Middlebury, Vt. (Special to Informed Comment) – In the current PBS series on Ernest Hemingway’s life and work, Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and novelist who was the third of Hemingway’ four wives, is sympathetically and vividly featured. But one important, perhaps defining, aspect of her life is glossed over. Similarly, in the 2012 HBO movie “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, viewers learn much about the love lives of these two acclaimed and politically engaged writers, but they will learn nothing about Gellhorn’s Jewish roots, or of her enthusiastic support for Israel, and her critique of the Arab states and the Palestinians.
Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), novelist, essayist, and war-correspondent, survived Hemingway by some thirty-seven years. In the period in which their tempestuous relationship developed (from 1936 to 1940), and the years in which they were married (from 1940 to 1944), Gellhorn never mentioned her Jewish identity to her husband or his many friends and acquaintances. In the light of Ernest Hemingway’s casual and often-expressed anti-Semitism remarks, she would have been reluctant to reveal her Jewish roots. And as a working journalist with a large readership in the popular press, including Collier’s Magazine, there would be little benefit in referring to her Jewish ancestry.
Martha’s parents, George Gellhorn and Edna Fischel, brought her up in St. Louis, where George Gellhorn was a prominent obstetrician-gynecologist with a successful medical practice and a professorship at Washington University School of Medicine. Born in Breslau, in what was then East Prussia, George Gellhorn studied medicine in Germany, and then had specialty training in Berlin and Vienna. Edna Gellhorn was a prominent activist for women’s suffrage.
Caroline Moorehead, the most thorough and sympathetic of Martha Gellhorn’s biographers, noted that Dr. Gellhorn hated and feared Prussian militarism, and decided to emigrate to the United Sates. In 1898 he signed on as a ship’s doctor and left Germany. A year later, in 1899, he decided to settle in St. Louis and establish a medical practice in that booming city. George married Edna Fischel, daughter of St. Louis Jewish physician, Washington . E. Fischel, and his Protestant wife. Dr. Fischel had emigrated to St. Louis from Prague. Known as Emil Fischel in Prague, he added the first name Washington when he settled in the U.S. Thus Martha, born in 1908, had two Jewish doctors in the family – her father and her maternal grandfather.
The Gellhorns did not affiliate with any of the liberal synagogues in St. Louis. Rather, they were among the founders of the local Ethical Culture Society. Among the couple’s ‘good works’ was a commitment to provide medical care to African-American patients. For decades Dr. Gellhorn conducted pre-natal clinics for the poor of St. Louis. Mrs. Gellhorn was one of the founders of the suffragist movement in the city.
In contrast with the PBS Hemingway series, and with HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, , Love and Ruin , Paula McLain’s 2018 best-selling novel about Martha Gellhorn, features Gellhorn’s Jewish background. Reporting from Berlin in the late 1930s, McLain’s Gellhorn witnesses attacks on Jewish businesses. In Paula McLain’s evocation of Gellhorn’s voice, “Walking back to my pension, I startled several times as I caught my reflection in a ship window. I looked Aryan enough, with my blond waves and light blue eyes and strong straight nose. I’d inherited my features from my parents, after all, who easily passed as Protestant in anti-Semitic St. Louis. But there was Jewish blood in my family on both sides.”
Growing up in a progressive household where women’s rights and minority rights were the subject of both discussion and action, Martha’s progressive political tendencies were affirmed in her college years at her mother’s alma mater, Bryn Mawr. Martha left that school in her junior year and in 1930 went to Paris to write for Vogue, Time Magazine, and later, for United Press International. Later Martha wrote for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, then a newspaper with national influence.
During the next few years Gellhorn wrote many articles, short stories and essays. She had published a novel, What Mad Pursuit, in 1933, and two years later a journalistic account of the unemployed, The Trouble I’ve Seen. In that same year her father died, and in December 1935, she returned from Paris to St. Louis.
While Martha’s father was alive, Christmas at the Gellhorn’s had been an important family event. After his death, her mother suggested that Martha join her for Christmas in warmer climates and vacation in Florida. And it was in Key West that Martha, sitting with her mother in Sloppy Joe’s Bar, met Earnest Hemingway. He was thirty-seven years old and one of the nation’s acclaimed novelists. She was a decade younger and an aspiring journalist and fiction writer. He saw a beautiful young woman and her attractive, refined mother. Gellhorn, acerbic and affectionate, remembered their first meeting differently: “There he was,” she wrote – “a large, dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt.”
