Reading about the conspiracy theories of the press during T. E. Lawrence’s time in the RAF, it is easy to be amused or exasperated. But not many readers are aware that those rumours had real consequences far beyond Lawrence, and that people totally unrelated to him were affected by it.
Dr Wolfgang (Binyamin Ze’ev) von Weisl (1896-1974), an Austrian journalist, physician and Zionist, related his adventure of autumn 1930 in Kurdistan and Persia during the Kurdish revolt in a series of three articles in the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna, published on January 6, 23 and 30, 1932 under the title ‘Unter Spionageverdacht verhaftet’ (Arrested under suspicion of espionage).
It also offers, of course, an interesting glimpse into the treatment Lawrence would have received from the Persian officials.
The Persian border commander of the guard post of Khana – on the ancient caravan road from Mosul to Tabriz – greeted my companion, the Brno painter Ludwig Blum, and me politely and suspiciously when we, seven horsemen high, arrived at the godforsaken military station. A Christian officer as interpreter, four splendid Kurdish gendarmes as escorts of honour from the police chief of Rowanduz and our horses gave the little opium-yellow lieutenant an exaggeratedly good opinion of our social standing. He didn’t believe a word I said when I told him I was a German journalist. He bowed politely, he watched politely as the gendarmes – unfortunately – took soldierly leave instead of saying goodbye. He politely asked us to wait a day until a car from the provincial capital Sauj Bulak would arrive.
The interpreter Ishu warned us: ‘Dadash Khan just phoned Sauj Bulak that two English officers had arrived, just like last time, he said. I don’t understand much Persian, but that much I do. He considers you a high officer, I think, who wants to go to the Kurds who fight in the Ararat Mountains.’
I laughed at it. Even when we suddenly heard the next day that the passport of our interpreter was not in order and that he was being held back in Khana until we obtained permission from Sauj Bulak to let him follow us, I still laughed.
Certainly it was no pleasure to travel through Kurdistan without an interpreter, without speaking the national languages – Turkish and Kurdish – and it was also no pleasure to be mistaken for an English spy. But you have to reckon with small incidents in ‘wild Kurdistan’.
Sauj Bulak turned out to be one of the most boring backwaters on God’s earth. The small Lutheran mission of the Americans offers us hospitality and improbable comfort: mosquito-free rooms and European food. But at the same time we feel the mistrust around us like suffocating air: every day we have to spend hours with the police chief. We are questioned for hours. I come from Vienna, Blum from Czechoslovakia. What might two people who come from so different countries do together in Kurdistan? There is no question of our interpreter being released. No question of being allowed to phone him. The line to Khana is always disrupted, cut – they lie to us.
I had spent the first few days visiting the sick accompanied by one of the missionary sisters, and at least got admission to a few Kurdish houses, but that was soon over. The missionaries were apparently warned of compromising themselves by having dealings with us alleged English spies. They gave us hospitality, but no more than that. It was only with the few Jewish merchants in the bazaar with whom we could speak Hebrew that we were able to communicate. We learned from them what rumours surrounded us.
The Kurds had a national hero: Ismail Agha, called ‘Simku’, who repeatedly defeated the Persians, who once wanted to become prince of Kurdistan, and whose improbable bravura made him the idol of the Kurds of Persia subjected to [Rezā] Shah. When things started in Turkish Kurdistan in June 1930, the Persians feared that the Kurdish national hero Simku, who was banished to Iraq at the time, would carry the flag of revolt into Persia. They therefore invited him, using a tried and tested method, to come to the border town of Ushnu with all the emigrated Kurdish chieftains in order to negotiate his pardon and the return of his family’s confiscated latifundia. Simku came, was greeted most respectfully, led into a villa – and shot down in the garden gate. Twelve of his companions were murdered with him, the others forced their way through the Persian troops; they made it to the Iraqi border.
Simku’s body was photographed with his hand missing the famous finger that he himself had cut off when a snake bit him there. The body was laid out in Urmia and the whole population had to parade past it. He was buried with the military honours of a colonel – everything to convince the Kurds that their hero and leader, who had been declared dead countless times before, had died irrevocably this time. Dead. Buried, with a photographed corpse. Hardly ever before has a breach of faith and murder been given such authenticity as this.
This had happened almost three months before our arrival in Sauj Bulak. But as soon as we had walked around in our khaki pants and shirts for two days, a rumour started, ran through the bazaar and was told to us by our Hebrew-speaking acquaintances: ‘Two Englishmen in shorts came to Sauj Bulak and told us that Simku was alive. Only [Kurshid] Agha had fallen.’ Sheikh Kurshid Agha, the dreaded chief of the Herki Kurds, had been killed by the Persians at the same time as Simku.
