  That work went out into the world in and around the year 140.  It would have massive consequences for Josephus’s family.  But more on that in a later book project.

     Notably, Josephus didn’t live across the Tiber with his people in the Jewish ghetto of Ancient Rome.  He lived in the Roman elite part of the city.  What should be made of that?  Why didn’t Josephus, a practicing Jew deriving from priestly line, live amongst Jews?  Maybe the Jews of Rome, knowing Josephus’s history and the patrons who supported him, rejected him?  Maybe his life on this side of Rome was by necessity, not choice.  The italics are mine.

3) Who were Josephus’s patrons?  The historical record identifies the Flavian dynasty, specifically Vespasian and Titus.  But a weird hiccup occurred in the year 81.  Titus died of brain fever.  That same fever, or something similar, supposedly turned Caligula from a sympathetic emperor of the people to a mad tyrant.  Josephus had Caligula in his sightlines in the last book of his life.  But let’s leave that for a later time. 

     When Titus died, his brother Domitian rose to the purple.  Domitian was anti-literature with a book-burning kind of fury.  He probably made Nazi Germany proud.  Domitian saw Josephus as a rival, obviously not for the seat of Rome but a rival for the legacy of the family.  Domitian did exempt Josephus’s property from the land tax payable by all provincials, a rather incredible honor.  But Domitian was incredibly anti-Jewish.  If he wanted to purge Josephus, he did not.  What, or who, stopped him?

     As I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, a secret patron saw to the welfare of Josephus.  His name was Flavius Valerius Gaev Constantinus.  When I first came upon the name, I naturally did a Google search.  Except for a strange reference, called the Gaev Arch, significantly north of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, there’s not a shred of information.  But something magical happened.  In my research for Satan’s Synagogue, I came across a treasure trove of documents.  Let me now provide some color.

     Gaev, as he was known in his lifetime, spent the first half of his life as a Roman legionnaire.  In fact, he played a role in the Roman/Jewish war of 66-73.  He became a trusted confidant of the future emperor Titus.  He gained the title of special counselor.  Gaev thus took the Flavian given name to fall in line with the dynasty.  Titus, through his father Vespasian, appointed Gaev to the senate in and around the year 73.  Near the end of his life, Gaev came into some sort of trouble.  Was it a public falling out with another powerful figure?  Was it more sinister than that?  Did Gaev lead an execution of a Roman citizen without trial?  Some information edged up to such a conclusion, but if so, under Roman law, the executioner would have been banished.  Rome had a penalty of exile for its citizens to avoid excessive capital punishment.

     Gaev probably went west into what was known as Hispania.  He spent the rest of his life in exile.  He died during the reign of Hadrian in the second century.  It is doubtful that he ever returned to Rome.

     All the records on Gaev ended up at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain.  In the 1950s, a young researcher removed those records from university holdings.  Why he did so remains a mystery.  But he passed those records on to me.  I promise to return the documents to the university in due time.  But first there’s another book to write, and it has to do with the Google reference to the Gaev Arch in Kazakhstan.

     Gaev was probably born in Dardania, in the modern day Balkans.  His father probably served as an officer in the army, and the son would follow the father.  That position landed him in the Galilee in June of 67.  According to Josephus’s written account in The Jewish War, the famed tenth legion of the Roman army burned the hill town of Jotopata to the ground and captured the leader of the Jewish army, Josephus himself.  Josephus went before Vespasian, then general of the region and future emperor of Rome.  Was Gaev present at that interview?  Did Josephus’s behavior enrapture those present, as Josephus spun his story?  Did a “friendship” form between Gaev and Josephus?

     For the full history, please do see Satan’s Synagogue, but what’s clear is that Gaev and Josephus began to write letters to each other sometime in the mid-70s of the Jesus Century.  A letter from Gaev to Josephus on June 23, 76 offered specific instructions.  It spelled out, in short, what Josephus was to write.

     Both men were in Rome, serving the Flavian dynasty.  As a “quid pro quo,” Gaev promised protections and funding.  So while Josephus, publicly, had the endowment of Emperors Vespasian and Titus, he secretly had the patronage of Senator Gaev.  If either emperor, or the third in the Flavian dynasty, Domitian, knew of the agreement, there is no record.

