Arts & Culture

Award-winning Ottawa author, Gabriella Goliger, battles through fanaticism and belief in Eva’s Salomon’s War

Eva Salomon’s War is waged on several fronts: the protagonist escapes the Holocaust to Palestine. But then she flees again, this time from her rigidly orthodox father, and then battles economic mayhem and pursues a dangerous love. Barbara Sibbald talks to Gabriella Goliger, an award-winning Ottawa writer who once lived on a kibbutz, about this unique tale of fanaticism and belief.

What inspired you to write Eva Salomon’s War?

This book is loosely based on the experiences of my mother’s sister. Like the heroine, she was a young Jewish woman from Germany who went to Palestine in the 1930s — escaping Nazi Germany — fell in love with a British policeman and was terrorized by Jewish extremists. Those are the bare bones of the story. My aunt died in 1968, so I was never able to ask her directly, but [the terrorism] always troubled me and I wanted to understand it better. At one point, I thought I’d try to write a memoir, but I didn’t have enough to go on, and besides, I wanted the freedom fiction gives to really delve into the character, the events, the circumstances.

In seventh grade in Germany, after Eva is segregated and humiliated by the Nazis, she rejects belief in all its permutations. What role does belief play in her life?

She rejects ideology because of the Nazis but also because of her father, who is rigidly orthodox. At the time, she’s very young and she’s depressed. She gets muddled about the difference between value systems, ideology, and hope and faith in general. She decides to believe in nothing. [In Palestine, she] does start to believe in love and a future for herself. She even becomes something of a Zionist because she can’t help being drawn into the national struggle and identify with her people’s aspirations. That becomes a conflict in her relationship with Duncan [the British policeman].

Gabriella Goliger. Photo: Jessica Deeks
Gabriella Goliger. Photo: Jessica Deeks

Eva knows she can’t leave Palestine because few nations were taking Jews at the time, but her relationship with Duncan is doomed because Zionist aspirations were pitted against British interests. Yet she continues. Why?

She’s stuck in this relationship. She can’t imagine life without him, and that’s related to her deep-down inability to really believe in herself. She becomes dependent on this love. There’s also the context of the Second World War. The whole world is in conflict and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so what’s the point in making long-term plans?

Belief is also a pivotal force for Eva’s sister and father. Would you characterize this book as being about belief?

It’s a strong thread in the book. Everyone needs to believe in things, but when does belief go overboard and become a rigid ideology? And how do you find that balance?

Were you surprised by anything you found while researching?

One of the things I was looking for were stories similar to my aunt’s. I found almost nothing. It told me that it’s part of the past people don’t want to think or speak about — Jews terrorizing Jews during the struggle for Palestine. And that made me feel that what I was writing was important, which motivated me.

How does one square Israel of then with Israel now? How does one reconcile one’s dream of a Jewish state with the cost of another people’s suffering?

I think the Jews had no option but to create a Jewish state at that time because of the Holocaust. And when I say “because of the Holocaust,” I mean that the enormity of it impressed on most Jews the need to have a country of their own where they could defend themselves and no longer have to reply on the hospitality of others. I also recognize there was a huge tragedy that befell the Palestinian people. I wish it hadn’t happened, and I wish there was a resolution. I still believe two states is the only viable option. The mainstream founders of Israel were pragmatists and compromisers. Today, the heirs of the people who were seen as extremists back then have become mainstream. As Eva says at the end, there must be a better way.

Eva Salomon’s War

EXCERPT

Jerusalem, January 10, 1947

It’s Friday afternoon and the hour of long shadows. Of slanting light that brings out the tarnished gold of Jerusalem stone. As the sun sinks, its amber rays fire the minarets in the heart of the Old City, burnish Suleiman’s walls, wash over towers, crosses, and domes, glint on gun turrets, and glance off the upraised bayonets of the sentries on the Hill of Evil Counsel. Throughout the town, both old and new, the day’s decline brings a flurry of activity. Jews rush home to prepare for the Sabbath. Arabs flock to the call of the Maghreb prayer. British officials crowd into the bar of the King David Hotel to toast His Majesty with tumblers of gin. Citizens of all three communities hurry their separate ways to reach the safety of their enclaves before the vehement darkness of a Palestine night descends.

In front of a billboard at the corner of Mamilla and Princess Mary Roads, a woman lingers. She wears a fawn-coloured tweed jacket with padded shoulders and a sheepskin collar and a smart, emerald-green wool suit underneath. A gold scarf is tucked around her throat for a splash of contrast and to fend off the stiff January wind. Her trilby hat is angled stylishly, the brim sloping across her brow and tilting towards the sky. She balances on pumps with two-and-a-half inch heels, the highest she could find at the shoe shop on Ben Yehuda Street. She’s young, though not in the first blush of youth. A small woman—barely four foot eleven — who dresses to give herself extra inches.

Pausing before this billboard on her way home from work has become a habit. The hoarding, plastered with notices in three languages, is an island of sanity in a city coming apart at the seams. Despite the tensions, sporadic curfews, the possibility of an explosion rending the air any moment, there’s much entertainment on offer. …

But why doesn’t the woman get a move on? It’s time to leave, for the light is fading fast. Behind the billboard, beyond the street corner, lies an ancient cemetery: a wide expanse of gnarled trees and overgrown bushes, where the Jerusalem darkness always seems dense as bricks. Yet she dallies a bit longer to fish out a pack of cigarettes from the depths of her handbag. To recapture the filaments of her nostalgic dream and to avoid the chill absence that awaits her at home. She floats away on her clouds of what-once-was and what-might-have been, while the streets empty and the last shutters clatter down over the shops. Soon the townsfolk will have vanished behind their closed doors, their own four walls. Soon clusters of soldiers will be out on foot patrol, exchanging rude jokes to buttress their spirits. An armoured car — a behemoth with a gun-barrel snout — will rumble down the hill from the parking lot beside the King David Hotel. The zealous young men of the Underground will emerge from cellars and alleys. Some of them have barely begun to shave. They are armed with home-made bombs and the fieriest of convictions. Soon the game of the hunters and the hunted will begin.

And that oblivious, day-dreaming woman in the trilby hat?

She is me.