We understood that our presence in Sauj Bulak was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Persian authorities when it gave rise to such rumours. As discouraged and hopeless as the Kurds seemed since the loss of their leader, it may not even have taken Simku to call them to a new revolt, but only his name.
I therefore decided with a heavy heart to go on to Urmia without my faithful Assyrian interpreter. There are many Assyrians there among whom I would probably find a companion, I thought. Another than an Assyrian interpreter was out of the question for me, because a Kurd would have been so suspicious to the Persians, a Persian to the Kurds, that I couldn’t get through anywhere. Only the Assyrians could be considered reasonably neutral.
Passing Lake Urmia, the Dead Sea of Azerbaijan, the journey led to the capital of the northwest district of the Silver Lion Empire. Ancient cultural soil: Zoroaster was born on the shores of this salty sea, in which no fish live and whose shores are covered with malodorous brine.
At the American mission, a huge building, rich, elegant, comfortable, we found the friendliest hospitality. In this country without hotels, every European is a guest of the American missions that welcome him, like an Arab sheikh a wanderer in the desert. We were hardly able to name our names. We were not asked where we were from and where we were going when we were assigned our rooms, a bath was prepared, supper awaited us. We were sitting over black coffee when a young gendarmerie officer appeared. He asks us to be allowed to examine our luggage. We show it to him – our books, our maps, our notes, diaries, the painter’s watercolour sketches, our photos. The lieutenant, who speaks tolerable French, carefully packs up everything and asks us to come with him to the police station. The general – the same one who had Simku and [Sheikh] Khurshid murdered, we knew – is expecting us.
Full of evil suspicions, we entered a cab waiting outside the mission gate with the lieutenant. Fortunately the young officer had not found the list of Kurdish tribes that I had made in Rowanduz, with chiefs and pastures and the presumed number of rifles, and carried in my breast pocket. We had not been subjected to a body search.
Up a brick staircase, a petroleum lamp burns on a wooden table in an office room with a single window, there is a cot, two chairs. The officer asks us politely to wait and disappears. Steps in the corridor: two soldiers appear in the open door, bring in a second cot, bring in clean blankets. Two other soldiers are standing in the door, with bayonets – the lieutenant returns – salutes me like a subordinate a commander to whom he reports: ‘The general cannot receive you today. You are asked to spend the night here; you are under arrest! By order of the governor general of Azerbaijan from Tabriz.’
I had asked in vain to at least let us stay in the mission overnight, on my word of honour not to leave Rezaiyeh – this is what Urmia is now called in honour of the new Shah Rezā – without permission. With Persian courtesy, the officer once again saluted: he regretted, but if the governor general himself has taken the responsibility for arresting two Europeans, although their passports are in order, then the gentlemen must understand that their situation is very serious. Did we not want to confess right away?
‘Confess what? What do you mean?’
A shrug of his shoulders. And then he disappeared, left us alone – as alone as one is when a double post stands in the open door and one is not allowed to close it. It was actually funny – but to be honest, both of us, the painter Blum and myself, completely lacked any appreciation of the humour of the situation.
We had heard too much about the rapid, summary Persian justice. We were thought to be spies, that was for sure; probably English spies, and probably English officers, since Dadash Khan, the border commander of Khana, had announced us as such. This suspicion could become unpleasant for us: the ‘political officer’ in Mosul had already warned us not to cross the border; the Iraqi border commander in Refaat had repeated the warning even more emphatically: five Europeans had made their way into Persia on this path in the last few weeks – ‘just like you,’ he had winked; ‘They pretended to be botanists, geologists, butterfly collectors, photographers. Unfortunately they disappeared without a trace as soon as they crossed the border.’ And then he advised us to rather ride south, to Sulaymaniyah – very interesting area, and quite safe…
We had not followed his advice: now we were in Urmia-Rezaiyeh prison. Nobody knew us, not even the missionaries with whom we lived would be able to make inquiries about us or inform our relatives. We might just as well be in a Cheka prison as in the Persian one… Blum sat on his cot, dangled his legs, lit a cigarette and said thoughtfully, ‘If they think we’re spies, they won’t trouble themselves about us. They didn’t even search our pockets. Our verdict has probably already been reached.’ He blew a bit of smoke in the air, glanced after it and said thoughtfully: ‘I’m not sorry for myself, but I feel sorry for my wife and the two little brats at home.’
I heard only one thing: ‘The pockets have not been searched.’ And in my breast pocket was the list of the Kurdish tribes with weapons supplies and names of chieftains, with the places I wanted to visit. If the Persians found that on me, the proof was complete that I was a spy, an agent who planned to incite the Kurds. Since the two pike-grey gendarmes were watching us suspiciously outside the door, I only managed to destroy this list with the greatest difficulty.
