I snapped this book up on a Kindle Deal. Partly because I know less about the Holocaust than I ought to, and partly because Sir Martin Gilbert, who died less than two years ago, has a reputation as a pre-eminent historian of the 20th Century.
One reviewer on GoodReads wrote 'How can you recommend this book but how can you not recommend it?'
The format is different to what I expected. It is, essentially, a travel diary. Martin travelled with the first cohort of students from his MA course in Holocaust Studies. Starting in Germany, and travelling to Czech Republic and Slovakia, before spending more than a week in Poland.
The purpose of the journey was partly to visit Holocaust sites, but just as important was to visit areas that were the centres of Jewish life before World War 2. Some of these areas had a Jewish history stretching back centuries and others were settled only late in the 19th century.
Many of the people on the journey were, like Martin, of Jewish heritage, and they were accompanied by a survivor of slave labour and death marches - Ben Helfgott. Others were non-Jewish people with a long interest in this aspect of history. As far as I know there is no Jewish heritage in my family but over the years I have been friends, colleagues and neighbours with many people Jewish and Christian (at least nominally) with families who escaped Poland. And of course I have learnt much from TV and film.
It is far more than just a travel diary of the 'we went here an saw that and experienced that emotion' variety. He made readings to his tour group either on the trains and minibus, or at specific sites, and the readings are reproduced here, an intrinsic part of the book.
It isn't a chronology of the Holocaust years and does assume a certain level of knowledge. That presupposed knowledge is a barrier. I knew about the sequence of certain events, from Hitler's installation as Chancellor, invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia, Kristallnacht, through to the retreat from Soviet troops during 1944 and 1945 and the consequent evacuation of camps and 'death marches'. If pushed, I could have differentiated between concentration camps, slave labour camps and death camps, and, like everybody I suppose, I know the outlines of the 'Big Picture', too awful to think about other than in Big but Vague terms.
It's helpful but not essential to refer to maps, which are included in the book, although nowadays I often use Google Maps as a reading aid. I am ignorant about the geography of Poland and surrounding countries and even less knowledgeable about the changing borders of the 20th century.
There are graphic descriptions of brutality and murder, which are difficult to read. It is harder to read the acts of mindless brutality meted out on individuals than to read of the systematic 'production line' extermination of people, all of them individuals, with names. But I think one has to read these accounts and be repulsed, because we owe it to these people.
Martin Gilbert was determined not to make this a book just about people's deaths but also about their lives. They visit villages and towns and areas of cities where many Jewish people live. I have to confess not to have given it much thought but I previously had an impression of Jewish people being a tiny minority, living either in concentrated communities such as that in East London or as individual scattered families.
This book shows that Jewish people were not just recent arrivals superimposed on a 'host community' (horrible expression; I'm using it deliberately to make a point) but as much part of city and town life as 'Polish' people, whose ancestors probably migrated East or West anyway.
I get a sense of the Jewish community being somewhat separate from the Polish Catholic community, with separate schools and places of worship (of course), businesses and cultural lives etc. However, I am stating that without context. There is a long history throughout Europe of Jewish people being ostracised, restricted and expelled, so it's lazy to make accusations of non-integration. In any case, the long list of exceptional Jewish achievements in music and literature, medicine and law, as well as in business, shows a community more than eager to embrace so-called 'Western' values. I simply didn't realise, for example, that in 1931 one third of the population of Warsaw was Jewish (the largest Jewish population outside New York) and dated back to the 15th century, therefore in many ways more similar to England's Norman French population than, say, its Somalian community.
Naturally, are mentions of the structures of religion - visits to synagogues and talk of Rabbis, and the group often stops so that a small number of them can pray. I suppose I am on the side of the Holocaust victims and survivors who knew that there wasn't a God, because how could he desert them and subject them to such cruelty? But other views exist and I have no right to criticise people who hold those beliefs.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to find out more about the Holocaust in greater detail than merely popular culture, but fears ploughing into dense academic tomes based on official archives. It may spur some people onto wider reading, and, surely, acts as a great companion to academic study. It has given me a unique insight, and its writing style is very easy to read. I found I was reading it in sections of half a long chapter or just one small chapter (20 -30 minutes on my Kindle) because the substance and content was harrowing, and I didn't want too many events and testimonies to run into each other and overwhelm. But in terms of style, sentence structure and so on, it was highly readable.