I returned from New York to Liverpool by ship in April 1944. Since then, having been a mini-part of history, I have never stopped travelling in search of history.
Sir Martin believed in visiting the places where history was made and those visits inspired his scholarship. From a 1952 visit to Vienna, then behind the Iron Curtain, 1957 through the Balkans to Turkey where he taught English, 1958 through Afghanistan to India where he worked in an orphanage, 1959 to Poland when he first visited Treblinka, 1962 through the United States, 1973 to Israel where he delivered bread by night through a blacked-out Jerusalem as a volunteer during the Yom Kippur War, 1983 to the Soviet Union where he began a tireless campaign for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate, and 2004 by train from Hong Kong to London, tracing the Soviet gulag archipelago as the train crept through Russia.
Sir Martin’s curiosity, his belief in human rights, and his passion to write “true history” has infused his life.
Researching and exploring, lecturing and teaching, Sir Martin had many travels to major cities throughout the United States and Canada. His travels through Europe included lectures in Lisbon, Cracow, Skopje, Kaunas, Prague, Geneva, and Paris, among others. In Asia, he has lectured in Moscow, Delhi, and Shanghai. In each place he visited old friends, made new ones, and was constantly making notes of personal experiences or eye-witness accounts he could weave into his books.
Armed with maps, copious notes and blank paper for more notes, pens, a camera, a watch for noting the times and distance travelled, Sir Martin set off. On several of his important journeys, he kept a diary – often hour-by-hour, inscribed in his neat hand and then typed on thin paper with carbon copies.
Although often he was there to research an earlier period of history, his writings and maps from those travels show a snapshot of what he found at that particular moment:
These unpublished diaries, segments of which are below, show both the past that he uncovered, and the present through which he moved that informed his later work.
India, 1958 (Aged 21)
During the university summer holidays, Sir Martin hitchhiked with a friend to India, arriving at the door of his Oxford friend’s parents, B.K. and Fori Nehru, quite sick with an upset stomach: 7 August 1958: Mrs Nehru has kept me under strict surveillance. For two days my rebellious stomach has been regimented with rice and yogurt; yogurt and rice. No sugar. No fruit, except bananas, no milk, no meat. Mrs Nehru catches me near the coffee, and I must retire ashamed like a child caught sticking his fingers in the honeycomb.
Under Mrs Nehru’s watchful eye, Sir Martin recuperated, and travelled to Benares, the holy city of Varanasi, where he worked in an orphanage, and visited the village of Rampur with Prem, the son of one of the village elders:
The village of Rampur lies almost two miles away from the nearest dirt road wide enough for jeeps. The only alternative to going on foot was to go by bullock cart, but as the bullock track had been flooded by the monsoon rains, Prem and I walked bare foot along the raised clay dykes that skirt the myriad paddy fields and tiny farmsteads. At the entrance to the village Chandrika, surrounded by a group of villagers, welcomed us, and took us to his house. His eldest son poured water from a brass pot on to the visitors’ hands and feet as a token of the family’s hospitality, for custom demands that the host himself washes the hands and feet of his guests when they arrive, and it would have been considered an insult had we taken the washing bowl into our own hands.
… “Ours is a simple life,” said Chandrika, “ruled by sun, rain and the food we have in our store. We have no electricity, no wireless, no picture house to rule it for us.”
Chandrika’s house is one of the most well-constructed in the village, and overlooks the largest of the three village ponds. The floors of the house are all of mud, yet kept as clean and as smooth as any tiled or parqueted city home. The women, and the girls once they have reached puberty, live at the back of the house, around the courtyard and the kitchen. The men, and the younger children, talk or play on the verandah. There are no tables and chairs. One sits, if one must sit, on the three cots that fill the verandah. But most people prefer to squat on the floor, waiting, as all must wait, for the rain to stop.
… Sitting with Chandrika was Udai Narayan, a man of about 50, whose face was worn with sadness, but whose wisdom at once commanded both respect and admiration. He, like Chandrika, was a village elder, and his house too overlooked the main pond.
… “If we must sweat and grow old searching for grain,” he asked, “how can we find time to worry about political matters? It is little concern of ours which man rules. Food and a roof must come first.” Food and a roof. To provide the first and to repair the second is a full time task.