We do not dare to extinguish the light. If they lead us away at night, at least we want to see who we are dealing with. Dressed, we lie on the cots, staring at the open door and waiting for what the night should bring.
The awareness of complete helplessness was tormenting: I counted on the probability that the Persians, for political reasons, would spare themselves the inconvenience of an espionage trial against me, who had an English passport, and that we both, without any knowledge of Kurdish, without Persian money, without weapons, could not even think of attempting to escape.
Gradually the morning came. No one had come to get us, and we began to look more optimistic into the future. Since we hadn’t been shot right away, it meant that we were going to be remanded in custody, and then our innocence would be proven. A soldier entered, brought a plate with soft eggs, butter, bread, tea – ‘they won’t let us starve’, my companion Blum stated in a better mood and poured tea.
Slowly the day passed, slowly the evening. No one showed up for questioning, no officer, no civil servant. Finally, after ten o’clock in the evening, the young lieutenant reappeared and reported: ‘You will both be taken away tomorrow morning. I regret not being able to tell you where you are going.’ He showed us our ready-to-travel luggage and demanded confirmation that it was complete. Another night in which we did not sleep: this time our pockets had been cleared out – pencil, fountain pen, penknife had been taken away from us, as had our money. We had only one wish: to be sent back across the border, to Iraq, to our Kurdish friends. But our hope was low that this wish would come true.
Before sunrise we got up: a Ford car was waiting outside the door. We had the honour of seeing our luggage being carried to the car by soldiers; two Persians stood guard next to the car. Then the lieutenant appeared, his revolver strapped on; serious, equal to the greatness of the moment, he had the two pike-grey soldiers load their revolvers before our eyes. Then they put away the long bayonets and crawled into the narrow seat next to the chauffeur in disregard of all European overcrowding regulations. Then we two criminals boarded. The officer sat between us. […]
The car rolled and bumped over the bad, worn-out road […], turns right, drives west at a speed of forty kilometres, to Lake Urmia. We are transported to Tabriz, we know that now. To the new prison. But we breathe a sigh of relief, happy, almost frolicsome. In Tabriz there are consulates, German, English, American – in Tabriz not much can happen to us anymore.
It was a wonderful morning: the thin mountain air of the high plateau – Urmia lies about 1500 metres above the sea and the lake itself almost 1200 – widened our lungs, and the glowing mountain mass of the Kuh-i-Bizau in the morning light, which showed us the nearby lake, seemed to us more lovely than the sight of the Statue of Liberty […]. Our mood infected the officer: he became more talkative, even presented me with his business card – Dadash was his name, the same as that of our pest from the border – and when we arrived in Girmakhana, the seaport of Urmia, he gave us as much freedom as one with good will may give prisoners of state. He gave me some small change, allowed me to go to the poor coffee house by the landing stage and drink coffee, yes, he even introduced me to a captain travelling with us, who for this occasion sprang to attention, as if I were at least an inspecting general. Only when Dadash was to tell Agha my name, he smiled friendly: ‘Et quel nom, s’il vous plaît, monsieur?’ ‘But you have my passport, Lieutenant!’ I replied in astonishment. ‘So you wish to keep this name?’ the officer asked. ‘Eh bien, monsieur s’appelle Docteur Weisl.’
And this ambiguous ‘s’appelle’ sounded to me like the funeral march of the hopes we had cherished for a moment – in view of the bright morning, the blue sea and the respectful officers. […]
From Lake Urmia to Tabriz there is a railway that effortlessly beats all records of slowness. We drive for hours and hours through badly cultivated farmland and arrive late in the evening at Tabriz: Cars await us and new sentries; dark, incredibly wide streets fly past us – wider than the Ringstrasse in Vienna or the Kurfürstendamm. A horse-drawn tram rings; cabs with officers; illumination advertisement of a cinema – civilisation, real life, and we two state prisoners in its midst, surrounded by gendarmes bristling with weapons, consider ourselves a grotesque irony.
The prison of Tabriz. In the flickering light of a lantern, the officer on duty leads us to a small room at the end of a long corridor: two cots, cleanly covered straw surface, a wooden table with lamp, and Persian carpets on the floor. More luxury than we could have expected.
Five days and six nights then passed in unbearable monotony until we were called to the governor general. ‘You will leave for Tehran tomorrow morning’, he discloses to us. ‘Personally, I would like to release you, but those are the orders of the chief of police. I’m sorry that your liberation will be delayed.’
