The Hiding Room by Jonathan Wilson
(Secker and Warburg 1995)
The Rabin assassination showed that seemingly normal Jews are ready to kill their brethren for a cause. After all, Yigal Amir was no American import attempting to turn the West Bank into the Wild West.
Amir’ s group was guided by the life and times of Avraham Stem in fighting the British in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. Stern forged an ideology from sources ranging from classic IRA tracts to chosen Talmudic texts — ‘the book and the sword came bound together from heaven’. Its elevation of hisul — elimination — provided the example to compliment selective religious theory.
So what has all this to do with Jonathan Wilson’s excellent new novel? It is a tale of British antisemitism and Jewish terrorism in 1941 and the legacy it bestowed on its narrator, Daniel Weiss, in 1991. After the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, this book will have to be read differently, its political inferences cannot be relegated to background literary noise.
This twin track approach of stories set 50 years apart intersects with Daniel Weiss’s attempt to rediscover his mother, a Viennese Jewish refugee and to find his unknown father in the Jerusalem of 1991. It begins with Esta Weiss’s final journey from Finchley to a Jerusalem cemetery after an untroubled life in England. Daniel has a need to reclaim the story of his parents, their passion for each other and why it finished. ‘My mother has brought me here for a reason and it is up to me to discover it’.
It is the evocative, eternal idea that no one fully understands their parents until after they have passed on that is the magnetic attraction. Only in hindsight can openness be practiced and secrets revealed. Only after death, can the reconstruction of their lives by their children begin.
In the case of Daniel Weiss, the slate has been wiped almost clean. His mother is a mystery. His father never existed. Jonathan Wilson captivates his readers because he continually points to perplexing questions as he leads them through this story.
The passionate affair in Cairo between Esta, an escapee from Nazi occupied Europe and Archie Rawlins, a British Army intelligence officer who dreams of England’s green and pleasant land is unacceptable to his colleagues and superiors. She is an irritant simply because she is a Jew. There is also considerable suspicion that she is implicated in the killing of a fictional Lord Moyne, Sir John Waterlow, by fictional Sternists.
‘Splendid chap, [Waterlow]. Minister of Greece. Had to turn back a refugee ship bound for Palestine lastyear. Didn’t want to. Had his hand forced by London. Good results for us though* The Egyptians were very pleased’.
Esta Weiss also annoys British intelligence with incredulous, unbelievable stories of mass killings by the einsatzgruppen. Jews, they argue, exaggerate, distort, wail and moan — it’s part of their nature.
Or as that intrepid, sensitive Sunday Times columnist, Julie Burchill recently commented ‘for Israel to behave as though it were the first country ever to experience a political assassination only adds weight to the unpleasant theories about Jewish “hysteria” and their ability to make a self-flagellating drama out of any minor crisis’. Is such ingrained ignorance destined to remain part of our heritage?
Jonathan Wilson has done his homework and powerfully captured the ambience of domestic wartime antisemitism. In this mono-cultural world Jews who did not dissolve into the wider society were suspect. They manifested a distinct form of ‘un-Englishness’ by their insistence on maintaining their difference. Yet the notion of Nazi antisemitism was similarly un-English. It was an affront to the liberal conscience and struck at the roots of civilized behaviour. It was a competition between these two dislikes which characterised the British response.
Rawlins’ refusal to partake in this popular racism propels him to smuggle Esta into Palestine and to remain there with her. This act not only forces his superiors to hunt for him but persuades some Zionist zealots that he must be a British spy. Above all, this novel deals with the uneasy relationship between Jews and non-Jews.
The characters in this compelling story are carefully constructed, but they have also been anglicised for an essentially non -Jewish audience. This is therefore a certain sense of inauthenticity for an identifying Jewish reader.
Perhaps it is a sense of belonging, a search for identity, that is the real intangible which is hidden in ‘The Hiding Room’ — a quality which Daniel Weiss finally locates on the last page of this moving, poignant and important work.
Judaism Today Spring 1996