In Memoriam

Sir Martin Gilbert

25 October 1936 – 3 February 2015    

Sir Martin on location in Burnham -on -Sea, Sommerset, 19 August 2009
19 August 2009, Sir Martin in Burnham -on -Sea, Somerset

To add your own tribute or memory to Sir Martin, please submit it through the Contact page. Tributes may be edited and extracts will be added below:

Personal Tributes

Barbara Wind, Director, Whippany, New Jersey: February 2015

The Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest mourns with profound sorrow the passing of Sir Martin Gilbert.

I consider myself very fortunate to have known him. He asked me to recommend survivors for a book he was working on about Righteous Rescuers. He and his beloved wife, Esther, came here for a program, and Joanna Ernst and her husband brought him to their son’s school, Delbarton, to do a presentation to the students and faculty. Our survivors were graciously invited to attend that event.

Sir Martin was a brilliant scholar, cartographer and writer as well as a warm and wonderful human being who left a lasting legacy that will inform current and future generations.

Alan Langstaff, Truro, UK: September 2015

“… his work has given me immense pleasure; and I’m sure the results of his labours will stand forever at the pinnacle of scholarly research and endeavour.”

Stephen Brazina: Naples, Florida: September 2015

“We have lost one of the great historians of the 20th century who provided us insight into the momentous events of our times.”

Clare Salters: UK: August 2015

“One of the things that struck me about him was his genuine interest in knowledge and his openness to others’ discovery of it and pleasure in learning new things and appreciation for others’ efforts.”

Alison Nelson: New Zealand: August 2015
“Thank you for including me in Sir Martin’s Newsletter mail outs. I have just finished reading the second one and wanted to say how fascinating I find it to be. What a prolific body of work your husband has created. how focused and diligent his work has been.”

Jeffrey Owens: July 2015
“You were an extraordinary man who lived through a fascinating time and have left an exceptional legacy behind you. Thank you for your years of laborious dedication to telling true history. Thank you also for the many correspondences between us and for your willingness to help me in my own project. Your books were among my most heavily cited resources in my research and your writing style influenced mine more than any other writer. I will always appreciate the signed copy of Atlas of the Second World War that you sent me, which I consider one of my most prized possessions. Rest in peace and may your life’s work continue to guide students of history for years to come.”

Sterling  Sunley: July 2015

“The quotation you have selected on the home page of the latest edition of the website is most fitting; throughout his almost superhuman body of work,  Martin was always confident that the truth was sufficiently dramatic to be impactful and that overt subjectivity and an excess of analysis diminished, rather than enhanced, the serious reader’s experience.”

David Gunning: July 2015

“I shall miss his infectious laugh on the telephone – he was a valued customer of mine when I had the pleasure of booking him a number of rail journeys across Europe. In response to an enquiry about where I could obtain his definitive history of the 20th Century, he sent me three heavy, hardback books and refused to be paid for them! At 1,000 pages each, I have managed two so far and am working on the third. There is so much of interest!”

Thom Gunn: July 2015

“I am very grateful that I got a chance to interview Sir Martin Gilbert. … He wasn’t much like what I expected — I was afraid he was going to be a humorless neocon and he was neither; best of all I could ask him the incisive questions that comes from a lifetime of research and, off the top of his head, he could fill in more details, correct impulsive conclusions and we could muse together about Winston, like two old men on a porch, sipping a lovely drink. it was a life highpoint. Last fall I visited Chartwell for a week and the same for the Churchill Library at Cambridge. At the table, transcribing Winston and Clementine’s letters, I looked over and marveled at the bookcases filled with Martin’s books, doffed my chapeau and said, under my breath, ‘well done on you — I’d give a lot to have a smidgeon of that sand.'”

Pat Finnegan: July 2015

“It was over 30 years ago that I first read Sir Martin’s ‘The Holocaust’. I was overwhelmed by the detail in the book: the horrific atrocity upon atrocity committed upon the Jewish people during WW2. What was even more astonishing, to me, were the names of those who died in the various massacres, etc.,. Most of whom were not well-known. Not many writers on the Holocaust would do something like this. Fast-forward to 2006. I stumbled upon Sir Martin’s Web site, and decided to write to him, and thank him for writing ‘The Holocaust’. And to my surprise–he wrote me back! He was gracious in his thanks. And it was the beginning of a most enjoyable email correspondence. He also sent me several of his books along the way: his one-volume Churchill biography, his Atlas of The First World War–and his ‘coffee-table-sized’ book on the history of the State of Israel. … And I treasure the memory of the humble and gracious man, who gave them to the world.”

