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Sir Martin Gilbert: Historian, Chronicler, Friend

Churchill biographer’s passion was for all human stories, not just the epics

Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
February 06, 2015
Sir Martin Gilbert in 2009; cover of Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5000-year History of the Jewish People and their Faith. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images;
Sir Martin Gilbert in 2009; cover of Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5000-year History of the Jewish People and their Faith. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images;

Michael Chabon’s beguilingly eccentric Yiddish-speaking Jewish community in the Alaskan panhandle, as imaginatively depicted in his 2007 book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, would likely have delighted Sir Martin Gilbert. It was exactly the kind of unexamined setting that his mind often opted to give voice to. With his death this week at age 78, the world indeed lost one of its finest chroniclers; a master weaver of cogent narratives composed of numerous small lives and esoterica enveloping larger-than-life figures and epochs. With a bibliography that features more than 90 books, even a cursory glance at his titles fatigues and impresses.

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.

I first contacted Sir Martin when he was scheduled to speak at the University of Western Ontario, where he spent a brief sojourn as a professor in its history department. Due to ill health, his lecture was cancelled, and I never thought I’d receive a direct response but that is indeed what I got. This started a lengthy email correspondence that moved naturally to letter writing (as a child of the 1980s, I still have analog memories of pen-pals). There are two kindnesses of his I especially remember. First, I knew this lovely young woman who was very involved in Jewish activism and whom I wanted to impress. So I’d sent along her bio, and asked if Sir Martin would be kind enough to inscribe Letters to Auntie Fori for her, on her birthday. Not only did he do so, he also chose to add his own gift to her as well, a copy of his magisterial Israel: A History with a personal inscription. I doubt I’ll ever top that as a birthday gift.

Second, I had sent in a letter to the Arts section of the National Post, where they asked for recommendations of influential books or writers for different stages of life: “Four, Fourteen, Forty, Forever.” While it went unpublished, I had forwarded it to Sir Martin, who humored me and asked to see my writings. Under the “Fourteen” section, I mentioned Erich Segal (of Love Story fame) as I had really appreciated the humanity of his novels, which are still underrated. Sir Martin offered to pass along a message to Segal, a close friend, if I wished to send one. I did so to a very ailing Segal, who then responded in a note of thanks, dictated, and painstakingly signed. After Segal died shortly thereafter, I was struck again in wonder at Sir Martin’s second act of caritas.

I have since then been able to connect with Francesca Segal, whose debut novel The Innocents I’d devoured in an afternoon. Our mutual love (albeit mine naturally a lesser one) for her father created a bond that reaffirmed the blessing of someone’s memory in the land of the living, and was made possible by Sir Martin’s generosity. He continued to encourage me in my pursuits, which were then in the Canadian House of Commons, and now in academia and the literary world. It is a deep regret of mine to have missed visiting him in a postponed trip to London last fall.

The short author profile on the back jacket of his Israel reads, in part, “Sir Martin Gilbert is Winston Churchill’s official biographer, and a leading historian in the modern world.” That is an indubitable assessment. But there are also the lesser stories of his life; the kind that would have interested him, the kind he would have included, the kind I am telling.

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester in which William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, reads the words, unbeknownst to the audience, of the young student Jamal Wallace. He speaks of “the family that can become our blood.” To paraphrase Forrester’s closing remarks, the only thing left to say is that I am grateful for not only the treasure of his scholarship but also, so early in my life, for the gift of his friendship.

Daniel Bezalel Richardsen is the founder and editor of Foment, the literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada’s largest independent literary celebration. He immigrated to Canada from Brunei Darussalam at 18 and was the former Press Secretary to Canada’s Minister of International Development. He is currently completing his graduate studies in history.

Daniel Bezalel Richardsen is the founder and editor of Foment, the literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada’’s largest independent literary celebration. Daniel is a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum’’s Ottawa Hub, and is a Prize Advisor to The Ross and Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing.

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