When a journalist writes fiction, especially historical fiction, it’s natural for the reader to search for the point of departure from truth to imagination.
The lines are fascinatingly blurred in Martin Fletcher’s novel, “The List" (Thomas Dunne), which blends his parents’ experience as Austrian Jewish refugees in London with a tale of intrigue involving Lehi agents plotting the assassination of Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin in the waning days of World War II.
The aborted plot actually happened, though the real Fletchers, unlike Georg and Edith of the book, had no connection to it.
What is real and painstakingly reconstructed in the pages, however, is the xenophobia Jewish refugees faced in post-blitz London as soldiers returned from the front to compete with the newcomers for scarce housing and jobs. At town hall meetings, citizens groups insisted they had nothing against Jews, but natives come first, while homegrown fascists were up front about their sympathy toward Hitler’s Final Solution.
The sense of being outsiders never left Georg and Edith.
“For 60 years, my parents had no English friends, only fellow refugees,” Fletcher, the veteran correspondent for NBC News told me in a recent interview. “My mother could never say the word Jewish without her voice dropping.”
Growing up in England Fletcher, who was born in 1947, always felt like a fish out of water, often told by schoolmates and fellow soccer players that he was “different.” “I grew up in England but I never felt British,” he said.
But he doesn’t attribute that as much to anti-Semitism as to general British chauvinism.
“There were plenty of at Jewish jokes and slurs, but in the British context, If I were black or Asian it would have been exactly the same, just kids being stupid,” he said.
In modern-day England, he says, the enemy has a new face. “On the one hand my English Jewish friends will say there is no anti-Semitism, but clearly there is anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism which is obviously the fig leaf for many anti-Semites.
“It’s not active anti-Semitism, they’re not going to shoot them, they just don’t like the Jews. And I have no idea why.”
Fletcher has lived in Israel for most of the last 40 years, raising three sons there with his wife, Hagar and serving as NBC’s Middle East bureau chief, though he is now mostly retired.
The novel was inspired by the list Georg Fleisher, who later anglicized his name to Fletcher, kept of his and his wife’s Austrian relatives who weren’t lucky enough to escape the Nazis. Crossed-out names were dead, checked names alive, and many names were untouched, their fates never known.
But neither Georg nor Edith spoke much about their experiences or losses. “My father would normally just sort of break down in tears and my mother was emotionally closed, she couldn’t talk about it. Which is a great pity.”
Both have since passed away, but Fletcher managed to coax his mother into a video interview before she died. That and the titular list captured his imagination and he decided to tie their experiences to the birth of the Jewish state.
The story condenses 18 months of history into a three-month fictional period at war’s end in which the British face increasing hostility from the Palestine Jewish underground, which hits home as Georg and Edith await the birth of their first child while sheltering a surviving, but traumatized cousin. A Vienna-trained lawyer unable to practice in England, Georg works part-time at a button factory while Edith mends stockings, and they expend their limited resources to search for tidbits of information about other relatives.
Sheltering the couple are sympathetic landlords whose soldier son returns from action in mandatory Palestine, and who resist pressure to evict their tenants to make room for other veterans. Soon, Georg is inadvertently sucked into the plot to assassinate Bevin as a signal to the British to end the blockade of Jewish refugees and go home.
Fletcher said he initially wanted to create similar characters but couldn’t resist the urge to use his parents’ names, a focal point to reconstruct 1944 London. He read newspapers of the era to extract details, right up to the actual movie that was at the local cinema on a particular night of the story. He spoke to a person involved in the Bevin plot for details, interviewed elderly Londoners about the fascist movement at the time and found news accounts and letters to the editor about the ugly politics of the time.
“The background is completely accurate, but all the family stuff is fictitious,” he said. “I did much more research than I needed to.”
Fletcher has written two previous non-fiction books, one about his career reporting from hellholes and hotspots around the world and the other about the coastal cities of his current home, Israel.
Being a journalist/novelist “is a double-edge sword,” he says. “On the one hand I felt tremendous freedom, I said I can make it all up, it doesn’t matter because no one will know – it’s a novel. On the other hand I didn’t want to because the story is very real to me very personal story wanted a story that was very real.”
In 2008’s “Breaking News,” Fletcher speculates that his parents experience with the tyranny that ruined their lives is the driving force behind his quest to document for western audiences the mass murder, displacement, starvation and disease in places like Afghanistan, South Africa, Rwanda, Cambodia, Somalia, Kosovo and the Middle East.
His editor at Thomas Dunne encouraged him at the time to dig deep into his soul for those kinds of reflections.
In writing “The List,” he worked alone, trying not to plumb the depths of his imagination rather than his soul. But the result was the same.
“As people talked to me about the book afterward it was reluctantly dragged out of me that it’s more of my family story than I care to admit.”