Thursday's Child Has Far to Go, by Walter Laqueur
A Lost World
Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go: A Memoir of the Journeying Years.
by Walter Laqueur.
Scribner’s. 418 pp. $30.00.
Walter Laqueur is well-known to readers of COMMENTARY as one of the most talented and readable historians of our time. In addition to more than a dozen major works of scholarship on European, Russian, and Middle East politics, he has also tried his hand at a novel (The Missing Years) and now, in Thursday’s Child Has Far to Go, autobiography.
Laqueur was born in Breslau in 1921 of not very well-to-do parents who formed part of a close-knit clan which had lived in eastern Germany for decades. His childhood was unexceptional until well after 1933—school, reading, hikes, youth groups. By 1936, however, it was becoming obvious that Jews had no future in Germany, and as conditions worsened young Laqueur found himself drawn into circles which pushed him toward emigration to Palestine, then under British Mandate. While en route across the Mediterranean to his new home, he heard via ship’s radio a vague report of what he later learned was the roundup of some 30,000 German Jews for Buchenwald and other concentration camps. But for his timely departure, Laqueur might well have been one of them.
Instead, at age seventeen he found himself on a kibbutz where he learned conversational Hebrew and Arabic, farming and military skills, and met his future wife Naomi. He continued to receive letters and parcels from his parents, sometimes posted from Holland or Switzerland, until the middle of the war, when all communication ceased. (He later learned that in 1942 his parents were shipped off to camps in Poland and murdered shortly after their arrival.)
After the war, Laqueur decided that kibbutz life was not for him and moved with his young wife to Jerusalem, where he found work in a bookstore. By now he had already begun to study Russian, and to speak and write English as well. Soon he made a fortuitous jump into journalism, becoming Jerusalem correspondent of the Hebrew-language newspaper Hamishmar and coming into personal contact with Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Judah Magnes, Moshe Sharett, and other founders of the Jewish state. He and his wife endured the siege of Jerusalem during Israel’s war of independence—an event which he recounts here in vivid detail.
Just as he had tired of kibbutz life, after 1949 he became restless to expand his horizons. He began to visit Europe regularly in 1951, settling in Great Britain in 1955, with regular visits to France and West Germany. The rest of the story—his accession to the directorship of the Wiener Library in London, his many scholarly activities, and finally his move to Washington, where he is now academic director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies—he has chosen not to relate here, though he promises to do so in a future volume.
If this recounting of the circumstances of Laqueur’s early life seems flat and undramatic, especially given the events themselves, it does at least replicate the tone of his book, which, for all its richly-filigreed detail, is markedly unemotional and distant. Here are two examples of the matter-of-fact style in which he relates the most horrendous occurrences:
My uncle belonged to those German Jews of which there were not a few who firmly believed that nothing could happen to them because they were so deeply rooted in Germany. He had served in the army in World War I; furthermore, Jews had lived in [his home town] since 1285. One evening early in the war some strangers appeared at the door. They said that the apartment had been allocated to them and would he vacate it within the next half hour. My uncle ran to the police, suffered a heart attack at the station, and died. His wife was removed that evening and deported to one of the camps, where she was murdered. Fortunately, their only daughter had left Germany a few weeks before the outbreak of the war.
* * *
What became of my classmates and the other [non-Jewish] friends of my boyhood?. . . . The lucky ones survived seven years in the army; others returned from prison camps only in 1948 or 1950, or not at all. About a third, perhaps more, were killed in the war; of the survivors quite a few were wounded, some severely. Over the years I have heard from quite a few of them. . . . There was a striking uniformity to their fate: They truly felt victims of the war, having lost the best years of their lives, as well as their homes in East Germany, and in quite a few cases, their families. . . .
It occurred to me more than once in reading this book that Laqueur’s reticence and emotional austerity might be a form of bereavement therapy. (He half-admits it himself.) But as the second of the two quotations suggests, there is something else, too—a more nuanced view of Germany, Germans, and recent German history than one might expect from one who had experienced such terrible injustice at German hands.
Partly this is due to Laqueur’s firm conviction that most Germans would never have willed the crimes committed in their name, even if a fair number of them were all-too-willing accomplices. Partly, too, I think it springs from his own experience, which on a personal level was less traumatic than others’. In school well up to 1936 there were no anti-Semitic incidents, and many of his schoolmates let him know that they felt embarrassed at having to go through the mock-patriotic charades which were required of them. Such considerations seem to have acted as a counterbalance to the anger which Laqueur might otherwise be expected to harbor against the German people as a whole. As he puts it dryly,
The loss of my native country at the age of seventeen hurt me considerably less than the loss of those I loved. . . . If my country did not want me, I was reasonably sure that I could find my place elsewhere.
Then, too, Laqueur’s emotional remoteness from his former country may spring in part from the fact that, as far as he is concerned, it is a completely different place today. Indeed, the radical contrast between past and present is the principal subtheme of this book. German Jewry has, of course, all but ceased to exist, but so too has the Germany of the pre-Hitler period, with all its faults but with many of its virtues as well, particularly its rich and complex cultural life. In Israel, the kibbutz where Laqueur survived without electricity in 1939 now has fax machines; meanwhile, the idealism which inspired him and his contemporaries has necessarily given way to more pragmatic considerations. All this Laqueur takes in stride.
He is less able to deal serenely with the experience which forms the first chapter of the book—his first visit since the war to his hometown, now Wroclaw in Poland. The illustrations include a photo: a handsome street of solid five-story apartment houses, an architectural embodiment of German order, prosperity, and solid bourgeois virtues. Searching for the house on this street in which he grew up, Laqueur is confused by the street names (which have been changed), but that turns out not to be the main problem.
I had expected to see a house, or its ruins, or perhaps a new building, but there was nothing, not even a trace that human beings had lived and died there. . . . The area would have seemed, to visitors who had not known it before, very peaceful and utterly empty. The effect it had on me was different; nothingness can make a stronger impact than destruction and ruin.
Thursday’s Child is by turns witty, ironic, and evocative, a monument to some of the events which have shaped (and misshaped) our era. Uniting Laqueur’s skills as a historian and writer, it reminds us of the degree to which he remains a messenger from a world we have lost.