Trains of Thought and In Lands Not My Own—both titles have a melancholy sound. Both are memoirs of East European Jews in flight from Hitler at the outbreak of World War II; and both the authors end up as members of the Allied forces, Victor Brombert in the American Army and Reuben Ainsztein in the RAF. Though their stories cover much of the same ground (literally), they are very different.
Ainsztein’s is more of a thriller. That is partly because, born in 1917, he is the older by six years. In 1939 he was a medical student in Brussels. With his parents left behind in his native Wilno (he was never to see them again), he was on his own, forced to make his own decisions in razor’s-edge situations, while Brombert had to follow his father’s choices, which left him free to dream his teenage dreams and worry about his trouser legs: Were they breaking over his shoes as they should? The reason Ainsztein was studying in Brussels is that in pre-war Poland only a small quota of Jewish students was allowed into the universities. Anti-Semitism was official, general, and generally accepted. Ainsztein’s memoir runs on the fuel of anti-anti-Semitism, and his hatred and distrust of Poles is an indelible part of it.
On the other hand, his gratitude toward non-Jews who treated Jews as equals and friends is touching. His parents were poor and the money they were able to send covered his university fees but nothing else. He lived on giving English lessons (they must have been pretty elementary: he’d never been to England or the US), and there were times when the only food he had was stale bread. He was chronically weak with hunger, and he despised his fellow students. They were spoiled and frivolous, he thought, while his own life was “a continuous, soul-destroying struggle against hunger, loneliness, and adolescent pride.” That pride was wounded when he had to borrow money for his rent, and more still when a kind shopkeeper offered him some ham for free: “Nobody’s embarrassment can compare with that of a proud pauper.” Still, the shopkeeper and her husband became his friends, and so did another couple called Caprasse, who came from the Ardennes and lived in Ainsztein’s apartment building. Their “Catholicism… was sincere, tolerant, and mitigated by their Gallic mentality.” Ainsztein is given to such pronouncements.
The most unpredictable event in his story occurred in February 1940, when he came across an article on Stendhal in an English magazine. It was by Sir Samuel Hoare, the British secretary for air. It seems extraordinary that a cabinet minister would have time for such a thing in wartime. Ainsztein doesn’t say that, but he does become “convinced that Sir Samuel was the type of man to understand my motives.” So he wrote to him and asked to join the RAF. A few weeks later a letter with an English stamp lay on the lobby table. “The impossible had happened: I was granted permission to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as an aircrew.”
Unfortunately, the impossible happened just before the Germans invaded Belgium. Ainsztein and the Caprasses planned to flee together. He helped them lug their belongings to the teeming railway station, where crowds were fighting to get in line for trains that might never arrive. The Caprasses had arranged a rendezvous at a café; but when he got there, he found a note to say that they had found
a train on the point of leaving for the South of France and could not wait for me. To see the effect of panic reflected in the behavior of people whom I loved and respected made me painfully sad.
He must have really loved them, because his usual reaction to anyone who crosses him or whose behavior he deplores is one of aggressive scorn and blame. A few weeks later, for instance, he is taking shelter from German shells in a cellar near Boulogne. Some of the others there sneer at a young French soldier from the Midi, and at the southern French in general:
I could not help asking them whether they were at war with Germany or about to declare war on Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Marseilles. That brought them back to reality but did not endear me to them.
No, it wouldn’t. Ainsztein does not come across as an endearing man.
The difficulty, of course, about joining the RAF was getting to England amid falling bombs and shells and advancing German troops. Ainsztein just missed the last boat across the Channel. He returned to Brussels, and then set out for Spain through occupied and Vichy France, always on the run or in hiding. His account of his adventures and of the characters he meets is gripping in its precision and brio, even though he may overemphasize his own courage—which doesn’t need it. He explains that his determination to be, and be seen to be, brave came from growing up in a culture that assumed all Jews to be cowards.
It took him fifteen months to get to Spain, only to be arrested and spend another fourteen months in a concentration camp for foreigners. The Poles among them despised and humiliated him, and it was in the camp that he first heard about the gas chambers:
I felt like howling, tearing my clothes, covering myself with ashes, but I was too far removed from the religious and medieval mind. My intellect never gave up its role of investigator and examiner; despite the absence of human sympathy and understanding, my mind did not crack and I did not go mad.
