Jerusalem and New York: Gefen, 2010 (firstname.lastname@example.org); hard cover (large format) 520 pp., $39.95
This is a kaleidoscopically presented and richly illustrated book, dedicated to the author’s 12 grandchildren. It is not merely an autobiography but also a history of a large Jewish middle class family in Bohemia (going back to the eighteenth century), an account of the Jewish community in Bamberg, and a scholarly and well researched commentary on the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the creation and development of the State of Israel. Furthermore, Loval gives historical descriptions of the countries in which he has lived at one time or another (Germany, England, Guatemala, the USA and Israel) and provides vignettes of a great many people who have crossed his path, both famous and unknown, as well as of members of his extended family. Because the book is not always written in chronological order, and because it is partly based on the diaries of four people close to him as well as on his own, it is not always easy to keep track of the narrative.
Loval was born in 1926 as Werner Löbl, the son of a well-to-do Jewish family. His own diaries began in his childhood and consisted largely of events and dates that helped him piece together that part of his life. His sister Erika (later Erica) kept detailed and well written diaries at various stages of her life, beginning in her German childhood and continuing when she (and her brother) were pupils at Bunce Court School, the German-Jewish progressive boarding school transplanted in 1933 by a farsighted headmistress from southern Germany to the North Downs of Kent. Another diary was that of his uncle Robert, describing life before, during and after trench warfare in the First World War; and his maternal cousin, Ludwig Regensteiger, provided details of Werner’s mother’s birthplace. Finally, there was the diary of Dr Morgenroth, the head of the Jewish community in Bamberg, who chronicled the events of the Nazi period. Thus eyewitness accounts are dovetailed with Loval’s own narrative, to which they impart a high degree of verisimilitude. Because so many members of his family survived, Loval was able to illustrate his text with numerous photographs and documents relating to his family’s history.
The author does not claim to have written a reference book or a source of data, but ‘a non-objective account of my life, my times, and events as I saw and experienced them’. Although he does not provide a bibliography the reader will nonetheless find much information about the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century. For example, this reviewer had been unaware of the fate of the old cattle barge Struma, which in December 1941 attempted to reach Palestine with 770 Romanian Jews on board, more than 100 of them children. The British authorities were once again callous in refusing the ship entry and no other country was willing to accept it. Its clapped-out engine having failed, a Turkish tug towed the barge to Istanbul, where it remained off-shore for two months whilst the authorities were engaged in futile negotiations and conditions on board deteriorated catastrophically. The Turks were eventually pressurised by the Germans to tow the barge into the Black Sea, where it was promptly torpedoed by a Russian submarine. There was only one survivor - a truly horrendous episode.
The third and very substantial part of the book deals with Loval’s move in 1953 from New York to Israel, having already worked in the Israeli embassy for several years. There he remained and soon married Pamela; they had four children. Loval worked for many years in a senior capacity for the foreign ministry, mainly in the Department of Public Relations, where he had the opportunity of mixing with ‘the good and the true’. (The list of wedding guests in the King David Hotel included a large number of VIPs, the Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Dayan, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and several ambassadors.) Loval, who provides a well written potted history of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, was fortunate to have been able to play a significant role in the development of his adopted country, until he became a major player in real estate, having formed the ‘Anglo-Saxon Housing Cooperative’, which later developed a major branch in Cyprus. As well as being a highly profitable business, it also had a political basis as its aim was to attract well-off families from Western countries, primarily the USA and the UK, to Israel and especially to Jerusalem.
Werner Loval therefore had a highly successful career in more than one sphere, and he contributed substantially to the economic and cultural development of Israel. This was later recognised in various ways, in particular when he was made an honorary citizen of Jerusalem in 2000.
This book will be of particular interest to those wishing to extend their knowledge of Judaism in Germany and the development of Israel. (Loval was a prominent exponent and founder member of the religious ‘Reform Movement’ in the country.) I have, however, a few minor caveats, such as the occasional gratuitous name-dropping. For example, the author had to look after the Duke and Duchess of Argyll when they were invited to Israel, but was it really necessary to burden the reader with the sordid details of their scandalous relationship? His description of Bunce Court School, an avant-garde German-Jewish boarding school and prime example of German ‘Reform Pädagogik’ as ‘an English High School with its own prep school’ is fanciful to say the least! But my more serious criticism is that although half of this substantial book deals with Israel, Loval fails to address the problem of the Palestinians and how successive Israeli governments have signally failed to resolve a burning issue that threatens to engulf the whole of the Middle East and even further afield.