BenHazar, Son to a Stranger
By Aron Shai
Gefen Publishing House, 2009, 204 pages
This is the second historical novel by Aron Shai, a professor of history and author of many academic books and a biography. Shai tells a fascinating story of a twenty-five year old son – Benhazar, a Hebrew word meaning "son to a stranger" - who tries to find out about the strange secret life of his father, Jochanan.
Jochanan was a man with a shadowy past, a possible underground radical who may have worked for Lechi, a clandestine and militant anti-British Jewish group in Palestine during the years prior to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. He was killed in a mysterious fire that burned all of his records. Was he murdered by fellow Israelis or by British? If so, why? While searching to understand his father, Benhazar discovers himself and learns some undisclosed bizarre history about his country Israel.
Benhazar starts his search in Oxford, England, where his father went to study after participating in some unknown fashion during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. He learns from a female friend of his father that his father never seemed to associate with other Israelis in England. He finds it hard to understand why his patriotic father would act in this fashion. Didn't his father devote his life to Israel and his fellow Jews? Why did he avoid Jews in England? Did he do the same in Israel?
He speaks briefly with a man who knew his father during the Second World War in the Orient, but the man refuses to talk at any length with him. Is this man hiding the fact that his father was trying to form a liaison with the British enemy, the Japanese?
Benhazar travels to Greece to visit his father's sister, Sarina, to discover more about his dad. Sarina tells him how Jochanan had left Greece, where he was born, and immigrated to Palestine around 1925. He returned to Greece only once, in 1946, to hide from the British after a gun battle. Sarina says she knows nothing of his life away from Greece, and was and still is surprised how he seemed angry at the Jews who suffered during the holocaust.
Benhazar goes to Hong Kong to speak to a man who his father contacted for an introduction to the Japanese. He discovers that his father did indeed work with the Japanese. He tries to understand why his dad thought that an alliance with the Japanese would help Israel.
Is there a connection, he wonders, of his father's bizarre activities with the fact that his mother lost her mind when his father left for the orient and had to be institutionalized for sixteen years? What did his mother know that drove her mad?
The back cover of this historian's novel states: "Many of the events in this fascinating and suspenseful novel are based on actual historical events disclosed for the first time."
Beside revelations about the Japanese, the novel contains many remarkable vignettes. There is the story of a misguided Orthodox Jewish doctor who preferred to watch sick men die rather than violate his distorted view of the obligations of the Sabbath. There is the account of people who are convinced that the Jews would do better under British domination than as a free independent democracy.
While Israel has a remarkable history of fair treatment of enemy combatants, our author relates an incident where some Israeli soldiers behaved despicably.
One chapter, that could stand alone as a beautiful short story, tells about life in the small city where Sarina, Benhazar's aunt, lived with her husband and two daughters during the Nazi persecution of Jews and how she and her family were remarkably saved by an "angel" whose existence she conceals from her family.
Aron Shai ends his novel with an interesting theory of how peace can be obtained in the Middle East.