Love in the Blitz

Com­pi­la­tion by David MacGowan

  • Review
By – November 16, 2020

Love in the Blitz is a rare lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal find. It con­sists of a long-lost com­pi­la­tion of let­ters writ­ten by a woman to the man she loves, span­ning sev­en years — includ­ing all of World War II. The woman, Eileen Alexan­der, is Eng­lish, Jew­ish, emo­tion­al­ly sen­si­tive, and intel­lec­tu­al­ly promis­ing. Her back­ground is pres­ti­gious and cos­mopoli­tan. Her father, born in Poland, became an esteemed bar­ris­ter in Cairo, and then in Eng­land. Her moth­er descends from an illus­tri­ous Sephardic Ital­ian fam­i­ly. We meet Eileen in the late 1930s, when she is an ambi­tious uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent study­ing Eng­lish at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty. Par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of Arthuri­an leg­end (espe­cial­ly the roman­tic parts), she finds her­self flirt­ing with a Jew­ish law stu­dent, a book­ish hunk named Ger­shon Ellenbogen.

Anoth­er suit­or appears in the let­ters — the young Abba Eban, then known as Aubrey” — and his pres­ence flesh­es out the emo­tion­al con­text of Eileen and Gershon’s lives. While Eileen is fond of Aubrey, she falls quick­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly in love with Ger­shon, but the pres­ence of this third wheel” (who will become world famous as Israel’s first Ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States) makes for fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing. Through the years, we expe­ri­ence Gershon’s induc­tion into British Air Intel­li­gence, Eileen’s leav­ing col­lege to work for the Air Min­istry, and Aubrey Eban’s bur­geon­ing inter­est in Zion­ism. His­to­ry is, of course, also fraught dur­ing these for­ma­tive years. Through Eileen’s eyes we see her and her fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence the air raids and com­mu­nal shel­ters. We hear of her father’s deep dread of the Nazis, and his plea (ignored by the fam­i­ly) that they escape to Cana­da. Still, lit­tle is said by Eileen her­self about the destruc­tion of the Jews in Europe, or of the stir­ring birth of polit­i­cal Zion­ism as a response to anti­semitism. The young Eileen who writes these let­ters is too sec­u­lar, shel­tered, and priv­i­leged to wor­ry much about the state of her co-reli­gion­ists. Thus, while inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly, her mis­sives are main­ly help­ful for their insight into the roman­tic and sex­u­al mores of a 1940s Jew­ish girl in England.

Young Eileen’s first mis­sives to Ger­shon are point­ed­ly clever (she seems to be try­ing to impress him), and full of imper­fect­ly hid­den desire. The awk­ward­ness of a schol­ar­ly young woman try­ing to nav­i­gate the bor­ders between friend­ship and romance are charm­ing­ly dis­played here. For exam­ple, she refers to any kind of sex­u­al explo­ration (in her case, her suitor’s hands light­ly brush­ing over her breasts) with the slang word, mol­lock­ing,” and dis­dains the very thought of either of them acknowl­edg­ing her low­er female anato­my. As the years go by, and the lovers sep­a­rate, she pleads with Ger­shon to mas­ter his urges – and not to have sex with any­one else. While we nev­er read Gershon’s respons­es, we can see the deep­en­ing of their com­mit­ment in Eileen’s open and ardent tone. She wants to be his wife; she adores him; he is per­fect, and the word dar­ling” is used many times in each of her let­ters. Though she was a promis­ing stu­dent at Gir­ton Col­lege, Cam­bridge (grad­u­at­ing with a First” in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture), Eileen seems to apply the poet­ics of her edu­ca­tion not to a future career as a pro­fes­sor, but to what she deems the high­est art of all: the art of lov­ing some­one. Indeed, as she her­self express­es, lov­ing Ger­shon becomes the cen­ter of her life. And though we read on the book’s jack­et that Eileen became a teacher, author, and trans­la­tor of many of George Simenon’s nov­els, her lit­er­ary career seems less than what it might have been.

Still, these let­ters redeem that lack, pre­sent­ing us with an almost nov­el-like por­tray­al of the heart of a young woman. It is note­wor­thy that these let­ters might have eas­i­ly been lost to the world, and with them, a small slice of British Jew­ish his­to­ry. They were for­tu­itous­ly found at a garage sale, where the price for a huge stack of papers includ­ing the let­ters was less than a hun­dred dol­lars. Their worth to the read­er, on the oth­er hand, may be incalculable.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

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