Remembering Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill and Holocaust Scholar
I had been corresponding with Winston Churchill chronicler and historian Sir Martin Gilbert for three years before meeting him on February 19, 2003 at Anti Defamation League’s headquarters for the launch of his opus “The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust” (Henry Holt & Co.) In our correspondence, Sir Martin, who died in London on February 4 following a long illness, clarified that though he had been knighted by HRH Queen Elizabeth II — “for two services — to British history and to international relations” — it was “Prince Charles who struck me lightly with a sword.”
Famous for his volumes on the life of Winston Churchill, Gilbert’s 40-volume output includes some of the most comprehensive books dealing with the Holocaust. An avid Forward reader, he asked me at the book launch if he could include me [a recipient of a Sugihara visa] “in a book I am writing about non-Jews who helped Jews during the war.”
With ADL executive director Abraham Foxman and survivors Vladka and Ben Meed present, Gilbert recapped his Holocaust research at Yad Vashem. “I could not get through a whole day…Sometimes I had to close the books and leave.” He recalled witnessing “ a funeral on Mount Zion at a Christian cemetery where the mourners looked like Polish Jewish survivors and was told the funeral was for an Oscar Schindler “who saved their lives.” Gilbert described the outrage in Israel’s press and “in the streets” when Schindler was first honored “because he was a German and had been a member of the Nazi Party.”
Describing “the incredible ingenuity and courage needed to hide a Jew… a Jewish family…at the risk of the [rescuer]’ s’ own lives” Gilbert cited a Polish surgeon — Feliks Kanabus — who developed a plastic surgery technique to reverse the appearance of circumcision. Imperiling the lives of his three children and mother, he issued false certificates to more than 250 men — including his Jewish colleague Michael Tursz– stating that the circumcisions were “necessitated by an infection.” Another ingenious rescuer Gilbert lauded was Charles Coward a British soldier. Interned in a POW camp attached to Auschwitz III (at Buna about whose cruelty he noted “both Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi would later write”) Coward’s scheme was to strip a dead POW or foreign laborer, throw his corpse on the live wire and “a living Jew given his clothing and identity.”
Gilbert later told me “I was consulted by [former prime minister] John Major on various policy issues and accompanied him on official visits to Washington, Israel and Gaza. In 2009, I was made privy councilor so I am now ‘The Right Honorable Sir Martin Gilbert.’” In 2008 Gilbert invited me to join him on an across Europe “memory” trip to retrace my childhood escape from Warsaw and journey to Japan for his documentary “The Rescuers.” Alas, I could not go.
During the nearly three years of his disability Esther Gilbert — his amazing wife and a writer in her own right — kept me, along with Gilbert’s friends and colleagues worldwide, informed in great detail of his unflagging courage and good humor throughout his medical travails, his little victories and the kindness of those who treated him. The world has lost an amazing treasure.