‘But – what are they accusing us of? Can I at least hear the charges?’ I shouted. The governor general looked at the chief of the gendarmerie who accompanied us; he stood, smiled friendly and said: ‘It is said that you are Colonel Lawrence…’
Colonel Lawrence! The dreaded English agent who led the Arabs of the Hejaz to revolt against Turkey during the World War, Lawrence, who after the war was allegedly chief of the British secret service within India’s borders, to whom the revolt in Afghanistan is credited, Lawrence, whom the Turks suspected in the Ararat region and of whose appearance in Kurdistan the Persians were understandably afraid.
That I, of all people, should be arrested as Lawrence – I, as physically dissimilar as possible to him, seemed too ironic of the fate that had often enough put me on the trail of the infamous colonel. Blum made observations about the nonsense of the world in general and the spy-smelling border officers in particular and finally said comfortingly: ‘There’s one good thing, now we’ll at least get to Tehran at the expense of the state. Who knows when I would have seen Tehran otherwise?’ […]
Seven years ago Colin Ross still needed a few weeks for this route; we only needed two days and one night until we, half dead from this terrible journey, reached our destination. […]
The general, a stately officer in a simple field uniform, without gold, without medals – quite different from what one still imagines Persian generals to be in Europe – examined me; first suspicious, then disappointed, then embarrassed, he compared me to the photo of Colonel Lawrence lying in front of him. ‘Forgive the mistake – you really are not Colonel Lawrence; hopefully the beauty of Tehran will compensate you for being brought here against your will. Tell me what I can do for you.’
‘Get me a hot rice soup, Excellency,’ I replied, and didn’t feel like Diogenes.
One of two translations intended for the Newsletter of the T. E. Lawrence Society. (Deutschsprachige Leser finden den Originaltext hier.)
Blowing up the Mecca Railway
By E.A. Jaroljmek
On a moonlit November night in 1917, I went with my soldiers in a lentil waggon on the route of the Mecca Railway from Deraa south towards Amaan to the front. Things there, as we were told, should be quite tame at the moment. So we were all in a good mood, especially as there was good and abundant food and we were happy to see and experience something new again.
So we rode in our lentil waggon and drank a pretty good red Palestine wine, which my people had organised. But now you want to know what a lentil waggon actually is. Quite simply, a covered ordinary freight waggon into which lentils were shovelled until two thirds were full, while its sliding doors were closed to half height with bags full of lentils that were glued with clay so that the valuable legume would not roll out through the gaps. There were also bean waggons, grain waggons, barley waggons, etc.
Travelling in this car was by no means the peak of comfort, because one lay very closely under the car roof high up on the lentils, sitting was hardly conceivable under normal conditions because you hit your head against the ceiling too easily. You had spread your bedding over the lentils with much care, but the blankets were eternally anxious to disappear into the lentils, in which the feet and legs had long sunk. The lentils again crept into the boots and clothes, soon filled all pockets and stockings.
But there was one advantage of these grain waggons, which made them so popular with us, they were free of vermin, and that is why I too preferred them to any other means of transport. I had only tried it once in the passenger cars; you sometimes found them in those trains, and then the inexperienced rushed at it. I had done it the first time, but what fleas, lice and bugs there were on this journey, you can’t imagine. I slept on the bench of this wonderful half compartment and my comrade on his field mattress on the floor. During the night I threw the huge bugs, which I really picked off my neck with my fingers in the dark, on the ground. But you should have heard the noise my comrade made at that: „First, I don’t need your bugs because I have enough of my own down here, and second, a decent man doesn’t throw around things the size of a bacon dumpling!“ And really, it was huge specimens that would have been a credit to any museum!
So we went happily in our lentil car when the locomotive suddenly started to howl like crazy, always three times in a row, a desperate sounding hoot. For the locomotives of the Mecca Railway do not whistle like here but hoot like ocean steamships that it almost knocks you down when you stand nearby. We had already learned what this threefold scream of the machine operator meant: to apply all the brakes as hard as possible. This really seemed necessary, because we rushed along at an almost unlikely speed for a freight train of the Mecca Railway. And the siren kept roaring, at the same time we heard shots bang and then a strange noise on the roof of our waggons. It was quite uncomfortable, because we did not understand what was going on, also the train raced like crazy, even more so at a sloping spot, while our lentil car bounced in a way as if it wanted to jump out of the rails immediately. If you think about the unceasing roar of the locomotive, the shots that crackled through the night and the incomprehensible rumbling on our roof, you will understand how nervous we were until the train finally reduced its speed and stopped completely after a few kilometres.
