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Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship

By Martin Gilbert. 359 pp. Henry Holt & Co., 2007. $30.

American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill

By Anne Sebba. 378 pp. Norton, 2007. $26.95.

Churchill, the prolific nonagenarian who is often voted history’s greatest Englishman, sure had a way with words. Think “iron curtain” and “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”—phrases that became bywords shaping the twentieth century. So in his case, sentiments like, “Some of my best friends are Jews” and “A boy’s best friend is his mother” aren’t mere clichés. His relationships with both were multifaceted, problematic, and fascinating.

As Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, points out in Churchill and the Jews, Churchill was seen as philo-Semitic in a government that was often queasy about Jews. As prime minister he succeeded Neville Chamberlain, who after Kristallnacht wrote, “No doubt Jews aren’t a lovable people.” Not one to overanalyze motivations, Gilbert gleans quotes from speeches, letters, and meeting minutes to paint Churchill as a steadfast defender of Jewish rights and appreciator of Jewish contributions before, after, and during World War II.

Prewar, Churchill stood out for refusing to meet with the führer unless persecution of Jews was on the table. As wartime prime minister, he became deeply troubled when reports seeped in about the liquidation of Jewish communities on the eastern front and mass murder in the camps. The Allied Declaration of December 17, 1942, reflects his insistence on frank condemnations of “this bestial policy of coldblooded extermination,” warning that those committing such crimes would be “hunted down after the war and brought to trial.” At the same time, he used his influence to support escapes and havens for several groups of Jewish refugees.

The controversial Allied hesitation to bomb rail lines to Auschwitz is left hanging, however. Gilbert says Churchill was stymied by the military when he asked for strategic bombings to stop the killing. In July 1944, after being told of the deportation of several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews, Churchill barked, “Get me anything out of the Air Force that you can.” Before the order could be carried out, the deportations stopped temporarily. Sadly, purposeful targeting against them seems not to have been pursued further.

Churchill’s position on Palestine during the war was much clearer, if not more frustrating, for many Jews. A longtime supporter of Zion – ism, he believed firmly that the Balfour Declaration, supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was a commitment made to Jews in order to get them to back Britain in the First World War, and had to be honored. In addition, he saw Bolshevism and Zionism as two forces competing “for the soul of the Jewish people,” as he wrote in 1920, when he was secretary of war—and he was rooting for Zionism.

Between the wars he advocated a very gradual immigration to Palestine confined by the economic opportunities the Jews created for both themselves and Arabs. Consideration of statehood would be far in the future. With the rush of events at end of the war, however, Churchill’s unwillingness to push for quick statehood, or at least unlimited immigration for stateless Jews, was a sore disappointment to the many Jews who had come to rely on him. He partly re – deemed himself with a stirring oration in Parliament urging recognition of Israel nine months after the state had come into being.

It is questionable whether any of Churchill’s best friends actually were Jews, though he had a strong relationship with many Jews from the time of his election to Parliament from a heavily Jewish district in 1904 to his funeral attended by Israeli leaders in 1965. In fact, his father, Lord Randolph, was the butt of jokes because of the uppercrust Jews in his social milieu, many of whom young Winston knew personally.

These figures remain far in the background of American Jennie, as Churchill’s irrepressible Brooklyn-born mother whirls her way through the ballrooms and bedrooms of Europe before a fatal spill in high heels down a grand stairway ends her life in 1921. According to author Anne Sebba, Jennie Jerome was in the vanguard of another migratory group—American heiresses marrying into titled but cash-hungry European families. Jennie’s father, Leonard Jerome, was a stock speculator who made millions during the American Civil War, and her mother plunged into Second Empire France society with gusto.

In a kind of Terminator time-machine twist, the man destined to rally the world against Germany’s conquest of Europe was conceived because the family escaped to England as Paris was falling to the Prussians in 1871. Jennie married Lord Randolph soon after meeting him in 1874, with Winston born eight months later.

Churchill seems to have been neglected by his ambitious and philandering parents in his early life. But after Randolph died in 1895 (reportedly from long-term syphilis), Jennie focused her social networking on advancing her son’s career from journalist to statesman through a choice military commission. With British forces about to advance up the Nile to reconquer the Sudan, she even goes to Egypt to lobby, stopping in Cairo for a tryst with a major in the Highlanders. Finally, Churchill is attached to the 21st Lancers. He arrives in the Sudan in time for the Battle of Omdurman and the last full-scale cavalry charge of modern warfare.

Though the flurry of events the author relates moves jarringly from epic to farce and back, Sebba unfortunately seems dead set against having any too much fun with it. After all, Jennie was a female maverick who played concert-class piano, wrote, and pushed the career of Winston Churchill. The history being shaped alongside Jennie’s pursuit of love, money, and ball gowns is dizzying and dazzling—but in this telling, it’s strangely underplayed.

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.