Five books by Leon Uris that entwine history and fiction
In the week following the author’s 99th birth anniversary, a look at his best works
I first learnt of the Holocaust via The Diary of Anne Frank, but it was Leon Uris who made me realise I would never make sense of the genocide that claimed the lives of six million Jews.
I read Mila 18, his novel set in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland, before and during World War II, when I was in high school. His blazing novel, based on real events, spotlighted the Nazi occupation of Poland, the atrocities that systematically eliminated the country’s Jewish people, and the audacious Warsaw ghetto uprising. The book was overwhelming and deplorable by parts, but I went on to read almost all of the author’s work – the novels were easily accessible as my father, an army man, had a collection of World War II-related works on his book shelf.
Prior to World War II, the word “holocaust”, ancient Greek for “burnt offering”, was sometimes used to describe the death of a large group of people. Since 1945, the term has become synonymous with the systematic murder of the European Jews. The Jews call it Shoah, Hebrew for “catastrophe”.
Though critics did not call Uris a ‘master storyteller’, and many continue to have misgivings about the Zionist slant of his work, given the struggle in Palestine, readers enjoyed his books that mixed political non-fiction and historical exposition.
Uris was born on August 3, 1924, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Wolf William, a Polish-born immigrant who ran a store, and Anna Blumberg, a first-generation Russian-American. His father spent a year in Palestine after World War I and went on to derive his last name, “Uris”, from Yerushalmi, meaning “man of Jerusalem”.
At age six, the Jewish-American couple’s son wrote an operetta lamenting the death of his dog. He went on to fail English thrice and never graduated from high school. Still, his action-packed, panoramic amassed a cult following.
In the week of his 99th birth anniversary, here’s a roundup of Leon Uris’s best works:
Things begin in British-occupied Cyprus where thousands of Jewish survivors, who escaped the Nazis have been forced into refugee camps after trying to reach Israel. The protagonist puts forth a scheme to shame the British, break the cordon, and allow the refugees to head to the Promised Land.
The extended flashbacks span the history of Zionism, the settling of the land of Israel, various aspects of the Holocaust, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and the workings of Nazi extermination camps. With the romance of the story and the struggle for power and a homeland – the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948 – still very recent, Exodus packed a huge emotional punch.
Uris read nearly 300 books, travelled 12,000 miles inside Israel, and interviewed 1,200 people while researching and writing Exodus. The novel ran to 600 pages and was translated into 50 languages.
“My greatest accomplishment is Exodus. It changed people’s lives, it changed the conception of the Jewish people in the international scene,” he said.
Instead of being a neutral observer, de Monti ends up in the thick of things: he has an affair with the wife of a Jewish community leader even as he connects with prostitutes provided by the Nazis. But Mila 18 isn’t his story; it is the story of Jewish leaders, who seem to be fighting two losing battles: one against the Nazis and another against the profiteers among themselves.
As the ghetto is surrounded, de Monti joins forces with Jews who take on Wehrmacht tanks with homespun weapons and bare fists in an epic battle. He survives to tell the tale, along with Gabriela Rak, who is pregnant with the child of Andrei Androfski, a former Polish army officer and one of the defenders.
The taut trial and the consequences – the reopening of old wounds, disruption of lives, and the consequent battle for justice on behalf of thousands of people – make for an interesting, unputdownable read.
QB VII is largely based on Uris’s own long-drawn-out libel defence against Dr Vladislav Dering, a former concentration camp surgeon he named in Exodus. In 1964, a London court ruled in favour of Dering, but awarded him minimal damages. The novel was made into the first mini series in television history.
French intelligence chief André Devereaux and NATO intelligence chief Michael Nordstrom uncover Soviet plans to ship nuclear arms to Cuba, but their intelligence comes to a naught. Devereaux finds himself the target of an assassination attempt when he reports his findings, and soon realises that a larger game is afoot. With a small group of Cuban exiles and Soviet defectors, the two intelligence chiefs hotfoot their way across countries in a bid to save the world.
Alfred Hitchcock adapted the best selling novel in 1969 but the film was a critical and commercial failure.
The espionage story also evoked controversy when Uris’s principal source, Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, an exiled French diplomat, sued him for allegedly reneging on a profit-sharing agreement.
In Berlin, at the end of World War II, an American army officer has just witnessed one historic tragedy and now faces another. Captain Sean O’Sullivan, who is sent to oversee the rebuilding of Berlin, is forced to come to terms with the appalling truth of the Holocaust. He sees the shattered state of a defeated society, and witnesses the spectre of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet takeover of Germany.
The incipient Cold War leads to the Berlin Blockade, with the USSR blocking rail, road, and canal access to sectors of the city under Western control. That, in turn, leads to the Berlin Airlift with O’Sullivan having to face up to a moral dilemma as the allies ferry supplies to the people of West Berlin.
Armageddon explains the fallout of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the subsequent division of German territories, and the Berlin blockade, which led to the intensifying of the Cold War. Israeli historian Tom Segev criticised Uris as the ”chief mythologist of Zionism”, stating that he drew a picture of Israel and Zionism that was glorified beyond reality. “It was more harmful than helpful,” he said, adding, “None of us is Ari Ben Canaan, none of us is Paul Newman” referring to the book’s protagonist played by the star in the film version.
That may be so, but there is no denying that Uris left a lasting influence on the international reading public’s perception of Israel, and on American foreign policy.
Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.