     The letter contained extremely important historical information.  Consider the date.  Gaev talked about the day with “a profundity of grief.”  He attributed that grief to the “banishment and sudden death, exactly a decade earlier, to the day” of his “hero” and “teacher.”  Gaev then named that cherished figure: “Paul of Giscala.”

4) Who was this man?  According to Gaev, he led the “Jews for Jesus movement.  His death, as his ship capsized off the coast of Malta, something of which you yourself are familiar with, sent shock and anguish through the community.  Fortunately, his name lives on.  I am writing to you now to express my hope that you will add some ingredients that, in turn, will be used to embroider his name for all eternity.”

     Such interesting word choice: to “add some ingredients,” “to embroider.”  Gaev, judging from the word choice, seemed to favor homebody pastimes.  But to this knot of multi-layered detail, let’s try to comb through.  There’s no definitive name to give the early church movement.  As noted earlier, Scholars refer to the period as the Apostolic Age.  I am using a different term, the Jesus Century.  Those, though, are time designations.  Gaev pronounced a different term: Jews for Jesus.  If we think of the term as an abomination now, it apparently wasn’t then.  It described a growing sect.

     When did the term Christianity officially begin?  We first see individuals identified as Christians in Acts of the Apostles, written sometime in the decade of the 80s.  We also see those same individuals referred to as Nazarenes in Acts, in accordance with Jesus’s presumed birthplace.  We never see them referred to as Jews for Jesus.  Gaev’s reference suggested a name that didn’t make it into the canon.

     But Gaev seemed to have an unidentified man as the leader of that movement.  Or, have we put too much trust around the town of Tarsus?  Did Gaev touch on some accurate history?  The world knows of Paul (from the Greek), or Saul as he was known in the Hebrew, as a key player in the early church movement.  Acts of the Apostles, and some letters found in the New Testament canon, spelled out the story.  He was born in Tarsus, a hub of commerce located not far from the Roman center of Antioch.  His father was a Pharisee who held Roman citizenship.  This was unusual for a Jew, and that citizenship passed to Paul.  That’s an important detail considering the stories around his death.

     Around the age of 10, Paul went up to Jerusalem for his Jewish education.  The New Testament then shifted to Paul’s fervent disdain for the early followers of Jesus.  As a Pharisee and an educated Jew of means, he persecuted them.  His conversion on the road to Damascus changed history irrevocably.  But what if Paul originally came from Giscala and not Tarsus?  How would that have altered the legend?  Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace and childhood home established the apostle as an outsider.  While his lineage was Jewish establishment, his personage developed many miles removed from the Judean center.  The narrative could then build the burgeoning Christian movement as steps removed from the Jewish establishment.  Easter becomes a fundamentally different codification scheme than Passover.  With a Tarsus origin, Paul could throw off his Jewish roots on that road to Damascus: his Pharisee lineage, his parentage, his Jerusalem education could all be shunted. 

    But Paul, apparently, was a Galilean.  Notably, a later chronicler, Jerome, gave Paul’s parents the Giscala address.  Further, another letter from Gaev to Josephus delved into Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in the year 50 for a summit with Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just.  While the New Testament recorded this interview as a foundational moment in the history of Christianity, as circumcision lost its sway, the canon missed some detail.  According to Gaev, Paul first stopped in Giscala “for a period of repose.”

     Why would Paul, on a fundamental mission, first stop at Giscala?  Consider the geography.  The town was situated in the north of the Galilee, separated from Caesarea by forty-eight miles on today’s roads.  To get there from the coast, as Paul did after reaching one of the ports, Caesarea or Joppa or Tyre, would have meant an excursion significantly out of his way.  Paul must have had a personal reason for trekking to Giscala, like visiting aging parents.

     Is it possible then that the Tarsus-as-origin detail in the New Testament is a fiction, a literary tool?  That question segues to Paul’s death.  Did he die in Rome, as various sources suggest?  How did he die?  Was he martyred, as second century missives stated?  Why was he martyred?  According to source material, the Emperor Nero condemned Paul to death.  Legend then sprouted that Paul’s body was buried outside Rome, on an estate owned by an early supporter of the Christian movement.  The Emperor Constantine built the first church on those grounds.  That’s notable given Gaev’s birth name, Valerius Gaev Constantinus.  Was Gaev an ancestor of Constantine?  Were Constantine’s Christian sympathies in his bloodlines, so to speak?  For the letter from Gaev to Josephus clearly showed Gaev’s allegiance to Paul and the burgeoning Christian movement.  Or, why else did Gaev refer to Paul as “hero” and “teacher” and more, as “friend.”

