- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010


By Eva Figes

Granta Books/ Trafalgar Square, $15.95 184 pages


British writer Eva Figes‘ “Journey to Nowhere” begins innocuously enough with her desire to tell her young granddaughters something of her personal history as a German Jew forced out by the Nazis. Her story is a familiar one, with a few individualistic wrinkles.

A Berlin Jewish family so comfortably off that, even after more than five years of discrimination, it takes Kristallnacht - and a sojourn in Dachau for her father - to jolt them out of complacency and into exile in London. A grandmother so rich that her Swiss bank accounts enable her to live on through most of the war in Berlin, before buying her way out to die in bed in Sweden. It’s a story worth telling, as an individual to her descendants and as a writer to the world, a personal history she has a perfect right to tell.

But there’s a great deal more to this book than a grandmother’s tale of escape and survival. The evil of Hitler and the Nazis is taken for granted, but there is other villainy for Ms. Figes, which soon makes itself evident. Using the sad tale of Edith, an orphaned Jewish servant who had worked for her family in Berlin, who somehow survived in Berlin throughout the war, and then turned up to work again for them in London in 1948 after an unhappy brief sojourn in Israel, Ms. Figes reveals what is really behind her enterprise:

“I have always thought that the creation of Israel was a catastrophic mistake, perhaps the worst of the 20th century. I have also, always, had doubts about Israel’s right to exist, unless the Jews managed to hold the moral high ground, which they have signally failed to do. However, I did not expect to find out that the creation of Israel was the result, not of global remorse, but of continuing anti-Semitism. The main culprit in this sorry story was of course the United States, with President Truman at the helm.”

Of course: Those two words - complacently, xenophobically (this German refugee has become oh-so-British in her viewpoint), poisonously - laid down in cold blood on the page, tell it all. And of the wrongheadedness of the rest, where to start? In a century with wars that killed tens of millions, of vicious ideologies that slaughtered countless more millions in their gulags, death and “re-education” camps, Israel’s creation the most catastrophic mistake? Give me a break.

That’s one thing, though, that Ms. Figes doesn’t give anyone in this acrid book, from the mother to whom she is especially unforgiving, to her whole family (and by extension) the entire German Jewish community, whom she all but accuses of being the kind of Germans who would have gone along with Nazism had they not been designated its particular enemies. “Heroism of a sort was forced upon them,” she comments sourly.

The United States is, of course, always the villain of the piece, responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world, its motives always of the basest (support for Israel, of course, owing only to a desire to get Jewish votes), given no credit for anything positive it has done. She even has the effrontery to blame Sept. 11 on Israel and America’s support for it: “On 11 September 2001 the Muslim world finally struck back,” she reports with her characteristic tone of bitter triumph.

As for Zionism, it gets the roughest edge of her poisoned pen. She terms German Jews who sought refuge in Palestine in the 1930s “Hitler Zionists,” a phrase as libelous as it is vile in its linguistic guilt by association. “Zionists and Nazis had more in common than is generally acknowledged” is another example of what she spews forth.

Her history of Zionism is prejudiced, mendacious and Procrustean, as she collects condemnations of it from all and sundry, not scrupling to take some of them out of context from such avid supporters of Zionism and Israel, and British M.P. Richard Crossman. She uses the pathetic experiences in Israel of a damaged, unhappy refugee to paint the nascent society there as a cauldron of hatred, not only between Jew and Arab, but among Jews from differing backgrounds.

Rather than understanding that there must inevitably be conflicts among various nationalities being melded into a new and unfamiliar citizenship, she magnifies these minor things while totally ignoring Israel’s achievements in fostering its national identity, except to vilify it.

Poor Edith was destined to be unhappy wherever she was, and the last time we (or for that matter Ms. Figes herself) sees her, she is lying ill in a London hospital awaiting another uncertain but doubtless unhappy fate. Ms. Figes‘ family has cast Edith off, and the girl’s one brief visit to her is all she did in reality for the woman whose fate so outrages her now. If this book is intended to atone for her failings, it is a most misguided attempt and speaks volumes about its author’s nature and character.

But after all, Ms. Figes is also a person who was damaged by what the 20th century’s politics inflicted on its people. Not by the United States or by Israel, although you wouldn’t know it from her misplaced outrage in this book. Certainly not as badly as many of her compatriots, but hurt nonetheless, and as W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “September 1, 1939”:

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Those wise lines provide some explanation of why Ms. Figes should write as she does, but there can be no excuse or justification for the foul screed she has produced, which dishonors Edith - and most of all herself.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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