One of the lessons I learned very early in my three-decade-long career writing fundraising appeals was that statistics numb the brain while a gripping tale of one individual can unlock torrents of emotion in the reader. So it was no surprise to me that the story of one young refugee Jewish family in London in 1945 could bring home the chilling reality of the Holocaust more powerfully than any recitation of the numbers of Hitler’s victims could ever possibly do.
The List by Martin Fletcher (2011) 354 pages
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In The List, Martin Fletcher, an NBC foreign correspondent who is the son of an Austrian refugee couple named Edith and Georg, borrows their names for his protagonists in a fictional tale of a small group of Holocaust survivors scratching out a living in a boardinghouse in post-war London amid the violent conflict over Britain’s pro-Arab policy toward Palestine.
The story unfolds in London beginning on May 8, 1945 — VE Day (“Victory in Europe,” should you be too young to know) — and concludes in the days before Christmas that same fateful year. The narrator’s focus shifts to Palestine from time to time to visit the increasingly desperate struggle between the three leading groups of the Zionist insurgency (Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi) and the British occupation forces. The two threads of the tale converge, as they tend to do in novels, bringing home to the apolitical refugees in peacetime England some of the grim choices facing Jews in what is to become, within three years, the Israeli homeland.
The “list” of the title is Georg’s long, handwritten list of his family members, who are crossed out, one by one, as news emerges of their deaths from the chaos of the DP (displaced person) camps and migrating refugees across the devastation of Europe. This homely but powerful metaphor for what we all lost in the Holocaust reawakened childhood memories of my New York cousins sitting me down to tell me about the lives of my own relatives who perished in the death camps.
Fletcher’s grim but fascinating tale centers around two central events drawn from history: an anti-Semitic petition movement to expel Jewish refugees from the borough of Hampstead, driven by fascists recently released from wartime prisons, and the attempted assassination of Aneurin Bevin, the Foreign Minister in the Labour Government that came to power in Britain following Winston Churchill’s rejection at the polls.
The List is a searing tale, beautifully told, brimming over with suspense that drives the reader forward to the end.
For additional reading
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