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The Best Little Jewish Publishing House in London

Peter and Martine Halban run England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press

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Martine Halban, at the Halban office. (All photos courtesy of Halban Publishers)
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Last month, readers at London’s celebrated annual Jewish Book Week were introduced to a strikingly polished Holocaust memoir titled Motherland, written by Rita Goldberg, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard. Goldberg reconstructs the complex trajectory her family followed from Germany and through Amsterdam, Belgian war resistance cells, DP camps, independence-war-era Israel and then America. The book focuses on Goldberg’s mother as she begins to lose her memory to Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s, yet as with any Dutch Holocaust memoir, the book is by necessity inextricably shadowed by and linked to the story of Anne Frank. Unlike most Dutch Holocaust memoirs, the connection in this case is a deeply abiding one: Hilde Jacobsthal was a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s; her father and Otto Frank cofounded a liberal synagogue together in Amsterdam after immigrating from Germany; and Otto Frank was the godfather of the book’s author.

Because Goldberg’s book recounts a far longer swath of history than the average Holocaust memoir, it charts the generational rather than merely singular effects of the tragedy of European Jewry on individual psychology. It is 100 pages into the narrative before Jacobsthal takes refuge in Belgium, where she spends a year and a half hiding out in the castles of anti-Semitic minor nobility. (She looked after their children and did their laundry, rebuffed their son’s advances by day while working as a courier for the resistance by night.) Jacobsthal’s childhood playmates Anne Frank and (her sister) Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, a few months before she arrived there to work as nurse and interpreter.

One of the surprising things about Motherland is that it was an unsurprising choice for its publisher, Halban, the bantam-sized English press that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, whose own story is inseparably intertwined with the personal stories and illustrious European Jewish parentage of its founders. Peter and Martine Halban belong to the family of the great British-Russian philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, whose distinct liberalism hovers over the slim, battlement-topped white tower at 22 Golden Square in London, where England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press makes its home.

The Halbans still drink moderately at lunch (the prohibition against this timeless tradition in the rest of the Anglo-American publishing world being a mark of the creepy corporatization that is ruining everything), though Martine gently tamps down my raging Anglophilia and my usage of the word gentlemanly by explaining that “the idea of the gentleman is dying here, and England is becoming like everywhere else.” As it happened, the week I picked to visit coincided with a massive London transit strike as well as the fiercest storm to batter the English coast in more than 240 years. As we waited for the results of the negotiations between London’s flamboyant mayor and the equally obnoxious head of the railway unions, we had plenty of time to drink tea and talk.

***

That the Halbans are exceedingly courteous, curious, generous, and pleasant is not surprising, and that they are earnest and warm is the first clue that neither was actually born in England. Peter is affable and gregarious but tempers a natural tendency toward ebullience with a polite insistence on precision. He also has a tendency to pepper his speech with Hebrew words and phrases. His mother is French-born Russian aristocrat Aline de Gunzbourg. The patriarch of the colossally wealthy merchant dynasty was the Baron Horace de Gunzburg, who represented the interests of the house of Hesse in St. Petersburg and is now remembered chiefly for his role in founding the world-spanning network of ORT vocational schools. The de Gunzburgs were ennobled by Louis II, Grand Duke of Hesse, and the title was further fortified by being made hereditary by the Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1874. This in itself is quite remarkable: The family was one of only a handful of Jewish families to be ennobled.

Peter Halban
Peter Halban.

Peter Halban’s father was the French nuclear physicist Hans von Halban, who was born in Leipzig and educated in physics at Frankfurt before writing his doctorate at the University of Zurich. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship in Copenhagen under Niels Bohr, Halban was offered a position in France by Bohr’s colleague Frederic Joliot-Curie at the College de France. In the summer of 1940 Halban was sent by Joliot-Curie to the Massif Central and then to Bordeaux along with a few colleagues and their families. In their luggage the scientists spirited out what would turn out to be a critical supply of radium and nearly the entire stock of heavy water then held in Allied hands. The British extracted the refugees to England by ship, and Halban joined the British scientific effort. After a short stint working in Cambridge he was sent to Montreal in 1942 to head up the research team there. He worked there for the duration of the war as well as in the United States as part of the Manhattan Project. Aline de Gunzbourg met Halban in New York after her own madcap escape from Vichy France ended with the successful procurement of a visa from the American consul in Nice. Peter was born to the young couple in New York a year after the war’s conclusion. When Peter was 3 months old, he moved with his parents to Oxford.

Aline de Gunzbourg divorced Halban and remarried the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1956. (The story of the courtship is recounted in Michael Ignatieff’s semi-official biography of Berlin.) Peter’s biological father then returned to France in 1954 when he was summoned by French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France to supervise the building of the nuclear reactor at Saclay. Peter would be brought up in Oxford but did not attend the university, on his stepfather’s advice: Sensing that his stepson might be happier away from the rarified atmosphere of Oxford as well as the family, Berlin advised him to abandon England and matriculate at an American University. Peter Halban followed his advice and enrolled in Princeton to study history.

Martine Halban (née Mizrahi) has, if it’s possible, an even more exotic pedigree. She was born in Alexandria during its fabled final days of decay from imperial splendor. (The hermetic and voluptuous life led by the Alexandrian Jewish upper class will be familiar to readers of André Aciman’s 1995 memoir Out of Egypt.) The family had lived in Egypt for two generations, part of an influx of Jews arriving (and later leaving) because of events surrounding the building of the Suez Canal. One grandfather was a descendant of the Douek rabbinical family, coming from Aleppo in the beginning of the 20th century. Another grandfather came from Izmir. Her father was a lawyer, and both grandfathers were prominent businessmen in the cotton trade, retail, and real estate.

Martine’s mother was educated in French schools and an English girls college, and her father was sent abroad to a boarding school in Paris. While her family on her mother’s side were British nationals, her father was technically Egyptian, though his mother was French: Egypt’s Jews all had different passports—which would prove to be a liability when Nasser’s government exiled the ancient Jewish community and the British in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. Martine’s mother was expelled in 1956 for holding a British passport when the British became persona non grata though they “hung on” (her father held an Egyptian passport) for two years. They wandered around Europe, staying with family in Italy, Switzerland, and France until finally deciding to settle in England—“a bad idea for them as they spoke French in drab provincial ’50s England,” Martine noted.

Both Martine and Peter began their careers in publishing: Peter as an assistant editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Martine as publishing assistant at Calder and Boyars (“they published fantastic authors, like Samuel Beckett,” she told me). Martine followed this with a three-year stint in the rights department of Oxford University Press, which in the ’70s was still holding out as a last bastion of the prestige of British imperial institutions: Branch managers in white suits would fly in from Pakistan and three-hour alcoholic lunches were not rare. One year at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the late ’70s, the imperious and famed Polish translator Celina Wieniewska informed both that “I simply must introduce you to someone.” Martine was intrigued by a man who was educated in the United States and who lived in Israel. They kept in touch for three or four years, spending time together on his visits to England before getting married and moving to Jerusalem.

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The Best Little Jewish Publishing House in London

Peter and Martine Halban run England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press