When blame hits history

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 6, 2008

Journey to Nowhere
By Eva Figes
Granta, £14.99

Who, ultimately, was to blame for the Holocaust? This que-stion is not as simplistic as it sounds. The Jews of Russia, of Poland, of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France and so on were certainly not to blame for their fate. But what of the Jews of Germany? Those ultra-patriotic, conceited, self-delusional Weimar Jews, religious and secular, who believed that, if only they shouted their mantra — Unser Deutschland (our Germany) — loudly enough, the Nazis would take heed, and spare them. Upon these Jews, secular and religious, some of the blame must be laid.

Their sin was the sin of omission. It was not what they did, but what they failed to do. Once the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had been promulgated, stripping them of their German citizenship, they should have left Germany for any country that would take them — including Palestine.

Instead, proclaiming that they were still as German as they were Jewish (if not more so), far too many of these self-deluding Jews stayed on, hoping that something would turn up. In 1938-39 many were lucky to escape by the skin of their teeth.

Eva Figes in London, 1972

The novelist Eva Figes (née Ungar) came from one such family. The Ungars lived a comfortable life in a plush Berlin apartment. They were secular Jews who ignored the Jewish festivals but enthusiastically celebrated Christmas in true German fashion. They had servants, and it is the story of one of these, their lonely Jewish housemaid Edith, that Eva Figes claims she wishes to tell.

That is her claim, but the truth is that she has used Edith’s sad biography simply as a peg on which to hang a rant about Israel and the USA.

Unceremoniously and inexplicably abandoned in Berlin when the Ungars managed to buy their way to Jewish North-West London, Edith survived the war and was eventually persuaded to emigrate to Palestine/Israel.

It was clearly not a happy experience for her; traumatised, and unsuited to kibbutz life, she made her way to England, and obtained employment with the Ungars once more, but left after apparently irreconcilable differences with Figes’s mother.

Figes blames Israel, and its principal sponsor, the USA, for Edith’s fate. If only President Truman had permitted Jews liberated from Nazism to settle in the USA, all would have been well. The Jews are not a people, a nation with a right to a nation-state; it was Harry S Truman who forced them into this mould. And so on and so on.

Figes’s understanding of history is suspect. For instance, she is wrong to allege that “Israel would not have admitted” secular Jews had it not been for American pressure. The Holocaust did not create Israel; it merely offered a further, irrefutable justification for its rebirth.

Jerusalem: City of Longing
By Simon Goldhill
Harvard University Press, £18.95

I turned with relief from Eva Figes’s guilt-ridden apologia to Simon Goldhill’s pleasing archaeological history of Israel’s capital city. Jerusalem: City of Longing is a meticulously researched study of how the city came to be built and rebuilt by successive faith communities and conquerors. It is both a monograph and a guide-book: the maps are uncluttered, the photographs breathtaking.

Not the least virtue of Professor Goldhill’s volume is its remarkably balanced account of the Mandate, and of how Jerusalem came to be divided, and then reunited once more. Religiously, Jerusalem is a multi-layered settlement. But its foundations are unmistakably Jewish — and its over-arching character is becoming Jewish once more. The book is, in short, the perfect antidote to the sort of propaganda we must, I fear, continue to expect from Jews of the self-deprecating variety.

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011