We jumped out of the cars in no time, rifles in our hands. What had actually happened? First of all, don’t imagine the Mecca Railway as a railway in Europe which runs beautifully through the landscape on an even gradient. Here in the desert it’s pretty much a matter of just following your nose, not making a long detour around elevations or through them in a long incision, no, here it simply goes up and down again on the other side. And since the freight trains usually consisted of thirty or more heavy, fully loaded waggons and air pressure brakes were hardly known by name, a car with a braking device was put after each six or seven waggons. So that the brakesmen knew what to do, they got hooting signals. Once meant: Watch out! Twice: Apply brakes! But three times: Now brake for your lives!
However, the brakesmen used to sleep just as comfortably in their little houses as they slept firmly. And that is why, as we heard for the first time that night, nervous people who were afraid of a derailment started to shoot at the brake houses from the train as if the brakesmen would work better if they had bullets in their body. This shooting was later strictly forbidden.
But we were enlightened, and we also learned what the noise on the roof meant. In such cases, experienced and energetic travellers crawled out of the waggons over the roofs to the nearest brakesman to beat him up and thus wake him or, if necessary, take his place if he by chance had already been shot. Later we often took part in such climbing tours ourselves and got used to attaching rings, hooks and ropes to the car walls at the start of the journey to make it easier to get to the roof. It takes some skill to get out of a two-thirds full car and onto the roof while it moves.
This stop in the middle of the desert at night brought us another surprise. After much running around and screaming, the train finally prepared to continue its journey. The locomotive pushed a huge shower of sparks out of the chimney and drove off, but only with the front half of the train, while the second half – and we with it – was just left on the track. It seems that we were meant to have the necessary Transjordan experience on the very first night.
Here’s what happened: For a long time there had been no coal at all in these areas of far Turkey, which is why the machines had to be heated with wood. From afar, from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, this was towed to the railway, because here in the desert no tree grew far and wide, and for the term forest the Arab probably has no word at all. The wood, fresh and green, burned very badly, didn’t give off heat and just about boiled the water in the boilers of the locomotives but didn’t develop enough steam, which is why the expression: Istim yok! – No steam! later became a catchphrase for us. By the way, „istim“ comes from the English: Steam.
While running down the hill, our train had been slowed down too late and too much so that it had stopped at the lowest point. Usually it rolled through this point at a certain speed that transported it up again on the opposite side, thereby taking half the work off the locomotive. Today, that had not gone right, we had stopped, and now the machine did not have enough „istim“ to pull up the whole train again. So it drove on with one half, left us and planned to come back the next morning to pick us up.
So we were told, and that we were sitting in the middle of enemy Arabia, and we should not be surprised if we were shot at from the neighbouring hills, thoughts that were not far from our own minds. But we had almost a hundred men with half the train, so we divided into several groups, occupied the hills and secured the railway line while the relief were sleeping. However, nothing happened during the entire night. But the sun was not yet above the horizon when something was already humming in the air above us, two beautiful English airplanes, which looked at the matter more closely with some elegant circles, then came down deeper and, without being disturbed by our shooting, threw four eggs which burst with ample noise at a respectable distance, showered us with a cloud of sand, but otherwise did no harm. Then they disappeared west. But only two hours later, when our locomotive had just arrived to pick us up, they buzzed again, this time accompanied by four others, straight toward us, and immediately the first six bombs lay next to the waggons, which to our displeasure caused the machine driver to hastily push off with his locomotive again. Several dozen more bombs fell and caused considerable damage to the waggons. The cheeky English pilots approached at almost a hundred meters and shot at us in passing with the machine guns.
The whole fun lasted twenty minutes, soon the small fires were extinguished, for not much had happened. Fortunately we had neither ammunition nor gasoline with us, which the English always speculated on. If a gasoline or ammunition train was hit fairly well by a bomb and started to burn, not much could be saved.
As soon as we had made order, our locomotive reappeared to our great joy. Its driver told us it wouldn’t have been too bad about a waggon or about us, but very different about the machine. And he really had a point there. If something happened to them, the locomotives could not be replaced at all, because this train had a substandard [i.e. narrow, the translator] gauge. It makes sense that every piece that we lost would be a painful loss, for apart from this railway there was no way at all to bring troops forward or to transport anything for them. Roads as we understand them did not exist, it was not advisable to send off transports on the caravan roads, the Bedouins would certainly have taken them away, even if we had not lacked the crews to accompany and guard such valuable transports.
