The “Roots” Trips

Photo: Sir Harry Solomon and Sir Martin

This piece, presented by Martin’s dear friend Sir Harry Solomon, is taken from a talk he delivered at the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre on 26 June 2020. Sir Harry is a founder of the Centre and Chair of the Trustees.

2500 words/13 minute read

I would like to try to explain to you why I felt it was so important that we founded the SMGLC and why Martin Gilbert, apart from being a very great and dear friend and mentor, was also a wonderful writer and historian. For me, his most important attribute was his commitment and dedication to ensure the accuracy of everything he wrote. His detailed research into all his work was always thoroughly conducted from his work in archives throughout the world. Through his use of eyewitness accounts, diaries, letters, memoirs and every other possible resource, Martin made sure that what he wrote was not only true, but fascinating for the reader. He was convinced that all of us today have so much to learn from history. I was a great admirer of his and he was an inspiration to me.

 I feel the best way to explain the real Martin Gilbert, not just the prolific writer of history, is for me to take you on a trip down memory lane. One day, in 1997, when Martin and I were having lunch, I told him that I wanted to visit the shtetl in Galicia – now a part of Ukraine – where my paternal grandparents had come from. I wanted to discover my “Roots”. He immediately said why don’t we go together – we can make a real trip of it! I was delighted.  We agreed that we should be accompanied by my brother and my son, and two great American friends of mine who are keen historians and admirers of Martin. Martin said we would need at least 8/10 days and we agreed the dates when we would go. He said he would plan everything in detail – and he certainly did. So the “Roots” trips began.

Martin insisted that the only way we could get the real feel and smell of travel across Europe before and during the Second World War, was by train. On that first trip, we changed trains in Paris and caught the overnight train from Paris to Berlin. We were only in Berlin a day, during which time Martin insisted that we spent time at the Villa Wannsee.

He explained that over a relaxed and companionable breakfast, the senior German leaders present delineated in great detail how to define a Jew, and how they intended to deal with the “Jewish problem”. Martin read to us the minutes of that meeting, which were chilling – they read like the minutes of any other business meeting many of us have attended. But what was decided there sealed the fate of millions of Jews across Europe.

From Berlin we caught the train to Cracow. I should say here that Martin’s organisation was meticulous and every minute of every day was planned in a way that we made the most of every moment. At every stop, maybe up to 20 a day, Martin had prepared his “readings” and we would gather round him as he would explain, often from testimonies or eye witness accounts exactly what had happened at that precise point.

After about 3 to 4 hours from Berlin, Martin said “Chaps” – that’s how he would address us – “in approximately three minutes if you please look out of the window the train will pass a stream with a small bridge over it. That was exactly where the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918, when Russia recognised the independence of Ukraine – ironic today – isn’t it?” And in exactly three minutes, there was the bridge and the stream.

Cracow was fascinating, with moving testimonies and eye witness accounts read from the platform of the railway station where many of the Jews from Cracow were sent to the Belzec death camp. We also visited a smaller concentration camp in Cracow itself called Plaszow, again with Martin reading moving and difficult testimonies.

 We visited many places that showed what a flourishing city this was for Jews before the war, hospitals, schools and homes. At one point we were standing outside what had been a Jewish hospital before the occupation, now a prison. Martin was reading to us the terrible events on the day the Germans decided to clear the hospital, when suddenly out of the main gates of the hospital ran two burly and angry Polish policemen. Shouting at us, they snatched the camera from one of my American friends, who had been taking photographs, and started to pull him towards the gates of the prison.

Suddenly Martin started screaming in Polish (would you believe?) at the policemen, waving his finger at them and confronting them in a very menacing way. The policemen froze and then muttered some obvious apologies, handed back the camera to my American friend, bowed (would you believe?) and slunk back through the prison gates. We asked Martin what on earth he had said to them. By the way none of us knew he spoke Polish fluently!

