Monday, March 17, 2014

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

By Vladislav Davidzon for Tablet Magazine

Martine HalbanLast 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.

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