Sir Martin Gilbert: A personal memoir

His connections to both the great and the common man or woman (nobody was really common in his opinion) were vast.

February 5, 2015 20:23

Sir Martin Gilbert. (photo credit: PR)

One of my close friends and colleagues, Sir Martin Gilbert, passed away on Tuesday. He was a major historian of the 20th century, the official biographer of Winston Churchill and editor of the Churchill papers, a lover of Israel and one of the great documenters of the Holocaust.

He published some 88 books in his lifetime, and he was only 78 when he died.

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Now, you might think he began writing when he was only two or three – then it might be a book or so a year – but he didn’t publish his first book until 1963, when he was 27 years of age. Eighty-eight books in roughly 50 years? But the last three years he was inactive while he was sick and then incapacitated  and for a few years before that, he was on the prestigious five man Royal Commission on Iraq, and had little time to write. So, 88 books in roughly 45 or so  years. It’s an incredibly voluminous record, I believe unmatched when it comes to writing serious history.

The range was great: world wars, Holocaust, Israel, Jews. His mind, and his scope, were panoramic, and yet minutely focused.

He knew the 20th century, year by year, battle by battle, election by election, political figure by political figure, common man by common woman. I met him in Jerusalem at social gatherings during his year here and his many other visits. It led to a collaboration on a number of documentary film projects, filmed in different parts of the world, which I hope enlightened and entertained. Even when the subject was occasionally grim, each of those 10 or so films was not only a challenge but a pleasure to make.

Time was viscerally his enemy. The drive and some sort of compulsion was inside the man. The story had to be told, he felt, he wanted to tell it, and he then wanted to move on to the next story, so that, too, could be told. History became even more real when he had written it down, and he opened up 20th-century history in a way no one had done before.

For me, a significant contribution was his merging of Jewish experience with general history. His writing instrumentally re-focused the perspectives of others. The Holocaust was not a chapter apart from World War II but, rather, part and parcel of the whole. Jewish shtetl life was an integral part of European history. Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship (2007) showed how the great British prime minister related to the Jews, in the process leading to the creation of the State of Israel. His lesser known but invaluable In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (2010) is an epic work essential to an understanding of modern times and Jewish relations with Muslims through decades and centuries.

That’s not even to mention the Israel books or all the Churchill books.  His second wife, Susie, played an instrumental role for over three decades in helping Martin research and produce his works.  (She is the mother of his two sons, David and Joshua.  His daughter, Natalie, is the child of his first marriage.)  Martin  was helped in later years by his devoted  third wife, Esther.

His connections to both the great and the common man or woman (nobody was really common in his opinion) were vast.

He could share lunch with a prime minister or a Holocaust survivor or a soldier, and he was at home with all.

Some important chapters in his life came before me or after me. He played an essential role in the liberation of Soviet Jewry, became a popularizer and advocate of the movement, and remains an almost venerated figure to this day among Soviet Jews.

There was his childhood in Canada during WWII, his later service in the British Army, the Churchill years, his archeological “apprenticeship” with Yigal Yadin when he helped convince Yadin to run for the Knesset (to Yadin’s eventual distress), the very significant Holocaust books, including The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity (1966), about a group of teenage survivors from the camps who were brought to Britain after the war (from which we made one of my personally favorite films).

He never spoke badly of others. He was a respected colleague of British prime ministers such as John Major and Gordon Brown, who often relied on him not only for Churchillian reminiscences but for most things Jewish. At one point he was invited to the White House to lecture staffers on Churchill’s moments of decision. He was the British prime ministers’ guide when they visited the concentration camps in Poland or elsewhere. He was sometimes consulted on contemporary politics as well.

Among other talents, he was an outstanding cartographer. His “map books” detailed various histories with extraordinary impact. He had an uncanny memory, possibly derived initially from his service in the British Army, and his memory was visual, not only verbal. He could walk down almost any Jerusalem street, and tell exactly what the street looked like in 1927 (or any other year), how it had changed in 1932 as this or that building was constructed while that other one was torn down, and how it looked somewhat later in 1946, or 1958. By the way, he could do the same for London, so anyone who toured either city with Martin was fortunate to have a guide graced by genius. His tours for friends brought a city to life. His familiarity with the history of each city (and possibly other cities as well) was intimate, but the visual reconstruction in his memory was unlike that of any other person I’ve known. There was something gutsy about it, as if he personally had lived and experienced each year, each period, as if he personally knew and felt the joys and sorrows of that precise year or period.

Frankly, it was a particular kind of intelligence that I occasionally found beyond mere human, at least the humans I happen to know.

One of the special moments for me came when we were filming the story of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania. We were searching for the precise place where the first big “Aktion” happened, when the Gestapo separated out those who were to live and die. The Nazis’ particular aim that sad day in the early ‘40s was to murder the ghetto children, as well as the old and infirm. A researcher from the US Holocaust Museum who was with us had not been able to turn up the information, and the geography had changed. Martin within a spare 20 minutes, with crew waiting, used his cartographic skills from maps of the period to pinpoint the place, which turned out to be in a totally nondescript square surrounded by drab Soviet-era apartment buildings that had been built post-war. It was an exercise in instant mapping and historical acuity that matched that of any first class intelligence agency.

To add to that, he was as disciplined a writer as I have ever known. I would venture that he was the most disciplined ever, but of course that can’t be said for sure.

Writing was a passion as well as profession.

He was a craftsman, but when I was with him he often budgeted himself each day.

His budget for first drafts was some 5,000 words daily, he once told me. To those not in the profession, that’s about 15 typewritten pages. That wasn’t just a one-day effort.

That was day after day. I don’t remember if he took more than a day off each week.

But 5,000 words didn’t finish the day.

Then there was the voluminous correspondence.

He would send notes, many handwritten, to many people, of all types. By the way, he also found time to eat and have an occasional social life.

With all that, he was meticulous. He loved indexing his own books. What others might find burdensome, even a nuisance, he hit upon with great zest. It was one of the great pleasures in his life.

When I was working closely with him, I was often asked by knowledgeable professional friends (that is, journalists) what kind of staff he had. The belief was that he had a number of interns, young graduate students, or others, industriously researching various subjects for the great author.

That wasn’t the case. So far as I knew and could observe, as far as hired help goes, he had only a secretary who was not even full-time.

I share in the sadness of his passing, but also in the knowledge that a great and significant life has been lived. The last years weren’t too good. Unfortunately, he suffered an arrhythmia in 2012. He was comatose and finally essentially incommunicado. Just before Passover in Jerusalem, he was taken, stricken, to Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

He lay there for a number of months, then was moved by air ambulance to Britain, where he improved greatly under the care of his wife, Esther, but never fully recovered his intellectual powers and abilities – or if he did, these could not be shared.

I wish there could be more like him in any of his individual qualities. He was a classical and true mensch. Taken as a whole, with all his virtues, Martin Gilbert was a giant of our time, and a truly great and vibrant historian of the 20th century.

Herb Krosney is a documentary producer and writer who collaborated with Martin Gilbert on numerous film projects.

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