     If Paul wasn’t martyred but died in another fashion, did the martyring provide a foundational mooring for the legend?  By martyring, he fell in line with the death of Jesus, and so the age that began with martyr involved a second martyr with long-reaching tentacles.

     Gaev’s letter provided answers.  According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul was shipwrecked three times.  Gaev’s letter pointed to a fourth shipwreck, this one resulting in his death.  Gaev’s letter also touched upon Josephus’s personal history, or “something of which you yourself are familiar with.”  But the death date in the letter fell after a period of “banishment.”  Why was Paul banished from Rome?  Gaev gave no reason.  Certainly Roman citizens were banished all the time.  And certainly Nero loved his beheadings, as the legend of Paul’s death was built upon.  But if accurate, Nero pronounced a capital punishment death on a Roman citizen.  As that pronouncement went against Roman law, there would have been rumblings in the senate.  Those rumblings might have been recorded.  The historical record misses any such rumblings.

     As for Gaev, he ran the risk of banishment for his secret association with the early church movement.  If Titus, for instance, found out about Gaev’s association, how would he have responded?  One thing is clear: there would have been a response.

     But Gaev’s letter left all of these questions adrift and moved on to the mission, or adding “ingredients” to “embroider” the legacy.  “The movement needs a historian,” Gaev wrote to Josephus.  “As Jesus Christ was presented in a heralded light in the Book of Mark, so too must Paul fall within that glow.  From his origins to his final days, and all the days in between, he is messenger and portent.  He is oracle and apostle.”

     The letter continued.  “From our time together, I can think of nobody better suited to touch on the early history of Paul, the pre-history to the Jews for Jesus movement, than you.  It has come to my attention that you are writing a complete history of the rebellion.  If you include a last stand, I would be supremely pleased.  I would see your contribution as a quid pro quo.  To the pacified country, to the tired 10th sailing home, consider a different history.  A final protracted battle in which the overwhelmed rebels fight on against our legionnaires.  The rebels lose, but along the way the rendering of struggle and tenacity comes into the world, the rendering of righteousness.  From these rebels, Paul sprouts.”

     Josephus’s immediate reaction to these marching orders remains a mystery.  Notably, as Gaev commented, Josephus was in the midst of writing The Jewish War.  Where he was in the writing process, we do not know.  But the final version of that history provided a roadmap for what Gaev had in mind. 

5) Josephus did something incredibly inventive.  He found the ideal place for a “final protracted battle.”  He built the Masada legend at the end of The Jewish War.  Today, we think of Masada as a last stand.  Some 1,000 Jewish rebels, known as Sicarii, outduel the Romans for an extended period of time from a fortress in the Judean Desert.  When it becomes clear that the Romans will win, the Jews take their own lives.

     The history is more complex.  Let’s turn to a strange reference in Acts of the Apostle.  Paul, in Jerusalem to stand trial for his life, went before a Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias.  Hearing Paul speak in Greek, Lysias questioned if this Paul was the “Egyptian who led a force of 4,000 Sicarii into the wilderness.”

     To get this reference, by the way, the reader must have the King James version.  The New International Version, the New American Standard, the New Revised Standard Version and all recent translations have the Sicarii translated as assassins or terrorists.  Wilderness also comes across as desert.  It’s a total misreading of the text.

     Paul’s reaction to the charge spoke volumes.  He neither denied nor admitted any backstory.  Instead, he glossed over the charge by providing his birth city.  Paul’s answer had nothing to do with Claudius Lysias’s question.  Paul then asked to give a speech before his arrest.  The speech became foundational in the Christian narrative.  The Sicarii detail got lost, or shunted.

     But with Gaev’s letter in mind, the Sicarii reference now has some context.  Acts of the Apostles came into the Jesus Century at least a few years after The Jewish War.  Meaning: Josephus’s story of Masada had been in the public domain for some time.  Followers of the faith could have connected the dots from Acts back to Josephus.