The Polish prisoners, he writes, received the news with “widespread applause. There was not a single voice of protest at this expression of solidarity with the aims of Nazism.” No wonder Ainsztein refused suggestions that he might join the Polish forces when the prisoners were released after a hunger strike.
With a batch of other prisoners Ainsztein traveled via Madrid and Portugal to Gibraltar. In Madrid he had an affectionate affair with a Spanish woman, which leads him to condemn Spanish males for their brutal attitude toward women. Then, in a station café at the Portuguese frontier, he had an experience almost as thrilling as Sir Samuel’s letter: he got into conversation with Leslie Howard. The star of Pygmalion was
modest, gentle, quizzical, with an indefinable charm, and [I] felt that I was facing the foremost product of English civilization…. (It came as a great surprise to me to learn after his death that he was born a Hungarian Jew.)
At the time, though, Howard’s behavior confirmed Ainsztein’s infatuation with the British. It had come upon him when he was a boy reading the novels of Joseph Conrad, the only Pole he seems to admire. And when at last, after many vicissitudes, he found himself in England training with the RAF, that experience further endorsed his view that
of all the Western peoples I knew, the British were the only ones to have become completely civilized without losing the more primitive virtues that lie in the love of danger and adventure. The ideal hero I had dreamed of as a boy in Wilno—the man in whom action and thought were harmoniously combined—seemed to occur very frequently in the ruling class of Britain…. I was struck by the degree of trust and confidence governing the relations between individuals. I also discovered the extraordinary decency, kindness, and humanity of the English.
But, the chapter regretfully concludes,
there was one feature in British life that I found utterly sordid. I found the relations between the sexes lacking in grace, fun, and interest…. The sight of thousands of couples lying in broad daylight on the worn grass of Hyde Park, engaged in every possible caress short of actual copulation, made me understand why D.H. Lawrence could have been born only in these isles!
Ainsztein finished his training as an air gunner with the rank of sergeant and flew on missions over Germany. He gives a step-by-step account of an engine failure, during which he groped his way through the belly of the failing aircraft, from his gun turret to the tail and back again, without his parachute, because
it seemed to me that to strap on my parachute would be a sign of faintheartedness on my part, a kind of abdication to fate, and expression of distrust.
A few minutes later the crew had to bail out anyway. Ainsztein injured his leg as he landed near a tiny Belgian village. An old woman and her daughter took him in—by extraordinary coincidence they were already sheltering three East European Jews.
The dust jacket tells us that after the war Ainzstein worked for the BBC; that he died in 1981; and that in 1941 (when he would still have been in Spain) he married someone called Pat Kearey. That seems as surprising as Sir Samuel’s letter; he never mentions her, and it is hard to imagine how he could have fit marriage into his life on the run.
A distant British relative told Ainsztein, and one can believe her, that she “found me without a sense of humour.” Victor Brombert has one, and lots of charm as well; even though his book is sometimes slapdash and contains a few clichés, it is impossible not to like it and him. His parents were well-to-do, cultured, nonobservant middle-class Jews: his father a fur importer, gentle, nervous, cautious, and fussy, his pretty mother a bridge champion, and both of them hygiene freaks. They had fled from Russia in 1917 and settled in Leipzig, where Brombert was born. When the Nazis came to power, they moved on to Paris and a flat in the haut-bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement. He went to a lycée, but occasionally skipped lessons, and had a “passion for tennis.” Merry photographs of him and his friends on the beach at Deauville and Trouville remind one of Albertine’s little bande, only including boys.
Brombert portrays himself as lazy, vain, and obsessed with sex; but his admission of these faults only makes him more appealing. He loved riding on the métro and discovering strange parts of the city. “I believe,” he writes, “that my curiosity about literature was awakened not by books but by my Parisian walks.” French became his first language, and he was to become a professor of French and comparative literature at Yale and Princeton.
When the Germans invaded the Low Countries, his father decided to move south to Bordeaux. “In May– June 1940,” when he was sixteen, “literally millions of refugees obstructed the roads and railway stations.” It was the start of the family’s progress by means of bribes:
Papa explained to me how important it was in times of stress to make proper contact with officials, and then, at the right moment, adroitly slip into their hand, or place on their desk, an envelope with a few bank notes in it.