… “For all of us villagers,” said Udai, “agriculture is not enough. We eat all the food we produce, and seldom have a surplus to sell. Yet we need money. Our homes must be repaired after the monsoon as the monkeys have attacked them; special food must be bought at festival time; and we must search for dowry money when we wish to find a husband for our daughters.” The size of the dowry is determined by caste. In this way Udai and Chandrika will have to spend much more than the tillers or the harijans.
“Our wealth disappears,” said Udai, “while theirs remains. For us Upper Caste men the dowry is the largest item of expenditure. With one daughter it is a strain. And I have four …. ”
Forty years after this first visit to India, Fori Nehru revealed to Sir Martin that she was interested in a history of the Jewish people, because in fact she had been born Jewish, in Hungary. Letters to Auntie Fori, The Story of the Jewish People, resulted, consisting of 140 letters he wrote to her over a two-year period. Sir Martin’s book, Servant of India, became his only published book of his life-long fascination with India.
Israel, 1973 (Aged 37)
In the autumn of 1973, while in Israel, Sir Martin found himself caught up in what became the October War, now known as the Yom Kippur War, because it began on the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Volunteering to help and, as he had hired a rental car, Sir Martin was sent to bring wounded soldiers off the Golan (his diary of this experience is reprinted in facsimile in his book The Story of Israel), to deliver bread to bakeries during the night in black-out conditions (where he learned the streets of Jerusalem, as developed in his Jerusalem Atlas), and driving former soldiers to tell parents about their children who were serving as soldiers (where he was reminded of the human toll of war). His diary of that time begins with how he, his family and friends first heard the news as it unfolded on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement:
I arrived in Israel on the evening of 4th October, having been given a research scholarship to complete the Palestine chapters of Sir Winston Churchill’s official biography. As part of the scholarship, I was provided with a rented car. The car was waiting at Lod Airport ….
Saturday, October 6: 12.00 … What a strange day the Day of Atonement is. All shops are closed. All petrol stations are closed. There are no buses, no taxis, virtually no private cars on the road. All broadcasting is closed down, there is no television, no newspapers …. a whole nation is at prayer, or indoors. Those who are fasting spend most of the day in the synagogue. Those who do not observe the religious practices, remain indoors.
1.30 pm … The … guest arrives. “I am surprised to see you here,” he says to my host. And then he tells us that the man who was sitting next to him in synagogue has been called up, that throughout the morning, call up notices were being brought to people while they were praying, that there are many cars on the streets. “This is impossible, unprecedented,” he says, “something must be up.”
2 pm … Our host gets up to go. Puzzled, we say goodbye to him. “Will you be back tonight?” we ask. “Perhaps,” he replies. He looks very serious.
2.02 pm We hear our host starting up his car. But as we listen, it is a strange noise that fills the air, not a car engine at all, but a siren. “What is that?” I ask. “An air-raid warning,” replies my host’s wife. “Do they happen often?” I ask her. “There has not been one since the Six-Day war, since June 1967,” comes the reply. Everybody looks puzzled.
2.30 pm …We keep the wireless on. There is nothing but music – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. We all listen in silence, waiting.
3.30 pm News flash: “Egypt and Syria have attacked. Partial mobilization has been ordered. …”
4 pm News flash: ” All inessential traffic to keep off the main roads. Petrol stations are opening at once.” There is no more news; when the news flash ends, classical music returns, still Beethoven. We sit in silence, gloomy, listening, waiting.
4.15 pm News flash: “When the siren goes again, everyone is to go to their shelter.”
4.20 pm News flash: “All public road transport is to start at once. An emergency hospital has been opened for military casualties. All non-emergency patients in hospital will return home.”
4.25 pm News flash: ” According to Syrian and Egyptian radio,” says the Israeli announcer, “the armies of Syria and Egypt have launched a major attack upon Israel, following what they say is an Israeli attack across the Suez Canal.”
4.30 pm My host telephones. He has reached his unit. … “It is quite untrue,” he says, “that Israeli troops crossed the Suez Canal and invaded Egypt.”
4.40 pm News flash: “There is fierce fighting in Sinai. The Egyptians have crossed the Suez Canal and are on the East bank.”