He said he told them we were a foreign delegation visiting Cracow at the invitation of the Polish Interior Minister, whose name he gave them. He told them that they were behaving disgracefully and unless they apologise and hand back the camera he would report them. It certainly did the trick!

From Cracow, we went by overnight train to Lviv. The six of us were together in a First Class sleeper compartment and we were trying to get some sleep, but the people in the next compartment were being very noisy and the door of their compartment was constantly opening and closing. After a couple of hours of this, Martin said, “I have had enough of this and I am going to tell them to be quiet”. He stomped out of our compartment, but came back in a few minutes looking very abashed.

In a somewhat sheepish way he explained that the last two compartments of our carriage were occupied by two prostitutes who were plying their trade on the overnight train. Apparently he had had a discussion with their manager, who was standing outside in the corridor and thought that Martin was a potential client.

Lviv had been full of a vibrant Jewish life before the War and it was our jumping off point to discover my Roots. The next day we took a local train, and arrived at the station for Mosciska, which was the town where my grandparents came from.

Martin had arranged to have a car with a driver meet us and we found the street where my grandparents had lived, the synagogue where they had prayed – now a grain warehouse – and many other places of interest. We then had an extraordinary experience there. Martin asked various locals – all of them unhelpful and surly – where the Jewish Cemetery was located. He knew there had to be one there. Eventually someone told him that the cemetery was in some wood, about 3 to 4 miles outside the town and he gave the directions to our Polish driver.

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The Roots “Chaps”: left to right Sir Harry Solomon, Michael Phillips, David Solomon, Dr Carl Herbert, Sir Martin, Bernard Pucker, photo courtesy of Bernard Pucker

We drove but could not find the place and stopped at a farm to ask directions. A farmer came out and Martin spoke to him, and he seemed very defensive. Martin explained that the farmer had told him that the Jews of Mosciska had all been rounded up and murdered one day by the Germans, but his family knew nothing more about it until afterwards. He was obviously very uncomfortable. However, he did tell us where to find the burial places and sure enough, not far away in the centre of the wood, were Jewish gravestones, mostly broken and in disrepair.

We said Kaddish and were standing in front of the graves, silent all of us with our thoughts, when suddenly an old man rushed into the wood and started to plead with us. We asked Martin what he was saying and I remember Martin with tears in his eyes told us. He said that “he and his family did not kill the Jews, they only robbed them afterwards”. It was a terrible moment.

From Lviv we went to Warsaw, where there was one incident that made an enormous emotional impact on us. We stood outside an apartment building and Martin told us that in that block on the third floor lived a young mother with a very young baby and her invalid mother.

One morning she needed to feed the baby who was crying, but found she had no milk or baby food. She decided to dash to the corner shop, to buy some food leaving the baby and her mother on their own in the flat, for what she thought was just a few minutes. She ran straight into a German patrol, who arrested her – it was during a curfew – and despite her cries and entreaties about her baby and sick mother, they took her away and she was never seen again. That story remains with me; I have never forgotten how upset we were by it.

One final memory from Warsaw. Martin wanted to see an old friend of his who lived in a big apartment building which had been occupied by many Jews before the War. We stood in the courtyard of the building as Martin was reading to us some of the events that had happened there. Suddenly from three or four windows above, the residents started throwing potatoes at us. Martin said that they were terrified that we had come to claim their homes that may have belonged to Jews before the War.

So ended our first Roots trip, but so successful was it that we agreed there and then that we would make these trips every year. In all there were 11 of them.

Roots 2, in1998, was the Israel War of Independence 1947/48 – we spent two days in Jerusalem learning in detail about the Siege and the bloody battles there. We went to Latrun and the kibbutzim on every border, it was extraordinary and uplifting.

