The rabbi who turned detective as a mitzvah

Rabbi Leonard Book went to unusual lengths to carry out the obligation in this week’s sidrah of hashavat avaidah — returning lost property

By Rabbi Leonard Book, August 27, 2009
The pilot’s watch that went missing in Israel (above) and (left) recovered by Rabbi Leonard Book of Lancashire at the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin

The pilot’s watch that went missing in Israel (above) and (left) recovered by Rabbi Leonard Book of Lancashire at the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin

“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his
sheep go astray… You shall surely return
them to your brother”
Deuteronomy 22:1

Many years ago, while living in Cardiff, I met a young man called David L Marks. We shared a common interest in classic cars, in particular Jaguars. David has a hobby — collecting old clocks and watches. One day he phoned me as he had seen a pilot’s watch on eBay he wished to buy, which had reputedly been worn by a pilot during the Six-Day War in 1967.

On the back case of the watch was an inscription in Hebrew, which he asked me to translate. It was the name of the pilot, Michael Dvir, of Ein Harod, Israel. David wanted to know if the pilot was dead or alive, for had the pilot been killed in action, he would not have wanted to buy the watch. After a few days’ research, I discovered that the original owner was Colonel Michael (Mike) Dvir, retired, a former pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

The watch had apparently been stolen from Mike in 2000 along with other pieces of jewellery. His son-in-law, Guy Setton, said that if I bought the watch, then he would be willing, owing to its great sentimental value, to buy it back at the full purchase price of £1,350. I explained the situation and said that I would try to have the watch returned to its rightful owner.

I naively sent a message to the vendor, informing him that a watch that he was advertising for sale on eBay was part of a private jewellery collection that was allegedly stolen. There were no bidders and it was immediately removed from eBay. I then contacted the eBay department dealing with suspicious and dubious goods. They said I should report the matter to my local police station. But the police would not take my statement since I was what was termed a third party. When I explained that the “first party” was a retired gentleman living thousands of miles away, I was politely told to seek a solicitor.

His phantom was hit by an egyptian missile. He was forced to eject

Eventually, I received power of attorney to act on behalf of Mike Dvir. The police then contacted eBay. (Incidentally, when the watch had first been advertised by an Israeli antiques dealer, the name of the original owner and the name of the kibbutz were covered over. The British purchaser, in order to make the watch more attractive to sell, and not being able to read Hebrew, had removed the adhesive that was covering the identity of the original owner.)

It was the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when I received a call from the local police. I was asked to sign a statement on behalf of the wronged party, which would then be sent to the police in Camberley, Surrey, where the vendor resided. The Surrey Police told me that they had made contact with the seller of the watch. He still had it in his possession, and agreed not to offer it for sale until the matter was resolved. I told the officer that the original owner was prepared to make a financial offer to offset any loss, and that he should convey this to the present holder of the watch.

Within 24 hours the phone rang. It was the gentleman I thought now had the watch in safe keeping. Unfortunately, the police had misinformed him that I was searching for a stolen RAF watch. He, being a specialist in old watches, naturally had several ex-RAF pieces in his collection. The Israeli watch in the meantime had been bought by a German collector, Matthias Heller.

A month later, the Surrey dealer, who had advertised the watch and had always acted in good faith, informed me of the identity of the Israeli dealer. I wrote to the German buyer of the watch asking if he was willing to negotiate with Mr Setton in order that it might be restored to its rightful owner. Later in the week, I got a call from Mr Heller who wanted to establish the watch’s origins for his own private records. In fact, he had Israeli friends who agreed to assist him in his quest. I gave him Guy Setton’s email address and he duly made contact with the Dvir family.

Finally, Colonel Michael Dvir’s Omega Seamaster was handed over to David Marks and myself under the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. The watch had been restored to pristine condition and the agreed price was paid. It could now return home to Israel.

Our youngest son, Avigdor Ziv, who was visiting us from Israel, took the watch back with him and gave it to Navit, Michael Dvir’s daughter. She intended to give her father a big surprise on Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israeli Independence Day — by placing the watch in her father’s hand.

On the eve of that day (in May last year), I received a letter from Guy Setton, and this is what he told me: “During the Yom Kippur War, Mike’s F4 Phantom was hit by a surface-to-air missile during a night operation on the Egyptian front. He was forced to eject behind enemy lines and through a combination of courage, wisdom and luck, managed to avoid falling into captivity and was rescued before dawn. On that mission, he was wearing the Omega watch.”

Leonard Book is the rabbi of St Anne’s Hebrew Congregation in Lancashire

Last updated: 1:54pm, September 29 2009