That’s why the English and Arabs did their utmost to interrupt our only stage road, the Mecca Railway, and make it unfit for work. Attacks on bridges and moving trains had become a sport for them, and they were just as bold as they were cunning. The usual trick was to choose a place where the train had to descend a height and thereby start rolling quickly. If there was a hill near such a place, the Englishman had everything he needed. At night, one or more bombs were placed under the rails, wires led, carefully buried, onto the hill, where the enemy patiently waited for the next train, while his camels were well guarded at close range behind the hills. When the train arrived, the remotely operated bomb was detonated at the exact moment the locomotive passed over it. It blew up, the train raced into the blast hole, and after a few seconds there was usually nothing more than a huge pile of burning debris. The assassins were able to mount their racing camels unhindered and quickly disappeared into the desert.
Blowing up bridges was more difficult, as the almost uninterrupted guard was naturally a hindrance. Nevertheless, a bold Englishman, Colonel Lawrence, whom they later called the „uncrowned king of Arabia“, has repeatedly succeeded in it. This young man – an archaeologist by trade – who knew Arabic perfectly, who was friends with Emir Faisal and his brothers and who had an almost incomprehensible influence on all Arabs, this thirty-year-old of the greatest energy and incredible perseverance succeeded in reconciling the many Arab tribes who used to live in eternal feud among themselves at least for the duration of the war, in uniting them, leading them, even in forming these wild warriors, whose pride does not tolerate discipline, to units.
What Lawrence has done in Arabia, far from any culture and the simplest comfort, in the middle of the most inhospitable desert, in heat and thirst, and that he could do all this, is hard to understand even for us who have lived down there for years. Lawrence was everywhere and nowhere; sure, he had planes at his disposal, but as a rule he preferred the fast, noble racing camels on whose backs he covered incredible distances in a short time, mostly with only one or two companions, crossed our fronts, visited distant tribes, demolished important railway bridges far behind our fronts and blew up whole trains.
But we didn’t know about Lawrence then. We only noticed that something was going on, that we began to lack locomotives because too many rusted in heaps of rubble in the desert, we only knew that Emir Faisal was haunting the desert near us with some select Englishmen and that every ride on this vast desert track was much more dangerous than the stay at the front. And this knowledge did not deceive us either.
Four weeks after the first little adventure on the Mecca Railway a very serious one followed, in which we only got away with our lives as if by a miracle.
It was towards evening, we rolled down a wave of earth very quickly without the locomotive screaming for the brakes this time; the track was dead straight here, so speed was safe, moreover the terrain rose again after some kilometres, so that the train would lose speed on its own. When the train might have reached its highest speed, I suddenly heard a big noise and received a terrible shock, which lifted me with the head against the car roof and at the same time almost completely buried me in the grain. Then it was deathly quiet for a moment, surprisingly quiet after the noise of the moving train, and then a terrible screaming began.
The train was for the most part a troop transport. The first twelve wagons presented a terrible picture. They were completely destroyed and fragmented and already ablaze when we worked our way out of the remains of our own waggons and rushed to help. The next eight were thrown apart, terribly beaten up, but still recognisable as individual cars. The others, a dozen grain waggons, were still on the rails, but most of them were very badly damaged. It was our good fortune that we were coupled to the end of the train and that we were lying in the grain, which was yielding and had softened the blow.
We had to help, but we didn’t get around to it. For the English planes were already there and threw their bombs into the wild heap of rubble and shot with their machine guns at everything that still stirred. The enemy reconnaissance worked so well, and Colonel Lawrence’s operations were so brilliant, that the planes had probably already been waiting for us at the site of the imminent disaster or had accompanied our train in the air for some time. This was just one of the many attacks that succeeded, but it alone deprived over three hundred good Turkish soldiers of their lives and cost us a lot of valuable material. For we couldn’t save anything. When the airplanes thought after an endless half hour that they had done enough, there was no more work for us either. The whole heap of rubble, even our grain waggons or their remains, were ablaze. We didn’t even have water to drink, let alone to extinguish fire with, so only one thing could happen, bind up the wounded who had still had enough strength to crawl out of this hell as best we could, and wait until a relief train would arrive at some time from somewhere. Months later, the sad remains of the accident, charred and rusted, still lay in the desert. We just drove around the rubble on a new track.
American journalists who lived for a long time at the Arab headquarters with Lawrence have written a book about his expeditions; according to it, he personally managed almost seventy such blastings.
I myself have been on three of the railroad trains that were targeted. Only once did a great disaster occur. A second time the bomb burst, but since the locomotive did not derail and the rails did not crack, it did no particular damage, and a third time attentive Turkish gendarmes warned us in time of a small bridge that was undermined, so the train could still be brought to a standstill. We rushed out of the car full of a thirst for revenge and with true joy and stormed onto the hills behind which the enemy allegedly lay. When I arrived at the top, I saw three camels fleeing at great speed in the distance. I probably missed a personal meeting with Lawrence. We found the bomb, which was placed in a hole in the underpinning of the bridge, and the wire that led to a ridge of a hill in the immediate vicinity of the railway line. And a wire end accompanied me as a kind of talisman until the end of the war.