Before we made this trip to Israel, Martin was asked by the Duke of Edinburgh – we never knew whether he was asked personally or by someone on behalf of the Duke – if whilst we were there he would visit the grave of his Mother, Princess Alice of Greece. She is buried in the Church of Mary Magdalene on Mount of Olives, which is a Greek Orthodox Church. Princess Alice saved many Jewish lives during the Second World War and she is honoured in Israel as a Righteous Gentile. We made the visit and the Nuns were expecting us and with great reverence, took us to look at Princess Alice’s resting place.

Roots 3 was to the Western Front – graphic accounts of gas warfare, trench life and visits to many Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries. At each of these War Cemeteries there are Jewish soldiers who are buried there. Each of their gravestones has a Magen David on it and we made it our duty to try to find as many Magen Davids as we could and say Kaddish next to each one.

What is so extraordinary was the infinite care Martin took to ensure that there could be no doubt or compromise about the authenticity and accuracy of everything he told us. While on the Western Front, we had really bad weather. It rained continually, but obviously Martin did not allow this to curtail or affect our programme in any way. One day Martin asked the driver to stop at the edge of a large field that was so muddy it was almost water logged. Without hesitation Martin jumped out of the vehicle – issued his normal instruction “come on chaps, follow me” and ploughed ahead into the field, clutching his readings and of course his ever present maps. Somewhat reluctantly, but obediently, we all trudged and squelched behind him.

A few minutes later, after we were all soaked to the skin and up to our ankles in mud, Martin called us to a halt. After a final scrutiny of one of his maps – this was the one of allied trenches – he announced that we were at the precise spot where Churchill had been with his Regiment in 1916, and then proceeded to read to us Churchill’s account of a typical day spent in the trenches at that time. Martin then pointed to a small wood about two hundred yards away, and told us that at the time Churchill had written that account, Hitler was actually with his regiment in those very woods and had been wounded there. That was the nearest the two of them ever were. We were left wondering how history would have been so different if Hitler’s wounds had been more serious. It was a spine tingling moment.

Despite the awful weather conditions, it would have been inconceivable for Martin to have told us all this from the road: we had to be where history was actually made.

Roots 4 was Budapest – and demonstrated how the Germans were determined to insure they killed all the Jews in Europe, rather than concentrate their efforts only on the war. We went to the house where Eichmann and his cronies had stayed. He actually went to Budapest himself, to supervise and make sure as many Jews as possible were deported. We also talked a lot about Raoul Wallenberg and all the efforts he made to save Jews – a great man.

Subsequent trips were to Normandy to learn about the landings and the bloody weeks of battle that followed, and to Italy to the battle for the monastery at Monte Cassino. After that, Istanbul where we were fascinated by the history of Jewish life there and its importance for Jews during the war as the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

The next year we did a specific visit for 4 days to the Battle of the Somme and apart from our first Roots trip, I think that was probably the most traumatic. We walked the ground where in the first morning of the battle, British soldiers had been ordered to advance on foot towards the German defences, up a slight incline, where they were mowed down by German machine guns. It was the worst day in the history of the British army and they suffered 57,000 casualties and 19,000 killed – a massacre.

The next year we visited St Petersburg; our penultimate trip was to India, which we were all very excited about, but at the last moment, due to illness in the family, Martin could not go. I was left with his notes to be the leader of the tour. Our final trip, in 2011, was to wartime Paris – the Velodrome where Jews were taken after mass arrests, and Drancy, the detention camp where they were sent before deportation – all very depressing.

These then were our Roots trips – all unforgettable. There were other trips with Martin and Esther, to Ramallah on the West Bank, visits to the Villas in the South of France where Churchill had spent time, and many other fascinating times we spent together.

To Martin truth and authenticity were everything – he would not have recognised the whole concept of fake news. He taught us how necessary it is that we understand and learn from events of the past and in today’s volatile and dangerous world, how important this is.

Martin taught us that we should always remember the very wise words “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That is why I believe Martin’s legacy and the work of this Centre are so important and relevant today.

 Read: Second World War

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