The List

By – August 25, 2011

Like the tran­sient denizens of Casablan­ca in the film of the same name, this novel’s char­ac­ters live from day to day, wait­ing. Though the Sec­ond World War has just end­ed, these Ger­man-speak­ing Jew­ish refugees liv­ing in North Lon­don in 1945 are uncer­tain of their future and are large­ly help­less to do any­thing about it. Sub­sist­ing on irreg­u­lar, menial work, they con­stant­ly seek out news of lost rel­a­tives, fear­ing the worst but hop­ing against the odds that a few might have survived. 

Their posi­tion is frag­ile. Liv­ing in Britain on tem­po­rary visas, they are vul­ner­a­ble to the cam­paign by some of their British neigh­bors to have them expelled. With Oswald Mose­ley new­ly released from prison, the British Fas­cists are again hold­ing anti-Semit­ic ral­lies. As for­eign­ers, the émi­grés are blamed for tak­ing jobs away from Eng­lish work­ers, and as Jews they are seen as some­how impli­cat­ed in the vio­lent acts by mili­tias in Pales­tine against the British colo­nial government. 

Even as those trou­bling events unfold, these lik­able peo­ple hold on to their opti­mism, and as 1945 ends, their col­lec­tive and indi­vid­ual futures come into view. The hopes of expec­tant par­ents, a young survivor’s ten­ta­tive steps toward love, and a mys­te­ri­ous Egyptian’s secret mis­sion make this sto­ry emo­tion­al­ly affect­ing as well as his­tor­i­cal­ly res­o­nant. Mar­tin Fletch­er writes with par­tic­u­lar author­i­ty about this time and place: his own par­ents lived in cir­cum­stances much like the ones he describes.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Thomas Dunne Books

  1. Can a refugee be con­sid­ered in the same cat­e­go­ry as a Holo­caust sur­vivor? Did Edith and Georg suf­fer in any way that is com­pa­ra­ble to Anna’s suffering?

  2. When Edith left her fam­i­ly at Vienna’s rail sta­tion, she knew she may nev­er see them again. Then it is in anoth­er train sta­tion in Lon­don that Edith greets her cousin Anna, the first Holo­caust sur­vivor that she has met. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the rail sta­tions? Do they sym­bol­ize the jour­ney of the char­ac­ters or is it just a coincidence?

  3. When Edith and Georg dis­cov­er that Papi may be alive some­where in Europe, they are torn and argue. Edith wants Georg to go to Vien­na and look for her father. Was that pos­si­ble? Should he have gone? What would have await­ed him in Europe so soon after the end of World War 2?

  4. When did you real­ize that Ismael was not an Egypt­ian anti-semi­te but an under­cov­er Pales­tin­ian Jew? Was his rela­tion­ship with Anna convincing?

  5. Anna arrived in Lon­don with all the bur­den of Auschwitz and refused to talk about it. Why did she refuse? Was it help­ful to her to remain silent or would she have ben­e­fit­ed from the cathar­sis of talk­ing about her experiences?

  6. What kind of a per­son is Anna? What hap­pened to her in the Holo­caust? She is the silent char­ac­ter of the book yet she has a very strong pres­ence in the sto­ry. Why?

  7. Would it have been good for the Jews in Pales­tine to assas­si­nate Ernest Bevin or harm­ful to their cause? How wide­spread was Jew­ish ter­ror­ism in Britain?

  8. How wide-spread was anti-Semi­tism in Britain at that time? And today? In oth­er countries?

  9. To be a Jew­ish refugee in Lon­don, or any­where for that mat­ter, and to sus­pect, but not to know for sure, that your fam­i­ly is being tor­tured and killed in Europe — what must that have been like?

  10. And then after the war, the sus­pense and drawn-out strug­gle to dis­cov­er their relatives’s fate – to what extent could oth­er peo­ple under­stand and sym­pa­thise? Or is there no way for unin­volved peo­ple to under­stand? Did their under­stand­ing mat­ter to the Jews then?

  11. Did refugees take the jobs and homes of return­ing sol­diers? Was that a fair complaint?

  12. Did Jews have the right to fight back in the streets or should they have relied on the police to defend them? What was more impor­tant? To fight back phys­i­cal­ly or to try to edu­cate the British to accept the Jews?

  13. Was Georg too weak in his rela­tion­ship with Ismael? Should he have resist­ed ear­li­er? Should he have informed the police as soon as he under­stood what Ismael was planning?

  14. The land­lords Albert and Sal­ly – Why did they not evict the refugees to make room for sol­diers? What was their atti­tude towards the refugees? Was it typ­i­cal of the British?

  15. How did the British behave towards the Jews? Was it any dif­fer­ent from oth­er coun­tries? How has it changed today?