THE PAIN began in two fingers of Michel Goldberg's right hand. Deep and excruciating, it settled in, defying surgeon, rheumatologist and holy man. No doctor could explain it, cure it or ease it. Then Goldberg found his drug: He would kill a Nazi in Bolivia. As he stalked his victim, the pain vanished.
Michel Goldberg's odyssey, far from finished, began long before he was aware of it. It is a search for an identity and a rejection of labels that others have bestowed upon him. His hunt for Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief in Lyon, France, during World War II, is only a part of it.
Goldberg was a child in overalls growing up in his native France during the war. Because he had no boots, his mother said no to a trip with his father into Lyon one cold, snowy day. His father went alone and never returned. He was detained in Lyon and sent to a concentration camp. Goldberg later learned his father died at Auschwitz.
Despite the tragedy of his father's disappearance, Goldberg did not dwell on it. His memories of the war were childhood recollections of moving from house to house after midnight and watching German and Allied planes overhead. He remembers it as fun.
He did well in school, though the anti-Semitism of postwar France presented difficulties. His non-Jewish schoolmates taunted and insulted him. He was hurt and bewildered but devoted himself to his school work. When his mother remarried, a Gentile named Cojot, he took his stepfather's name. An accomplished student, he became a driven and cold man. He excelled in banking, easily climbed the corporate ladder and married a French Christian.
But then he set out for Bolivia to stalk a Nazi.
He has written about all this in a book called "Namesake," a translation of the much more vivid French title, "Ecorche Juif," ("Raw-skinned Jew"). The book was published in French two years ago. This year, the English version was published by Yale University Press. His reason for writing it is the same reason he gives for much of what he had done in his 44 years:
"To survive," he says dramatically, with a smile. "Not that my life is so important, but that's about all we have... I had to get it out of my system, one way or another." He is literate, introspective, fluent in three languages -- English, Spanish, French. "I would say I wrote it to be loved, and at this point in my life," he says with a shrug and another smile, "I'd rather be loved because I wrote a good book than because I killed a good Nazi."
He has revealed his passions, his insecurities, his coldness and his struggle to learn to love. "Basically, if I'm stark naked, it doesn't really bother me," he says, "because I know the other fellow is just like me."
Writing the book also helped rid him of the pain which had returned to his hand once again. True, it had disappeared during his hunt for Barbie -- which turned out to be rather easy. Goldberg, pretending to be a journalist, went to the small town in Bolivia where Barbie had chosen to live for its good air. Telling people he wanted to interview Barbie, he made local contacts who took him to a small cafe Barbie frequented. Goldberg was introduced -- as a journalist. They talked freely and, to Goldberg's surprise, he felt no hate for Barbie. Still, he prepared for the kill, buying a weapon, practicing with it and learning Barbie's routine. He even calculated the aftermath of his crime: He would have no desire to flee. He would be caught, jailed and, if not expelled from Bolivia, put on trial -- during which he would eloquently defend himself -- then be set free for political reasons. At worst, he would endure a light sentence in prison. He had his wife's permission, even enthusiasm.
Goldberg was granted one logistically perfect moment in which to kill his Nazi:
And now Barbie is there, at my mercy. Rather elegant in his brown suit, his back turned to me, he stands much closer than the watermelons I used for target practice. There are very few people around, and even if one of my bullets should go through him, the risk of harming anyone else is practically nil.
I am very calm. The revolver rests lightly on my lap, under the poncho, my hand on the grip and cylinder. I feel no pity, even having met him...
All I need is the will.
Goldberg let the moment pass. The next day he awoke to discover the pain in his right hand had returned and spread beyond the two fingers to his thumb.
"I think if I had killed him," muses Goldberg, "I would have remained the person I was before and spared myself a good deal of agony. On the other hand, I wouldn't have learned what I did learn."
Still, if he had had two lives, he says, "in one of them, I would certainly enjoy -- sorry to use the word, but it's not totally inappropriate -- killing him, and in another doing it they way I'd done it. I wasn't out to do justice. I knew this wasn't justice. I didn't think I had a mandate from the Jewish people or the French people to avenge his victims. I was out to solve a personal problem. I could no longer function as a human being, and the question was, 'Can the son of a bitch help me or not?'"
There were other problems -- Goldberg was troubled by the idea of killing someone he didn't hate. And he felt silencing Barbie would be too helpful to the Nazi's former accomplices. "You see, he was helped by a number of Frenchmen who are still alive today," Goldberg says. "... France went through the motions of asking for [Barbie's] extradition, but did not want him for those reasons."
"I know he's heard about the story," says Goldberg of Barbie, who still lives in Bolivia, in the town of Cochabamba, according to the author, "and I know that he has to take special precautions to go around, which makes someone's life rather miserable... I would imagine something like this would force him to tighten up his guard."
