Epstein, arrested almost immediately he set foot in Italy, had now spent nearly two months in gaol.
He was not put on trial.
There was indeed no vestige of a charge against him.
Yet the days and the nights dragged on, and the prison officials would give him no inkling of what was to happen to him.
The Italian authorities were in no hurry.
They had failed to lay their hands on the perpetrators of the attack on the Embassy. They admitted publicly that these had presumably left Italy.
They could appease at least a little the angry urgings of their British patrons by indulging in the comparatively harmless severity of keeping a few Jews in gaol as “suspected accomplices”; and in Israel Epstein, as a Palestinian, the British Intelligence officers were showing a particular interest.
Epstein, quiet and gentle and undemonstrative, grew restive and impatient.
He knew well the relation of dependence between the Italian and the British Governments.
He saw that he might well be immobilized in a prison cell for months or even years.
That he had not even started to fulfill the task for which he had been sent to Europe deepened his frustration and his sense of helplessness.
He sent messages out of the gaol asking for a plan to be made for his escape.
Smertenko’s representatives having failed, it was decided to respond to Epstein’s request.
A plan was made.
Epstein, following the plan, came out of his cell and climbed over the prison wall.
He came into the sight of a guard.
Perhaps the guard called out to him and Epstein, believing this was part of the preconceived plan, went on, unheeding.
The guard fired.
It may be that even then, if he heard the shot, Epstein took it for make-believe.
He died there in the prison courtyard.
* * *
When I came to Begin the next day in Tel Aviv he was still nourishing the faint hope that the Epstein of whose death the newspapers had carried in brief report was not Israel.
By some error his name had been given as Zeev.
Begin’s grief was fierce and deep.
Epstein had been his close friend for many years, had served with him in the Polish Betar, had been at his side in every crisis, in Palestine sharing his thoughts, his sorrows and his hopes.
It was with no light heart that he had decided to send him to Europe.
Now he was doubly bereft.
Private griefs however could not be indulged.
* * *
In contemplation of a possibly long struggle it was essential similarly to consolidate the considerable potential in the Diaspora.
There the picture was still predominately gloomy.
The Irgun’s embryo organization in Europe was in a state of disarray.
It had been left leaderless, and unsolved was its most nagging problem: its relations with its friends.
It was the hope that Israel Epstein would succeed in regulating these relations that had largely prompted his appointment.
In the combination of qualities that singled him out for the task, he was irreplaceable.
He had been a member of the Betar leadership in pre-war Poland and was universally respected.
This background and his persuasive sincerity might have enabled him to induce a sense of perspective in the Betar leaders in Europe who were holding up the Irgun’s growth there.