by Peter Shapiro
Imagine, if you can, that you are one of the protagonists in Martin Fletcher’s novel The List. It might be Edith or Georg who fled Vienna one step ahead of the Gestapo, leaving family and friends behind. They met for the first time in Paris and once again eluded the Gestapo, finding their way to England. Or you might consider Edith’s cousin Anna who survived Auschwitz. The men, women and children who came out of what Eli Wiesel described as “The Dark Night” were haunted by the same questions as were Edith, Georg and Anna: Why did I survive when my friends and family perished? What happened to my family and friends? Could they have survived?
Our narrative commences on May 8, 1945, VE Day. Edith, who is pregnant, and her husband Georg celebrated with hundreds of thousands on the Mall near Buckingham Palace. Shortly thereafter Anna reconnected with Edith and moved in with her and Georg. England was one happy family. When the troops returned home they experienced a lack of housing and work. England may have been a happy family, but not for the Jews who were the “black sheep”.
Our protagonists rented rooms from Sally and Albert Barnes in a moderately upscale London neighborhood. The Barnes family, whose son Eric was serving in the army in Palestine, was oblivious to the suffering of Jews and exhibited latent anti-Semitic feelings. Their Jewish tenants were acceptable, at least when they paid their rent, but other Jews in England and the rabble in Palestine were considered unwashed barbarians. They were the polar opposites of one of the most venal characters I have met in fiction, Margaret Crabtree, who unabashedly led a movement to make England “Judenrein” Her pretext was to provide housing and create jobs for the returning troops.
Her battle cry was “send them back to where they came from”. But that was no option as reports trickled in that Holocaust survivors who returned to reclaim their homes were denied access and in many cases beaten and murdered. Those foreign governments failed to intervene. Immigration to Palestine or the United States was not an option due to their extraordinary low quotas.
A parallel narrative was developed, beginning soon after VE Day, involving attempts by Jews to enter Palestine illegally. The British had limited immigration to eighteen thousand per year, reduced by the number who may have gained illegal entry. Those caught seeking illegal entry were confined in camps in Palestine or returned for confinement in Cyprus or Europe. Those who waited patiently for entry to Palestine were also confined in camps located on Cyprus or in Europe. Any effort to aid the illegal entry of Jews was met by the British with harsh treatment, often resulting in death. When a Jew was beaten or murdered in Palestine the Jewish responses were in like kind. They ascribed literally to the biblical injunction “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.
The tragedy was the Jews in England were locked in a virtual prison while those seeking entry to Palestine were held in actual prisons.
The reader should note that Martin Fletcher’s parents Edith and Georg fled Austria and arrived in England in 1944. He was born there in 1947. While he states this is not his or his parents’ narrative, it would appear he draws on family lore while crafting the plot line and for character development. I believe the same holds true for the Palestine narrative, as the author served there for over 32 years as a Middle East correspondent for the BBC and NBC. Who can forget the words “This is Martin Fletcher reporting from …”?
As this is a work of fiction I am reluctant to give away the ending. I welcome your thoughts about the narratives’ many twists and turns as it reaches its dramatic conclusion.
A provocative area for discussion relates to the response by the Jews to the British treatment of those assisting in and those attempting to gain entry to Palestine. Were they terrorists or freedom fighters? Were their actions revenge or self-preservation? How did their action comport with Jewish values? Those issues have plagued us since before the creation of the State of Israel. They include the sinking of the Altalena, the bombing of the King David Hotel, and its responses in the 1956, 1967 and 1973 Wars. Israel’s values were questioned regarding its invasion of Lebanon and the events that took place in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. More recently Israel’s values were called to task in its response to entering Gaza and intercepting the so-called” Turkish Relief Flotilla”. A more pressing issue along these lines may relate to how Israel should address Iran’s potential nuclear threat.
My first reaction when examining The List’s book jacket was that it’s another book about the Shoah. I may be dating myself but it brought to mind the tag line of the old TV program: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them.” No story about the Shoah is insignificant; each one raises our consciousness of an aspect of man’s inhumanity to man. The List reminds us how soon after VE Day the world turned against the Jews and emphasizes the injunction, “Never again”.
I welcome your thoughts, please join the conversation.