4.45 pm News flash: “The Egyptians have crossed the Canal at several points. There is fighting on land and in the air. …”
4.55 pm Two old ladies arrive. One of them brings Scotch tape to stick on the windows in case of an air-raid. Both ladies are over eighty. Both came to the country when it was still under Turkish rule. Since the establishment of Israel twenty-five years ago they have watched younger generations fight four times for the preservation of their state. One lady looks combative, the other looks sad. The combative one tells us that she still has the tape on her windows from the Six-Day War – six years ago – when the Jordanians shelled the residential areas of Jerusalem and many private homes were damaged.
And so Sir Martin began a life-long interest in the fate of Israel, and the history of the land, a state and its people, throughout their near-constant struggles, successes, opportunities of peace-making, and those who have worked to try to make that illusive peace a reality. Read more from Sir Martin’s Israel & Jewish History Collection
Poland, 1980 (Aged 44)
Among his many trips to Poland, the first as a university student in 1959, the last in 2011, was this August 1980 visit to the former Jewish cities, towns and villages, to the mass murder sites and death camps to which the Jews of Europe were taken to be murdered, recorded in a travel journal. In August 1980, Poland was still a Soviet satellite country, but the “Solidarity” anti-communist trade union began a series of strikes and labour unrest that within a decade brought about a dismantling of the communist government and set an example of anti-communist ideas and movements throughout the Eastern-bloc Soviet-satellite countries. This is the atmosphere of unrest and instability that greeted Sir Martin when he landed in Warsaw on a journey to uncover a history but thirty-five years old – the same historical span as those days of social and political unrest in 1980 to today:
Monday, August 4: Warsaw, Treblinka, Bialystok Warsaw:
Last night it was difficult to get to sleep. Some strange mechanical screeching: no doubt the hotel’s heating system, woke me up like the screams of the millions who perished. I had walked last evening – only for a few paces – across the rubble of their once vibrant world. Now the night was filled with their shrieking.
Travelling from 3 till 8. A maze of impressions: the deeply rural character of the countryside, the wooden houses, the story village by village of our people’s suffering, of Polish suffering, of Russian prisoners of war murdered while in brutal and helpless subjugation.
Treblinka was silent, its stone monuments muted, fragmented. Its “lay-out” incredibly simple: the railway line, the “ramp”, the road to the gas chamber, the pit for the bodies, and all around, woods, and under foot, even in the very centre of the camp, wild flowers, in beautiful profusion. I did not have the heart, or courage, to pick one. The whole scene was a nightmare, in the guise of an idyll. Even the massive monument at the site of the gas chamber did not seem so large or vulgar, despite its size. Everything was muted, and the silence was total. Bialystok: Fifty thousand Jews here once, more than a third of the whole town. In Tsarist times it was half. Now they are all gone. Most of them lie at Treblinka, amid the ash in which the flowers and pine trees grow so profusely. No individual graves. No children to mourn. Their children lie with them.
August 5: Bialystok, Zabludow, Narew, Hajnowka, Bielsk Podlaski, Drohiczyn, Tonkele, Sokolow, Siedlce, Lukow, Kock, Lublin August 6: Lublin, Markuszow, Lubartow, Parczew, Makoszka, Bialka, Wlodawa, Sobibor, Chelm, Lublin, 333 kms.
Wlodawa: Security police sees me photographing from car, and flags us down. The Interpress letter does the trick. The security man is all apologies: and this on the Soviet border!
August 7: Lublin, Izbica, Zamosc, Tomaszow, Belzec, Hrubieszow, Zosin, Teratyn, Chelm, Lublin, 355 kms.
Hrubieszow: Asking the way, the drunks are always the first to push forward their advice, at every street corner. On to the “nose of the Bug”. Spectacular views across the Bug to the Soviet Union.
At one point, five gaunt watchtowers; at another, the border force clearly visible about the sandy cliffs of the eastern bank.
At another, a long goods train with two diesel engines shunters on. The border bridge. The Polish border barriers. My guide expresses some inner excitement and nervousness at being so near – for the first time in his life, I believe – to the Soviet border.
August 8: Lublin, Majdanek, Krasnik, Rozwadow, Stalowa Wola, Tarnobrzeg, Baranow, Radonysl, Tarnow, 213 kms.