Gellhorn and Hemingway were to spend eight years together – more or less. For much of that time they were war correspondents. According to A. Scott Berg, biographer of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, it was Gellhorn who inspired Hemingway to support the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Gellhorn and Hemingway became passionate supporters of the Spanish Republic of the early 1930s. When Franco’s rebellion against the Republic ignited the Spanish Civil War, they went to Spain. “We knew, we just knew” Gellhorn wrote, “that Spain was the place to stop fascism. This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt.”
Gellhorn reported on the war for The New Yorker. Her articles from Spain are masterpieces of intimate detail. She said that she “was always afraid that I would forget the exact sound, smell, words, gestures which were special to this time and place.” Her reporting from Spain was replete with just such elements. The struggle against fascism in Spain, she explained, was “the affair of us all who do not want a world whose Bible is Mein Kampf.”
Hemingway had been married twice before. When these relationships ended, Hemingway was the one to leave. His macho public persona, and his private insecurities, would allow for no other outcome. But in Martha Gellhorn, he met his match. She would not be intimidated by his fame or talent and in the end, in 1944, Gellhorn was the one to leave him. Tired of his jealousy, insecurity, and his attempts to block her literary career, she asked for a divorce. To a friend she wrote that she no longer wanted to be Mrs Hemingway. “I want my own name back, most violently, as if getting it back would be a return to myself.”
Hemingway agreed to a divorce, but never forgave Gellhorn, and until his suicide in 1961 he was increasingly bitter and nasty when her name was mentioned. In the years between their divorce in 1946 and his suicide in 1961, Hemingway lost no opportunity to bad-mouth Gellhorn, both in remarks to friends and in thinly-disguised fictional portraits.
In 1947, when Hemingway learned that Gellhorn was writing a World War II novel, he mounted a campaign against her. Referring to Gellhorn’s German Jewish father, he told a friend that he “hated her ersatz kraut guts”. In another screed Hemingway wrote that “she had that Prussian blood mixed with the Juden.” And, in a letter to his friend Buck Lanham, Hemingway suggested that Martha Gellhorn had hidden her Jewish background from him, but despite her efforts, he had uncovered it. “I would still have married her,” Hemingway wrote, “since the Virgin Mary was also Jewish, but I would have appreciated getting at least an approximation of the truth.” These remarks and many others like them, seems to undermine Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker’s claim (c. 1981) that the novelist’s anti-Semitism “was no more than skin deep; it was mainly a verbal habit rather than a persistent theme, like that of Ezra Pound.”
Most of all, it was Gellhorn’s reputation as a writer that Hemingway sought to impugn and undermine. In Across the River and Into the Trees, published in 1950, Hemingway depicted a female journalist clearly based on Martha Gellhorn. “She had,” Hemingway wrote, “more ambition than Napoleon and about the talent of an average High School Valedictorian.” Gellhorn could match Hemingway’s venom, as in this remark to her mother Edna, “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”
After meeting in London to discuss the details of their divorce, Gellhorn and Hemingway never met again. She had left him, and that he could neither forgive or forget. In a letter to her mother Gellhorn wrote: “I simply never want to hear his name again; the past is dead and has become ugly; I shall try to forget it all entirely, and blot it out as with amnesia.” As the Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson remarked, “Hemingway was not the first or last man to love her for her independence . . . but to resent her when she behaved independently.”
In April 1945 American and British troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. Journalists, along with the soldiers entered the camps. There were tens of thousands of starving prisoners in the camp. Gellhorn was among the first group of journalists in Dachau, and one of the very few women among them. While the HBO film has Gellhorn running out of the camp and collapsing in tears, in reality she was shaken but composed, and channeled her shock and grief into writing about the horrors she had seen.
Her powerful reportage on Dachau reached millions of American readers. It was published in Colliers Magazine in May of 1945, just a few weeks after it was written: “I was in Dachau” she wrote, “when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies . . . It seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it forever.”
