Double Life

Roy Farran was a local hero—and a man with a hidden past.

By Maurice Yacowar

Apparently I have idolized a sadistic war criminal. How do I deal with that?

Roy Alexander Farran abducted and tortured a 16-year-old Jewish boy in Palestine in 1947, and when the interrogation failed, Farran smashed the boy’s head in with a stone. Alexander Rubowitz’s body was never found. Farran, a highly decorated commando in the British air force, was incriminated when a felt hat bearing his name was found at the abduction scene.

That’s the story David Cesarani tells in Major Farran’s Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War against Jewish Terrorism 1945–48 (Heinemann, 2009). On CBC radio’s The Current, the same charges were made in Jerusalem by Stephen Rambam, a Brooklyn detective recently hired to investigate Rubowitz’s disappearance, and by University of New Brunswick professor David Charters, who has also written on the case. They claim Farran’s acquittal in a British trial was a cover-up that ignored his written confession.

Born in India in 1921, Farran was a British war hero before he turned 23. He returned to Palestine late in the British mandate and tried to infiltrate the Jewish terrorist Stern Gang. When he heard he was being blamed for Rubowitz’s murder, he fled to Syria. He returned to stand trial after a book bomb mailed to R. Farran killed his youngest brother, Rex, instead. He produced a solid alibi and claimed he’d been framed with his hat. Witnesses failed to select Farran from a lineup. 

After leaving the army, Farran drifted, then moved to Calgary, where he farmed, wrote memoirs and novels and worked in journalism. In 1954 he founded the weekly North Hill News. He became a Calgary alderman, then joined provincial politics in Peter Lougheed’s sweep to power in 1971. He was the PC member for Calgary-North Hill, and Minister of Telephones & Utilities in his first term and Solicitor General in his second. He retired to chair Alberta’s horseracing commission. In 1994 the French government added the Légion d’honneur to his 1946 Croix de guerre. He died in June 2006 and received a hero’s burial.

I didn’t know about Roy’s past. Then came the rumbles. Did I know Israel had a warrant for his arrest?

That’s the bio. Here’s my Roy Farran.

When I turned 16, I applied to all three Calgary papers for a job. One responded. Roy Farran hired me for the summer, full time, to write for and edit the North Hill News and the Rocky View News, its weekly farm contract. In 1958, I made $19.76 a week; in 1959, $24.15. Ben Wicks made the same money as apprentice in the printing shop, before advancing to cartoonist and wit. I did better during the school term, when my reports on North Hill events and school sports earned 25 cents a column inch. For my third summer, I pleaded university costs and got $45.

My parents aside, Roy Farran was the most influential figure in my life. The first two summers we shared an office and wrote the paper between us. By the third, Graham Smith came in as editor to free up Roy for politics. Their lessons on direct writing made my English Ph.D. studies in Birmingham, UK, a breeze.

Roy taught me investigative journalism; he was determined to keep the powerful honest. A few lines about a civic official paving his driveway with city cement led to Mayor Don Mackay’s resignation, with an echoing scandal for Mayor Hawrelak in Edmonton. Roy championed the little guy against the system. His passionate campaigns for the ward system, against fluoridation, and for principle in politics set my more modest path of maverick in academe.

Roy opened out my life. When Reginald Maudling, a candidate for the British Tory leadership, met with the local British community, Roy got me a private interview. That was for my education, not for the paper. He let me write a Stampeders column and sometimes cover City Council. For business director Bill MacCallum—then launching Calgary’s Winter Club—I churned out copy for the real estate supplements. Heady stuff for a boy of 17. I took up the pipe and smoked Roy’s Amphora brown.

I didn’t know about Roy’s Palestine past. Then came the rumbles. Why would I work for a notorious anti-Semite? Did I know Israel had a warrant for his arrest? Would I help set him up?

I’d repeat: Mr. Farran was fair to me and was teaching me a lot. I was proud to work for him, flattered to know him. Represented in the Leon Uris/Paul Newman Exodus, he was the only fictional figure I knew in real life. As for those Palestine charges, he was too fine a man and too devout a Catholic. I believed what he wrote in his memoir Winged Dagger.

As a boy of 16 my résumé wasn’t much, so I piled in everything, including my being Jewish. At my interview Roy complimented me on its fullness. Maybe he did hire me as a gesture, to make peace with the Calgary Jewish community, but the job worked out. I was Alexander Rubowitz’s age.

US Major General Clayton Bissel congratulates Captain Roy Farran after presenting him with the Legion of Merit.

US Major General Clayton Bissel congratulates Captain Roy Farran after presenting him with the Legion of Merit. (Chris Ware)

We talked about a lot but nothing personal. When he was debating whether to put his children into the Catholic system he asked about my experience in the Jewish school.

Once I started to rip open a book in the mail. “Wait,” he said, “You could blow your head off that way.” Then he showed this Jewish boy how to open a package warily, to ensure it wasn’t a bomb. You keep the pressure on. That’s as close as we came to his Palestine story and his brother’s death.

When I moved back to Calgary 13 years ago I was keen to reconnect. All grown up, my parents gone, I guess I craved Roy’s approval. But he didn’t return my calls. He didn’t remember me, but at the Highlander Ball and at his wife Ruth’s funeral he gallantly pretended to. Cancer had taken his larynx so he spoke through a slit in his throat. I never told him how much he’d meant to me.

Now comes this guilt. How do I reconcile my Roy with that evil? I knew him as a man of character and courage, committed to public service. The people he helped as a journalist elected him alderman. His constituents gave him two terms as MLA. If the terrible conditions of terrorist war drove him to that vile action, he is still the man of that solid service.

Alexander Rubowitz deserves to have his story told full and true. He deserves to be found and buried properly. He deserves to have his killer named and judged. Whatever happened is a double tragedy. Young Alexander did not get another chance. Roy Alexander Farran remade himself a fine life, but could never escape the shadow of that one day in Palestine in 1947.

Maurice Yacowar is professor emeritus of English and film studies at the University of Calgary.


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