Books Trace Footprints of Two Complex Peoples

Article excerpt

DEAREST AUNTIE FORI is a history of the Jews written in the form of letters. Fori, to whom the letters were addressed, was the mother of Ashok, an Indian student that Sir Martin Gilbert, one of Britain's most prolific historians, befriended while studying at Oxford.

On a visit to India, Mr. Gilbert met Fori and found out that she was not Indian at all but Jewish and born in Budapest. Fori's surname in Austro-Hungary had been Friedman but was changed by her father to Forbath (and the daughter soon nicknamed Fori). Knowing little about the Jews she asked Mr. Gilbert if he would help her learn their history. The result is Dearest Auntie Fori, a series of 141 letters written over a period of two-and-a half years. It also contains a number of maps, drawn by Mr. Gilbert, showing the main locations of Jewish residency over the centuries.

Mr. Gilbert has written 72 books, 17 of them with a Jewish theme. Best known for his multi-volume history of Sir Winston Churchill, Mr. Gilbert is a gifted writer who has the ability to make history meaningful and relevant. Dearest Auntie Fori is short as histories go, particularly one as long as that of the Jews, but it is very interesting and will be enjoyed by those who know little of Jewish history as well as those well versed in the subject.

Dearest Auntie Fori is divided into four parts, the first three being a history of the Jews and the fourth, faith and worship, on the traditions of Judaism. Part one, the Biblical era, is based exclusively on the Old Testament. All sections are quite detailed and, while it is easy to remember the general flow of Jewish history, it becomes difficult to remember the many names, apart from the Biblical ones that Mr. Gilbert chose to include.

The most noticeable aspect of this history is its unsettled nature. There was no country where Jews could settle permanently, until the creation of the State of Israel. They may have been welcome in one location for some years because of the support of one particular ruler, but when another ruler gained power, the protection might end and the persecution begin. …