LONDON — To the outside world, Sir Martin Gilbert was an eminent historian, a member of Britain’s Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot, and – overall – Churchill’s biographer.
But to the Jewish world Martin Gilbert, who died Tuesday, was a passionate Jew and Zionist, a Soviet Jewry campaigner and chronicler of the Holocaust, repeatedly using his forensic skills to unpick telling details of the Jewish experience in the 20th century.
Just over 10 years ago this writer sat for two fascinating hours as Gilbert, sitting in his book-lined Highgate, London workroom, recalled how it was ultimately Winston Churchill, the man who dominated his life, who was responsible for the young Gilbert’s homecoming after he and his cousins had been evacuated from London to Canada in the summer of 1940.
Gilbert was almost 4 at the time and had been sent to Toronto with his aunt. Then an only child, he was very upset to be parted from her and farmed out to foster parents. He recalled, “I used to walk to see my aunt every Shabbat. I thought it was an enormous distance, but when I went back a few years ago…”
As Gilbert explained it, by April 1944, Churchill had examined the state of British trans-Atlantic shipping and realized that the RMS Mauretania, which had been converted into a troop ship, was carrying a relatively small number of military personnel. Churchill suggested the ship bring back as many of the evacuated children as possible and, typically, gave orders for there to be extra lifeboats on board.
So, on May 22, 1944, Gilbert landed in Liverpool, clutching among his few belongings a suitcase containing oranges, presented by his Canadian hosts and destined to be given to his parents. As his relatives clustered round, welcoming home “Peter’s boy,” his great-aunts descended and “chapped” the oranges, fruit unseen in Britain throughout the war years — despite Gilbert’s desperate attempts to hold on to them for his mother and father.
Peter and Miriam, Gilbert’s parents, had by this time had a second child, a girl. His father was a manufacturing jeweler based in London’s Hatton Garden and had spent the war years working with industrial diamonds. Gilbert’s grandfather, Aaron, was one of 17 brothers and sisters of whom, Gilbert estimates, around one-third stayed in Russian Poland and perished in the Holocaust.
“There was one survivor, a Polish cousin, a medical doctor of exactly my age, who still lives there. I only learned this much later,” he said.
‘I was very keen on geography but I fell into the clutches of the history master’
His mother’s family was from Lithuania, and as an adult, Gilbert visited their home town.
After a brief time in Oxford, the Gilbert family resumed life in London, and Gilbert was sent as a weekly boarder to Highgate School, where, he said, “I was very keen on geography but I fell into the clutches of the history master.”
The master in question, Alan Palmer, himself a noted author and historian, laid down for Gilbert guiding principles of his approach to history. Always, Palmer said, be inquisitive about subjects beyond that which you are immediately studying. His other piece of advice also resonated with Gilbert: “Never pass a wall plaque without reading it.”
It was, perhaps, in this way that Gilbert maintained his astonishing output. At the time of our meeting he had published 75 books (not just about Churchill, but about Israel, Natan Sharansky, the Holocaust, and war-time appeasement) and was to embark on his 76th, “Churchill and the Jews,” as soon as I left the premises.
He ended his long career as the author of more than 80 books, many featuring his trademark history maps showing the paths taken by Jews back and forth, criss-crossing Europe and Russia. He also published a series he nicknamed “Gilbert’s Ghetto Guides,” pocket guides with pull-out maps to allow informed walks around ghettos from Vilna to Venice.
‘One skill I do have is to extract from a mass of documents a clear, strong, narrative’
Gilbert was frequently criticized as a historian because of his tendency to set out the facts and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But he demurred.
“I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I was reluctant to publish ‘Auschwitz and the Allies’ because I was concerned that my own voice was too strong. I was worried that my book on Israel might be deemed to have too strong a Zionist voice, and in my history of the Holocaust, my voice is in part the voice of the survivors. Although in one way, I would like to feel that my voice is not there… if I present the evidence fully and honestly, why should my voice be any more interesting than the reader’s voice?”
School was followed by National Service, and Gilbert used the opportunity to learn Russian, something which stood him in great stead in his later work. He was dismissive, however, of his ability with languages. Despite stints teaching at both Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University, he said his Hebrew was not great.
“I struggle with language,” he said. “But one skill I do have is to extract from a mass of documents a clear, strong, narrative.”
Gilbert described himself as a ‘pugnacious Zionist’ at university
In his last summer vacation from Magdalene College Oxford, in 1959, Gilbert, who described himself as a “pugnacious Zionist” at university, went with a group of friends to visit Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau, seeing “the doors of the huts, flapping in the wind.”
It was an unusual trip to have made at the time, but it undoubtedly sowed the seeds of Gilbert’s life-long, clear-eyed commitment to recording the Holocaust. It eventually led to one of Gilbert’s most popular and accessible books, “The Boys,” the personal stories of 732 concentration camp survivors, men and women, who ultimately made their second homes in Britain.
Even the most assiduous you-never-know-when-it-might-come-in-useful research couldn’t really account for the sheer volume of his work, I noted, wondering how on earth he did it.
“Well,” replied the deprecating Gilbert, “I was lucky.”
Elected a research fellow at Merton College Oxford, he applied to do a further two years’ research after his first two expired.
“So, I became the only person at Oxford who didn’t have to teach, lecture, administer or examine. I figured it out like this: if you sleep for nine hours of the 24, you then have 15 hours. I take five hours a day off in which I can do anything I like — shop, watch TV, cook [he was an accomplished cook] — and then I work for 10 hours.”
The 10 hours might have been research or writing: if writing he generally put down about 3,000 words a day and then reviewed it the next day.
His workload was prodigious, but Sir Martin Gilbert was that rare bird in the British Jewish community, open, always up for a new challenge, and bursting still in his later years with profound enthusiasm and a commitment to the Jewish and Israeli experience.
For many years his was the only voice of a professional historian to look at some of the most painful issues of the Holocaust, which has been followed – only relatively recently – by a new generation of Jewish academics. His will be large shoes to fill.