(Neues Wiener Tagblatt – Wochenausgabe, 12 May 1934)
Auf Wikipedia ist Drexler genannt als Literaturquelle zu Yildirim (Mit Jildirim ins Heilige Land, 1919), daher beim DNB-Besuch gelesen. Das Büchlein ist antiquarisch nur sehr schwer und sehr teuer zu bekommen – ich empfehle also wärmstens einen Abstecher zu einer besitzenden Bibliothek. Zu Yildirim selbst halte ich es allerdings für größtenteils uninteressant – für mich war’s hilfreich, weil gleich auf der zweiten Textseite mein guter Dagobert von Mikusch auftaucht.
Wiederentdeckt wurde Josef Drexler kürzlich erst in der „franziskanischen Zeitschrift für das Heilige Land“, Im Land des Herrn, Ausgabe 4/18.
Weitere Angaben über den Autor fehlen; doch schon der Fakt, dass Drexler über sich selbst kaum etwas preisgibt, ist angenehm bei dieser Erzählung: es sind keine „Abenteuer im Orient”, sondern vielmehr sehr genaue Beobachtungen der von ihm besuchten Orte. Josef Drexler verherrlicht an keinem Punkt den Krieg und er weiß auch um den Völkermord am armenischen Volk. Seinen Schreibstil könnte man als locker und unterhaltsam beschreiben – und doch tiefgründig, wenn es um religiöse Dinge geht. Sicher war unser Autor kein einfacher Soldat; aber achten wir seine Zurückhaltung zur eigenen Person und wenden uns dem Text zu, den ich immer original zitiere.
Da bin ich vielleicht weniger achtungsvoll, denn ich hatte bereits angefangen, über Herrn Drexler zu recherchieren. Denn – was für die Lawrence-Fans interessant sein könnte – er war in Dera‘a (Dara, Dara‘a, Dera…) stationiert, eben in jenem Zeitraum, in dem die umstrittene Deraa-Episode angesiedelt ist. Mir war bis dahin nie der Gedanke gekommen, daß sich auch deutsche Soldaten in der Ortschaft aufhielten, aber bei näherem Nachdenken ist es eigentlich logisch. Vielleicht ließe sich die militärische Einheit herausfinden, zu der Drexler gehörte, überlegte ich, und vielleicht ergäbe das weitere Anhaltspunkte.
Ancestry hat ja die beliebte Quellensammlung „Kriegsranglisten und -stammrollen des Königreichs Bayern, 1. Weltkrieg 1914-1918“. Darin finden sich haufenweise Josef und Joseph Drexlers, nur ohne weitere Angaben sind die wertlos. Zumal es alles andere als sicher ist, daß Drexler einem bayerischen Regiment angehörte.
In einem Auszug aus seinem Buch in der Reichspost vom 19. Februar 1919 ist nicht nur Drexlers militärische Funktion (Feldlagerinspektor), sondern auch – ja, so lief das damals noch – seine volle Adresse genannt, unter der ja auch sein Büchlein bestellt werden konnte: Moltkestraße 48 in Köln. Daß er auch 1917 in Köln wohnte, belegt seine eigene Erwähnung eines kurzen Fronturlaubs bei seinen Lieben, bevor er sich auf den Weg in den Orient machte.
Die Kölner Adreßbücher sind noch in der Digitalisierungsphase – eine Gruppe Freiwilliger sitzt dran und arbeitet wichtige Stadtdokumente, die den Einsturz des Archivs überlebt haben, auf. Meine Hochachtung! Die Ausgabe 1915 ist bereits fertig, und dort findet sich unter der oben angegebenen Adresse ebenfalls ein „Drexler, Jos.“ sowie ein weiterer Herr dieses Namens unter der Anschrift Lungengasse 41. Unser gesuchter Drexler ist eingetragen als Kaufmann.
In einer kombinierten Suche findet sich dann eine frühere Veröffentlichung unter der Schreibvariante Joseph Drexler, nämlich Die Pfarr-Kartothek. Ihre Notwendigkeit für die Städte und ihre Organisation (2. und 3. Auflage, 1914). Das paßt ausgezeichnet zu seinem Interesse an religiösen Orten im Nahen Osten, also vermutlich war Drexler in irgendeiner Form in seiner Kirchengemeinde tätig. Seine Adresse war auch zu dem Zeitpunkt die Moltkestraße in Köln.
