Nathan’s body was discovered one morning in the autumn of 1940, in Baneasa Forest, shortly before the massacres at Jilava Prison and the assassination at Strejnicu, which was to send forty-seven universities and academies into mourning.
An anonymous telephone call, received by the officer on duty at the Prefecture of Police, placed us on the alert.
It was the strangest murder I had ever had come across.
I remember the almost endless path that wound between the darkened tree trunks, the chirruping rain that made my feet slither on the carpet of withered leaves, the stumpy silhouette of the agent who led us in silence to the edge of the glade where with amazement we were able to discover Nathan’s naked body, hanging by the feet from the thick bough of a huge maple. His arms were dangling down rigid, almost touching the puddle of congealed blood that sprawled over the damp ground, mingling with the mud. The arteries of both his wrists were slashed, and on his bare chest the murderer had clumsily scrawled a Star of David. Somebody had stuffed a large wad of tow in his mouth. His bony, pallid face, that of an ascetic, had been smeared with excrement.
I immediately began my investigations, assisted by sub-commissar Maxim. Whereas on the occasion of other investigations we had been able to complain of a lack of evidence, this time there were an implausibly large number of clues. You would have said that in the glade where Nathan’s body was discovered a real party had taken place. Fresh footprints crowded in every direction, there were also a few cigarette butts, even the remains of a fire, which the chirruping, cold rain had not managed to put out completely.
I realised from the very start that in that chaos of traces it would be very hard for me to come across a thread that could guide the investigation and I had the feeling that Nathan’s killers had been mocking the police. You have to be very naïve to think that a footprint or a cigarette butt can cast light on police business. Such things happen only in detective stories and I would really have liked to see that pompous Sherlock Holmes straining to find, in that clearing in Baneasa Forest, the clue to lead him straight to the criminal. All that could be established with precision was the fact that a number of individuals had participated in the murder, who did not even bother to erase their tracks, and the message they conveyed to us thereby could not have been clearer: Nathan had been the victim of revenge, and his killers had acted in the name of a group or organisation.
The murder in Baneasa Forest gave the shamelessly truculent impression that it had been stage-managed.
We did not know and perhaps we will never know who were the stage directors of that grotesque spectacle, but it was obvious that the killers were trying to instill in us the idea of a Jewish attack. Nathan’s articles, copiously hosted in the columns of the right-wing press, had without a doubt stirred the fury of Israelite circles, ever since he had abandoned his Zionist ideas and become a rabid anti-Semite, accusing his coreligionists of refusing to accept the teachings of the Saviour. And I remembered that once, in the offices of the Prefecture of Police, there had been talk of scraps of paper scattered on the streets of Bucharest, on which Nathan’s face had been printed inside a black border.
Despite all this, I found it hard to believe that the Jews had had a hand in it. After 14 September and the commencement of Romanianisation, it seemed not at all likely that they would have hazarded an act that could only be turned against them, supplying grist to the mill of the most radical of the anti-Semites. It was all too blatant, too flagrant, too obvious to be true. And if it had not been the Jews, then it could only be an odious attempt to compromise them, in which the perpetrators were without doubt wagering on the complicity of the police.
A fear began to stir in me, burrowing into my brain. In general I am not a courageous man, but I usually manage to overcome my cowardice through an effort of will. But this time I felt my will paralysed by a nameless peril, which seemingly oozed into the moist air and the damp earth, drenching my skin in a cold gelatinous substance, the insidious substance of fear.
Like a fly into milk, had I fallen into the toils of an underhand police affair?
Politics has never interested me, precisely because I place honesty and truth above all else and that was why I saluted King Carol II’s abdication and General Antonescu’s coming to power. A police commissar is not allowed to harbour political passions, his only passion should be justice, but if I tried always to remain aloof from politics, politics had not the slightest intention of remaining aloof from me: I had a premonition that the case would cause me numerous and grave complications and that the investigation would be dictated from above, placing me in the position of a mere executant.
The discussion (if it can be called a discussion) with commandant Spirlea, which I had on the evening of the same day, only strengthened my conviction.
Removed from the police during the Carol II regime, chief commissar Spirlea had been reinstated, with much ado, after the abdication and promoted to commandant. He was a giant of a man, almost two metres in height, with a thundering voice and black moustaches, which were always bristling, lending him something of the appearance of a huge tomcat. In his presence I always felt a strong inferiority complex: it seemed to me that not for one instant did he take his eyes off my ears, which one day he even began to feel with his hairy fingers, making me wish the earth would swallow me up in my shame. And even if Spirlea is the man I hate the most, I have never found the strength to gainsay him, when I am in his office I do not dare even to lift my gaze from the floor, for fear I might find his eyes fastened on my ears once more, since those dark bulging eyes have begun to terrorise me lately. I have to confess that I am very afraid of the commandant, because I am a weak man, a man who easily allows himself to be trodden underfoot, a man deserving of contempt. And I succeed in freeing myself of this fear only in my dreams: more than once I have dreamed of thrashing Spirlea, of trampling him underfoot, of strafing his huge bear-like chest with a burst of automatic pistol fire. Such dreams make me detest my cowardice even more: just as some men seem born to give orders, others (including myself) come into this world with obedience in their blood, they are ten-a-penny souls suited only to the rôle of lackey.
Perhaps this was also the reason why the commandant harboured such a deep dislike for me. On the other hand, he seems to appreciate sub-commissar Maxim and, I am sure of it, not because he, like Spirlea himself, is an Iron Guard sympathiser, but because he has ears that are wholly ordinary and wholly lacking in personality, such as you can see in their hundreds and thousands on Calea Victoriei.
Sometimes an apparently insignificant anatomical detail can destroy your professional career once and for all.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth