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October 25: Sir Martin Gilbert and the Holocaust

October 24, 2015

Martin-GilbertMartin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill (about whom he wrote 30 books!) and an important historian of the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to Nazism, was born in London on this date in 1936 and evacuated to Canada as World War II began. At Oxford in 1962, he was approached by Randolph Churchill to assist with a biography of his father Winston, and his central historical preoccupation began. Gilbert became a key historian of World War II and wrote numerous books on the Holocaust, including Auschwitz and the Allies (1981), about the Allies’ failure to respond to news of the death camps, and The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (1986). Gilbert was an observant Jew, active in the movement to gain emigration rights for Soviet Jews, and a Zionist who was critical of the rightwards direction of Israeli politics; he was also active on the parliamentary committee investigating Britain’s involvement in George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. A prodigious archivist, Gilbert described himself as “not a theoretical historian, seeking to guide the reader to a general conclusion,” but “quite content to be a narrative chronicler, a slave of the facts.” Among his 89 books were several atlases, including Atlas of the Holocaust, American History Atlas, Russian History Atlas, and The Arab Israeli War: Its History in Maps. He was knighted in 1995 and died at 78 on February 3, 2015.

“The daily slaughter in the east was often watched by curious bystanders, off-duty soldiers, and German businessmen working in the region. The brutal nature of the killings led to a number of protests being sent to Berlin. One protest, dated 27 October, was forwarded to Berlin by Wilhelm Kube, the commissioner-general of Belorussia (whose headquarters were in Minsk) with the comment ‘To have buried alive seriously wounded people, who then worked their way out of their graves again, is such extreme beastliness that this incident must be reported to the Führer.’ ... Even as these protests reached Berlin, a... solution was under discussion there. This was intended to be the ‘final’ solution, the aim of which was the murder of all Jews living in Europe. It would be ‘final’ in that once it had been carried out, there would be no more Jews alive in Europe, and therefore no need for any further solution.” —Martin Gilbert, from The Oxford Companion to World War II