Menachem Begin told me in July 1982, before the war in Lebanon had gone sour on him, that when he retired he planned to write a book, to be called "The Generation of Holocaust and Redemption."

"This is my generation," Begin said during an interview that day, outlining the chapters of his book. "I survived 10 wars, two world wars, Soviet concentration camp, five years in the underground as a hunted man and 26 years in opposition in the {Israeli} parliament. Twenty-six years, never losing faith in a cause."

And how would Begin end his book? "People ask me sometimes the question, 'How would you like to be remembered?' " he said. "Perhaps I will end the book with this. And the answer is, as a decent man. No more."

Begin never published the book, but in a sense it was unnecessary. For Begin's entire life was the story of that generation -- of the impossible tragedy of the Holocaust, and the impossible triumph of Israel.

The last time I saw Begin was a year later, in August 1983. By then, he was the Lion in Winter, gaunt and sad-eyed, brooding about the war in Lebanon that had gone so badly wrong. A man who had devoted his career to saving Jewish lives and making Israel more secure was now caught in a war that was daily killing Jews, without adding to Israel's security. For Menachem Begin, that recognition must have been agony.

"The truth is that he is sad," said Yehiel Kadishai, Begin's personal secretary and comrade from the Irgun underground, when I asked about his melancholy boss. "It's true. There is a deep sadness in his heart. He is a person who can't show a laughing face when there is sadness in his heart."

Begin's aides explained that he couldn't take his mind off the continuing Israeli death toll in Lebanon. He would ask each day for the latest casualty figures, for the details of how each soldier had died. When his aides tried to change the subject, he would steer them back to the death and destruction.

A few weeks later, Begin was gone. He resigned as prime minister on Sept. 15, 1983, telling his colleagues he could not continue. He spent the rest of his life as a virtual recluse, surfacing only occasionally -- but never to explain or complain.

The Begin I got to know during two long interviews for The Wall Street Journal was a different person from the unsmiling, unyielding man Americans met on their television screens. He was an old-world gentleman who dressed in a formal business suit even when everyone else in Israel was wearing an open-necked sport shirt; a lawyer who worked in an office lined with Israeli texts, a Jewish encyclopedia and a "Jane's" guide to military weapons around the world.

And he was funny. That was the great shock about Menachem Begin; he was funny like Mel Brooks' 2,000 Year-Old Man. When I once mentioned to him that I had just read his book, "The Revolt," he responded: "What? You were having trouble sleeping, maybe?" When a colleague once asked him what had been the greatest achievement of the Jewish people during their long history, Begin gave him a cockeyed look and deadpanned: "The day of rest."

Begin knew who his enemies were: the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he always called the "so-called PLO." He explained during my first conversation with him, in July 1981: "My language is 'so-called PLO.' Not because of the 'P' and not because of the 'O.' They may stay. Because of the 'L.' What kind of a liberation is it to try to destroy a people, and all the time to turn the weapons against the civilian population?"

He talked about one old man from the town of Nahariya who had recently been killed by the PLO's Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, and the way he described it reminded his listener that for Begin, the Holocaust was always present in memory, something that had happened just before yesterday.

"Amongst the people who got killed by the Katyushas was a man age 68," Begin said. "Yes, he lived for several years in Auschwitz, if I may say so. And then he survived Auschwitz and came to this land, or he came back to the land of his forefathers. And here, 36 years after the end of the war, and after he had survived Auschwitz, the Soviet-supplied Katyusha -- supplied to a neo-Nazi organization, which killed a Jew because he is a Jew -- it got him."

That was the essential Begin. He was born into his generation of holocaust and redemption, and it was foolish of the Americans, let alone the Arabs, to imagine that they could ever sweet-talk Begin out of it, and into a sense of security and confidence that his entire history denied.

What if Yasser Arafat were to announce (as he later did) that he accepted Israel's right to exist? Here is how Begin, wary to the end of his days, answered that question in 1982.

"It would be a deception," he said. I wouldn't believe Hitler, or Goering, or Goebbels, and I will not believe Mr. Arafat, or Farouk Khaddoumi, or Abu Iyad. They proved to us in writing, in deeds, in speeches that they are bent on the destruction of Israel. And no nation will ever agree to commit suicide."

The writer is foreign editor of The Post.