Conversation with Daniel Chertoff, author, Palestine Posts: An Eyewitness Account of the Birth of Israel, Toby Press, 2019
Koren Publishers: What led to you to write this book?
Daniel Chertoff: The book grew through an organic process. Although I had helped my father write his memoirs many years ago, I had no idea that there were letters from the period. It was only after he died that I discovered a cache of letters from the mid-1930s, when his mother took him and his siblings to live in Palestine for a year, and from the period of Israel’s war of independence (1947-1949). I planned to just scan the letters in order to preserve them for my children. But as I started to read them, I saw that there were names mentioned that I recognized but which my children would not, so I started to annotate the letters. There were also names that I did not recognize. I was curious and researched them. There were also references to important historical events which I felt a need to explore. And of course, I got to see my father as a young man – much younger than my children are now. Before I knew it, there were two narratives weaving themselves together – a personal account of Israel‘s war of independence and the inner life of a young man who happened to have been my father. The book grew out of a strong inner need to develop these two strands.
Koren Publishers: What difficulties did you experience in writing the book? Were there any surprises?
Daniel Chertoff: The hardest thing about writing the book turned out to be also the most satisfying – the research necessary for putting the letters into context. Despite living in Israel for over 30 years, I had a lot to learn about Israel’s war of independence. So I read everything I could get my hands on, especially eyewitness accounts of people not sympathetic to Israel like John Bagot Glubb, the commander of the Jordanian Legion and Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator charged with implementing the UN partition plan. They offered a very different perspective. I gave myself a crash course in modern Israeli history.
There were many surprises. I had no idea that my father had proposed to a woman long before meeting my mother. Fortunately, she turned him down! I did not know that many of my parents’ friends had also made important contributions during the war. And it was great fun to meet the famous people my father came in contact with like Leonard Bernstein, Moshe Sharett and Yitzhak Rabin, to name just a few.
Koren Publishers: What do you think your father would say about the book?
Daniel Chertoff: I think my father would be thrilled with the book. I’m sure he merely forgot about the letters but I love to imagine that this was intentional, that he wanted me to find them after his death so that I would have to undergo this journey myself, without his help.
Koren Publishers: What, if any, messages do you think there are in your book about relating to our parents?
Daniel Chertoff: The book is more than a son’s search for his father. Reading the correspondence between my father and his parents and siblings helped me appreciate the generational aspects of family history. While I considered my feelings towards my father, I had the opportunity to watch him negotiate his relationship with his father. I came to the conclusion that, as children we do not appreciate our family stories nor take them as seriously as we should. Perhaps this is part of a young person’s quest for independence. But family stories are crucial to identity and I feel blessed that mine is bound up with the creation of the State of Israel. My father was part of the great generation that fought World War II and brought the state of Israel into being. I grew up with his stories but did not appreciate them. This project minimizes some of the difficult aspects of my relationship with my father and changes the way I will remember him.
Koren Publishers: For people who are knowledgeable about Israel, what will they find in this book that is new and interesting?
Daniel Chertoff: Let me start with the general and then move to the specific. Reading a contemporaneous, eyewitness account of historical events is different from reading the massaged account written years later by professional historians. A contemporaneous account is full of suspense. We wonder what will happen. Such accounts help the reader to “experience” events, cumulatively. It is a more “ethical” way to learn history. A good example is the long, heart-rending account of the desperate European Jewish refugees sailing on the Exodus 1947, frantic to enter the Jewish state but turned away by the British and forced into camps in Germany. A mere summary of their experiences does not do them justice. Reading a contemporaneous account of their odyssey makes us much more sensitive. Many Jewish rituals help us experience our history. On Passover we are instructed to imagine leaving Egypt with Moshe, while on Shavuot we reenact receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Contemporaneous accounts make this process easier.
As to specifics, I think my father‘s account of the night of the vote the UN vote for partition beautifully captures how the night felt for residents of Jerusalem. His account of the bombing of the Palestine Post may be the most detailed ever published.
Koren Publishers: How is your book relevant to our current times?
Daniel Chertoff: George Santayana’s famous quip that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is no less true by having become a cliché. We live in what seems like “post-historic” times. We hold strong ideological views without the benefit of a solid historical base. How can we address contemporary problems without appreciating the historical context? Understanding why the Arabs and Jews went to war in 1948 is critical for comprehending the factors that continue to dominate the conflict. To my regret, little seems to have changed in over 70 years.
Koren Publishers: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your book?
Daniel Chertoff: One of the most satisfying and powerful aspects of this project was tracking down the descendants of people mentioned in my father’s letters. I was anxious to share what I had learned and to find out what they could tell me about our parents. As it happens, I was generally the one with the most information. For example, my father describes dragging one of his colleagues, Robbie, out of the burning Palestine Post building, his affection and respect for Robbie and his fears for Robbie’s life. Robbie eventually succumbed to his injuries so his infant son never knew him and always wondered exactly what happened. I was thrilled to meet his son and to be able to offer an eyewitness account written by someone who loved his father and probably bought him extra time. You can imagine how important this meeting was for both of us.
What I thought were merely personal anecdotes turn out to be important for the entire Jewish people.
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