According to Goldberg, Barbie "seems to be involved from time to time in his old trade -- which is helping the Bolivian government with intelligence work or questioning."
After his actions in Bolivia, depression engulfed him as steadily and surely as a bank of low thunderclouds blotting out blue sky. He separated from his wife, took a leave of absence from his banking job, which had put him in Latin America, and wandered through Europe. He relinquished custody of his three children. And still there was the pain in his hand...
The pain comes and goes, occurring even as recently as several years ago when he began writing the book. Gradually, the pain decreased as Goldberg, who is right-handed, continued. He wrote the book in long hand.
"Pain is a deliverer," he says.
... what haunted me most of all was the biblical phrase, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning..." Which was the message? Was I guilty of having forgotten Jerusalem?
A worldly, well-traveled man, Goldberg feared Israel and yet was drawn to it. He was not of it, but maybe there was something there for him. After wandering through Europe, he went, but he was uncomfortable. At the Wailing Wall, he watched as people rocked, chanted, and prayed:
I felt more ill-at-ease than in a pagoda, much more so than at church. With the cardboard yarmulke ready to fly off my head, I felt like a stranger; worse, like a voyeur.
"I identify myself as a Jew," says Goldberg, "but I don't practice the Jewish religion and I regret it very much. It serves as a major help. If I had been religious, I would have been supported by that in the worst times of my life."
Still, accompanied on his trip to Israel by his older son, he was content to observe the culture and soak up the warm sun and the exotic smells. He contemplated the notion of a homeland where a minority can become a majority and, as a result of that homogeneity of race, simply become individuals with different personalities and habits, good and bad. But he questioned it -- was that what made you a Jew? He came away knowing he was a Jew but not knowing if he was an Israeli, not understanding just what an Israeli was.
Poor little Jew, why is there no place for you on earth? In Israel they make you an Aryan, elsewhere they oblige you to go underground or to fly away, Chagall-like; only accession to the universal allows you to place your feet on the ground. Little Jew, whom everyone expects to be great or to disappear, were your values all that contemptible, was your nose that repulsive? Were you too rich or too dirty, too intelligent or too much to the left or too much elsewhere, too mysterious or too brilliant? They built you museums and gave you prizes to exonerate themselves, but who ever felt at home in a museum?
"The idea that it is the duty of all Jews to reunite in Israel bothers me," Goldberg says. "Jews first and foremost are human beings. They are free. Those who do want to go to Israel will go there." Besides, he would be a "cultural cripple" there, he says. "Never will I speak Hebrew as I would like to."
His had hurt in Jerusalem. A doctor, finding no cause, suggested he try a celebrated rabbi, a man perhaps 100 years old, in the village of Netivot. Instructed to bring a water bottle, Goldberg arrived with it in hand. The holy man barely listened to Goldberg's complaint before decreeing his cure: Respect the Sabbath and fill the bottle half full of water from the faucet outside his house, and drink only that.
His adventures in Israel concluded, Goldberg and his son boarded an Air France jet en route to France. Over Corfu, seven pro-Palestinian terrorists hijacked the plane. They ordered it to Entebbe.
With his fluency in French and English and his outwardly calm demeanor, Goldberg quickly became translator and intermediary between hostages and terrorists. The passengers trusted him, the terrorists talked political ideology with him.In "Namesake," he paints a picture of himself as so poised, so self-controlled that he sometimes borders on self-righteousness.
Curiously enough, I felt in my element. I had the impression of finally living out a play that I had rehearsed a thousand times but never performed. Surrounded by Frenchmen and Jews, under the eyes of my son, facing a death that I hardly thought about and to which I was rather indifferent, I felt the important thing was to conduct myself well...
How easy it is to die when one doesn't like oneself.How suspect is heroism, then, how many suicides are disguised as acts of bravery.
After negotiating the release of many passengers during the ordeal, Goldberg himself was offered release. He hesitated, thinking that he might be useful if he stayed on the plane. He finally decided to leave, hoping he could aid the French government in devising a plan to free the other hostages. But right after Goldberg was released, the Israelis stormed the airport and rescued the other hostages.
Goldberg, who lives outside Versailles, France, is now a free-lance management consultant and a writer. He left his banking job several years ago to devote himself to writing his book. In "Namesake," he has changed the names of the banks he worked for and he also changed his children's first names to protect them.
Despite his courageous behavior at Entebbe, he came home to a France unappreciative of his efforts. Caught between France's irritation at the Israeli raid and its desire to glorify the French crew -- who behaved, according to Goldberg, adequately but not spectacularly -- his own work was forgotten. He was asked accusingly how he could leave other Jewish passengers behind. As his book draws to a close, he remains, still, the Jew searching for a definition and the Frenchman searching for acceptance from his country. But France, he says, will never accept him. "I know I will never be a Frenchman like the others," he says. "It no longer bothers me."