In her 1948 war novel, The Wine of Astonishment, the protagonist, American GI Jacob Levy, is stunned by what he sees at Dachau. Injured soon afterwards and recuperating in an army hospital, Levy falls into a reverie: “How could you guarantee there wouldn’t be a Dachau again? The idea came by itself, unexpected and menacing, and he lay still between sweaty sheets, feeling a new fear. . . I’m a Jew, he thought and remembered the faces in the prison, I’ll always be a Jew . . . He could not move, imagining the world had grown ugly and strange after Dachau. . . . It was dangerous with a danger you could not see.”
A year and a half after she reported from Dachau, Martha Gellhorn attended the Nuremberg Trails, which she wrote about for Collier’s Magazine.
Witnessing Dachau and Nuremburg were a pivotal events in Gellhorn’s long life (she lived until the age of ninety). Her faith in human progress was shaken. Decades after the war she wrote that “It was as if I walked into Dachau and there fell over a cliff and suffered a lifelong concussion, without recognizing it.”
Despite Hemingway’s efforts, Gellhorn’s war novel, The Wine of Astonishment, was published in 1948, and widely-acclaimed. The novel was a Book of the Month Club selection and it won praise from many reviewers. The Atlantic reviewer dubbed it “one of the most authentic novels of the war.” (And this was long before Gellhorn wrote for the Atlantic). The last section of the novel is set in Dachau. In a sense The Wine of Astonishment is Gellhorn’s ‘Jewish novel.’ Unhappy with the title that her publisher chose for the book she called it her “Jacob Levy novel.” In the 1960s it was re-published as Point of No Return.
Dachau and Nuremburg led her to visit Israel. In the winter of 1949, on the first of her seven visits to Israel, Gellhorn wrote to her friend William Walton, the Time-Life correspondent. “It’s a hard uncomfortable country, with one million individuals in it; you’d never have known how many different kinds of Jews there are, until finally there is no such thing as a Jew. . . . But their stories, a gold mine of stories, the equal of which I’ve never before seen. And then they’re brave, or they wouldn’t be there and alive, and because they’re brave they are gay (I am now certain that gloominess and cowardice go together) and face the more than uncertain future with a steadiness which delights and dazzles me.”
In 1961 The Atlantic published Gellhorn’s essay The Arabs of Palestine. Along with her 1945 Collier’s essay on Dachau it was the most widely-read of her many articles. By the journalistic standards of the time the essay was very long, and very thorough in its attention to detail. It was precisely because Martha Gellhorn was not thought of, or known as, Jewish that she was able to conduct research by traveling in the Arab world and visiting Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan. In those camps she conducted interviews with many refugees and with the United Nations administrators tasked with their care. Throughout the article Gellhorn compared Egyptian President’s anti-Israel rhetoric to Nazi propaganda. “The echo of Hitler’s voice is heard again in the land, now speaking Arabic,” she wrote. Gellhorn praised the UNRWA administrators for allowing her to interview whomever she wished. The article opens with her summary of the Arab position c. 1960 about Israel: “According to Arab politicians and apologists, this is what happened, this is the authentic view, these are the facts. Doubt is treasonous. There can be only one truth, according to Arab politicians and apologists, and it belongs to them:
In 1948, war took place between five Arab nations of the Middle East and the Jews in Palestine. This war was caused by the United Nations, whose General Assembly resolved to partition Palestine into two states, one for the Palestinian Arabs, the other for the Jews. The Arab nations and the Palestinian Arabs would not accept this monstrous decision. They were obliged to protect themselves against it, with force. The United Nations operated as the tool of the Western Imperialists, notably Great Britain and the United States. The United Nations wanted the Jews to proclaim the upstart state of Israel. Because of the Western Imperialists, who favored Israel, the Arabs lost the war. By massacre, threatening broadcasts, pointed bayonets, and the murderous siege of cities, the Jews drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs out of their homeland. For thirteen years, these Arab refugees have languished in misery around the borders of Israel. The United Nations (Western branch) bears the blame for these events and must repair the damage. The condition of the refugees is a sore on the conscience of honorable men. The Israeli government refuses to welcome back to their homeland the refugees, now swollen to more than a million in number. This refusal demonstrates the brutality and dishonesty of Israel, an abnormal nation of aliens who not only forced innocent people into exile but also stole their property. There is no solution to this injustice, the greatest the world has ever seen, except to repatriate all Palestinian refugees in Palestine. Palestine is an Arab country, now infamously called Israel. Israel has no right to exist, and the Arab nations will not sign peace treaties with it but will, by every means possible, maintain the state of war.
