Remembering Sir Martin Gilbert

I never met Sir Martin Gilbert in person but he was a presence in my life for more than 35 years. His death this past February represents a great loss not only to the scholarly world but to generations of general readers who benefited from his insight and humanity.
I first confronted Martin Gilbert as a junior in high school—I purchased his study Final Journey at a Jewish bookstore in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. While Gilbert is celebrated as the official biographer of Winston Churchill—chronicling the great man’s life in detail and depth—Final Journey reveals what was so important about this historian’s work. It provided the faces and stories of Jews from all of Europe deported to the death camps in Poland.
He probed their lives, provided photographs, and delved into the biographies of those who could easily have been forgotten as statistics. In all of Gilbert’s studies of the Shoah, he always transcended the sheer magnitude of the numbers of Jews who were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators.
Reading Final Journey and his subsequent histories of the Holocaust brought a human face to the victims of mass murder and those who survived. In the field of Holocaust studies, Martin Gilbert’s groundbreaking study of Auschwitz and the Allies would alone have established his reputation as a great historian. I first encountered this study of Allied indifference to the genocide of Jews in Europe right before I graduated from high school in 1982.
In a scholarly and meticulous fashion, Gilbert brings us the devastating account of American and British failure to take actions that could have saved Jewish lives, especially after the Allies had the ability to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau by the spring of 1944.
The most damning indictment in this book can be found in photographs taken by Allied bombers that flew over Birkenau to bomb the industrial targets in Auschwitz: Visible in the photos are the chimneys of the crematoria and, in fact, one can see masses of Jews being led from the railroad sidings to the gas chambers.
Gilbert’s investigation of Allied indifference to the Jews remains a landmark in the study of the Holocaust and opened up new opportunities for historians to explore this disturbing episode in history. In 1994 I began a correspondence with Sir Martin Gilbert that continued for almost two decades.
The historian was preparing a study of the day of Allied victory in Europe and was advertising in the Jewish press for any accounts from eyewitnesses of the events of May 8, 1945. My father fought in the American army in the 97th Infantry Division and saw action in Germany and Bohemia in the last months of World War II. He encountered survivors of the genocide from Hungary and discovered a synagogue in a German town that likely been destroyed years earlier.
He wrote of these experiences in letters home to his immigrant parents in New York and I had saved the correspondence. Gilbert devoted a few pages that included my father’s account in The Day the War Ended, published on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. I remained in contact with Gilbert via “snail mail” for many years.
He always expressed interest in my work as an educator and writer and was always gracious and understanding. Martin Gilbert was not simply prolific—he brought humanity, depth, and integrity to the writing of history.