     Now, let’s consider a question.  What if Gaev had others secretly in his patronage?  What if the author of Acts of the Apostles was under Gaev’s authority?  In his efforts to get out a Paulist iconography, what if Gaev pressured that author to add the “4,000 Sicarii” detail?  To the author of Acts, the detail might have been seen as a frivolity.  The entire scene revolved around Paul’s speech to his audience.  Certainly, Gaev would have wanted that speech.  But in Gaev’s iconography, Paul as a Sicarii would have linked to Josephus’s Masada story.  Paul as Sicarii would have come across as a more layered origin story.  His emergence would have come as a justified mutineer.  He would have been the rebel turned oracle.  Such a rendering would have begun the process of coloring Paul in that “heralding light.”

6) Let’s return to Josephus and his Masada invention.  To understand how he created the scene, we have to go much further back in time, sometime to the late 11th century, BCE.  There, we find another important Saul, King Saul, in a death struggle with the Philistines.  According to the prophet Samuel, Saul couldn’t tolerate the Philistine occupation and rebellion broke out.  The climactic scene occurred in and around Mount Gilboa.  The Philistines routed the Jewish armies and “the battle pressed hard upon Saul.”  He was severely wounded.  His sons were killed.  The enemy encroached.  Saul had a death conversation with his bodyguard.  He asked the man to kill him, so that “these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.”  The bodyguard refused.  Saul took his own sword and “fell upon it.”  Note the understated phraseology.  Josephus sure did.  (See 1 Samuel 31:3-6.  New Revised Standard Version.)

     Now, Saul had to die for the Book of Samuel to get to its real hero, David.  But let’s leave that literary device for Josephus’s device.  He built from the Saul story.  In the Masada story, the leader of the Sicarii, Eliezer, feared Roman procedure.  Before the final battle with Rome, he talked about dishonorable death.  As Josephus wrote in The Jewish War, Eliezer “had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all.”  Death by suicide under these kinds of circumstances, Eliezer argued, would shock the Romans.  Roman victory would be denied.  Roman “amazement” at such a “brave death” would be a lasting reaction.  Josephus seemed to have Saul’s final bow in mind, or the understated falling on his sword, when writing of Eliezer.  He “let the sword do its damage.”

     Of course, Josephus needed witnesses to tell the story.  He didn’t have a prophet like Samuel around.  He identified some women in hiding.  With these witnesses, the tale got told.  The template of Saul was lost.

     What would we know of the Jewish rebellion if not for Josephus’s work?  Very little.  Josephus then is a must read.  But a cautionary read.  He took a history of war and destruction, of massacres and annihilation, and built upon it.  He added layers of fiction.  He stoked legend.  He developed characters for reasons outside historical accuracy.  He did more than involve himself in the drama.  He billboarded himself.  He spread a fog of fact.

     Who else does that sound like?  It sounds remarkably like the great chronicler of the 20th century, Elie Wiesel (please see the article below for more on that).  Maybe Wiesel read Josephus?

7) Did Josephus meet Paul?  It’s an interesting question of historical connection.  There were two possible meeting points.  The second occurred in the mid-60s.  According to Josephus’s narrative, he journeyed from Jerusalem to Rome in the year 63 to meet with Emperor Nero’s people.  Apparently there were Jewish priests held in Roman prisons.  Apparently Josephus led a delegation to argue for their release.  Josephus did not mention how he came to serve as lead negotiator.  Let’s leave that story for the moment.  According to Josephus, he didn’t make it back to Jerusalem until the year 66.  What happened during those three years?  Was Josephus successful in his efforts to free the priests?  The record remains murky.  There are no records delving into the priests, their imprisonment, or Josephus’s acts of negotiation.  Perhaps Josephus, indeed, argued on their behalf.  Or, perhaps Josephus, once again, had literary device in mind.  Perhaps Josephus created a legend.

     Let’s now follow the coastline along the Mediterranean, from Josephus’s Jerusalem and wider Judea to Alexandria.  That city saw a pogrom in the year 38 of the Jesus Century.  The provocation, ostensibly, stemmed from a decree by Emperor Gaius Caligula.  He wanted to be worshipped as a god.  The Jews refused, as that meant the desecration of their temples.  A Jewish eyewitness to the pogrom, Philo, published his account a few years later.  It is the most reliable description of events passed down to the modern age.  Still, there are questions about Philo’s chronicle.  What level of accuracy did he seek?  What was his agenda in his reportage?  His chronicle has been described as a “novel” that “did not aim at giving a detailed historical account.”  It has been described as prejudice, containing exaggeration. (See Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World.  See also Joseph Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt.)

