JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
A tale by Johny Noer
’PERSONA NON GRATA’
… outside a cloud covers the last of the sunlight!
What really happened didn’t begin life until fifteen years later in the terrible Israeli desert of Zin; I wrote the story slowly and carefully with my big, fat, black Mont Blanc fountain pen, (which was an Italian, Bolzano-present for my 50th birthday from Gisèle; but that’s another story, which I will tell later on…)
In the desert I found in one of the old trucks some hidden and forgotten manuscripts from 1985 and published them immediately on my web site: (www.noer.info). These memories from the dramatic ‘Danube Bridge events’ began to warp into a continuation; the characters wouldn’t go away! It took these fifteen years for them to reach this shape. To me it is a finished shape, so finished that I don’t want to have anything to do with any alteration of it. The whole thing has now been embalmed since the convoy left Denmark in the year 1977. This is my full story, and I’ve still got with me that urgent secret letter which somehow must be delivered sometime… somewhere…
Publishers, especially Christian ones, don’t like experiments or eccentricities. A man with sixteen children roaming around on the roads talking about some fantasies in regard to Jerusalem may be a little too much for people used to a certain standard. So I decided to publish my story myself, if not in a book then on the web. The Lord must watch over it! Anyhow, the world has to know. Even if my report contains some peculiarities, you must make of it what you will but through it all, I believe, a voice greater than mine is speaking.
Once more we are back in Bulgaria - that surprising large brass and wood crucifix on the wall, a book lined room, outside a distant roll of thunder. Sitting at the desk was another of the red werewolves, looking as if he’d just arrived from Narnia and standing beside him a secretary, stiff and straight like some weird saint. "You are no longer to be considered as a guest in our country!" A small, thin civil servant with an extraordinary face, high-boned and with hollow-cheeks spoke with a sharp voice. "You are now a prisoner, and your convoy will be confined and locked up until you are expelled from Bulgaria." He turned to the secretary: "Persona non grata". She wrote, still standing: ‘Persona non grata’. Outside the thunder sounded again, louder this time and a cloud covered the last of the sunlight. The room darkened. "He looks like a gnome." I thought, but didn’t say anything.
Most of the site, where we were detained lay on one side of a main road, shielded from passing traffic by a high wire fence and a withered hedge. As somebody in the camp gleefully pointed out, the designers of the fence had screwed up, tilting the two-foot overhang of barbed wire inwards rather than outwards, as if its function was to stop people getting out rather than vice-versa. "A typical Soviet-system!" said Bent as he surveyed it contemptuously. "Anything to stop us getting out…"
Before us lay a long and exhausting track, hundreds of miles escorted by police! During the journey the Convoy was divided: half of was guided towards Turkey and the other half towards Yugoslavia.
A fascinating part of the endless days on the roads, with the constant speed of 20 miles per hour, was ‘the surveillance’ or ‘the Kremlin art of following a slow target without being seen’. For our part we were fully aware of the role a certain number of unknown persons played around us: A sort of shadowy organisation, an undercover intelligence-gathering unit that worked alongside the escorting vehicles … simply watching, spotting faces, gathering information, learning about those Western preachers, who had composed the secret scrolls of Varna.
I noticed how totally unremarkable these people looked. Somehow I knew that I would meet them again, present as they are everywhere as totalitarian systems are taking over! Today they are walking the streets of every European city. They have been chosen by Brussels partly for their anonymous appearance and also for the fact that they have no distinguishing features. They even turn up at my desert-strip in the Negev, not only sent by Europe but also by Jerusalem, who wish to know more about our religious intentions. They appear to be neither too tall nor too short, neither too fat nor particularly thin. I have already noticed a few and may witness to the fact that none of them are particularly good-looking, but none is especially ugly either. As I scan them, when they turn up as journalists or tourist-guides, they all seem to be uniform and neutral so that they may blend effortlessly into the crowd or the landscape. If you were to see a couple of them in a car, you wouldn’t look twice. But you soon realize that they are highly trained and an indispensable weapon in the fight against military and religious enemies…
However, as I watched what was going on during the journey towards the Yugoslavian border, I felt the hairs on my neck rise up. The process was fascinating in itself, but in my mind’s eye I was occupied with something more compelling. "Any moment I thought, I may set my eyes on my best opportunity to get that letter of mine delivered! I was getting excited by the idea that through these extraordinary travel experiences I was taking part in a live operation. All these people, highly skilled and well organised, were out to block my business. They wanted to get hold of my letter and I knew that as I came into the very target area of Jerusalem, things would grow worse…
Then we crossed the Yugoslavian border. We had reached the First of May, 1989; that great ‘Labour Day’ in the communist calendar. The soldiers at the border were drunk. With beaming red faces they waved us through the border-gate and with lifted vodka bottles they saluted us as we drove by. We even heard some bursts of machine-gun fire in the air. An officer flipped his drooping cigarette up to a better angle by twisting his lips as he smiled at the waving children. We entered Yugoslavia and it was with a sense of relief I left the vehicles.