Josh Zimmerman, Professor of History, Yeshiva University : July 2015

“… when I was in college in 1987, I took a survey course of the Holocaust and Sir Martin’s book ‘The Holocaust’ was our textbook. It had been published one year before, in 1986.  That is the book that made me go into the field.”

Tributes in the Media

Yad Vashem Studies, volume 43, number 1 (2015).

Sir Martin Gilbert was an excellent speaker and a prolific author who was able to reach very broad audiences regarding all the many subjects that he addressed – bit it the Holocaust, Soviet Jewry, Israel, Jewish history, and, of course, Winston Churchill.  He was also a very find mapmaker, with a quick eye and a vast knowledge.  I first encountered him personally when I was assistant editor of what was then a new journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. We had asked him to peer review an article on the Armenian genocide.  Not only did he return a very thorough peer review quite quickly, he also sent drafts of two maps that he had prepared to accompany the article when it would be published.  Over the years, whenever I had occasion to turn to him, Sir Martin was always prepared to help – and this was true not only in my case but for many others whose paths he crossed.”

Yad Vashem Studies 43(1), “Sir Martin Gilbert, 1936-2015” Bernard Wasserstein, 2015

“He was self-confident but also had a certain humility:  when a critic wrote an unfavorable review of one of his books, he wrote to him – not to complain or defend himself, but to ask for help in correcting the errors.  If he was sometimes thoughtless, his general demeanor was affable, generous in spirit, and kindly.  He would go out of his way to be helpful to others (including the present writer), often behind the scenes.  For example, upon hearing a few years ago that a Palestinian bookseller in Jerusalem was about to be deprived of his residence permit, Gilbert, who had shortly before received an award from Israeli President Shimon Peres, intervened quietly.  The expulsion order was rescinded.”

The Guardian: Richard Gott, 4 February 2015

Gilbert saw himself as a chronicler, carving a historical narrative from the documents and the archives, and allowing readers to make their own judgments. He was a master of detail but his particular genius, at first with Churchill and later with the Holocaust, was to bring into his books as many ordinary people as he could. He used to say that Churchill was such an impossibly large figure that his biography needed to be leavened with the presence of all the lesser mortals surrounding him. Gilbert made it his job to locate every surviving secretary and chauffeur, every pilot and gardener, who had ever worked for the great man. He maintained a huge correspondence with the totally unknown as well as the great and the good, and was endlessly generous to other researchers.

The Weekly Standard: The Scapbook, 16 February 2015

Like many great historians, Sir Martin was actively engaged with his times as well. A committed Zionist and authority on Jewish history, he helped to establish the discipline of Holocaust studies and explored the long epic of the Jewish diaspora, in Europe and elsewhere. He wrote about British diplomacy, Soviet refuseniks, the first and second World Wars, and the history of Jerusalem. He was a broadcaster, documentarian, and familiar voice on radio and television ….. Above all, he was a gentleman of genius and decency, who wrote hard truths and explained the world he inhabited.

New York Times: Margaret Fox, 5 February 2015

A hallmark of Mr. Gilbert’s work was his interest in writing history from the bottom up, incorporating the stories of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of epochal events. Even in writing the life of the top-down Churchill, he sought out the prime minister’s former secretaries, chauffeurs and other employees to lend the narrative a populist perspective.

Commentary: Seth Mandel, 4 February 2015

Early in my career in Jewish journalism, I was working on a column about the ideological considerations of interwar Zionists’ appeals to Western leaders. Winston Churchill obviously figured in this story, and so I knew immediately the best person to reach out to for input: Martin Gilbert. His response to that inquiry always stuck with me, and it’s only added to the sadness of the news today that Gilbert has passed away.

I emailed Gilbert my question. He responded with a warm note and emailed me a digital copy of a page of his manuscript for his book Churchill and the Jews. The book was already published (indeed it was already in paperback), so he could have referred me to the book. Had he wanted to be even more helpful, he could have given me a page number. But he sent me the page from the manuscript that he thought might be of the most help to my column in part because the page had his own notes on it. He was giving me not just the finished copy, but the thought process that led to it.

