Gerald Jacobs: ‘Publishers thought the Holocaust was too horrific, that people won’t want to read that’

Nine Love Letters

Nine Love Letters - Credit: Archant

BRIDGET GALTON meets the Jewish Chronicle’s literary editor Gerald Jacobs whose debut novel of familial love is set against the backdrop of the Holocaust

As literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Gerald Jacobs understands more than most the devastating effect of the Second World War on the Jewish diaspora.

Twenty years ago, he wrote a true story “with a novel-like narrative”, about Hungarian Holocaust survivor Miklos Hammer.

Now in a kind of reverse, he’s penned “a fiction written in the style of a true story.”

Set in Baghdad, Budapest and England, Nine Love Letters (Quartet £20) charts the violent uprooting of two Jewish families.

“It has a strong factual background based on actual things that happened in these two capitals, which are 1600 miles apart but at that point had striking parallels,” says the Muswell Hill resident.

“Both had substantial Jewish populations established over centuries, both were completely ruptured by this big catastrophe.”

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Jacobs’ 1995 book Sacred Games had taken him to Budapest where Hammer was a medical student before being sent to Auschwitz.

For Nine Love Letters he delved into the Jewish community in Iraq which he knew less about.

Based around a series of letters between parents, children and lovers, it describes the invasion of the Hungarian capital in 1944 and the liquidation of the country’s 800,000 Jews through the eyes of young Anna Weisz.

In Iraq, Yusuf Haroun’s family are caught up in the farhud or pogrom against the Jewish population in 1941.

“Life was never quite the same again in Jewish Baghdad,” says Jacobs.

“It had been an immensely flourishing culture but over the following years some went to the emerging Jewish state and many to India, Muslim neighbours were begging them not to go. Those who left were very nostalgic for the place.”

Liberated from Belsen by the British army, Anna falls for an English officer but keeps her Jewish past secret from their daughter, becoming ‘more English than the English.’

Meanwhile Yusuf and wife Farah live with relatives in London, becoming naturalised citizens and running a family business.

The book’s epic sweep takes in themes of Jewish identity but also different kinds of love expressed through letters.

“It’s not so much a love story but a story about love,” says Jacobs. “Love letters in normal parlance means erotic exchanges but it can be a mother to her daughter or a daughter to her father. I wanted to write about familial love including romantic love.”

Jacobs’ whose first book was an authorised biography of Judi Dench back in 1985 before she hit the Hollywood big time, accepts it’s now “almost a cliché” to set a book around the Holocaust, but recalls that wasn’t always the case.

“Sacred Games was turned down by 13 publishers before it was accepted,” he says.

“They didn’t want to know, they thought the Holocaust was too horrific, ‘people won’t want to read that’. But the film Schindler’s List changed that.”

Jacobs was at the centre of what he calls “an interesting moment” 40 years after the war when his postbag at the JC was “inundated with survivors asking ‘can you publish my memoir, find me an agent or write it yourself’?

“The majority of survivors had suppressed their experiences – some hadn’t even told their families. It was like a pressure cooker and you can identify a moment when, because of indications of mortality, that changed. They hadn’t spoken before because they wanted to get on with their lives and I think they couldn’t bear the thought of not being believed. It was an unbelievable experience, and they couldn’t bear someone discrediting it.”

While some memoirs were badly written or showed gaps in memory, Hammer was different. “This sleek confident looking businessman wrote down bullet points on a piece of paper of what had happened to him – I checked and everything was true. He had a virtual photographic memory, spoke six languages. It was such an incredibly important story I had to write it.”

The son of a strict Rabbi who taught himself English from the radio, Hammer endured a “grisly cooks tour of concentration camps” and was on the way to Dachau when he met a strange Englishman (probably a spy) called Peter Howard who died en route. When the wagon doors opened, as Jews were ushered to one side, Hammer gave the Englishman’s name as his own and upon liberation in April 1945 was repatriated to a country he had never been to. The English promptly incarcerated him alongside top Nazis including Hitler’s press secretary Otto Dietrich.

Jacob’s next project is a fictional autobiography of a Jewish gangster in 50s London, tangentially connected to his father, who was a photographer in Brixton capturing the Windrush Caribbean immigrants of the 50s and 60s.

“His studio became iconic, a background of a Tahitian scene with artificial flowers became famous in households all over the Caribbean, of relatives stiffly posed in nurses and bus conductor uniforms in a way that announces ‘here I am’.”

Meanwhile Nine Love Letters has echoes with Hammer’s story and perhaps many other survivors.

“Everything that happened to him seemed to be the worst thing that could possibly happen and yet there was worse.”

“I was conscious that we live our lives as though there are lots of certainties, but everything is so accidental. Things aren’t planned and pre-ordained, yet life is still lived as if they were.”

Gerald Jacobs is talking about his book at Jewish Book Week alongside Sarit Yishai-Levi on Sunday February 26 at King’s Place.