This article appears in the September-October, 2010 issue of Fort Myers Magazine. Click to go there: Ft.Myers magazine – Carl Steinhouse
Carl L. Steinhouse, a Naples resident for 14 years, has a dedicated his retirement to educating readers about the Holocaust through a series of near-novels. These books enliven historical issues in the accessible, engaging format of creative non-fiction. Although Steinhouse doesn’t spare the ugly truths of the Holocaust, his focus is most often an uplifting one: he writes about Holocaust heroes.
A recent volume, Wily Fox (2009), presents one of Steinhouse’s more obscure candidates for heroism. Subtitled “How King Boris Saved the Jews of Bulgaria from the Clutches of His Axis Ally Adolf Hitler,” this book stays close to verifiable events while fabricating scenes bursting with dialogue. In creating and presenting so many voices in so much detail, the author has taken the novelist’s license.
As World War II accelerated, King Boris III found himself in a difficult position. On the one hand, he feared the possibility of being taken over the by the Soviet Union and saw Germany as the main bulwark against that menace. On the other hand, he had no sympathy for the Third Reich’s agenda. Economically dependent on Germany, tiny Bulgaria did not want to be forced into a military alliance with the belligerent Nazi power – especially since the king felt that Hitler was building for a war that he could not win.
In many, many compact scenes, Mr. Steinhouse shows the encroachment of Nazi power and influence in vulnerable Bulgaria. Although Bulgaria adopts regulations regarding its Jewish population that echo those of Germany, King Boris finds ways of slowing and blunting the implementation of those policies without enraging the Fuhrer. While his sympathies lie with his Jewish citizens, Boris knows that his first loyalty is to the protection and independence of his country.
A man of great cordiality and intelligence, Boris is well-liked by Hitler and pushes their good relationship to the limit. When Hitler insists that Boris deport his Jews, Boris – who knows that deportation is code for extermination – insists that they are needed for road-building and other quasi-war efforts at home.
Suspense builds with the growing pressures Hitler and his agents place on King Boris. Will Boris be forced to give in? Will he be overthrown? Or will he be able to wait things out, through his wily delaying tactics, and with minimum sacrifice of the Jews, until Hitler is finally thwarted by the Allied Powers?
In fashioning “Wily Fox,” Carl Steinhouse probably relies too heavily on dialogue at the expense of other story-telling ingredients. However, the conversations that he invents for Boris and the large cast of supporting characters reveal the true nature of each while conveying the political circumstances with remarkable clarity.
In his new book – We Shall Be Called Israel! – Steinhouse uses the same techniques to tell the story of how the modern State of Israel came into being. His main concern, captured in the book’s subtitle, is to contrast the generally supportive role played by President Harry Truman with the obstructionist (read “pro-Arab”) role played by British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin. However, Steinhouse presents readers with a large cast of additional characters, his scenes shifting back and forth from London and other European settings to Palestine, Transjordan, and the United States.
As preamble, the book offers a summary of modern Zionism and the waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the early decades of the twentieth century. Also provided is an encapsulation of WWII up to the 1945 situation in Europe, the Mid-East, and especially Palestine. Steinhouse also presents background information on the Balfour Declaration and on the shocking White Paper of 1939. But most important to Jewish statehood dynamics are revelations about the Holocaust’s magnitude.
Steinhouse begins dramatic treatment of his material at war’s end, with American Colonel David Marcus (later the head of the Israel Defense Force) witnessing the horrors of a Nazi death camp and pondering the fate of the survivors, given restrictive U.S. immigration policies. Readers learn of the transformation of the Jewish Brigade, made up of Palestinian Jews who valiantly fought with the British against the Germans, into enemies of the British leaders who regularly favored Arab interests in the administration of the Palestine Mandate. These are the same Arabs who were allied Hitler’s Germany – and thus had been Britain’s mortal enemy.
We eavesdrop as Jewish leaders debate various strategies for bringing about an independent Jewish state. In the process, we meet David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Shamir, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and others who undermined Britain’s one-sided administrative decisions and engineered illegal much-needed Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The story accelerates in 1947 as Steinhouse portrays the mushrooming political battle over the partition of Palestine (already largely transformed into several Arab national entities). Steinhouse presents many conversations among Truman, Zionist leaders, and U. S. government officials. Truman maintains sympathy with Zionist leaders’ goals even while having little use for their confrontational styles. The dialogue that the author invents to characterize a frustrated Truman rings true.
The contrasting portraits of Truman and Bevin become more firmly etched as the moment of U.N. action regarding partition and the establishment of a Jewish state draws near. However, well ahead of that historic moment, Zionist leaders frantically carry out the clandestine building of a Jewish defensive force with manufacturing capacity as well as an infrastructure of national and local services and institutions. The seeds of nationhood are well-sown before it is declared.
Steinhouse vividly renders the declaration of statehood, the anticipated attack by surrounding Arab nations, the battles, and the establishment of a nation with de facto borders. Until, and even after their withdrawal, the British do all they can to thwart the emergence of the Jewish nation (as does Count Bernadotte, the U. N. mediator). Steinhouse attends to this seeming betrayal by a wartime ally in great and anguished detail
Wily Fox and We Shall Be Called Israel! are sturdy additions to Carl Steinhouse’s series of books about Holocast heroes that includes Wallenberg is Here (2002), Righteous and Courageous (2004), Improbable Heroes (2005), and Barred (2007). The cases made for King Boris and President Truman are informative, colorful and compelling.