A few things struck me about the exchange. The first was that Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, had essentially volunteered to do my research for me. The second was that I had never met nor spoken to Gilbert before that, so it wasn’t as though he was taking this effort for a friend. Then I realized just how generous he must be with actual friends and colleagues.

But far more important for Gilbert’s legacy was what it said about his approach to historiography. Martin Gilbert had a rare combination of intellectual ambition and personal humility. On an issue related to Winston Churchill and also to the events leading up the founding of the State of Israel–two monumental subjects of the 20th century–there was absolutely no question that Gilbert was the man to ask. That is an accomplishment in itself.

Haaretz: Ofer Aderet, 4 February 2015

He studied and taught at Oxford, which became his academic home, but very frequently left the ivory tower for his research. He collected historical documents and testimony — including letters, diaries, minutes of meetings, conversations and photographs — from military cemeteries and battlefields, monuments throughout Europe and archives all over the world, including in Israel. He described himself as a “historian of archives,” who chose to write history from the perspective of the people.

Tablet Magazine: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen, 6 February 2015

As prodigious as his output as a scholar was, it was his generosity with people that I will remember most. Sir Martin was my friend. He had many to be sure, dignitaries and gardeners alike, but when he addressed you, his attention was yours.

As a senior in college in the late 2000s, I wanted to explore the Jewish life of the land of my birth, India. The paucity of search results at the library was offset by a curious sounding title that did show up: Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5000-year History of the Jewish People and their Faith. After deciding to take a train trip through Europe to India, the young Sir Martin had the chance to meet Fori Nehru, the mother of a close friend and the wife of senior Indian diplomat  B.K. Nehru, who was a former ambassador to Washington, high commissioner to London and a cousin of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. What was striking about “Auntie” Fori, in that respectfully affectionate Britishism, was that she was from a Jewish family in Budapest and had moved to England, where she met B.K., or “Biju” as he was known. She avoided the Nazi peril by marrying Biju, moving to India, and starting over as Sobha in what is a remarkable story in its own right. Only the Indo-Jewish union of the former Guyanese Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan to his wife Janet née Rosenberg rival Fori and Biju’s in prominence and improbability.

After his trip, Sir Martin was requested by Auntie Fori to write to her with the story of the Jewish people, as Auntie Fori knew little of her heritage. The resulting letters form a conversation that seems to breeze nonchalantly from Adam to Jews and Sports to, pace Chabon, the Jews of Alaska. One of the more touching stories recounted by Sir Martin was in his section on India, where he recounts how, in their long history on the Subcontinent, Jews never faced significant violence or persecution from the native population—an anomaly of history. And a record only recently marred by the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistani terrorists. Even after many years of digesting far more comprehensive surveys of Jewish history, the simplicity and delight of Letters to Auntie Fori remains, for me, undimmed.

The Jerusalem Post: Herb Krosney, 5 February 2015

Among other talents, he was an outstanding cartographer. His “map books” detailed various histories with extraordinary impact. He had an uncanny memory, possibly derived initially from his service in the British Army, and his memory was visual, not only verbal. He could walk down almost any Jerusalem street, and tell exactly what the street looked like in 1927 (or any other year), how it had changed in 1932 as this or that building was constructed while that other one was torn down, and how it looked somewhat later in 1946, or 1958.

By the way, he could do the same for London, so anyone who toured either city with Martin was fortunate to have a guide graced by genius. His tours for friends brought a city to life. His familiarity with the history of each city (and possibly other cities as well) was intimate, but the visual reconstruction in his memory was unlike that of any other person I’ve known. There was something gutsy about it, as if he personally had lived and experienced each year, each period, as if he personally knew and felt the joys and sorrows of that precise year or period.

…….When I was working closely with him, I was often asked by knowledgeable professional friends (that is, journalists) what kind of staff he had. The belief was that he had a number of interns, young graduate students, or others, industriously researching various subjects for the great author. That wasn’t the case. So far as I knew and could observe, as far as hired help goes, he had only a secretary who was not even full-time.

The Jewish Press: Jerry Amernic, 12 February  2015

He didn’t have to be helpful. He didn’t know me or anything about me, only that I had an idea for a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust, and wanted to speak to him. He was intrigued, so he agreed to sit down with me after his lecture at the University of Western Ontario in London. Make that London, Ontario, a Canadian city of 350,000 people 120 miles west of Toronto………There we were, along with his wife, Esther, sitting in a university cafeteria, surrounded by a throng of students who didn’t seem to know him from Adam. I told him about my premise – a novel set in the near future about a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor who is caught in a world that is woefully ignorant of the past century.

