Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Award-winning author Gabriella Goliger tackles the clash of religion, self-identity and love in British Mandatory Palestine. Tracing the life of a young woman from immigrating with father from Nazi Germany to Palestine in 1937 to the declaration of Israel's independence in 1948, Goliger fills in an important gap in the understanding of Jewish life in country during these crucial years.
Eva Solomon is a light-hearted girl who struggles with the dictates of her very religious father in Breslau, Germany. Widowed for many years, her father endeavours to lead a pious life and raise his two daughters to be good Jews, despite an increasingly hostile environment in Germany. Eva's older sister, Liesel, decides to escape both the looming threat of Nazism and her father's overbearing nature by joining a left-wing Zionist movement recruiting young Jews to work in the new kibbutzim of the Galilee. Later, when the Nazis begin to tighten the screws on Breslau's large Jewish community, Eva and her father also immigrate to Palestine. The father ekes out a meagre income in Tel Aviv as a small electronics wholesaler. When Eva wants to study to be a secretary, her father refuses and insists that she remain working with him in his business. Meanwhile, she exchanges long letters with her sister Liesel in the Galilee, who struggles with the harshness of kibbutz life but remains enamoured with the dream of a Jewish socialist paradise. These letters only stoke Eva's desire for freedom.
When her father's dictatorial nature becomes too much for Eva, the young woman strikes out on her own. She finds refuge in the home of Malka, a brash Hungarian seamstress whose modern lifestyle and flair for fashion stand in stark contrast with Eva's orthodox upbringing. Eva supports herself by working as a maid in the houses of Tel Aviv's elite and begins to take classes to be a secretary. She also learns from Malka how to dress fashionably and conduct herself with men. It is then that she meets the handsome British constable Duncan Rees and defies her upbringing by falling in love with a gentile.
What is interesting in Goliger's novel is not so much the love story between Eva and her British lover or the rife between her and her religious father, but rather the historical background. The author walks us through the internal politics of the Jewish community in Palestine: those who wanted to work with the British authorities to achieve their goal of a Jewish state and those who resorted to terrorism to achieve the same end. Somewhere less prominent in the background is the Arab majority, which resists both British imperialism and the Zionist project. On the whole, the novel sympathetically portrays British rule in Palestine as benign, and some of the more memorable characters in the story are British civil servants who show Eva more fairness and support than she receives from her own community. Although there are no strong Arab characters, the novel does not whitewash the historical reality of the dispossession of the Arab majority. Rather, the Arab grievances are largely told through the reflections of the British characters and one brief encounter with an Arab Christian family. Eva, herself, waffles between her support for a Jewish state and her proclivity for a world where religious and ethnic differences have no place. Her love affair with Duncan reinforces this ambivalence and makes her a target for Zionist hardliners who turn violently against her.
At its core, Goliger's novel is about one human being trying to transcend religion, politics and fanaticism, and the story is beautifully told. Even so, Goliger's protagonist cannot escape the identity politics and the Realpolitik of her time and must choose sides. It is a tribute to Goliger that she manages to make the story so accessible to all readers. Through it, we walk away with a better understanding of a period that traditional historical accounts continue to clash over for political reasons.
Eva Salomon's War is published by Bedazzled Ink Publishing.