A Diaspora Of Pain And Joy

The tale of two Jewish familes in Baghdad and Budapest

Marina Gerner

In this, his first novel, Gerald Jacobs takes us to the Baghdad of the early 20th century, where Jews made up a quarter of the population, and lived amicably alongside the city’s Arab population. Immediately, we are reminded of the timeless traditions and idiosyncrasies of Jewish communities. One protagonist eats non-kosher meat, then “prays for a forgiveness to the God in whose existence he did not believe”. In synagogue, people “gossiped as much as they prayed”. At a wedding ceremony, the bride circles the groom seven times.

In the Baghdad of those days, Jews and music went together in the popular consciousness. “Almost all of Iraq’s  musicians, especially the virtuous instrumentalists, were Jews and, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, radios would fall silent across the land owing to the lack of Jewish players to perform live on air.” Reading such passages makes it hard to believe that it is the same war-ravaged country that now bans travellers with an Israeli passport or an Israeli entry stamp.

Nine Love Letters is the tale of two Jewish families who are forced to leave their homes in Baghdad and Budapest to survive the Holocaust. Both families find refuge in England, where their fates collide at an unlikely moment. The book is based on true events, fictionalised with great empathy by Jacobs, who is the literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle. His previous books include a biography of Judi Dench and Sacred Games, the account of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

Jacobs vividly captures the smells and sights of Baghdad. Emre, a watermelon merchant in the market, offers free samples to customers,  who do not always end up buying  from him. “Emre would react aggressively, waving his knife in the air.” A little later, Rivke, the matriarch of the Haroun family, “had good reasons to be anxious. For, although Emre was almost certainly harmless, others did brandish knives with more deliberate menace in the Baghdad of these days.”

In 1941, the Nazi sympathiser Rashid Ali al-Gaylani seizes power. The new Iraqi government supports the Germans and vilifies the British and the Jews, culminating in the Farhud, the Arabic equivalent of a Russian pogrom. “In the space of two days, two thousand years of rich and fruitful Jewish life in Mesopotamia had come to a sudden, savage end.”

Following these horrific events and growing anti-Semitism worldwide, Rivke writes from Baghdad to her son, who has by then moved to London: “This will pass. The British are honest and strong people. They will not let Adolf Hitler win.”

Jacobs describes the naive optimism of Rivke’s son and daughter-in-law when they move to London. They arrive in the middle of the Blitz, a word they hadn’t heard of before. In the Jewish imagination of Baghdad, America was early Hollywood, while England, and in particular London, was perceived through stories like Sherlock Holmes.

In Budapest, where as in Baghdad roughly a quarter of the city’s population was then Jewish, we meet the family of Chaim and Sarah Weisz. To an Ashkenazi reader like me, this family’s setting is a lot more familiar — their deep love for literature and music and their intellectual debates, as well as the Hungarian way of life. At their home on Dembinszky Street they cultivate an open atmosphere at Friday night dinners. Chaim, a doctor, is sensitive to the prevailing political changes, while Sarah, a pianist, withdraws deeper into her music.

In the darkest part of the book, the couple perish in the Holocaust. Their daughter Anna does, however, survive Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where she is saved by the British Army. An unexpected love story begins. Anna and her husband move to England, where they have a daughter, Belinda.

When she goes up to Cambridge, her vacillating moods are mixed with a sense of foreboding: “As she turned and walked in slow, measured steps across the market square, anyone watching Belinda passing the food and clothes stalls at that moment of her utter contentment could have interpreted her distinctive, easy swagger as a kind of proclamation, a statement that she could go anywhere, do anything.” But “back in her college room reading a letter from her father, the sun’s rays departing from her window, she seemed to be on a giddy descent”.

The second part of the book centres on the  love story of Belinda and Eli, whom she meets while recovering from the nervous breakdown she eventually suffers at Cambridge.  “I used to wonder if love was something we carry around inside, a kind of potential connection, and then aim it at someone we see who fits our mental picture of a lover,” he muses. “Or whether real love is something that enters your heart when the right one comes along.” She responds, “It’s both, you fool.”

Howard Jacobson has written that there is “a deceptive matter-of-factness about Jacobs’s writing which masks an exquisite sadness. His is the art of the refined miniaturist.” Jacobs deploys this skill to paint a moving triptych of joy and pain, as experienced by generations of Jewish families.

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