Although I knew time was short I walked slowly away from the camp. I knew that we had to continue north to reach the Austrian border, but I needed some time alone to gather my thoughts before we went on. So much was happening. The other part of the convoy was back from Turkey and now heading towards us but we had to leave immediately. The challenge of the past few weeks weighed heavily in my bones and on my heart; especially the hard time for Gisèle, who was feeding baby no.10, little Ephraim. Mercilessly, without giving her any rest, the police had been trailing after her on the Bulgarian roads. At last she drove into the side, took the baby in her arms and made them understand that she was busy…
The Yugoslavian border-woods were deathly still as I returned from my walk and made my way towards the ‘Lavigne’-caravan, where Gisèle had made room for her ten children. The tall trees were more forbidding than I had previously noticed, green and black, silent and dark and with the smell of mud and rotting vegetation. There was no wind, not a bird sang, not a leaf stirred, everything warned me that something serious awaited me. I began to hurry, twigs cracking beneath my feet, and before long the path emerged into the open landscape, where the convoy was situated. I hurried towards the ‘Lavigne’ where Gisèle was waiting for me.
She seemed calm enough, tired but calm, and her intelligent brown eyes met mine with a sad, quiet candour. All of a sudden I felt terribly upset. What had I done to her? How could I bring her and all her little ones into that confusion of politics, religion and stress? I loved her, and it was unthinkable that anything should happen to her. I saw with a pang how beautiful she was and memories of walks and talks, car trips and small dinners, letters and moments of intimacy, poems and prayers, tears and laughter, children and long journeys flooded through my mind.
From somewhere overhead I heard the shriek of a bird. We looked at each other. "What’s the matter?" I asked. She shrugged, a funny little one-shouldered shrug, and went inside. Following her I came into the tiny living room, where from the kitchen-corner she had to prepare meals for twelve persons every day. Stepping into a small corridor I passed the little closet, where she had to wash and make sure that every child went clean to bed each night. We passed into the parents’ bedroom, where she had tiny beds everywhere and a cradle for the baby she had to feed several times a day.
Gisèle tightened her grip on my arm and looked down at her feet. There was a large hole in the wooden floor. I saw the grass through the hole. A powdery dusting of dirt and a cold wind swept through it into the room.
"I want to go on, but I can’t." Gisèle burst into tears and pointed at the hole in the floor.
I put my hands on either side of her face, wet with tears and kissed her. It was hard to think what to say. I realized she had come to the end of her strength. It was not only the hole in the floor, it was many holes, many things, everything!
"I want to go on," she sobbed; "but I can’t!"
I looked at the hole. Something about it intensified, so that it seemed to expand. It became unnatural, luminous somehow, and not quite of this world. It seemed the very reason why Titanic went down; disaster streamed through it. Something had to be done and quickly! A decision must be made immediately!
"We go back to Denmark!" I whispered.
"Back to Denmark?" Gisèle’s tearful eyes gleamed in the dark. "You want us to go back to Denmark?"
"Yes, we can’t go on like this. Both we and our stuff are worn down. It’s time to get behind the lines. It’s time to go back… to recover!"
Another long run started. The convoy moved on narrow roads had diverged from the highways and twisted along for miles; it drove over bridges, past farmlands, pastures and fields. Rolling meadows were followed by villages where large, handsome houses began to appear. Cities at the bottom of the hills and steep mountains curves. Grinding gears and the yellow lights of the trucks and tractors mocked the tired men, who went to bed late and rose early. Eventually we stood at the Austrian border. The place seemed to us like a maze. Here was the entry to a democratic society and the exit from the mean mechanics of tyranny. ‘Freedom’! The former Soviet political prisoner and Israeli politician, Natan Sharansky, claims, that democracy is rooted in the right to dissent, to walk into the town square and declare one’s views without fear of punishment or reprisal.
I remembered the moving story from the 1956-Hungarian peoples’ revolt against Communism and the goodness of the hearts of their Austrian neighbours. At no time did Austria close her borders to such refugees. Instead she welcomed them with a warmth that surprised Europe, for there were many reasons why it would have been prudent for Austria to reject Hungarians who were attempting to flee from communism. For one thing, Austria herself remained in real danger that the Soviets, on any flimsy excuse, might come storming back. Therefore, Austria’s bold offer of sanctuary to the revolutionists was a most gallant action.