Did he think it far-fetched? No, not at all. And then he offered me this tidbit: “Why don’t you have an event in the year 2030 that would eclipse the Holocaust?” Hmm. What a thought. And that’s exactly what I did. Gilbert’s book, the quintessential treatise on the genocide of Jews during World War II, should be required reading for any history course on the 20th century.

……..The contribution this man made to history is beyond measure. He wrote about Soviet refuseniks and was known to be a devout Zionist, but he was also part of a not-for-profit think tank committed to improving conditions for Palestinians on the West Bank……A master documenter of events who would leave no stone unturned, he brought a sense of purpose and balance to everything he wrote.

The Jewish Daily Forward:  Masha Leon, 5 February 2015

The world has lost an amazing treasure

Emes Ve-Emunah: Paul Shaviv, 5 February 2015

He had a huge talent for analyzing mountains of documents, and for organizing masses of information into compelling narratives. His capacity for research and writing was incredible. He was not a theoretical or philosophical historian, but had an unrivalled ability to make history out of the individual stories of ordinary people.  Among his volumes of scholarship, one of my favorite books is ‘In Search of Churchill’ – the personal memoir of how he wrote and researched the Churchill biography.   He tells how in pre-internet, pre-cell phone days he searched out with unquenchable tenacity the minor characters who figured in the Churchill story – the drivers, the typists, the military officers, tracking them down in their retirement in rural English villages, years after the War.  Each had stories to tell; each could bring something to the story of ‘England’s Finest Hour’. 

The Jewish Quarterly: David Herman, 5  February 2015

…he was drawn to the great historical subjects of his time and though a passionate champion of archival research, his view stretched far beyond the ivory tower. His view of history was humane, books about great subjects for ordinary readers.

Office of the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis : 5 February 2015

The passing of Sir Martin Gilbert CBE is sad news for the entire Jewish world, for Great Britain and for historians everywhere.

Every educated Jew’s bookshelf has been enriched by at least some of Martin Gilbert’s many scholarly and accessible books. Few shelves are long enough to accommodate his entire body of work: over the course of an exceptionally dedicated and productive life he produced some 88 books. Many of these are extraordinarily visual for historical studies. Believing that the Jews have suffered from too much history and not enough geography, and that the study of the past makes insufficient sense without an understanding of place, he produced many atlases of Jewish, British, American, Russian and Israeli history based on original research among archives, documents, photographs and maps, and derived from extensive travel.

He took upon himself a massive workload. In addition to his essential and ground-breaking work on Holocaust history, he produced six volumes of the massive biography of his hero, Winston Churchill, as well as innumerable works on Israel and its history. He served the Soviet Jewry campaign with distinction and earned his knighthood for services to history as well as for his expertise on international relations. He described himself as a “pugnacious Zionist” and he had a deep appreciation for Israel’s vibrant life and its humane and democratic values. Illness very suddenly brought his career to an end, far too soon for a scholar and a gentleman who had so much more to give. He made his mark and he will be sorely missed.

Anti-Defamation League: 5 February 2015

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) mourns the loss of the noted author and historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, saying his death was a “great loss” to the Jewish people, to the United Kingdom, and to academia.

The Jewish Week: Rabbi David Wolpe, 18 February 2015

Gilbert was invited to be scholar-in-residence at my synagogue over a decade ago. I had read several of his books but never met the eminent historian and was excited to do so. Shortly before he came I fell ill with a seizure and brain tumor. I was recovering, and unable to go anywhere, the weekend he spoke. We had a brief conversation on the phone and I told him I was always interested in WWI, about which he had written a fine book. Three weeks later from England, a package arrived: five books on World War I, all signed by the authors who were friends of Gilbert’s.

A few years later when I recovered and was traveling in England, he invited me to his house to finally meet. Over dinner I told him how much his gracious gesture meant to me. He was characteristically diffident and humble. To be an historian of Gilbert’s caliber is extremely rare. To be renowned and so kind is a model from which all can learn, and so honor the memory of this true scholar and gentleman. May his memory be for a blessing.