Surviving

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 …

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