An outsider’s chance

Armed with not much more than a booklet titled ‘Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance,’ a German Jewish immigrant to prewar England reconstructs his life in this charming novel.

August 6, 2010 15:53
4 minute read.
Mr. Rosenblum's List by Natasha Solomon

Mr Rosenblum's List 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Assimilation is tricky. On the one hand, there’s always the natural impulse of the outsider to blend in, to become a part of the crowd. But at what cost does one achieve this? To repudiate one’s history and traditions in exchange for the comforts of anonymity doesn’t necessarily sound like a fair exchange. In any case, this desire is founded on the presumption that one will be allowed to assimilate; this, unfortunately, is not always a given

Jack Rosenblum, the somewhat comedic but always self-aware hero of Natasha Solomons’s Mr. Rosenblum’s List: or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman, “five foot three and a half inches of sheer tenacity,” escapes an increasingly hostile Berlin for England with his wife Sadie in 1937. Prewar, class-bound England is in its own peculiar way as hostile to the Rosenblums as was Berlin; Jack relies on a booklet distributed by the German Jewish Aid Committee to new arrivals, “Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance,” as a means to negotiate his way through their perplexing new circumstances

Immigrants and refugees, it’s often argued, are obliged to be more motivated and resourceful than the general population. Despite the challenges of picking his way through a foreign land, and armed with not much more than “Helpful Information” as a guide, Jack reconstructs his life and with time becomes a successful businessman. He reads The Times, buys his suits on Savile Row and drives a Jaguar, a rare luxury in an England ravaged by war, but he nonetheless remains an outsider, an interloper who doesn’t recognize his place

It’s a fact that is brought forcefully home to him when he attempts – repeatedly – to ascend to the highest sanctums of British society, through membership of golf club. “They think they [the Jews] can buy their way into anywhere, don’t they?” a club president sneers, voicing the disdain and discrimination all too familiar for the time

Solomons – who was inspired to write this book by the experiences of her grandfather, a German Jewish refugee given a handbook very similar to Jack Rosenblum’s heavily annotated list – constructs out of these somewhat depressing anecdotes a rather charming little tale about a clash of traditions, but with an emphatic small “c.” Jack can’t join a golf club because he is a Jew; so he resolves to do what anyone else would, given a successful business and a romantic notion of what it means to be English. Jack finds an abandoned farmhouse and 60 acres of land in rural Dorset, and resolves to construct his own golf course there, in time for the young Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in the summer of 1953

A problem with Mr. Rosenblum’s List, one that crops up as Jack attempts to insinuate himself with his new neighbors – cider-swilling farmers and the like who quite reasonably think that “Mr. Rose-In-Bloom” is mad – is an occasional tendency for the narrative to slip from genre to genre: One chapter reads like farce, another like a comedy caper, and in other places yet as genteel domestic drama. But the story holds itself together, despite these wobbles, largely through the understated but empathetic portrait Solomons creates of Sadie, Jack’s long-suffering wife, and her profound emotional struggle to hold herself together

Sadie, unlike Jack, is less concerned with assimilation than with the simple act of survival. Buying halla from the Jewish bakeries in the East End of London on Fridays and discreet chats with friends in German are poor substitutes for what she had left behind in Germany. She had left family behind in Berlin, parents and a beloved younger brother who had hoped to secure exit visas themselves soon afterward. They don’t: and it is their memory that at once keeps Sadie alive but draws her into a state of dangerous loneliness and isolation, her melancholy only worsened through displacement to the countryside and her husband’s obsessive determination to become a proper Englishman by building his own golf course. Through Sadie, one sees a different dimension to outsider life. Giving up the past is silly; without our past, we are nothing

Jack’s dominance front and center of the narrative means that other characters sometimes struggle to emerge from his shade. A subplot features his only daughter, Elizabeth, who benefits from her father’s toil through a good education and going to Cambridge. One suspects that the tensions between first- and second-generation immigrant life might have revealed an absorbing vein of narrative detail; but their tensions are dealt with in largely circumscribed fashion. It is not that these aspects of the story don’t convince; it is just that they read as too compressed to register the emotions that one might expect. This said, Mr. Rosenblum’s List on the whole is a charming and enjoyable read, relying on acute observational detail to fully evoke the challenges of outsider – in this case, immigrant Jewish – life in postwar Britain. Beyond this, it celebrates a universal truth, that we have more in common than we often recognize; assimilation should not be driven by the imperative of becoming like the other. As Jack ultimately comes to understand, the past need not be a foreign country.

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