How these atlases came to be: The Jewish History Atlas, 9th edition

Photo: The 1921 travels of Dr Issac Ochberg to collect 181 Jewish orphan children from an area that is now northwest Ukraine and southern Belarus, and bring them to safety in South Africa.  One of the new maps added to the Jewish History Atlas.

700 words / 3 ½ minute read

Every few years, Martin’s editor at Routledge, the indomitable Eve Setch, would come to Martin to discuss new editions of his historical atlases.  Routledge publishes nine Martin Gilbert atlases and new editions meant Martin creating a number of new maps for the atlas of the moment.  He had ideas of what stories to depict in his maps and he solicited ideas of what stories might be told.  Martin’s first love was geography which he saw as a way to give us a picture of the history and why it happened there, in that way.  He saw the geography and the history as two integral aspects to any story.

After Martin died, Eve, who I had known throughout her working relationship with Martin, suggested new editions would be in order and could I draw new maps, or find someone who would.  I didn’t know the geography well enough to be able to draw new maps and I didn’t want to dilute Martin’s work with someone else’s maps.  But … I suggested we might borrow maps from his other books.

Trawling through Martin’s collection of writings I found enough maps to warrant new editions for three of his atlases.  New maps would be slotted in to follow not only the chronological development of the history but also in keeping with Martin’s idea that the reader shouldn’t have to keep turning the book this way and that to see the maps:  the maps on each two-page spread should, if at all possible, both be positioned either landscape or portrait.  On September 12, the three atlases will be ready to greet the world.  In subsequent newsletters I will explore each new atlas.  September is the month of the Jewish New Year, so what better time to dip into the new Jewish History Atlas.

In the summer of 1971, I was on an American college’s summer tour of Europe (which at that time meant Western Europe).  We were studying the Renaissance.  After what seemed to my mind visits to endless churches and cathedrals, I found some relief from the hot Italian sun on the shady steps of yet another church.  Where were the Jews in this, I wondered.  Granted, the way to study the Renaissance is in churches and cathedrals and if that mainly involved ceilings and frescoes and statues, the Jews really didn’t have much to add in that department (other than some of the original stories depicted).  Jews are proscribed from creating graven images.  Still, what was the background of the Jews in Europe?  Were there periods of productivity and being allowed to flourish, or was it all Crusades and Inquisition and Shylock and ghettos and expulsions?

Years later, being introduced to Martin’s Atlas of Jewish History, I realised this was the answer to my questions.  What had Jews experienced, what had they added to their societies, what had they endured?  And then, years after that, I had the responsibility – and privilege – of taking this book apart and putting it back together.

Thirty-nine maps have been added, bringing the total to 196 maps, now divided into 6 sections of the nearly 4,000 years of history.  New maps extend beyond the traditional borders of Europe to Arab and Muslim lands, to the former Soviet Union and the Far East, to the Americas and Africa, each with their own Jewish story to tell.  In addition I created an index of places and, where possible, the different names or spellings a place enjoyed, and an index of individuals.  It seems there are very few places that do not have some Jewish resonance, though much has been forgotten or wiped out.  In history, in geography, it remains, and in Martin’s way, the story is told.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had agreed to write a Foreword for the new atlas.  Sadly, in the years it took to put the book together and secure permissions to use the new maps, the Foreword never got out of his To Do pile when he laid down his pen.  Very kindly, his office allowed us to use the remarks Rabbi Sacks made when he heard Martin had died.  What more fitting way to launch this atlas than to begin it with the Lord Rabbi Sacks’ view of Sir Martin as an historian and a friend.

Read: The Jewish History Atlas

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