Gellhorn’s pro-Israel stance and the article’s persuasive tone galvanized American Jewish organizations to distribute the article widely. The American Zionist Council arranged for copies to be distributed to “10,000 opinion makers in all categories.” Council officials noted that “interested friends are making arrangements with the Atlantic for another reprint of the article to be sent to all 53,000 persons whose names appear in Who’s Who in America.”
Among the arguments that Gellhorn presents in “the Arabs of Palestine” is that “to be a refugee is not necessarily a life sentence.” Just as millions of World War II refugees “have made a place for themselves, found work and another chance for the future,” so can the Palestinian refugees.
Gellhorn’s article was published during the Eichmann trial. Gellhorn attended the trial and wrote at length about it for The Atlantic. “The trial was essential to every human being now alive and to all who follow us. . . . No one who tries to understand our times, now or in the future, can overlook this documentation of a way of life and death which will stain our century forever.”
Martha Gellhorn read her journalistic colleague Hannah Arendt’s report on the trail for The New Yorker. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “I’ve just read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and have the greatest respect for that ice-cold absolutely rational mind.”
Perhaps Martha Gellhorn was admitting here that about the victims of the War she could never be absolutely rational and “ice-cold.” She would be more emotional and sympathetic. Her observation that “the echo of Hitler’s voice is heard again in the land now speaking Arabic” resonated with Israelis.
And that equation between Hitler and Nasser, translated into Hebrew, appeared as the headline of a Hebrew version of The Atlantic article. It was published in Herut, the newspaper of the Revisionist party led by Menahem Begin. Above the headline it says: “by the famous American author, Martha Gellhorn.”
After World War Two Gellhorn never returned to live in the United States. She spent a few years in Kenya and then in Mexico. After her initial 1949 visit to Israel, Gellhorn visited there every few years. In 1953 she travelled to Tel Aviv to renew her friendship with Leonard Bernstein and hear him conduct the Israel Philharmonic in a performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Gellhorn shared Bernstein’s boundless enthusiasm for Israel and the Israelis. In a letter to a friend she described that visit to Israel. “We were all merry and elated. Something good had come out of the endless horror of the second world war, a new country full of young, brave, gay people and of hope. The courage was breathtaking.”
Through Leonard Bernstein and their mutual friend photographer Robert Capa, Gellhorn met many influential Israelis, among them government officials and academicians. She cultivated these friendships, and by the mid-1960s had a wide circle of Israeli friends, including government spokesman Moshe Pearlmann, and General Moshe Dayan. Between 1961 and 1967 many of her articles, including sections of her Atlantic article The Arabs of Palestine, were published in Israeli newspapers. Many in the Israeli reading public recognized her name, though I doubt any of them knew of her Jewish family roots.
When she arrived in Israel during the last days of the Six Day War, Gellhorn was treated as a VIP and given a military escort to visit the sites of battle. For the Guardian, The Nation, and Commonweal , Gellhorn wrote about what she saw during her month-long stay. She took the opportunity to visit some of the Palestinian refugee camps she had first seen in 1961. Unable to relate to the suffering and displacement that the war caused on the Arab side, Gellhorn remained unsympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. Her opinions, shaped by World War II and her earlier visits to the Arab states, remained unchanged.
In the early 1970s Gellhorn returned to Israel, intending to write a book about Israeli youth. But after a few weeks of extensive travel she found herself somewhat disillusioned, and even worse, bored. She was about to turn sixty and found it difficult to relate to young people who she found arrogant and boorish. Daily encounters with young Israelis had chipped away at her romantic image of the heroic Sabra. “Their manners,” she remarked, “were a combination of the worst of the French and the Germans.”
But these observations were for her diary and for letters to close friends. In her published articles Gellhorn did not allude to her disillusionment with Israelis and she was always fulsome in her praise of a people she felt a deep affinity with. As biographer Caroline Moorehead noted, “Martha, whose sympathy for exile and alienation was real, who minded profoundly about the human condition, remained obdurate about the Palestinians for the rest of her life, repeating that if ever the state of Israel were menaced, she would insist on dying with it.”
Bonus video added by Informed Comment: