Caroline Moorehead

A futile solution

Caroline Moorehead reviews the new book from Eva Figes

In 1939, the six-year-old Eva Figes escaped Nazi Berlin for London. Her family were secular Jews and her father, who had been arrested after Kristallnacht, had spent some months in Dachau. Left behind were grandparents and two maids, Edith and Schwester Eva, both Jewish: by 1939, it was forbidden for Jews to employ Aryans. Schwester Eva died of typhus in a concentration camp, but Edith turned up in London 10 years later. It is her story that Eva Figes tells in Journey to Nowhere.

The by now adolescent Figes did not learn it all at once. But over cups of tea in their kitchen in Hendon, having seen the newsreels of the liberation of Belsen, she slowly drew it out. What she heard fed an anger that has filled her ever since, but it was an anger directed not at the Germans — though there was that too, of course, — but at the Allies and the shameful part they played in the foundation of Israel.

Edith survived the war in hiding. Alone and desperate in the ruins of Berlin after the arrival of the Russians, she happened to bump into an old friend from her childhood days in an orphanage. The friend had come to Germany to recruit settlers for what would be the new state of Israel. Hardly surprisingly, Edith was tempted by the promise of a new life in a ‘land without people, for a people without land’.

For her, the experiment did not work. As a German Jew, she found herself ostracised in the kibbutz by Zionists who expressed contempt for the weak, pale, helpless survivors whose families and friends had allowed themselves to be killed without a struggle. The new Israel, she discovered, was a hostile, unforgiving place.

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