Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

The promised land?

In R.Richardson, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm

‘Journey to Nowhere’ by Eva Figes

Non-fiction/memoir. Review by Ruth Richardson

I had read several novels by Eva Figes, but her latest work seemed a departure from her usual writing, and sounded particularly interesting.

In fact, Journey to Nowhere was not what I expected. The framework is the story of a Jewish woman’s survival in war-torn Berlin and her post-war emigration to Palestine. The woman is Edith, formerly a maid in the household of Eva Figes’ family. The family were well-to-do Jews who managed to get out of Berlin in the nick of time in 1939. Edith was left behind, and it was ten years later when she came to London that Eva Figes caught up with her story.

The first section of the book details the life of the Unger family (Eva’s parents) as she remembered it. She was only six when the family escaped to London, so her memories of that time are inevitably fragmented. But she conveys a sense of happy family life with skiing holidays and weekends in the summer cottage – a life which changed quite quickly. Eva’s parents soon knew that, as a Jewish family, life for them in Berlin would no longer be viable, and were preoccupied with arrangements that would secure their future. Eva was often left in the care of Edith who came to be her friend.

Fortunately the Unger family had money. They paid a considerable sum to leave and their sponsor was a Rothschild.

In 1948 a letter arrived in London from Edith asking for her old job back. So she came, and little by little the young Eva learnt her story. Edith had survived the round-up of the Jews, the bombing of Berlin and the final battle when Russian troops reached the city. Edith’s account of her life in the war-torn city is told in a series of conversations with Eva. When Edith first had to wear her yellow star she was ashamed, but in fact ordinary Berliners often treated her with sympathy, offering her a seat on the tram and giving her small gifts. She was sheltered by a whole succession of people “sometimes just for a couple of nights, sometimes for several weeks.”

Once the war was over and mere survival was no longer an imperative, Edith took stock of her life. By chance she met an old acquaintance, Elsa, who had trained as a volunteer for Palestine. Now her job was to recruit survivors for what would soon become the new Jewish state of Israel. So with nothing to keep her in Berlin, Edith decided to go. She was sent to a kibbutz and from the outset was deeply unhappy. Eva was amazed. British newsreels were full of “happy camp survivors reaching the Promised Land”. But Edith found herself ostracised because she came from Germany. German Jews were not true Zionists and, even more damning, wanted to establish friendly relations with the Arabs. “Everyone hated everyone else,” said Edith.”

Eva Figes quotes Olivia Manning describing Palestine during the war as “an awful place… all in small communities each one trying to corner everything for themselves, jobs, food, flats, houses.” Edith felt despised and was told she had only herself to blame. She should have left Germany and answered the call of Zion years before.

The young Eva found it hard to come to terms with Edith’s account. But the final section of the book is an analysis of the setting up of the state of Israel, the mistakes made and the parts played by the big powers. Eva Figes is particularly fierce in her attack on US policies. A quota system had been in force for European Jewish immigrants, and even after the war with perhaps 250,000 in displaced persons camps, this was not relaxed.

Eva Figes describes in some detail the negotiations between Britain with its mandate to govern Palestine and the US who wanted to wash their hands of it. The UN was involved and, partly due to US intervention, a majority came out in favour of partition – in effect giving a mandate for the creation of the state of Israel. Ernest Bevin declared at the time, “I think the Arab feeling in this question has been under-estimated.”

Eva Figes’ final chapter pulls no punches in her condemnation of that decision. “It is difficult to think of any other political decision taken in the 20th Century that has had such long-term and catastrophic consequences,” she writes.

This book, part memoir, part polemic, deserves to be widely read. Although the personal experiences described date from sixty years ago, the insight into the present situation in the Middle East is illuminating, and should concern us all.

Price £14.99, from Granta.


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