Thursday, February 05, 2015

Sir Martin Gilbert z”l - an appreciation

Guest Post by Paul Shaviv

Sir Martin Gilbert (Seen here with a bust of Sir Winston Churchill)
Sir Martin Gilbert, z”l, the historian, passed away on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 78, and a remarkable person. I was privileged to know him for some forty years.

It is difficult to write an appreciation of Sir Martin. His work, his huge historical output, and his personal commitments span truly astonishing breadth.  His monumental Churchill biography, and accompanying volumes of documents, is perhaps the greatest work on British history in the last century.  (It is a meaningful coincidence that Sir Martin passed away within a few days of the 50th 
Anniversary of Churchill’s death!) 

Also among his dozens of books are multi-volume histories of the two World Wars, of the twentieth century, the Holocaust (including an account of the ‘Righteous Gentiles’), of Jewish history, Israel and Zionism, Jerusalem, and Soviet Jewry – ranging in format from meticulously documented prose to the historical atlas format he pioneered and popularized.  He was as comfortable, and as assiduous, interviewing a retired British Second World War General as he was interviewing an aged Polish or Hungarian Holocaust survivor.  

He had a huge talent for analyzing mountains of documents, and for organizing masses of information into compelling narratives. His capacity for research and writing was incredible. He was not a theoretical or philosophical historian, but had an unrivalled ability to make history out of the individual stories of ordinary people.  Among his volumes of scholarship, one of my favorite books is ‘In Search of Churchill’ – the personal memoir of how he wrote and researched the Churchill biography.  

He tells how in pre-internet, pre-cell phone days he searched out with unquenchable tenacity the minor characters who figured in the Churchill story – the drivers, the typists, the military officers, tracking them down in their retirement in rural English villages, years after the War.  Each had stories to tell; each could bring something to the story of ‘England’s Finest Hour’. 

In his personal life, his Jewish commitment and Jewish practice grew steadily over the years.  His fierce sense of Jewishness was really ignited by the Six-Day War.  I first met him in the early 1970’s, when I was working for the Jewish Community in the UK.  The British Museum was mounting a huge exhibition on Arab culture.  Martin had produced a small pamphlet of maps on the history of Jews in Arab lands, and I suggested to him that we should republish an illustrated, expanded edition with a page of photographs opposite each map.  It was a huge success, and was translated into several languages.  

As a follow-up I suggested that we do a similar work on the Holocaust.  I believe that the resultant booklet – later greatly expanded into the “Routledge Atlas of the Holocaust’ was the first book he ever published on the subject (he later published many).  On three successive days I drove to his house outside Oxford (called ‘The Map House’), and we sifted through hundreds and hundreds of harrowing photos, choosing the illustrations for the book.  By the end of the process, both of us were shaken and numbed.  

Years later, I took a group of high-school students to visit him, and he showed them how he worked. The entire top floor of the house was a library, with a wide work-surface running round the space.  Neat piles of documents, each relating to a chapter of a book, or a project, were laid out at intervals around the room, all annotated in his very distinctive miniscule handwriting. He would move from one to the other.

In subsequent years he visited the FSU, and took up the cause of Soviet Jewry.  He stated that his “most memorable Jewish moment” was witnessing Refuseniks in Leningrad illegally studying Hebrew in 1982.  He purchased an apartment in Jerusalem, and spent a great deal of time there. Slowly, and especially after he married the Holocaust historian Esther Goldberg later in life, he also turned to Jewish practice. A London ‘Jewish Chronicle’ interviewer asked him, in 2006, when he had last visited a synagogue. “Last Shabbat morning,” he replied, “My wife and I try to go every Shabbat,

Martin Gilbert’s books on Jewish history would alone earn him an honored place in Jewish memory.  You see (usually unacknowledged!) reproductions of dynamic maps from his ‘Jewish History Atlas’ or his ‘Atlas of the Israel-Arab Conflict’ in dozens of other books and publications.  Yet his influence transcended that achievement, and Churchill was the key. 

Here was a scholar whose central work (running to almost thirty volumes and millions of words) had established his historical, public and moral authority as the master of the life and thought of Winston Churchill (an achievement which brought him a series of public honors in the UK); but whose voice was heard clearly and unambiguously supporting Jews and Israel, and who became a central voice on the Holocaust in the UK and beyond.  The ‘Churchill effect’ without doubt added intangible authority to his championing of the Jewish cause.

As I said, it is impossible to do this great man even outline justice in one short piece. Those who knew him will also remember his unfailing personal courtesy – (he would reply promptly and personally to every communication), and his great personal integrity. 

As testament to his deepest passions, Sir Martin was buried in Israel, at the Eretz HaChaim cemetery outside Jerusalem.  We should mourn the loss of a great man and a great scholar  - ‘Chaval al d’avdin….’ is a fascinating resource about Sir Martin Gilbert and his books – especially the sections ‘From the Author’ and ‘Reflections’.