With this background, I expected that Austria would accept us for sure. The Austrians wouldn’t send us away! We were delighted by the thought of entering such a country. We didn’t know that we had arrived at the end of a cul-de-sac; the gates were closed. The convoy was sent back. Austria wouldn’t have us…
Desperately I crossed over the yard of the border-post, which was paved with black cinders. No greenery at all apart from a few oak trees. It was like running full speed into a brick wall. The border-barrier was down. A shaft of light fell upon the waiting vehicles.
"Why?" the men asked, when I returned. Their faces were white as chalk.
"They say we are too big."
"Too big? But we passed this place on our way down. What do they mean too big?"
"It’s been terribly hard," I said, putting an arm around Gisèle, "we’re all trying to take things one day at a time. Let’s stop for tonight. Tomorrow is another day of grace…"
And that was it. We formed the convoy into a circle and went to bed.
Lt was already after 7.30 next morning. Time was zipping past. I arranged with the men to be ready to start off at nine. Our only map was too small-scaled to be of much use; we were not allowed to go on the motorways and had to climb over some mountainous areas. I updated the families on the situation. We plan to head for the Italian border", I said, "and take it from there…"
The convoy of five-ton trucks, farm-tractors with wagons, Land Rovers and small cars was about to clamber up the mountain-road a couple of minutes after nine. The young drivers had checked the tyres and couplings, loaded jerry-cans into the trucks, ticked items off the list and checked that all the children were belted up. The engines began to turn and the roar built up to full strength, as the convoy lumbered onward and upward. The journey lasted no more than a day, but it gave me time to think. If we succeeded in getting into Italy, we would find a suitable site for the convoy – and then Gisèle and I and the children would move on to Denmark. After having renewed our equipment we would return, and the journey to Jerusalem would continue.
"Are we getting through?" Gisèle asked.
"Maybe. Maybe not. It depends how things go. Anyway, we’ll see what happens in a few minutes…"
The convoy turned into the border site outside an accommodation block; I set everyone on standby and went to the office.
An officer came out and counted the vehicles: "Uno, duo, tre…" He went back without saying a word. I tried to speak to him but my Italian skills were rocky at best. He never answered…
"Buena sera!" I greeted him once more when he returned a few minutes later.
He barked something in Italian; I only understood the words: "Non entrare!"
"Perchè?" I asked.
He shook his head and pointed a sharp finger at the wagon with the cattle. We couldn’t get in with the cattle…
Everybody looked shaken.
"Grazie," I said, putting my hands on Gisele’s shoulders and gently pulling her towards the wagons. I couldn’t believe that Italy was closed to us as well; but it was!
We decided for Hungary, that great land locked republic of Central Europe, the limits of which were determined after World War One, and with one of its borders opening into the former Yugoslavia; we knew that there was a ‘backbone’ of highland running across it from the northeast to the western centre.
Compared with our former journeys this one looked extremely difficult; for one thing, we were short of money; we were certain to be held up on the way through lack of diesel. Besides, everybody was tired and some even loosing faith. Distances between sites where we could make a halt, were immense; chances of help were, humanly speaking, minimal. We already had casualties and were once more venturing into the unknown, to a destination we hadn’t even been able to identify precisely. Basically ten men were attempting to do a job that would have taxed a squadron. Further, we knew from our previous experiences how ruthless our spiritual enemy was – we could expect no mercy.
John came and sat beside me. "There’s one thing I can’t understand, Dad," he started, "how can this possibly be the leading the Lord? We’re travelling from one closed border to another. All roads have a blind end. I can’t see the light. I’m sorry Dad, but I just can’t see the light…"
"You’re right, son," I said. "Not much light in this tunnel; you’ve got your Bible with you?"
"Yes." He took his well-worn Bible up from his bag.
"Turn to Acts 16:6 and read."
John opened the book and read aloud: "Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the Province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas."
John looked up. "I understand," he said. "It wasn’t easy for the apostles either."
He turned to his Bible again and repeated: "When they came to the border… they tried to enter… but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to."
"You mean, that it was the Spirit of Jesus, who stopped us crossing this Italian border?"
John went on: "During the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them."
John looked at me? Questioning?
"Paul didn’t get guidance while he was sitting at home," I said, "He got it, while he was on the move!"
"All right." John stood up with a smile. "Let’s move on, Dad…"
Shortly after the convoy was on its way to Hungary.