LONDON – Official Churchill biographer and distinguished Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert died at the age of 78 after a long battle with cancer.
His death on Tuesday after a long and serious illness was announced by Sir John Chilcot, chairman of an inquiry bearing his name into Britain’s role in the Iraq War. Gilbert had been a part of the inquiry team, though as he became ill his participation was very much reduced.
Gilbert was a prolific writer who authored more than 80 history books and atlases, many of which covered Jewish history and the formation of the State of Israel. His career started with a book challenging pre-Second World War history that caught the eye of Sir Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, who had started writing a biography of his father.
This led to an invitation to Gilbert to join a small team of researchers in 1962, and when Randolph died in 1968 with just two volumes completed, Gilbert was chosen to continue the work.
He added six further volumes in the following years, having been granted complete access to all of Churchill’s archives and files.
As he delved into Churchill’s background, he soon discovered the great man’s love of Israel and this led to a separate range of books into the Holocaust period and the time leading to the foundation of the state. Gilbert branched this out to create a market of its own, including a series of atlases illustrating the ingathering of the Jewish exiles.
Much of his earlier research involved traveling in his student days to the concentration camps in Poland that in turn sparked an interest in Jewry from Central Europe and Russia.
His book The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy is considered one of the most comprehensive on the subject.
By the 1980s Gilbert had joined the campaign to secure the release of Soviet Jews, and he particularly followed the case of Anatoly Shcharansky (later Natan Sharansky), which in turn led to another book about the prominent refusenik.
They became firm friends after Sharansky’s release.
The son of Peter and Miriam Gilbert, Martin was brought in a Jewish family in north London.
His father was a jeweler in London’s Hatton Garden.
He was a frequent visitor to Israel, and was often called on to speak about the formation of the Jewish state to audiences around the world, especially on cruises that he enjoyed.
With Gilbert’s friendships across the political spectrum in Britain, he was a frequent visitor to Downing Street and helped former prime minister Harold Wilson with his own memoirs. He was especially close to former premier John Major, with whom he held frequent conversations about the direction of policy on the Middle East. He was awarded a knighthood in 1995, which was for services to British history and international relations.
His most recent work related to the inquiry into the Iraq War.
The government’s archives on the war were opened for Gilbert and he spent three years going through thousands of otherwise secret documents. He reportedly had finished writing up his findings when, on a trip to Jerusalem in March 2012, he suffered a cardiac arrhythmia from which he never fully recovered.
Gilbert was an honorary fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and a distinguished fellow of Hillsdale College in Michigan, but he took special pleasure being the recipient of Israel’s Dan David Prize in honor of his achievements of outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact in 2012.
He married fellow Holocaust historian Esther Goldberg in 2005. He had one daughter with his first wife, Helen Constance Robinson, and two sons with his second wife, Susan Sacher.
Speaking about Israel, Gilbert said, “It is the country I have lived in, taught in, played in, seen my children grow up in – and hold in the highest esteem, for all its faults, which are in my view far outweighed by its virtues.”
He said writing about the Allied Forces’ response to news of the Holocaust in Auschwitz and the Allies had been his “most controversial,” while his book The Holocaust “generated by far the most correspondence and contact with individuals whom I would never otherwise have met.”
Reflecting on his career, he said, “My aim has always been to write history from the human perspective, never to neglect the person known as ‘the common man.’” Tributes in Britain were led by the Prime Minister David Cameron, who said that “His work on Churchill will serve generations to come.”
Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said, “British Jewry takes tremendous pride in the achievements of a truly great historian... His loss is deeply felt by us all.”
In remarks released ahead of his speech at Gilbert’s funeral, Ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub said that if modern Jewish history has a voice, it is the voice of Sir Martin Gilbert.
In one of his last books, Gilbert combined his two greatest historical passions, Churchill and the Jews. Churchill’s description of his vision of the role that could be played by a Jewish national home could not be more appropriate for Gilbert himself: “A blessing to the whole world, to the Jewish race and to Great Britain.”
Fellow academic and key member of the Chilcot Inquiry, Sir Lawrence Freedman, told The Jerusalem Post Gilbert was “a meticulous chronicler of some of the most dramatic events of recent times, who combined deep scholarship with great humor and generosity of spirit.”
Meanwhile, Holocaust professor David Cesarani told the Post British people knew Gilbert best as the author who chronicled the life of Winston Churchill, but that he made a huge contribution to writing modern Jewish history, the history of Israel and preeminently the fate of the Jews in the Nazi era.
At another level he was a friend and mentor to many young scholars.
US historian Deborah Lipstadt said: “It’s a great loss. Sir Martin was a good friend. He ignited in countless people an exceptional love of and excitement about history.
“He loved the Jewish people, the Jewish state and the history of both. He moved effortlessly and joyously in the world of Buckingham Palace, the White House, his local cafe, and his neighborhood shul. I shall miss him greatly. We all will,” she said.
Sam Sokol contributed to this report.