Drive to Majdanek, through the early morning hustle of Lublin, and the now familiar queue outside the breadshop. The camp. The monument. The walk to the perimeter fence. The women’s S.S. Barracks intact. The two lines of wire. The watchtowers. The ditches. The crematorium and gas chamber. Utterly horrific. A small room with a low ceiling and a small square grill for the gas pellets. Off it, a dissecting room to find hidden gold or jewellery. Beyond it, a room for collecting the dead. Then, the crematorium itself: the retorts, the metal “stretchers”, the ovens at the back: the room at the side: the bath and shower, the “cool room” the S.S. Overseer used when things became too hot and messy. A wooden frame building. The brick chimney with its metal rings. The whole scene utterly revolting: not a mock up, not a museum, not a replica: but a gas chamber in which tens and tens of thousands were killed: more than 50,000 of them women and children. I feel sick, and filthy. It is all utterly grotesque.
August 9: Tarnow, Gorlice, Krynica, Stary Sacz, Nowy Sacz, Cracow
August 10: Cracow, Plaszow, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Chrzanow, Trzebinia, Okusz, Zawierce, Czestochowa
August 11: Czestochowa, Radomsko, Kamiensk, Belchatow, Zdunska Wola, Sieradz, Kalisz, 194 kms.
August 12: Kalisz, Turek, Uniejow, Dabie, Chelmno, Powierce, Zawadki, Kolo, Babiak, Sompolno, Izbica Kuj, Wloclawek, Kowal, Gostynin, Sochachew, Blonie, Warsaw
A flat, dull landscape, even in the evening sun. Then the excitement of reaching the city, after 2,800 kilometres in search of a lost world, a brief travel in memory of three million murdered people. Fields, monuments, ruins, dilapidated buildings, a handful of survivors, silent stories, voluble witnesses …. I have been fortunate to catch a glimpse of the world that came to an end forty years ago: an abrupt, terrible end, and for me, a tiny, timid glimpse. A thousand photographs, ten thousand questions, a hundred thousand silences …..
For my own grandparents, the story of 1939 to 1945 was an unknown and unsuspected future. Their world was the world of Tsarist oppression, and hope in emigration. For my parents, the evil day came when they were in their prime: when I was a small boy, and when they could only read in horror of the destruction of the world of which their parents, aunts and uncles had once been a part. And now, for me as an adult, the days of destruction are in the past, the life of the Jews of Poland is in the past, and the hopes they once had for their children were shattered, and never came to pass. Even their children were murdered. And no monuments do, or could, record their names and story. Six million unbuilt monuments, so many million unknown names, and so many million untold stories, and unfulfilled expectations.
As I wandered about the terrible fields of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno – four camps devoted to death alone – and the horrendous still standing huts of Majdanek and Auschwitz – I thought again and again of the children, not as babies and young ones, but as men and women of my age. They too had the promise of growing up, of enjoying the challenges of life, of careers, of struggle, of achievement, of creating life in their turn as fathers and mothers themselves: all the things that I have been able to do. But this was denied them. They had no choice and no say. They were guilty of no crime. They were innocent. And now we shall never know what they might have done in these very towns and villages where I have wandered, and in fifty thousand more such places. Cities and villages, nations, and civilisation itself, would all have been enriched by their energies. Now there is a gap and a stillness. But at night their final cry is still carried on the wind. Read more from Sir Martin’s Holocaust Collection
Ukraine, 1991 (Aged 54)
Eleven years after Sir Martin’s trip to Poland, described above, Ukraine voted for independence from the Soviet Union, the last of the Soviet satellite countries to break free, and within months of the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. It was in those immediate days of changeover that an invitation to address a conference in Kiev brought Sir Martin to the newly-independent Ukraine in September 1991. Along with the opportunity to see Kiev at that particular historic moment, the trip also offered an opportunity to visit the areas of Western Ukraine he had glimpsed from afar eleven years before, and to visit and research Jewish life and resistance there during the Second World War:
Monday, September 30 8.40 am I am sitting in an aeroplane at Heathrow about to take off for Vienna. Until twelve hours ago I did not think that I would be making this journey. I have been asked to deliver a paper at a conference in Kiev to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar at the end of September 1941.