     To be clear, Philo was writing for the Jewish community.  He served an important function: a Jewish patriot.  He therefore needed a slew of enemies and, as his reportage demonstrated, an archenemy.  The title of his reportage identified his first archenemy, In Flaccum.

     Avilius Flaccus was the Roman prefect of Egypt.  He gained his position under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius.  In the first five years of his administration Flaccus appeared as a fair leader, according to Philo.  He displayed no anti-Jewish tendencies.  That all changed when Flaccus began to “behave erratically.” 

     Why did his behavior change?  Philo offered the death of Tiberius as speculation, and the rise of Gaius Caligula.  Rightfully assuming that Caligula would consolidate his power base through assassination – Caligula quickly got rid of his two main rivals, the co-emperor Tiberius Gemellus and the praetorian Macro – Flaccus realized that the times called for a dire, and life-saving, strategy.  He sought allies among the Greek elite.  Those representatives, a “mob” in the characterization of Philo, advised Flaccus to win Caligula’s support by sacrificing the Jews.  In his chronicle, Philo then found enemies everywhere: in the Roman prefect, in the Alexandrian Greeks, in the Emperor Caligula.

     Philo’s reportage ebbed toward an explosion.  The mob expelled the Jews from four of the five quarters, including Delta, the Jewish quarter.  The pogrom then moved to the next stage: exile, and with the mobsters dividing “the booty among themselves as if it were war.”

     Exile left the Jews destitute.  According to Philo, the resulting unemployment was “even more unbearable than the plundering.”  Unemployment and poverty led to a famine. 

     To exile, to destitution, to famine, Philo added the “bloodthirstiness” of the perpetrators.  They “stoned any Jews they happened to catch sight of, or beat them to death with clubs…”

     Meanwhile, the “perpetrator of enormities,” as Philo rendered Flaccus, “… devised a monstrous and unparalleled attack.”  He arrested the 38 members of the gerousia, or the Council of Elders responsible for self-government.  He had their hands bound.  He marched these elders through the market to the theater.  There, he ordered the council “to be stripped and lacerated with scourges…”  Philo continued, “As a result of the flogging some of them died the moment they were carried away, whereas others were ill for such a long time that they despaired of ever recovering.”

     Philo’s chronicle then twisted toward a just conclusion.  Caligula, hearing of the riots through his Jewish ally, King Agrippa, sent a centurion and a company of soldiers to arrest Flaccus.  In Philo’s rendering, the mission surprised Flaccus, as he had convinced himself that he’d moved into the emperor’s good grace.

     Here’s where things get interesting, from the Josephus perspective.  Sometime around Flaccus’s execution in the year 39 – the dates remain hazy – Caligula received two delegations from Alexandria to quell the violence.  Philo headed the Jewish delegation.  Apion headed the Greek delegation.  The Greek delegation presented first.  Only many months later did Caligula hear the Jewish side, with a Greek delegation present.  The setting for the conference appeared almost farcical: in two villas on the Esquiline hill. 

     During the conference, according to Philo, Caligula walked through the villas and gardens, commenting on architecture and flowers.  The Jews felt “crushed to pieces.”  They gave up.  “There was no strength left in us,” Philo wrote.  The emperor seemed to be influenced by the Jews’ squashed state.  The conference, described by Philo as a “theatre and a prison in place of a tribunal,” ended with Caligula’s new view of the Jews.  “‘They seem to me to be a people unfortunate rather than wicked and to be foolish in refusing to believe that I have got the nature of a god.’” (Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, trans. by F.H. Colson.)

     The Jews intersection with Caligula ended there.  He was assassinated in January 41 of the Jesus Century.  His successor, Claudius, restored some Jewish rights while warning the Jewish community not to demand more rights than they had previously.  Still, the conflict simmered.  Fears remained that Jewish-promulgated riots might cause revolt elsewhere in the Empire.  Those fears proved bona fide.  A straight line connects the pogrom of 38 to the revolt of 66-73.

     Josephus, writing of Philo in Antiquities, and again in Against Apion, highlighted the conference on the Esquiline hill, even more so than the pogrom in Alexandria.  Was that a tell?  Did Josephus use the conference to subtly present a grandiose self-image?

