BY KEITH MORGAN
Wonderful tributes from around the world poured out following the recent passing of Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer and renowned Holocaust historian. When I heard of his death on February 3rd, after a lengthy illness, I shed tears for a man I proudly called a mentor and a friend. This man, who authored some 90 books in his 78 years, was a major influence on the writing of the Holocaust biography Ruta’s Closet, which I coauthored with the late Ruth Kron Sigal. Online archives are full of accounts about how the prolific British-born historian chronicled the life of Sir Winston Churchill and dedicated his life to reminding us all about the lessons of the Holocaust. Google his name to discover more about his scholarly achievements, for I will dwell no more on them here. Instead, I offer some personal insight on his humanity because obituaries show only glimpses of his generosity.
Gilbert had a long association with our country, having evacuated to central Canada after the outbreak of the Second World War. He would return many times after completing his education in the UK and even serve as an adjunct professor at University of Western Ontario, home to his third wife Esther Gilbert, nee Goldberg. The Churchill Society of British Columbia hosted him over the years. He also had a long association with the late Rudolf Vrba, the Auschwitz escapee who later made his life in Vancouver. And I recall listening to Sir Martin at the Schara Tzedeck Synagogue in 1998 when he spoke on behalf of Israel Bonds.
This encounter came shortly after I interviewed Ruth Kron Sigal about her family’s Holocaust experiences in Shavl, Lithuania, for The Province newspaper. Her story haunted me, particularly the loss of her sister Tamara in the Kinderaktion of November 1943, when upwards of 700 children were transported to their deaths at Auschwitz. A couple of years later we agreed to write a book and her dear friend, Robert Krell, suggested I talk to Sir Martin Gilbert.
“At a child survivors’ event in Jerusalem in the 1990s, Gilbert singled out Ruth in his speech;’ recalls Dr. Krell. “He had looked at the notes posted on the boards outside asking if anybody knew of this or that person’s whereabouts. He thanked her for continuing to inquire about Tamara after all the years had passed’
It made a deep impression on Ruth, who later told her story to the historian. As a British-born lad, I was in awe of knights and lords of the realm. I needn’t have been because after mentioning Dr. Krell and Ruth he immediately invited me to his London home. We talked for hours and even cooked together for a family member due to visit that night! As I was ready to depart he fixed me with a look I’m sure many a more learned student had witnessed before me. “Keith, you must tell this story and spread it as widely as possible because it is a very important one;’ he told me. “I will help you in any way I can but you must use your journalistic skills to make this story accessible to all, not just academics:’
Gilbert’s books are full of personal stories about real people with whom we can all relate. Indeed, he told some of Ruth’s story in his 2002 book about rescuers, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. Dr. Krell observes: “Many historians concern themselves only with dry facts and forget about people but Martin put humanity back into history:’
A recent tribute from historian Dr. Warren Dockter reinforced this observation and mirrored my personal experience. He wrote: “When I began my PhD on Churchill’s relationship with the Islamic world, Martin Gilbert welcomed me into his home in London, where we spoke about sources and ideas for hours. His motivating philosophy,” he said, “has always been to write history from the human perspective, never to neglect the person known as ‘the common man’ – whether man or woman, or child”.
The next time I visited to tell Gilbert I was having a tough time getting to certain officials in Lithuania and Israel, Cherie Blair and her Prime Minister husband Tony had just left. She was seeking his advice on a book she was writing. “You could have entertained Tony while we did our business;· Gilbert said. He wasn’t joking. To him one person was no more important than another was when it came to research. His next line confirmed that. ‘Anyway more importantly, let me arrange to open some doors for you:· And he did. If he had not done so then and offered counsel so often then I doubt that Ruta’.s Closet would have seen the light of day.
The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago when his dear wife Esther took me to see him in the Golders Green nursing home he moved into after a debilitating stroke. He smiled but could say nothing. I prefer to recall an earlier meeting in 2009, when I knocked on his door with the final manuscript in my sweaty hands. He grabbed it almost impatiently and began to read it voraciously, flipping the pages in a silence I dared not break. He finally looked up after what seemed like an eternity spent reading the three chapters on the Kinderaktion. I gulped and asked if he would consider writing the foreword. “Of course I will; the honour is mine after all your hard work;’ he responded. (Just a week later he supplied a foreword about which an author could only dream.) Then he jumped up and asked: “Will you come shopping with me:’ – I’ve.nothing in the house and my wife is returning from Israel tonight:’
What followed was an extremely funny visit to the local Waitrose supermarket, the story of which I have dined out on many times since. Sir Martin Gilbert had always been a driving force in Holocaust studies but that afternoon I learned that he loved also to drive the supermarket cart, the control of which he would not willingly share!
ZACHOR SPRING 2015
VANCOUVER HOLOCAUST EDUCATION CENTRE