1.40 pm Fly above Kiev and cross the Dneiper. Land at Borispol Airport five minutes later (3.45 pm local time). There are no other foreign airlines on the tarmac, and only a ten minute wait to get through passport control into the small baggage hall. ….
Outside the Parliament building the Hammer and Sickle flag has gone from its flagpole, which is now flagless. The blue and yellow flag of the Ukraine flies unchallenged. Less than six weeks ago, on 24 August 1991, Ukraine declared its independence. All is now changing, sometimes visibly so. ….
Next to the Lenin statue being dismantled is a highly-coloured dramatic wall painting of Babi Yar. At the international telegram counter at the main Post Office, the person in front of me and the person behind me are both sending telegrams to relatives in Israel. In the last two years more than 330,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, more than ten thousand from Kiev. A further 80,000 Jews have left for the United States, in all a massive exodus of educated people. The most recent emigration figures, for September 1991, are: 9,877 to Israel, 4,163 to the United States.
There were Jews in Kiev a thousand years ago. In 1923, they formed a third of the population.
Wednesday, October 2
The conference is to meet, not in the Lenin Museum, but in the “former” Lenin Museum. They have not yet chosen a new name. The Ukrainian blue and yellow flag flies everywhere. The only hammer and sickles are those carved in the stonework. “They will all have to go,” I am told. ….
It is announced that our conference will be the last one to have its proceedings in Russian. Future conferences will be in Ukrainian. A complete set of new simultaneous translators will be needed. The first speaker then begins. He is the Deputy Prime Minister of the Ukraine, Kommisarenko. He starts by saying that he will speak in Ukrainian!
Five years ago it was considered bad taste, even worse, to speak Ukrainian at official meetings. You did not even hear Ukrainian spoke in the street. Russian was the language, and Russian the “orientation”. All that is being swept away. The eleven million Russians who live in the Ukraine are no longer the representatives of the master and of the capital: they are now merely a minority.
Monday, October 7
7.30 am. Lvov.
Walk into the city for the last time, to the Bernadine Monastery. It was here, shortly after the city was liberated in the summer of 1944, that a group of ten Jews, including two children, emerged from the sewers, to the amazement of those in the street. They had been hiding in the filth and darkness from 1 June 1943 to 28 July 1944. They survived because of the help given to them, at the risk of his life, by a Polish sewer worker, Leopold Socha.
Standing in the square, I read aloud from Robert Marshall’s account of this extraordinary episode: “In the Sewers of Lvov.”
See The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust for Sir Martin’s description of these events.
10.30 am. Leave Lvov for Warsaw …. It is ten years since my last visit. The changes are complete. The Polish eagle is now topped with a crown. In Parliament they had a fierce debate as to what sort of crown. Should it be a Renaissance crown with a cross, or a Gothic crown without a cross. The Gothic crown won the day. It is bright gold. I see one on the wall of the police station in the Old City, in whose very cells a student had been beaten to death a decade ago, one of the catalysts of the Polish revolution. As in the Ukraine, the changes of names in Poland has been an essential part of the new order, or at least of the end of the old order. Even “Red Peak” in the Tatra mountains has had its name changed. Nowotki Street, named after a Polish communist leader, is now General Anders Street. The changes began after the elections of June 1989. In 1990m they gathered momentum. Now they are complete. Marchlewski Street has become Pope John Paul II Street. ….
Tuesday, October 8
Reach Warsaw airport and pass easily through the controls and on to the plane. How well I remember the troubles and anxieties in 1968 at this very airport, with the border police making a final check at the bottom of the steps up to the plane, and taking away a Pole whose documents were not in order.
The old fears have gone, nor can they be compared with the new economic apprehensions. Then, it was a matter of liberty and survival. Now it is a matter of adjustment.
3.05 pm Airborne. Because of the end of the Iron Curtain, we no longer have to fly over the Baltic Sea and the North Sea in order to avoid East Germany. So now it is only a two-hour flight, due west. ….
We fly to the south of the united city of Berlin, then across the Elbe.
5.06 pm Land at Heathrow. An unexpected journey is at an end.
Read more from Sir Martin’s 20th Century Collection