Biographer captures history in the making

ANATOLY Shcharansky's biographer, Martin Gilbert, had just returned from New York, where he had been present at a solidarity rally, along with Mr. Shcharansky and other prominent figures. ``My own presence there was unimportant,'' said Mr. Gilbert, speaking on the telephone from his home in London, ``rather like a fly on the wall -- which, really, is what the historian's position should be.'' A fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Gilbert has been the official biographer of Winston Churchill since 1968 (the seventh volume of the multi-volume biography is coming out this fall). He has written extensively on modern European history and is also the author of a series of historical atlases. His biography of the Russian Jewish human rights advocate recently allowed to emigrate to Israel, ``Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time'' (Viking, $24.95), appears on the heels of his harrowing, immensely affecting book ``The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War.'' [Reviewed in the Monitor March 27.]

Apart from the constraints imposed by the pace of current events, Gilbert says he does not find writing about current history substantially different from writing about the events of four or five decades ago. When writing about a contemporary figure like Shcharansky, he explained, he applies the same method he has used in writing about Churchill.

``Specifically, the Churchill method is to draft out a chronology of what happened every day. Then, to find for each factual event -- and facts, as you know, are not always that easy to discover in the first place -- an eyewitness or contemporary account, preferably by someone who was actually there and who recorded what happened in a diary or letter. It's a slow process. But it is a standard historical method which can be applied to a subject like Shcharansky as well as to one like Churchill. After all, events taking place now are also history.''

Gilbert's biography of Shcharansky is copiously documented, relying upon the testimony of the subject's family and friends and including Shcharansky's poignant, and very interesting, letters from prison.

Gilbert was asked to take over the enormous project of the Churchill biography in 1968, following the death of Churchill's son Randolph, who had written the first two volumes. Gilbert was then deep in an enterprise he'd started in 1963-64: a series of historical atlases. When first lecturing at Oxford, he recalled, he used to do sketches on the blackboard to illustrate World War I. As these maps were often erased by the next lecturer to use the blackboard, a student asked him why he didn't make a collection of his maps.

In his atlases, which cover such areas as British history, American history, Imperial Russian history, Soviet history, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, most recently, the Holocaust, Gilbert has employed maps not only to show wars and battles, but also to illustrate such phenomena as famines, riots, trade routes, settlement and migration patterns, and even unemployment patterns.

Gilbert's interest in Jewish history, as he remembers, surfaced when he was in his 30s (he was born in 1936). Yet a friend who had known him as a student reminded him that he had defended pro-Jewish positions long before that.

A small child when the war broke out, he was evacuated to Canada. Thanks to a decision of Churchill's regarding the return of evacuated children, he was sent back to England in 1944 aboard a troopship. (Years later, working on the Churchill biography, he was amused to come across a mention of this decision.)

Although his return to England coincided with the Nazis' introduction of the ``flying bomb'' or V-1 rocket, he was sent to the countryside and feels that his first experience of the ordeal people had undergone in the war was seeing the emaciated state of an uncle who had been liberated from a Japanese prison camp.

Gilbert dates his first perception of the Holocaust to a holiday in Belgium in 1946, when he noticed the number tattooed on a woman's arm at the beach. He was then told of its dreadful provenance. Accounts of two of his own relatives in France and Poland, he said, are among the many included in ``The Holocaust'': ``Not because they're my relatives, but because it's part of the story.''

Asked about anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon and as a current problem, he noted that during the postwar period, for about three decades, being openly anti-Semitic ``didn't do. . . . This was even more the legacy of Hitler than of the Holocaust. He was the enemy we had beaten: Because he had been anti-Semitic, this discredited anti-Semitism.''

Yet even right after the war, there were remarks like that of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, who criticized Jewish concentration camp survivors for wanting to push their way to the head of the refugee queue. Gilbert not only recalls such incidents from the past, but related one that had happened recently.

During an appearance on a British television program, he was telling a story about Shcharansky which appears in the biography. It concerned Shcharansky's ability to maintain his sense of humor while being tailed by KGB agents, who, not content with merely following him, got right into a taxicab with him, prompting him to suggest jocularly that they pay half the cab fare.

As Mr. Gilbert completed the anecdote, the moderator remarked, ``A Jew to the end.''

In addition to deploring such crassness, Gilbert admits he is saddened by what he perceives as a prevalent tendency to depart from standards of disinterested and unbiased reporting in some organs of the media.

As a historian, he reflected, one is always taught to give a balanced view.

His next -- and he says last -- endeavor will be a history of the Jews in the last 100 years. This will bring the number of his books to more than a dozen, not counting the atlases or the five volumes of the Churchill biography he has written thus far.

Martin Gilbert displays in full measure the disinterested precision of the historian, but he also has an uncommon sensitivity to the passions and prejudices that lie behind so much history.

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