     Let’s go back to the year 63.  According to Josephus, and Josephus alone, he went to Rome to negotiate with the emperor on behalf of imprisoned priests.  The negotiation seemed to take an extended period.  Again according to Josephus, and Josephus alone, he didn’t return to Jerusalem for three years.  The record ends there.  We don’t know if Josephus would have described the negotiation as farce and “theatre,” as Philo did.  We don’t know the fate of the priests.  We don’t have Josephus’s personal views on Nero, to parallel Philo’s personal views on Caligula.  All we have is Josephus’s rather self-serving reference as negotiator.

     Still, the parallel is remarkable.  The question lingers.  Did Josephus in his narrative of Philo mold a Josephus-like character?  Did he then build up Philo to parallel and promote the legend of Josephus?

     Notably, a 20th century writer came along and used this example as his template.  To read the oeuvre of Elie Wiesel is to see characters presented to parallel and promote his own mythology?  Someone should do a study.

8) All of this returns us to Paul, or Saul, and a possible meeting point with Josephus.  To Rome in the decade of the 60s, there was an earlier option: Jerusalem in the 40s of the Jesus Century.  Paul – born in Tarsus, or, according to new information presented here, Giscala – went up to Jerusalem for his schooling.  According to Acts of the Apostles, he entered into study with the famed Gamaliel the Elder.  Gamaliel sat on the Sanhedrin.  He probably died sometime in the decade of the 50s.

     Another rabbi occupied a chair on the Sanhedrin.  His name was Mattathias ben Theophilus and he would ascend to the high priesthood around the year 60.  Little else is known about this Mattathias.  It is thought that he was high priest when the war with Rome came.  In fact, that was the case.  As I am in possession of some documents concerning Mattathias (or Matthias, depending upon translation) ben Theophilus, I can fill in some blanks.  Mattathias ben Theophilus served as high priest until his death in the year 68.  He died a pariah.  He was not buried in the hills surrounding Mount Scopus or on the Mount of Olives, as was tradition.  He was not buried in Jerusalem.  A small detail in a document suggests that his bones were “banished.”

     Why was he banished?  Let’s go back to the year 66 and the war clouds building over Judea.  In Jerusalem, the elders held a meeting in the Temple compound.  War plans were hatched.  Rebellion leaders were named to take control of various regions.  They gained titles as General Governors.  Josephus became the General Governor of the Galilee.  That appointment came as a surprise.  Josephus was a rabbinical scholar.  He had no experience in war preparation or tactics.  He was not an organizer.  Further, the Romans would be coming from Syria, through the Galilee, on their march to Jerusalem.  The defenders of the Galilee would be the first responders.  The General Governor of the Galilee was a major appointment.

     It turns out, based on a document that I hold, that Josephus gained his appointment through nepotism.  His father was the high priest, Mattathias ben Theophilus.  Perhaps this familial connection also explains how Josephus led the delegation to Nero’s Rome, if that history actually occurred.

     Mattathias’s appointment of his son led to his own death.  A deal was struck, following the downfall of the Galilee.  Vespasian, then general of the Roman army, presented terms to High Priest Mattathias ben Theophilus.   Here are Vespasian’s words, paraphrased by Josephus: “You, Mattathias ben Theophilus, High Priest of the Temple and supreme leader of your people, must resign.  I give you your son’s life for your own sacrifice.  You must then take your own life, as any disgraced Roman would.  Further, your successor shall come from the rank and file, an amateur with little ability to galvanize his people and therefore threaten Rome.”

     This was the deal offered, and accepted.  There is no evidence that Mattathias attempted to negotiate the terms.  He clearly was in no position to counter-offer.  His only leverage was sacrifice.  He sacrificed all.  He made the deal.  He kept to the terms.  He died a pariah.  A suicidal death explains why his bones would be exiled.

9) Notably, there are references to a man named Theophilus in the Gospels, specifically The Book of Luke and Acts of the Apostles.  Some New Testament scholars believe this Theophilus and the High Priest were the same man.  They are correct.  But there’s more.  As documents show, and as I promise to write more in full in my next book, Mattathias ben Theophilus routinely returned to the Hillel school for night study.  Mattathias ben Theophilus originally attended the Hillel school under the leadership of Shimon ben Hillel.  Shimon, the son of the legendary Hillel the Elder, died young.  His son, Gamaliel, took over the school.  Documents identify those in attendance in these night study sessions.  There was the teacher, Gamaliel.  There was the “most learned” of the Sanhedrin, Mattathias ben Theophilus.  There was the “heretic.”  A man identified as Saul, who “broke” with the Temple, to become a “Jew for Jesus.”  There was also a young scholar, who had become “an authority on the intricacies of Jewish law.”  His name was Yosef ben Mattathias.  He would become known to the world as Josephus.

