This remarkable memoir, by a distinguished historian, grows out of the loose framework of a diary written in Israel during the tense last few months of 1977. In a series of flashbacks, Saul Friedlander evokes with painful clarity and candor his extraordinary childhood and adolescence, beginning in a comfortable, middle-class, assimilated Jewish home in the Prague of the 1930's, and extending through and beyond the harrowing, and permanent, separation from his parents in Nazi-dominated France. Though fascinating in themselves, on a deeper level the reminiscences raise questions about much more than one man's life. In forcing himself to go back and examine his past, to seek out reasons and feelings, Friedlander is asking what it is that motivates a Zionist. What does it mean to be a Jew in Israel now? Where are the roots of a people with a history of rootlessness?
Pavel Friedlander, as he was then known, was seven when the family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939. Before they were herded away to desruction, his parents were able to leave their ten-year-old boy in a Catholic seminary. Baptized Paul-Henri, he excelled in his studies and was headed for the priesthood. In his unsentimental, delicate, and precise narrative, we see through the boy's eyes the seminary's chilly dormitories and the hot, dusty fields of a provincial French summer.
Then comes the Liberation. Paul-Henri rediscovers his identity and in 1948, on the brink of his high-school graduation, runs away to Marseilles to board ship for the nascent state of Israel--one of the survivors on the ill-fated Altalena. He now takes his Hebrew name, Shaul.
Thirty years later, in bringing the disparate threads of memories together, Friedlander unflinchingly expresses the dilemmas in which any thinking person must feel himself vis-a-vis Israel and the Jews. His doubts are unresolved and probably unresolvable. But in an entirely fresh and poignant way Saul Friedlander has given us a better understanding of them.