Eva Salomon's War
By Gabriella Goliger
Bedazzled Ink, 2018
In the first few pages of her latest novel, Eva Salomon's War, Ottawa author Gabriella Goliger transports us from 1930s Germany, where the restrictions and petty humiliations of life under Nazi rule are beginning to coalesce into something truly monstrous, and moves the narrative to the heat and dust of Mandate Palestine.
For good German-Jewish burghers - or yekkes, as they are known in Israel - like Eva Salomon and her father, the Promised Land is a raw and alien place, especially in their new digs, a filthy basement apartment near the Tel Aviv bus station. Eva's father, once a prosperous businessman, has lost everything to the Nazis and is reduced to selling light bulbs door to door. Eva becomes a domestic servant, scrubbing other people's toilets to make ends meet. Her sister Liesel, meanwhile, has traded the romance of a Zionist youth group back in Germany for the reality of life on a Kibbutz in the Lower Galilee: hard work, little food and nightly raids by terrorist gunmen.
This Tel Aviv, this Palestine, is like a frontier town in a John Ford Western, and Eva and her sister are the new schoolmarms, just off the train from the East. But Eva is a spirited and enthusiastic heroine, and it is through Eva's eyes that we see this strange new land, at once alien, compelling and deeply familiar:“On every corner, construction and scaffolding. Everywhere, crews of sweating, sun-bronzed youths in undershirts. Jews! They were Jews!”
Eva grows, and matures, right along with the infant Jewish state, embarking on a long process of becoming Israeli. She flees the old-time strictures of her father's home and moves in with a cheerfully cynical Hungarian seamstress who survives by her wits. She discovers Tel Aviv café culture, revelling in her flirtations with the drugstore cowboys of Ben Yehuda Street. And, inevitably, she falls in love. But Duncan Rees is no nice Jewish boy. He's an Englishman and a member of the Palestine Police and it is in Eva's relationship with Duncan that the complexities of Jewish life in pre-independence Palestine start to play themselves out.
Duncan may love Eva but he doesn't think much of the locals. When we first meet him, he is pounding a beat in Jaffa. He complains to Eva about the Arabs on his patch; to him, they are just “natives,”a dirty, treacherous mob. But when he is finally promoted and transferred to Jerusalem, he doesn't even pretend to hide his contempt for the Jews as well – “Our beat includes the Wailing Wall,” he writes to Eva, “a narrow, squalid place where ragged, bearded Yids howl and bump their heads against the stones…”
While readers may wonder why Eva even gives this unpleasant young man the time of day, he serves as a stark reminder of just how precarious life was for Jews in Mandate Palestine. Despite the extravagant promise of the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish presence was as much about offsetting a recalcitrant Arab population, itself chafing under colonial rule, as it was about establishing a Jewish homeland. Jews were there on sufferance, subject to the whims of petty colonial officials just like Duncan. And when, like Duncan, (spoiler alert) those officials packed up and vanished, they knew full well that they were leaving to its own devices a land that was about to be attacked by neighbours determined to strangle the infant Jewish state in its cradle.
Expediency, practicality and questions of loyalty are the defining themes of this novel. When war breaks out, Eva too becomes a minor colonial functionary, censoring mail in Jerusalem's main post office. In direct counterpoint to one of classical Zionism's most closely held myths, Liesel concludes that an isolated kibbutz is no place for a young family and moves to Jerusalem too. Jews, Arabs and Englishmen come together as all Palestine hunkers down, listening anxiously to BBC dispatches as the seemingly unstoppable Afrika Korps sweeps across North Africa towards Jerusalem.
The last part of this novel is the most affecting. Goliger captures the deep ambiguity of the lead-up to independence. Groups like Irgun, attempting to make British rule untenable, have embarked on a campaign of bombing and assassination. Duncan calls them vermin and so do many Jews, decrying their ends and means utilitarianism. The violence transforms Jerusalem into a miniature police state, wryly dubbed “Bevingrad” – for British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin – by the ever-sceptical locals. But for many other Jews, the Irgun are heroes. “History is on my side, Miss Salomon…” says one of Eva's neighbours, a physician who secretly treats wounded Irgun operatives, “…you are the disgrace.” The terrorist vs. freedom fighter debate remains eternally corrosive, it seems. And when Eva herself is abducted by a shadowy underground group and savagely beaten as a “Collaborator … Traitor… Polluter of the People and the Land,” we – as much as Eva herself – are forced to confront our own uncertainties and ambivalence, as readers, as Jews and as human beings.
Eva Salomon's War is not without its shortcomings. The dialogue is at times wooden and some of the characters seem to come straight out of central casting. In its striving towards evenhandedness and fair treatment of all parties, Arab, Jewish and British, it is often far too earnest. And its use of contemporary inclusive language includes some real clangers: teenaged Haganah fighters“staff” the barricades as Arab armies bear down on Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, Goliger has written an affecting novel about a time and place that – surprisingly – often gets short shrift in Jewish fiction. She effectively captures the historical and moral ambiguities of Mandate Palestine, many of which continue to play themselves out in contemporary Israel. And especially at this darkest time of the year, the theme of the perpetual human yearning for independence and renewal that runs through Eva Salomon's War reminds us that, however unlikely they may seem, great miracles are always possible.
A.E. Smith is a writer who lives in rural Nova Scotia.