     It’s an incredible find.  Paul was then in the midst of sailing the Mediterranean and building the church movement.  Apparently, he stopped periodically in Jerusalem for study.  But note the term used to describe him: a “heretic,” from the Greek.  The men in attendance welcomed the heretic to their night studies.  Clearly, Saul had something to offer.  These sessions were clandestine.  It would have been heresy in the world of the Pharisees to appear with Paul.

10) There’s another incredible find.  I wrote about this history in full in Satan’s Synagogue, but it’s worth repeating here, in smaller detail.  As noted in these pages, Josephus’s Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world in the year 70.  Later Christians attempted to eviscerate its existence.  They succeeded for nearly 1,950 years.  The book disappeared from view until its reemergence in Satan’s Synagogue in 2019.  How did I find the manuscript?

     Let’s go back to the destruction of the Temple.  There was a beadle with a saving acumen.  He had some foresight.  He began to remove books from the Temple library in the early days of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire.  The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings.  For four years, or from the early days of the war in the year 66 up until the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle squired books away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews.  The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, on the Mount of Olives.

     In the case of Against Mark, the beadle took his scheme further.  He let Josephus know of his exploits.  He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.

     Josephus became a prisoner of Rome.  Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries.  He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative.  That information got passed on.  There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself.  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next.  These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs.  A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts.  I have done extensive research to uncover some ninety percent of the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project.  But I will say this: there are some famous names in that catalog.  Famous Christians throughout the ages actually descended from Jewish high priests.

     A few years back, I received an email from a relative I had never met before.  As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD.  In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person.  We met.  He explained the autocatalytic phenomenon in full.  I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD.  I am.

     I did something no other JDD had done.  I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  I found the burial spot.  I didn’t find the book there, as that specific part of the cemetery was in repair.  But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground.  I found the book.

     I couldn’t read the pages, as I am illiterate in its language.  I then made a copy of the manuscript and sent that copy to my man in Toronto.  Let me take a moment to introduce Eli Pfefferkorn.  I promise to write a profile on the man but, for now, let me offer a few brushstrokes.  Pfefferkorn was a born in Poland at the worst possible time, or some ten years before the Germans pulverized the nation.  He died in Canada in 2017.  Along the way, he lived in England and Israel and the United States.  He was highly intelligent, highly provocative, highly conniving.  He was a camp survivor.  In the language of the camps, he was an organizer.  Meaning: a forager, a scavenger, or somebody who quickly learned how to survive in that world of the absolute negative.  Pfefferkorn survived the death camp of Majdanek.  He was one of the few.  He was a born and fantastic storyteller.  But nothing got in the way of story, not fact, not common sense, not veracity.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave Pfefferkorn’s storytelling a name.  There was Pfefferfact and Pfefferfiction and sometimes it was impossible to tell the difference.  There was such a dynamic as the Pfefferization of history.

     Pfefferkorn was also a polyglot.  He could read Aramaic.  Had Josephus written Against Mark in Greek or Hebrew or Latin, or a more modern day language like German or French or Polish, I could have taken that manuscript to Pfefferkorn, too.  Pfefferkorn translated the book from Aramaic to English.

     Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or the Second Temple period.  I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus.  He just never gained the recognition.  Maybe that will start to change now.

About the author

Brian Josepher lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Over the years, he has authored fiction and history, online editorials and reportage, and even a relationship column. All of his previous books are available on Amazon. See here.

He is currently working on a sequel (sort of) to Satan’s Synagogue. Documents found during his research for that book unearth new information on the Silk Road, or that network of trade routes that connected Ancient Rome to China. In the not too distant future, Josepher will reveal a new route, all the way up into the northern region of the Eurasian Steppe, known to the Romans as the “suprasternal notch.” Shortly before this blog’s publication, a former CIA agent, living in one of the towns on the notch, presented mind-blowing evidence to Josepher regarding the October Surprise of 1980. Did the Reagan Republicans negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the American hostages held in Tehran until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring themselves of victory over President Carter’s reelection campaign? Josepher now has proof. If you think he covers a tremendous amount of ground in Satan’s Synagogue, wait until you see the sequel.