Fieserweise läßt sich mit einer Kombisuche auch ein Joseph Drexler finden, der 1977 in Köln verstarb. Volltreffer, dachte ich, denn sein Geburtsdatum ist ebenfalls genannt. Damit zu Ancestry zurückgekehrt, stellt sich jedoch heraus, daß es sich bei diesem Drexler um den Schlachter aus Bayern handelt, der mir schon in der Militärsammlung wiederholt begegnet war. Im weitesten Sinne ist ein Schlachter vielleicht auch ein Kaufmann, aber nach meiner Erfahrung nannte man sich damals in den Adreßbüchern so, wie es sich mit den Berufen eben verhielt. Im Adreßbuch 1925, das ebenfalls bereits digitalisiert ist, findet sich kein Josef Drexler, also entweder ist er nach 1919 verzogen oder verstorben.
Nun ja, nur äußerlich – die Inhalte sind die gleichen geblieben.
Das frühere Layout (oder „Theme“, wie WordPress es nennt) hatte ich gewählt, weil’s so auffallend anders war und netterweise von den Farben her genau zum Umschlag der zweiten Auflage von Mehr als Anonyma paßte. Aber mit der Zeit zeigten sich Problemzonen, zum Beispiel wurden Zitate gruselig häßlich dargestellt. Rückwirkend werde ich da nur etwas anpassen, sollte es mir gerade auffallen.
Nach Marta und Jolanthe wurde ich ständig nach neuen Projekten befragt. Ich hatte keine, und die Vorschläge, die mir gemacht wurden, interessierten mich so überhaupt nicht. Das Thema würde mich finden, sagte ich mir. Und irgendwie hat es das nun getan.
Einiges Schürfen später, und meine Sammlung zu Dagobert von Mikusch wächst. Ursprünglich war er eine Nebenfährte zu T. E. Lawrence, und das ursprüngliche Thema ist auch nicht vom Tisch, aber Mikuschs Leben erweist sich ganz unabhängig davon als so interessant, daß ich dranbleiben möchte. Wie weit ich damit jemals komme, steht in den Sternen! Es wäre (vermutlich) so viel hilfreicher, wenn die Familie sich auf Kontakt einließe. Ich kann nur mutmaßen, warum sie es im Gegensatz zu Martas und Jolanthes Angehörigen nicht tut: Fürchtet man, ich würde mich speziell auf Mikuschs Schriften während des Dritten Reiches stürzen? Daß ich einseitige Berichterstattung ablehne, sollte gerade Martas Fall bewiesen haben – ich verstehe die Biographie als nötiges Gegengewicht zu Jens Biskys Artikel und den darauf basierenden Wikipedia-Eintrag. Oder bin ich grundsätzlich suspekt, weil man mich nicht kennt? Sicher: Käme jemand daher und fragte nach meinem Urgroßvater, würde ich ja auch erst einmal schauen wollen, wer diese Person ist; aber genau dafür nimmt man Kontakt auf. Will man nicht, daß eine Außenstehende über die Familie schreibt? Das könnte man mir einfach mitteilen. Oder aber lehnt die Familie selbst den namhaften Vorfahren ab? Auch das ist mir schon begegnet.
Als Biographin und als Familienforscherin bedauere ich es schlichtweg. Je mehr Generationen dazwischenliegen, desto mehr Informationen verschwinden ganz einfach. Daten, die vergessen werden. Anekdoten, die nicht weitererzählt werden. Unterlagen, die irgendwann im Altpapier landen. Das ist ein reiches, gelebtes Leben, von dem niemand mehr erfahren wird und das früher oder später auch die Familie nicht mehr kennt.
Der Informationsfluß ist ja selten einseitig. In meinen früheren Recherchen erhielt ich ungeahnte Wissensschätze durch die Angehörigen, aber im Gegenzug konnte ich ihnen auch Dinge mitteilen, von denen sie nie gehört hatten. Für beide Seiten ist so etwas bereichernd.
Nun, ohne diese Quellen bleibt abzuwarten, wie viel sich anderswo noch finden läßt. Ich werde berichten.
Aus Platz- und Geldgründen habe ich meine Literatursammlung in Sachen Marta Hillers & Co. sowie Schriften der Stiftung Gralsbotschaft etwas ausgedünnt. Wer Interesse hat:
Die Jahresrückschau. Was gibt es zu erwähnen?
Meistgelesener Beitrag in diesem Blog: Ungeschlagen meine englische Marta-Serie, nominell angeführt von der Introduktion.
Es folgen verschiedene Gral-Artikel.
Bestes gelesenes Buch: Behind the Lawrence Legend von Philip Walker.
Bester neuentdeckter Autor: E. M. Forster
Beinahe neues Recherchethema gehabt, aber leider von allen Seiten blockiert.